American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century

American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century

Donna Patricia Ward - April 30, 2017

Arrest, capture, imprisonment. Hysteria of fear drives witch hunts. The sensation surrounding the short-lived Salem Witch Trials from 1692 to 1693 has taken on a life of their own. The dramatic drawings of young women on trial for committing the ultimate sin in Puritan New England remain fascinating. During the 20th century, Americans were not hunting witches. Instead, they were attempting to root out those that they believed were harmful to the American way of life. Hysteria became the law of the land; neighbors turned on each other; congress held special hearings, and anyone supporting a less than mainstream idea was an enemy of the state.

Americans were encouraged by law enforcement, government officials, and religious leaders to report anyone they suspected of subversive behavior. People who were suspected of providing the Russians with government secrets, individuals suspected of spying, and people with specific ancestry or sexual orientation became targets. This era of hysteria is called the Red Scare and it was divided into two parts. The first Red Scare happened in the aftermath of the First World War while the second fittingly happened during and after the Second World War. Below are five modern-era witch hunts conducted in America.

American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century
US Army Recruitment Poster, circa 1917. Public Domain

Anti-German Sentiment of the First World War

The onset of the 20th century saw the beginning of the end of what historians have labeled the fall of the Concert of Europe. In the aftermath of the international conflicts of the Napoleonic Wars, Europe became a relatively quiet place. By the end of the nineteenth century, two new countries emerged in Europe, Italy and Germany. As the First World War drew closer, German and Italian immigrants flooded into the United States. Many Italians settled in northern cities and overwhelmingly worked in the garment trades. German immigrants were different.

Germans were the largest immigrant group to settle in the United States prior to the 20th century. Unlike other ethnic immigrants, the Germans immigrated to America as a family unit. In the decades before the American Revolution, German people had settled farming communities in Pennsylvania, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Carolinas. Longtime objectors to slavery, Germans used family and paid labor to raise crops and livestock. When the frontier opened up, Germans settled into the Midwest. As industrialization increased during the nineteenth century, Germans migrated to northern cities. In the decades leading up to the First World War, Germans, along with other ethnic groups in Europe, fled the impending crisis for the American urban landscape.

The German influence could be seen throughout America. Streets were named after prominent German citizens. Beer gardens were popular eating and drinking establishments on Sunday afternoons for German immigrants and their families. In 1888, Wilhelm II became the Kaiser and King of Prussia. For German-Americans, the actions and bombastic language of the Kaiser would adversely impact them.

When the Kaiser went to in 1914 against Russia and Britain, Germans in America became targets of xenophobia. As seemed to be the course of action during the early part of the twentieth century, nativists attacked immigrant groups that that believed to be directly responsible for war in Europe. City councils throughout America began passing blue laws, prohibiting the sale of beer on Sundays. This was a direct attack on the German beer garden. Many believed that the Germans gathered to discuss their support of the Kaiser and to plan an attack on America.

Gangs of men tore down street signs with German names. Public officials with German names were forced to resign. Businesses that were owned by people with German-sounding names or sold German-made goods were attacked by angry mobs. Most German-Americans had little recourse. Some fled to Canada where they enlisted to fight against the Kaiser as Canadian soldiers. When the United States finally entered the war in 1917, German-Americans enlisted to demonstrate their loyalty to America and that they shared hatred for Wilhelm II.

American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century
“Radicals Awaiting Deportation at Ellis Island” January 3, 1920. Public Domain

Palmer Raids, November 1919 to January 1920

A wave of hysteria swept over the United States in the aftermath of the First World War. Leftist thinking radicals, often called anarchists, were demanding fair wages, shorter workdays, and a 40-hour work week in a rapidly industrializing nation. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, any anti-capitalism talk automatically meant support for a communist state. Speaking against capitalism and speaking for workers’ rights was seen as anti-American.

