Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!From Emma Lazarus’s poem The New Colossus, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty
Shortly before dawn on a chill overcast December morning, one year after the end of the war, a carefully guarded transport vessel lying in the shadow of the guns of Fort Wadsworth lifted anchor and slipped out of New York Harbor under extremely strange and mysterious circumstances. Not even the captain knew where the ship was bound; he was sailing under sealed orders, to remain unopened until he was twenty-four hours at sea. The only persons aware of the ship’s destination were a few highly placed officials of the United States Government.
Through the long tense hours of the night a cordon of heavily armed soldiers had stood on guard at the pier. Aboard ship, other soldiers with fixed bayonets patrolled the decks. A special detachment of marines, several agents of the Department of Justice and a top-ranking member of the Military Intelligence Section of the Army General Staff sailed with the vessel. Shortly before departure, revolvers were distributed among the crew . . .
The ship carried an extraordinary cargo: 249 Russian-born men and women who had been arrested by Federal agents in a series of sudden nationwide raids and brought for deportation to Ellis Island under armed guard. According to Justice Department spokesmen, the prisoners were “the leaders and brains of the ultra-radical movement” and “Soviet agents ”who were ‘conspiring to overthrow the Government of the United States.”
While street lights blinked out in the hushed, still slumbering city of New York, the ship bearing these men and women steamed slowly away from the dimly-looming Statue of Liberty and headed out to sea.
For those readers who do not recall the banner headlines that heralded the news that the Buford had sailed, it should be mentioned that this singular voyage occurred one year after World War I, not World War II.
The date on which the Buford sailed from New York was December 21, 1919.1
On that long-awaited day which officially concluded the agony and havoc of the four seemingly interminable years, as the momentous word raced through the land, and every hamlet and town resounded with the frantic clamor of whistles, horns and bells, and tens of thousands danced wildly in the streets with joy, President Woodrow Wilson sat at his desk in the White House writing a solemn but exultant message to the American people:
“My Fellow Countrymen: The Armistice was signed this morning. Everything for which America fought has been accomplished. It will now be our fortunate duty to assist by example, by sober friendly counsel, and by material aid in the establishment of just democracy throughout the world.”
In Europe, as in America, President Wilson’s quixotic pronouncements were on all lips. Arriving on the Continent that December to attend the Paris Peace Conference, the tall, lean, bespectacled professor from Princeton was fervently acclaimed by the war-weary millions as a modern Moses who had come to lead mankind into a promised land of peace and brotherly love.
And yet, incredible as it seemed, within a matter of weeks, the splendid visions conjured up by Wilson’s magic words had vanished into thin air, and in their place loomed ominous portents of turbulent and tragic days to come.
“It is now evident,” Colonel E. M. House, Wilson*s chief adviser and closest confidante, noted apprehensively in his diary on March 3, 1919, “that the peace will not be such a peace as I had hoped, or one which this terrible upheaval should have brought about.”
At the carefully secluded peace deliberations of the Big Four in a conference room at the Quai D’Orsay in Paris, there soon emerged the real reasons why millions of men had died in the mud of Europe’s battlefields. Bound by their secret treaties and commercial pacts, and avidly impatient to re-divide the world market and carve up the German Empire, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill2, Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Orlando lost little time in by- passing Wilson’s high-sounding peace proposals and getting down to the real business of the day.
“The old politicians,” observed the famous British war correspondent, Sir Philip Gibbs, “who had played the game of politics before the war, gambling with the lives of men for territory, privileged markets, oil fields, native races, coaling stations and imperial prestige, grabbed the pool which the German gamblers had lost when their last bluff was called and quarreled over its distribution.”
There were other discordant notes at the Peace Conference.
The legacy of the Great War had not been limited to millions of dead and crippled human beings, and to wreckage, plague, famine and destitution. Out of the cataclysm there had come, unbidden and unforeseen, gigantic upheavals of masses of humanity, revolting against further suffering and bloodshed, demanding peace, bread, land and an end to the old order.
“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution…,” Prime Minister David Lloyd George told the Peace Conference in a confidential memorandum. “The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.”
How to stifle this “spirit of revolution” and maintain the status quo? How to liquidate the Soviets in Berlin and Hamburg, in Bavaria and Hungary? Such were the questions that obsessed the peacemakers at Paris.
And dominating all other questions was this: how to crush the revolution in Russia that had brought the Soviet regime to power on November 7, 1917?
