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The Red Scare: 100 Years Ago, Part One | Righting America

by William Trollinger

In some ways, 2019 looks like 1919. Too much so, actually.

On November 11, 1918, the Great War – with its conflicts across the globe, with its 15 to 18 million dead – officially came to an end. In America there were great celebrations. And yet, the silencing of the guns in Europe was immediately followed by a full-scale culture war in the United States. This culture war exploded on the American scene in 1919, and dominated much of the so-called roaring Twenties. And while this culture war has changed in some details over time, it is a culture war that has never gone away. Massive government surveillance, with little or no attention to constitutional rights; violence against African Americans, often tolerated by and sometimes carried out by government officials; a political groundswell for the mass deportation of immigrants.  

Sound familiar?

In thinking about how the Great War produced culture war in the United States it is important to keep in mind that many (perhaps most) Americans had wanted to stay out of the European conflict. Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president in 1916 thanks in good part to the fact that, as his campaign slogan bragged, “He Kept Us Out of War.”

But within weeks of having been sworn into office Wilson declared war on Germany. To get the American people (reluctant as they were) behind the war effort, the government employed a remarkable propaganda campaign, including posters, billboards, patriotic songs, millions of pamphlets, and 150,000 public speakers touring the nation giving four-minute pro-war speeches. This campaign was designed to demonize the Germans and all those Americans who were not sufficiently patriotic. But the Wilson Administration did not limit itself to a propaganda blitz. A series of laws – the Alien, Espionage, and Sedition Acts – were passed that gave the federal government sweeping powers to silence unpatriotic troublemakers, including the power to imprison for twenty years anyone who used any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution . . . , or the military or naval forces . . . , or the flag of the United States.’”

Of course, it would take real work to locate all those Americans who were critical of the war effort. So the federal government implemented a gigantic espionage effort throughout the nation. This espionage effort targeted African Americans, German Americans, immigrants, pacifists, socialists, and union organizers as the most likely to be unpatriotic. And it was an espionage effort that made use of undercover agents from the Office of Naval Intelligence, the army’s Military Intelligence Division, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department, the U.S. Postal Service, and even the U.S. Food Administration. But these were just the government spies. There was an even larger network of volunteer spies, sent forth by organizations such as the Anti-Yellow Dog League, the All-Allied Anti-German League, the Boy Spies of America, the Sedition Slammers, and the American Protective League (APL). The APL alone had 300,000 agents “hidden in the folds of American society, watching, trailing, and taping their bosses, colleagues, employees, neighbors, even the local butcher or their children’s schoolteachers” (Hagedorn, 27-30).

And then, just as the Wilson Administration’s gigantic propaganda effort was really heating up, just as this enormous governmental and volunteer spy apparatus was hitting its stride, the war ended. Not surprisingly, the armistice did not end all that hatred of foreigners, all that obsession with enemies in our midst. Within a few weeks of Armistice Day the obsession with German agents and insufficiently patriotic Americans had been transformed into an obsession with radical foreign ideas – anarchism, socialism, communism – and those Americans who were duped into thinking such un-American thoughts. Thanks to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, communism was the primary obsession, an obsession that immediately made its way into popular culture. For example, there was Bolshevism on Trial, which won the Academy Award for film of the year. Bolshevism on Trial – based on the novel, Comrades, by Thomas Dixon (the same Thomas Dixon who wrote The Clansman, from which comes the movie, The Birth of a Nation) – told the story of an evil communist (the “Chief Comrade”) and his successful plan to convince a wealthy young woman (Barbara) to fund the creation of a communist utopia on an island just off Florida; when Barbara realizes that communism only brings misery and starvation she tries to leave, but the “Chief Comrade” will not let her go. Fortunately, at the last moment Barbara is rescued by the U.S. Navy. The film ends with the red flag coming down the flagpole, and the American flag going up.

Labor unions — their ranks filled by immigrants who were willing to stand up to their capitalist bosses – were viewed as communist-infested. When steelworkers and coal miners and longshoremen and others went on strike in 1919, they were described by newspapers as “red agitators,” dupes “soaked in the doctrines of Bolshevism,” “foreigners” who, “like rats infested with the plague, . . . should be exterminated or driven from the country” (Bennett, 188-189). When workers (as they had done for decades) paraded on May Day in major American cities, they were attacked by patriotic Americans: in Cleveland, Army veterans drove a tank into a peaceful parade of socialist workers. When loggers in Centralia, Washington gathered on armistice day in their International Workers of the World union hall, they were attacked by the American Legion; they fought back, and then were arrested en masse; one worker was taken from his jail cell, castrated, hung from a railroad bridge, and shot repeatedly.

Sometimes when people talk about the 1919 Red Scare they use terms like “popular hysteria,” as if the American people inexplicably endured a brief bout of mental or emotional illness. But this misses the point that this “hysteria” was in good part fomented by the government. States and governors fell all over each other hyping the communist threat, passing a host of laws designed to protect the people from Marxist tyranny (to give one example, 32 states passed laws against the display of red flags). But as in the Great War, the federal government led the way. In 1919 Congress produced a 1200-page report, Bolshevik Propaganda, which claimed that immigrants – particularly Russians, Germans, Hungarians, and Italians – had established Bolshevik “recruiting stations” in 23 American cities. In response, the gigantic espionage network created during the Great War was put to work investigating political radicals, particularly immigrants from eastern Europe. The attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer created an anti-Radical Division within the Justice Department, and placed 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover in charge. In November the Justice Department raided union halls and immigrant social clubs throughout America, arresting thousands of “radicals” (some of whom never understood why). At 4.15 AM, December 21, a former army transport ship, the Buford (which came to be known as the Soviet Ark), departed the port of New York with 249 aliens (including, most famously, the anarchist Emma Goldman) for Finland, where they were placed on trains for the Soviet Union. J. Edgar Hoover was on the dock that morning, basking in the publicity and telling the New York Tribune that “other ‘Soviet Arks’ will sail for Europe, just as often as it is necessary to rid the country of dangerous radicals’” (Hagedorn, 413-414).

So it was 100 years ago. Next time: race in 1919 America.

Bennett, David. The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Hagedorn, Ann. Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007.