President Woodrow Wilson, an avowed segregationist, professed that many Germans, Italians, and Irish were pouring into the country, becoming hyphenated Americans, and spreading ideas of anti-capitalism and workers’ rights. To the President, and many other Americans, these immigrants had to be silenced. Many believed that life in the United States was very good. Factories were working at full capacity, unemployment was low, and war overseas had ended. No one wanted a small group of foreigners to cause ripples in what seemed a well-oiled economic machine.

Categorized as anarchists and bad people were university professors that taught about communism and assigned Karl Marx’s Das Capital. Labor organizers were thought to be the most dangerous. If they were successful in unionizing workers, capitalism would come crashing down in a dramatic economic collapse. Organizations that formed with the sole purpose of fighting for anti-lynching laws or to assist southern blacks in their migration to cities like St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit were targeted. Women who opened settlement houses in ethnic neighborhoods for the purpose of assisting immigrants in their acclimation to America were targets. Essentially, anyone who was not a part of the status quo could be a violent and dangerous anarchist.

The Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, used the Department of Justice to conduct raids. Those suspected of spreading anti-capitalist views underwent covert surveillance. Telephones were tapped and letters were intercepted and read. Officers with the Department of Justice went undercover and hung out in ethnic saloons hoping to hear plans about bombing governmental offices, organizing unions, or planning mass protests. Unfortunately, the white officers of the Department of Justice stood out like sore thumbs in the ethnic saloons. If men were there to speak about anarchists’ plots in their native tongues, they did not do it when strangers were around.

Raids were conducted at all hours. Sometimes men were dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night, never to return home to their wives or families. Arrested suspects were interrogated for hours. Sometimes they were deported and other times the authorities found out they had a case of mistaken identity and had arrested the wrong person. In ethnically mixed neighborhoods, if one neighbor did not like another, they would call the local police and state they suspected their foreign-born neighbor of being an anarchist. This would prompt an arrest. Even a local group of vegetarians meeting at a settlement house were not safe.

Attorney General Palmer told the US House Appropriations Committee that he and his office would be able to rid the country of all anarchists in one swoop if his budget was dramatically increased. The Committee increased the budget but at a much lower level than what Palmer requested. On the second anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, November 7, 1919, a series of violent and well-publicized raids happened in 12 cities against the Union of Russian Workers. Palmer, the Department of Justice, the newly formed Bureau of Investigation (changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935) with J. Edgar Hoover as its leader, and local police officers cast a wide net and began arresting people. Some were just passers-by, people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others were American citizens that had no ties to Russia. Still, others were teachers working in the same space as those who were targeted. The number of people arrested exceeded the number of arrest warrants.

Newspapers reported extensively on the Palmer Raids in a favorable light. The sentiment spreading over the country was to prevent a Russian-type revolution at all costs. If that meant arresting and deporting people without probable cause or an arrest warrant, most people were okay with that. Publications with a leftist view condemned the ongoing raids stating that they were illegal and in direct violation of the very ideals for which Americans stood. For many, the leftist papers and their readers were the problems. The raids continued into the new year.

After the raids began a prominent US Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania resigned. In his letter of resignation, he stated that by arresting those expressing their political thought Palmer was doing more harm than good. Suppressing radical thought would push movements underground where governmental authorities could not infiltrate the organizations and then would have no way to stop any potential revolution. The Attorney-General replied to the resignation as rubbish and stated that radical thinkers were an epidemic that had to be crushed regardless of liberties.

The Palmer Raids met an untimely end. While the popular press and most Americans supported the raids and mass arrests, it was the lack of credible information gathered that forced their halt. Arresting individuals suspected of anarchism was one thing. Obtaining information about people prepared to commit crimes against their government was another. Without credible information, the raids proved to be of no value.

Palmer ran for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 1920. He lost and his political aspirations were over. Many Americans began to experience economic success. Wages were high and consumer products were inexpensive and plentiful. Even Prohibition did not dampen the glee felt in most parts of the country.