As recorded by the semi-official History of the Peace Conference, published under the auspices of the British Royal Institute of International Affairs:
The effect of the Russian problem on the Paris Peace Conference was profound: Paris cannot be understood without Moscow. Without ever being represented at Paris at all, the Bolsheviki and Bolshevism were powerful elements at every turn. Russia played a more vital part in Paris than Prussia.
“Bolshevism is spreading,” the aging French “Tiger,” Premier Georges Clemenceau, agitatedly warned the Peace Conference. “It has invaded the Baltic provinces and Poland … we have received very bad news regarding its spread to Budapest and Vienna. Italy, also, is in danger. . . . Therefore, something must be done against Bolshevism!”
Already something was being done. Although peace had been proclaimed, tens of thousands of Allied troops, fighting side by side with counter-revolutionary White armies led by former Czarist generals, were waging a bloody, undeclared war on Russian soil to overthrow the new Soviet Government.
“Bolshevism,” Herbert Hoover, Chairman of the American Relief Administration, told the Peace Conference, “is worse than war!”3
Point six of Wilson’s Fourteen Points called for the “evacuation of all Russian territory” and “the independent determination of her own political development and national policy.” But at Paris, Wilson gave in to the advocates of intervention. The day before he was to return to America, he said, *’I have explained to the Council how I would act if I were alone. I will, however, cast in my lot with the others.”
Back in America, President Wilson placed the Treaty of Versailles before the Senate. Unwilling to admit to himself or to others the tragic failure of his mission and the iniquity of the peace terms, Wilson declaimed: “The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into the war . . . We can go only forward, with lifted eyes and freshened spirit, to follow the vision.”
But Wilson’s eloquence now fell on deaf ears. Under the leadership of the elderly, diehard isolationist, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee proceeded to chop apart and revise the Treaty, concentrating its attack on the Covenant of the League of Nations.
Early in September 1919, against the warning of his physicians, Wilson set out on a coast-to-coast speaking tour to rally popular support for his peace program. The strain on his already overtaxed nervous system proved too great. On the night of September 25, having delivered forty speeches within three weeks, the President collapsed while en route by train to Wichita, Kansas. He was rushed back to Washington. A few days later, a cerebral thrombosis resulted in the partial paralysis of his left side . . .
For the remaining seventeen months of his term. President Wilson was an ailing recluse in the White House. Bedridden for over a month, and then confined to a wheelchair, he received scarcely any visitors and attended to only the most elementary matters of state. Day after day, wrapped in a shawl, lonely and gray-faced, Wilson sat in his wheel chair on the portico of the Presidential mansion, brooding bitterly on the disintegration of his cherished dreams.
The atmosphere in the nation’s capitol, as depicted by Edward G. Lowry in Washington Close-Ups, was one of bleak and chill austerity suffused and envenomed by hatred of a sick chief magistrate that seemed to poison and blight every ordinary human relationship . . . The White House was isolated … Its great iron gates were closed and chained and locked. Policemen guarded its approaches. It was in a void apart.
The rumor spread that Wilson was no longer in his right mind. A number of congressmen urged that he be supplanted by Vice-President Thomas R. Marshall, and the Senate dispatched Senators Albert Fall and Gilbert Hitchcock to the White House to check on the President’s mental condition.
“Mr. President,” Senator Fall unctuously told Wilson, “I am praying for you.”
The two senators reported back to their colleagues in the Upper House that they had found the Chief Executive in full possession of his mental faculties . .
Such was the grim finale of Woodrow Wilson’s crusade for world peace.
As in Europe, so also in America, peace had not come with the signing of the Armistice.
While President Wilson had been touring the land delivering impassioned speeches on his plans for world peace, his own country was seething with violent unrest and bitter industrial strife.
The uneasy wartime truce between labor and capital in America had terminated abruptly. With officials of the American Federation of Labor still sanguinely echoing Wilson’s slogan of “Industrial Democracy” and predicting a “new era for American Labor,” the major industries launched a sudden intensive campaign to wipe out labor’s wartime gains and crush the trade unions.4
“I believe they may have been justified in the long past,” Judge Elbert H. Gary, Chairman of the U. S. Steel Corporation, told a meeting of stockholders. “But . .. there is, at present, in the opinion of the large majority of both employers and employees, no necessity for labor unions . . . The existence and conduct of labor unions, in this country at least, are inimical to the best interests of the employees, the employers and the general public.”