American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century
March 1942, Oakland, California. Public Domain

German and Japanese Internment Camps 1942-1945

The United States entered the Second World War on two fronts. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were attempting to spread fascism across Europe. As early as 1937, American factories began producing weapons of war and shipping them across the Atlantic to its European allies. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States finally declared war on both Germany and Japan.

The big question for America was not how it would win the war effort, but what would it do with the thousands and thousands of Japanese-Americans and German-Americans throughout the country. After years of fighting against potential Communists infiltrating the government, now American citizens were concerned over the ties that immigrants had to their homelands. Along the Pacific coast, many viewed Japanese-Americans as a larger threat to the American way of life because of the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Something had to be done, and soon!

Along the east coast and the Midwest, Germans had been a very large immigrant group that seemingly acclimated to the American way of life quickly. They were light-skinned, the vast majority spoke English, and they were still recovering from harsh treatment during the First World War. This is not to state that German-Americans and those of German descent were not targeted during the Second World War. Many of their businesses were boycotted or damaged with homemade bombs. Germans whose families had been in America since before the First World War were adamant at demonstrating that they could be trusted not to compromise American ideals.

Japanese-Americans had been a critically important ethnic group along the Pacific coast. They had owned businesses and were supporters of American culture, participated in politics, and enlisted in the armed forces. Until the Second World War, Japanese-Americans had never been outlawed like their Asian neighbors the Chinese. Often, Japanese-Americans were harassed because most Americans could not tell the difference between a person of Japanese descent and someone from China.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a proclamation at the onset of the Second World War. Using the revised Alien Enemies Act of 1798, which was one of four acts under the Alien and Sedition Acts signed into law by President John Adams, FDR granted permission to apprehend, restrain, secure, and remove Japanese, German, and Italian non-citizens. This meant that anyone of Japanese, German, or Italian descent that had not become an American citizen before December 7, 1941, could be arrested, imprisoned, and/or deported.

Germans and Italians were taken into custody in much lower number than Japanese-Americans. Reasons for this vary. Germans and Italian people came from Europe, and the United States had a very Eurocentric view of the world. Of the millions of Americans that claimed German descent, only about 11,000 were detained over the course of the Second World War. Many Italians lived in cities where the mafia still garnered some control over day-to-day life. As hard as Italians tried to gain political clout, it seemed that the Irish continued to control big political machines throughout the nation. Perhaps the most significant reason that Germans and Italians did not suffer arrests and internment in the same numbers as the Japanese were simply Hitler and Mussolini had not bombed the United States directly but Imperial Japan did.

Japanese-Americans suffered horribly under President Roosevelt’s proclamation. Immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 5500 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were community leaders were rounded up and taken into custody. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that authorized the Secretary of War to establish military exclusion zones. The entire west coast became a military exclusion zone.

Persons of Japanese ancestry in California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona were required by law to present themselves to the authorities to prepare for transfer to camps. Those who did not go voluntarily were hunted down, arrested, and then transported to holding areas before receiving a camp assignment. Roughly 120,000 people of Japanese descent were evicted from their homes and businesses along the west coast. No longer could these men and women own property, go to school, or maintain their employment.

Laborers constructed internment camps throughout the United States. Many were in the nation’s interior of the central plains. Most camps housed roughly 18,000 people. Adults were encouraged to work within the camps. The Secretary of War was responsible for ensuring transportation to the camps, food, shelter, and education for school-aged children. Doctors and nurses of Japanese descent often established camp hospitals to treat illnesses, emergencies, and the dying.

The intent on keeping Japanese-Americans in the internment camps was to prevent any sabotage or espionage against the US government. It was imperative that no secrets be leaked to the enemy. Many Americans believed that anyone of Japanese or German descent would immediately begin spying for the enemy. This was simply not true and developed out of the long-standing fear generated by the Red Scare.