The Minnesota Banker editorialized:
There is no question as to the economic value of the open shop. . . . The closed shop is zealously fought for by the radical wing of labor organizations. The open shop can be the most readily brought about by the elimination of this element in organized labor. . . where the radical element is too strongly entrenched, there is, of course, but one final thing to do, and that is to beat them by force.
William H. Barr, President of the National Founders’ Association trenchantly summed things up with the words: “War-time wages must be liquidated!” American workingmen did not submit quietly to the concerted assault on their unions and living standards. A storm of strikes swept the country.
In January 1919, shipyard workers in Seattle, Washington, walked off their jobs in protest against a wage cut, and within three weeks the entire city was tied up by a general strike. During the following months, in one state after another, typographers and construction workers, telephone operators and railroad men, longshoremen, teamsters and textile workers went on strike. The culminating point of the strike wave came in September and October, when close to 350,000 steel workers quit their jobs and half a million miners walked from the coal pits, bringing the total number of workers on strike in America to more than two million . . .
A headline in the December 1919 issue of The Employer, organ of the Oklahoma Employers’ Association, called the coal strike “Nothing Less Than Open and Defiant Revolution.” The same issue of this journal posed the question: “Would Hindenburg and Ludendorff do less evil to the country than Lewis and Foster?”5
To smash the strikes, thousands of Federal troops, state militia, municipal police, and whole armies of company-hired strikebreakers and gunmen went into action. In many industrial centers martial law was declared. Pitched battles were fought in the coalfields. In one battle in West Virginia, some 1,500 armed deputies and more than 2,000 Federal troops were used to disband a colony of striking miners who had armed themselves against strikebreaking gunmen.
The dead and wounded in these fierce labor conflicts numbered in the hundreds.
Bloody violence in postwar America raged not only in the arena of industrial strife.
“That year ,” the noted scholar W. E. B. Dubois records in his book. Dusk of Dawn, “there were race riots large and small in twenty-six American cities, including thirty-eight killed in a Chicago riot in August; from twenty-five to fifty killed in Phillips County, Arkansas; and six killed in Washington.”
Governor Hugh M. Dorsey of Georgia told a citizens’ conference in Atlanta: “In some counties the Negro is being driven out as though he were a wild animal; in others he is being held as a slave; in others no Negroes remain.”
The wholesale terror against Negroes reached its peak at Phillips County, Arkansas.
Crushed under the peonage of the feudal plantation system, Negro cotton pickers in Phillips County formed a Progressive Farmers’ Household Union in an effort to change their subhuman working and living conditions. Immediately, the plantation owners and local authorities launched a ferocious drive to destroy the organization. Members of the Union were systematically hunted down, jailed, shot and lynched. With desperate courage, the Negroes armed themselves, established “Paul Revere” courier systems to recruit new members to their ranks and fought back under the slogan, “We’ve just begun.”
Federal troops, equipped with machine guns, were rushed into Phillips County. Hundreds of Negroes were arrested and herded into jails. After trials lasting literally only a few minutes, eleven Negroes were sentenced to death, nine Negroes to twenty-one years imprisonment, and 122 more indicted on various charges.
The Progressive Farmers’ Household Union was destroyed . . .
In Washington, on August 25, 1919, Congressman James F. Byrnes of South Carolina told members of the House of Representatives:
For any colored man who has become inoculated with the desire for political equality there is no employment for him in the South. This is a white man’s country, and will always remain a white man’s country.6
There were other grim features to the postwar scene in America. As Frederick Lewis Allen writes in his book. Only Yesterday:
If the American people turned a deaf ear to Woodrow Wilson’s plea for the League of Nations during the years of the Post-War Decade, it was not simply because they were too weary of foreign entanglements . . . They were listening to something else. They were listening to ugly rumors of a huge radical conspiracy against the government and the institutions of the United States. They had their ears cocked for the detonation of bombs and the tramp of Bolshevist armies. They seriously thought— at least millions of them did, millions of otherwise reasonable citizens— that a Red revolution might begin in the United States the next month or the next week . . .
2. Secrets of the Department of Justice
Toward the end of 1919, the Assistant Chief of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, 7 Frank Burke, dispatched an urgent, highly confidential directive to Federal agents throughout the country. The directive revealed that the Justice Department was about to stage scores of simultaneous raids in a nationwide round up of “communists” and “radical aliens.”
“You will be advised by telegraph,” wrote Burke, “as to the exact date and hour when the arrests are to be made.”
The Justice Department agents were instructed by Burke that their spies, informers and agents-provocateurs within “communist groups” should make every effort to have these organizations hold meetings on the designated night. In Burke’s words:
If possible you should arrange with your under-cover informants to have meetings of the Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party8 on the night set . . . This, of course, will facilitate in making the arrests.
Burke’s letter concluded:
On the evening of the arrests, this office will be open the entire night and I desire that you communicate by long distance to Mr. Hoover any matters of vital importance or interest that arise during the course of the arrests.
I desire that the morning following the arrests you should forward to this office by special delivery marked for the “Attention of Mr. Hoover” a complete list of the names of the persons arrested … I desire also that the morning following the arrests you communicate in detail by telegram “Attention of Mr. Hoover” the results of the arrests made, giving the total number of persons of each organization taken into custody, together with a statement of any interesting evidence secured
The full name of the “Mr. Hoover” who was assigned this responsible role in the raids was John Edgar Hoover.
A stocky round-faced young man with close-cropped dark hair and expressionless dark eyes, who had attended night law classes at George Washington University, J. Edgar Hoover had obtained a job as a minor official in the Department of Justice during the war. As shrewd as he was ambitious, he had advanced rapidly in the Department. In 1919, at the age of twenty-five, he was appointed director of the newly formed, rather mysterious General Intelligence Division of the Department’s Bureau of Investigation. In this capacity, Hoover had the important task of supervising the Bureau’s “counter-radical activities.” His official title was Special Assistant to the Attorney General.
A. Mitchell Palmer, the U. S. Attorney General at the time, was a man with an eye to the future. Knowing the gravity of Wilson’s illness. Palmer was not averse to picturing himself as the Democratic presidential candidate in the 1920 elections. The fulfillment of such high hopes, Palmer knew, depended to a considerable degree on keeping his name in the news; and how could this be more effectively accomplished than by leading a crusade against “subversive Elements” which threatened “the very life of the Republic”?
To millions of Americans, the handsome, immaculately groomed Attorney General was known as the “Fighting Quaker”. There was no more voluble champion of democracy and civil rights. “The life of the Republic”, declaimed Palmer, “depends upon the free dissemination of ideas and the guarantees of freedom of speech, press and assembly …”
Sweeping raids and wholesale arrests? The very reason they were imperative, asserted the Attorney General, was to safeguard the Constitution and protect the American people from “alien agitators . . . seeking to destroy their homes, their religion and their country.”
In addition to his frequently expressed concern for the Constitution, and to the publicity value of the raids, Palmer had another, quite personal interest in the anti-radical crusade. He was a director in the Stroudsburg National Bank, the Scranton Trust Company, the Citizens Gas Company, the International Boiler Company and various other such enterprises.
Throughout the spring and summer months of 1919, elaborate surreptitious plans had been afoot in the Justice Department for an all-out offensive against the “radical movement”. Under the supervision of Attorney General Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Investigation, Wilham J. Flynn and General Intelligence Director J. Edgar Hoover, hundreds of special operatives, spies and paid informers had swarmed into organizations of the foreign-born and into left-wing, progressive and trade union groups in every part of the country. Sedulously compiling data on “radicals” and “labor agitators” this underground network of Federal agents and labor spies fed a steady stream of confidential reports into Justice Department headquarters at Washington, D. C. Here the reports were carefully classified and filed in Hoover’s General Intelligence Division.
“There has been established as part of this division”, Palmer was soon able to report to a congressional committee, “a card index system, numbering over 200,000 cards, giving detailed data not only upon individual agitators connected with the ultra-radical movement, but also upon organizations, associations, societies, publications and special conditions existing in certain localities.”
Justice Department spies were instructed to keep on the lookout for “subversive” literature. Not infrequently, when unable to discover any, they themselves arranged for its publication and distribution. In one typical instance, a private detective agency, functioning in cooperation with the Department of Justice, printed hundreds of copies of the Communist Manifesto and had its operatives plant them in appropriate places for seizure during the impending raids . . .