As the war dragged on and more and more Japanese-Americans were interned, the camps became severely overcrowded. Most camps had already failed in their ability to maintain adequate shelter, toilets, and infrastructure. The wartime machine continued to suffer serious labor shortages. By 1943, the Secretary of War began permitting Japanese-Americans to leave the camps to fulfill labor shortages. Women were relocated to work in cities like Chicago in administration positions or in factories making war machines while men were recruited for the military.

In December 1944, the US Supreme Court had ruled interning American citizens was unconstitutional, no matter their heritage. Yet, rounding them up and forcing them to move was constitutional. As Japanese-Americans were released from the internment camps, they were not permitted to return to the west coast. This forced them to begin new lives in new places without many of the personal items that they had been forced to leave behind. Japanese-Americans lost their homes, farms, and businesses when they were forced to leave the west coast.

American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century
Grade-school Children Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Google Images

Loyalty Oaths and McCarthyism 1947-1956

In the years following the Second World War, the most important attribute for an American was to demonstrate loyalty. President Harry S. Truman signed an Executive Order on March 21, 1947, that required all federal civil service employees to undergo loyalty screenings. The purpose was to find any civil servants that may be willing or planning to alter the United States government by unconstitutional means. For the President, he wanted to ensure that no communist spies were working for the US government. Almost immediately, the Executive Order’s intent took on a new meaning.

Since the First World War, Americans had been concerned about Russians infiltrating the US government. Labor unions and workers’ advocates were the first widespread groups to be accused of being puppets of the Russian government. When race riots erupted in cities throughout the country in 1919, civil rights groups formed and activists began demanding more from the federal government. Throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, activists petitioned Congress and the President to pass a national anti-lynching law. Now both advocates for workers’ rights and civil rights were classified as subversive organizations seeking to do harm to the US government.

Any person or group that spoke out against the US government or capitalism became a communist, fascist, or anarchist in the court of public opinion. Even after the failure of the Palmer Raids, many Americans supported the deportation of any foreign-born person that might possibly be a spy or saboteur. When the United States entered the Second World War as an ally of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, the war effort subdued the search of subversive organizations and their members.

The conflict over what to do with Germany at the conclusion of the Second World War created a rift between the United States and the Soviet Union. Throughout the war, the United States ignored the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union at the expense of defeating Germany and Japan. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union rejected the Marshall Plan that would rebuild a war-torn Europe. In doing so, Europe was divided essentially into a Western Bloc and an Eastern Bloc. The Western Bloc followed the ideals established through republicanism and liberty, while the Eastern Bloc followed the idea of a communist form of government. In America, all things supported by the Eastern Bloc became bad and needed to be hated.

The genius of the McCarthy era was the use of new media outlets. Television permitted the broadcasting of live and recorded images. Viewers could watch the nightly news and its reports on the horrors of possible nuclear attack and the work of Soviet espionage. This was very different from newspapers that could only show stills. Campaigns warning Americans of the harms of subversive activities flooded the news outlets and dramatically influenced public opinion.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was formed in 1938 under a different name. Throughout the Second World War, the Committee investigated the activities of Nazi German-Americans. After the war, the Committee shifted its focus to groups associated with Communism. As with the Palmer Raids, all it took was one anonymous phone call that a person was a Soviet spy or supported Communism to spark an investigation. Americans turned on each other. This most famously played out on TV during the investigation into Hollywood and its supposed support of the Communist Party.

The fear of a Communist plot to overtake the United States was widespread. The American Legion was crucial in lobbying for the passage of the GI Bill in 1947. This powerful group of veterans also openly supported an anti-communist stance in the public sector. The American Legion membership and militant women’s groups such as the American Public Relations Forum and the Minute Women of the USA, organized letter-writing campaigns. Tens of thousands of housewives and veterans wrote letters professing that public health programs such as vaccinations, mental health, and fluoridation of water were actually communist plots to brainwash and poison Americans.