Simultaneously, a special publicity bureau in the Justice Department was blanketing the country with lurid propaganda about Moscow-directed “Bolshevik plots” to overthrow the U. S. Government. Scarcely a day passed without the bureau’s issuing press releases under such captions as: Attorney General Warns Nation of Red Peril — U. S. Department of Justice Urges Americans to Guard Against Bolshevik Menace— Press, Church, Schools, Labor Unions and Civic Bodies Called Upon to Teach True Purpose of Communist Propaganda.
On May 1 1919, the anti-radical crusade received a sudden, spectacular impetus.
As workingmen in scores of cities celebrated the traditional labor holiday of May Day, U. S. Post Office authorities dramatically announced they had uncovered a far-flung “Bolshevik bomb plot” to assassinate dozens of prominent American citizens. Already, reported the Department, more than thirty packages containing bombs had been intercepted. Among the public figures to whom the packages were said to be addressed were Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan and Attorney General Palmer himself.
The Attorney General issued a personal statement assuring the nation there was no need to become panic-stricken— the Department of Justice had the situation “well in hand . . .”
One month later, on June 2, simultaneous bomb explosions occurred in eight different cities.
According to the press, “emissaries of the Bolshevik leader Lenin” were responsible for the explosions.9
“It has almost come to be accepted as a fact”, stated Attorney General Palmer, “that on a certain day in the future, which we have been advised of, there will be another serious and probably much larger effort of the character which the wild fellows of this movement describe as a revolution, a proposition to rise up and destroy the government at one fell swoop.”
As the summer drew to a close, the New York Tribune headlined the news: “Nation-wide Search for Reds Begins.”
The stage was set for the Palmer raids.
On November 7, 1919, the Department of Justice struck. The date, according to an article in the New York Times on the following day, had been selected by the Justice Department as the “psychological moment” for the raids because it was “the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.”
In New York, Philadelphia, Newark, Detroit and a dozen other cities, Federal agents stormed into meetings of “radical” organizations, arrested hundreds of foreign-born and Native Americans, and herded them off to jail.
Typical of the raids was one at the Russian People’s House at 13 East 15th Street in New York City, a school and community center for Russian-born Americans.
Classes in English, arithmetic and other subjects were in session when suddenly, without warning, dozens of Federal agents burst into the building. The astounded teachers and students including a number of veterans recently discharged from the U. S. Army were harshly ordered to line up against the walls. The raiders then proceeded to hurl typewriters to the floor, rip up books, break pictures and smash desks, chairs and other furniture.
Placed under arrest, the teachers and students were roughly herded from the building. Those who moved too slowly to satisfy the raiders were prodded and beaten with blackjacks. Some were hurled bodily down the stairs. Outside, the prisoners were forced to run a gauntlet of Federal agents and police officers wielding clubs and nightsticks. They were then flung into waiting police wagons. In the words of the New York Times:
A number in the building were badly beaten by the police during the raid, their heads wrapped in bandages testifying to the rough manner in which they had been handled . . . Most of them had blackened eyes and lacerated scalps as souvenirs of the new attitude of aggressiveness which has been assumed by the Federal agents against Reds and suspected Reds. Throughout the country, newspapers acclaimed the raids as a deathblow to the “Red Plot for revolution in America”.
The November 7 raids, however, were only a preliminary to what was to come. In the words of one prominent Government official: “The November raiding was only tentative — in the nature somewhat of a laboratory experiment”.
Intermittent raids, dramatically highlighted by the deportation on the Buford on December 2 1 of two hundred and forty-nine of the arrested aliens, continued throughout November and December.
At the same time, Attorney General Palmer and a few of his most trusted aides were making covert preparations for their next move . . .
The November 7 raids had convinced the Attorney General that the Alien Act of 1917, under which he was theoretically operating, presented unnecessary inconveniences. According to the provisions of this Act, arrests of aliens, and searches of places and individuals, could not be made without warrants. The Act also stipulated that at deportation proceedings, aliens were to be given a fair administrative hearing and permitted to be represented by their own legal counsel.
“These regulations”, complained Attorney General Palmer, “are getting us nowhere”.
He decided to have the regulations changed . . .
To avoid possible objections from those who were overly scrupulous about legal matters, the Attorney General was careful to prevent his plans from becoming public knowledge. As he himself later related:
Appreciating that the criminal laws of the United States were not adequate to properly handle the radical situation, the Department of Justice held several conferences with officials of the Department of Labor and came to an agreeable arrangement for the carrying out of the deportation statute.10
The conferences to which Attorney General Palmer referred were conducted in the strictest privacy. According to the “agreeable arrangement” reached between Palmer and John W. Abercrombie, the Acting Secretary of Labor, the regulations were altered so as to facilitate the issuance of arrest warrants and to deny arrested aliens the right to legal counsel. Palmer submitted to Abercrombie a stack of mimeographed forms as “affidavits” supposedly establishing the guilt of persons to be arrested. In return, the Attorney General was given several thousand arrest warrants.