Perhaps the most dramatic of the McCarthy-era witch hunts occurred in Hollywood. Over several months the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings questioning the loyalty of screenwriters, actors, directors, and producers. Those in Hollywood that supported McCarthy’s tactics wrote letters professing the need to clean up the entertainment industry. Others wrote letters declaring their loyalty to American ideals and their support to get communist supporters out of Hollywood.

Individuals that were questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee were blacklisted. This meant that they could no longer work in Hollywood. Some prominent people suffered hardships due to the accusations brought against them. Others changed their names and identities in order to maintain some sort of employment in Hollywood. Many simply left their careers, moving their families to midwestern cities where the spotlight was not so bright.

Television was a catalyst in reshaping public opinion. A new television network, the American Broadcasting Company, aired live coverage of the famed Army-McCarthy hearings from April 22 to June 17, 1954. The US Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations was holding hearings to investigate accusations that McCarthy had received special treatment in his quest to eradicate un-American behavior. Senator McCarthy’s political aspirations for higher office ended abruptly when he was censured in December 1954. The Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts were over but the damage remained.

American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century
Protests of US Government Firings. Google Images

The Lavender Scare: Firing Homosexuals

Gay men and women were targeted by McCarthy-era witch-hunts. In 1950, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder that could be reversed through electro-shock therapy. In many states, sex acts between two men or two women was illegal. Individuals who were caught having sex with members of their same gender could be arrested, charged, and imprisoned. Many people viewed gay men and women as degenerates, sexual perverts, and pedophiles. It was also believed that gay men and women were on a quest to convert the young to their perceived subversive way of life.

Until the end of the Second World War, the military had been one of the largest employers for homosexuals. With noted exceptions, for the most part, as long as a person was willing to die for his country, sexual orientation was not a major concern. For gay service members, as long as they were not caught acting on their sexual desires, they could receive an honorable discharge and be entitled to all the benefits of the GI Bill. Many service members took advantage of employment opportunities offered under the GI Bill and began working for the federal government.

Being openly gay was not a viable option in 1950s America. Gay men and women used symbols to identify their sexual orientation. Some placed colored bandanas in their back pockets to state that they were gay. Others lived in city neighborhoods known for a more relaxed and accepting lifestyle. Bars and restaurants placed rainbows in their windows to identify their establishments as friendly place for gay men and women. Such symbols would make it easier to avoid arrest for sexual perversion.

Homosexual males became a target for McCarthy-era fervor. The belief was that homosexuals were dangerous because they were more susceptible to blackmail by communist supporters. The “lavender lads” were deemed a national security risk. It became the goal of McCarthy and his supporters to remove these lads from their posts within the State Department and other federal civil service positions.

Senator McCarthy professed that homosexuality was almost worse than communism. As such, homosexuals had to be removed from their federal positions. This stance gained public support within the anti-communist movement. Anyone that was openly gay or accused of being gay could be arrested, interrogated, and removed from their federal job. Just like the anti-communist measures employed in eliminating communist supporters from Hollywood, McCarthy implemented a guilt-by-association policy. It was not just gay people who were suspicious; it was also people who associated with a suspected gay person as a coworker, friend, or family member.

Homosexuals in particular were viewed as diseased and an invasion against the American way of life. More people were forced to resign from their federal jobs due to their sexual orientation than those charged with anti-communism. Veterans who had earned an honorable discharge from the military could see their discharge changed to dishonorable if they were accused of being a homosexual during the Lavender Scare of the 1950s. Any benefits that they had received through the GI Bill would have to be repaid to the government that charged them with an un-American way of life.

Even after McCarthyism faded, the removal of gay people from federal employment continued. Gay people were formally barred from entering the military until 1995 when President Bill Clinton implemented a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In January 2017, the State Department officially apologized for the Lavender Scare that booted out tens of thousands of federal civil service employees solely for being gay. Much of the ongoing rhetoric surrounding the debate of constitutional protections for the LGBTQ community is rooted in the post-war witch-hunts spearheaded by Joseph McCarthy.