One of Palmer’s aides who participated in these clandestine conferences between Justice and Labor Department officials was the Attorney General’s Special Assistant, J. Edgar Hoover . . .
At a subsequent trial concerning the illegal arrest of certain aliens, Henry J. Skeffington, Commissioner of Immigration, was asked by the Judge: “Did you have instructions as to this procedure?”
“We had an understanding”, said Skeffington.
“Written instructions?” demanded the judge.
“No”, replied Skeffington. “We had a conference in Washington in the Department of Labor with Mr. Hoover”.
At half-past eight on the evening of January 2, 1920, the coast-to-coast raids began in more than seventy cities. Justice Department agents, accompanied by state and city police, swooped down on public meetings and invaded private offices and homes. In New York City almost a thousand persons were arrested. In Boston 400 manacled men and women were marched to jail through the streets of the city. In Maine, Oregon, New Jersey, California, Ohio, Mississippi, Illinois, Nebraska and a score of other states, thousands were rounded up . . .
Everywhere, the raiders acted more like vigilante mobs than guardians of the law.
In New York City, Federal agents, detectives and policemen stormed into the Communist Party headquarters brandishing revolvers, arrested and photographed everyone on the premises, and then proceeded to tear from the walls pictures of Eugene Debs, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which they converted into grotesque masks and held over their faces as they boisterously paraded about the premises. Government agents in a small New Jersey town, who chanced upon a committee of townspeople collecting funds to pay for the funeral of an impoverished Polish immigrant, promptly arrested the committee members and imprisoned them along with the other “radicals” they had rounded up. Describing the raids in Massachusetts, Judge George Anderson of the United States District Court in Boston subsequently stated:
Pains were taken to give spectacular publicity to the raids, and to make it appear that there was great and imminent public danger against which these activities of the Department of Justice were directed. The arrested aliens— in most cases perfectly quiet and harmless working people, many of them not long ago Russian peasants— were handcuffed in pairs, and then for the purpose of transfer on trains and through the streets of Boston, chained together. The northern New Hampshire contingent were first concentrated in jail at Concord and then brought to Boston in a special car, thus handcuffed and chained together. On de-training at the North Station, the handcuffed and chained aliens were exposed to newspaper photographers and again exposed at the wharf where they took the boat for Deer Island . . .
As for the conduct of the raiding parties, Judge Anderson declared:
… a mob is a mob whether made up of government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and vicious classes.
Reports varied as to the total number of arrests. According to the New York World of January 3, “2,000 Reds” involved in a “vast working plot to overthrow the government” had been rounded up. Banner headlines in the New York Times proclaimed:
“REDS PLOTTED COUNTRY- WIDE STRIKE — Arrests Exceed 5000, 2635 Held.” Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana, a distinguished lawyer well known for the integrity and carefully documented accuracy of his public utterances, later declared that more than 6,000 men and women had been arrested in the raids. . . .
“Approximately 3,000 of the 3,600 aliens11 taken into custody during the recent nationwide round-up of radicals are perfect cases for deportation”, J. Edgar Hoover, the Special Assistant to the Attorney General, told the press a few days after the raids. The deportation hearings and shipment of “Reds” from the country, he promised, would be handled as expeditiously as possible.
“Second, third and as many other Soviet Arks as may be necessary”, said Hoover, “will be made ready as the convictions proceed, and actual deportations will not wait for the conclusion of all the cases.”12
Hundreds of aliens and citizens were taken into custody without arrest warrants. Private homes were invaded and searched without search warrants. Personal belongings were seized and carted off. Many of the innocent men and women jailed were held incommunicado and not permitted to secure legal counsel or even to contact their friends and relatives.
“If I had my way”, State Secretary Albert P. Langtry of Massachusetts said of the men and women who had been taken into custody, “I would take them out in the yard every morning and shoot them, and the next day would have a trial to see whether they were guilty.”
The super-patriotic author, Arthur Guy Empey, declared:
“What we want to see is patriotism reducing Bolshevik life limit. The necessary instruments can be obtained in your hardware store. My motto for the Reds is S.O.S. — ship or shoot”.
The terror, lawlessness and violence of the raids were accepted with marked equanimity by most American newspapers. As an editorial in Editor and Publisher subsequently stated: “When Attorney General Palmer started his so-called ‘radical raids’ so many newspapers entered into the spirit of that infamous piece of witch-hunting that the reputation of the American press suffered heavily.”
Exemplifying the general attitude of the American press at the time was an editorial in the New York Times on January 5, 1920, which read in part:
If some or any of us, impatient for the swift confusion of the Reds, have ever questioned the alacrity, resolute will and fruitful, intelligent vigor of the Department of Justice in hunting down these enemies of the United States, the questioners have now cause to approve and applaud . . .
This raid is only the beginning. It is to be followed by others. Without notice and without interruption, the department will pursue and seize the conspirators against our Government … Its further activities should be far-reaching and beneficial.
Just how far-reaching these activities of the Justice Department became in the postwar period was described some years later in an article in the New Republic magazine:
At that dark period, Hoover compiled a list of half-a-million persons suspected as dangerous because of the “ultra-radicalism” of their economic or political beliefs or activities. The equivalent of one person out of every 60 families in the United States was on the list. Hoover beat out Heinrich Himmler by 14 years.
The compilation of huge proscribed lists of “dangerous citizens” was not the only way in which J. Edgar Hoover and his associates foreshadowed techniques subsequently employed by the secret police of Nazi Germany. There were other, even more sinister resemblances.
4- Chambers of Horror
If the treatment of the men and women arrested in the Palmer raids was shockingly brutal, it was mild compared to what they endured in the seclusion of the jails in which they were confined.
At hastily improvised “immigration board” hearings to determine whether or not the arrested aliens should be deported, Justice Department agents and Labor Department officials acted as witnesses, prosecutors and judges. Accused of seditious acts by a motley assortment of labor spies, agents provocateurs and Federal operatives, deprived of legal counsel of their own, and frequently unable to speak or understand the English language, the prisoners were wholly at the mercy of their inquisitors. Many, without knowing what they were doing, signed “confessions” that they had been plotting to overthrow the Government of the United States. Others were compelled by third degree methods to admit their “guilt”. In some cases, where prisoners steadfastly refused to be cowed, their signatures were forged to incriminating documents. . . .
Appalling conditions prevailed at the local jails, military barracks and “bull pens” where the prisoners were held. Invariably, the prisoners’ quarters were squalid, frightfully overcrowded and lacking in adequate sanitation facilities. The prisoners, young and old, men and women, alike, were frequently compelled to sleep on prison floors without bedding or mattresses.
Hundreds of prisoners were viciously beaten and tortured by Justice Department agents and local police officials.
A group of sixty-three workers who had been arrested without warrants in the raids at Bridgeport, Connecticut, and imprisoned at Hartford, without even knowing the charges against them, were kept in jail for five months. Fed on scanty noisome rations and given no opportunity for exercise, they were allowed out of their cells for three minutes each day to wash their face and hands in filthy sinks. Once a month they were permitted to bathe in a tub.
Periodically the Hartford prisoners were “interrogated” by Federal operatives who beat them savagely and not infrequently threatened to kill them if they did not confess to being “revolutionaries”.
One of the Hartford prisoners, a thirty-three year old Russian-born machinist named Simeon Nakwhat, subsequently related in a sworn affidavit:
In the thirteenth week of my confinement Edward J. Hickey [a Department of Justice agent] came into my cell and asked me to give him the address of a man called Boyko in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I do not know this man and told Hickey that I did not. Hickey thereupon struck me twice with his fist, once in the forehead and once in the jaw, whereupon I fell. He then kicked me and I became unconscious. Hickey is a big man, weighing two hundred pounds. For three weeks after this I suffered severe pain where I was kicked in the back…13
Another prisoner, a tailor from Bridgeport who had come to the Hartford jail to visit an imprisoned friend and had been promptly seized and locked up himself, later stated:
Six men, I presume agents of the Department of Justice, questioned me and threatened to hang me if I did not tell them the truth. In one instance, an agent of the Department of Justice . . . brought a rope and tied it around my neck, stating that he will hang me immediately if I do not tell him who conducts the meetings and who are the main workers in an organization called the Union of Russian Workers…
There were four rooms at the Hartford jail that came to be known with dread by the prisoners as the “punishment rooms”. Identical in construction, approximately nine feet long by four feet wide, they were built of solid concrete, were without windows and devoid of all furniture. Alleged anarchist or communist prisoners were locked, often ten to fifteen at a time, in one of these little, unventilated and unlighted rooms. The heating system was then turned up, and the prisoners were kept in pitch darkness and almost unendurable heat for periods lasting from thirty-six to sixty hours. Every twelve hours the cell door was momentarily opened and the prisoners given a glass of water and a piece of bread…
This is how Peter Musek, one of those tortured by the “punishment room” method, described the ordeal:
On February 6 … I was taken out of my cell and . . . brought to the basement of the jail and put into a cell high enough for me to stand up in and long enough for me to make about two-and-a-half paces. When I was put in the cell, I heard the jailer say to somebody, “Give this man heat”. When I came into the cell it was quite warm. Soon thereafter the floor became hot and I nearly roasted. I took my clothes off and remained absolutely naked but the heat was unbearable. … I heard the man say again, “Give him some more heat”. … I could not stand on my feet any longer and I remained on the floor up to eight in the morning, when the door opened and a man handed me a glass of water and threw a piece of bread into the cell. I asked him to bring me a doctor for I felt that I was going to die. But he laughed at me, stating that I was strong enough to hold out, and locked the door again … I felt terrible pain in my chest and half of my body was almost roasted from contact with the hot floor. I remained in the cell up until about eight o’clock of the night of February 8… The cell was so dark I could not even see my own hands.
Like a number of other prisoners, Peter Musek had been arrested simply because he came to the jail to visit a friend. No charges were preferred against Musek and on March i8, 1920, he was set free . . .
At Detroit, 800 men and women who had been rounded up in the raids were packed into a windowless corridor on the top floor of the Federal Building. There was one toilet at the disposal of all the prisoners. They had no bedding except newspapers, overcoats, and other pieces of clothing. The only food the prisoners received was that brought them by their relatives and friends.
On the seventh day of their imprisonment, 128 of the prisoners at the Detroit Federal Building were taken to the Municipal Building and put in a cellar room measuring 24 by 30 feet. Their food rations here consisted of coffee and two biscuits twice a day.
When Mayor James Couzens of Detroit informed the City Council that such conditions were “intolerable in a civilized city”, the bulk of the prisoners were transferred to an old army barracks at Fort Wayne.
Among the most diabolic methods of torturing the men imprisoned at Fort Wayne was forcing them to witness the maltreatment of their own wives and children who came to visit them.
One such case involved a prisoner named Alexander Bukowetsky. Bukowetsky was taken from his cell one day and told that his wife and two children, a twelve-year-old girl and a boy of eight, had come to see him. He was instructed to report to an office in the building. On reaching the office, Bukowetsky was seized and held by a guard. Two other guards dragged Bukowetsky’s wife and children out of the office and into the corridor. What then happened was later described by Bukowetsky:
My wife and children were pulled out of the room by their arms… They were pulled into the hall by Sergeant Mitchell, and then he brought my wife close to me and hit her with his fist both on her back and over her breast. My wife and children began to cry, and I asked Sergeant Mitchell what he was trying to do, if he was trying to provoke me so that I would start to fight. Instead of answering me he struck her several more times and made her fall to the floor. With that he grabbed a gun and at the same time Ross took a club and then one other guards- men, Clark, came in and he too with the butt of his pistol struck me over the head … I fell with blood streaming all over my body.
My little girl, Violet, saw this and ran to the guardsmen and with her hand smoothed his face crying, “Please don’t hurt my father and mother”, but with all this, seeing the blood on the floor from my head and my wife and children crying, he paid no attention to us.
When Bukowetsky staggered to his feet and started to run up a nearby stairway, one of the guards raised his gun and fired at the fleeing man. The shot went wild, missing Bukowetsky and wounding another prisoner . . .
Bewildered, desperate with anxiety, and distraught from constant terrorization and torture, not a few of the men and women im-prisoned during the Palmer raids inevitably broke under the fearful strain.
At Deer Island, one man committed suicide by hurling himself from a fifth floor window. Others at Deer Island and elsewhere went insane.
One prisoner, after being held illegally and incommunicado for eight weeks and tortured by Justice Department agents at the Park Row building in New York City, flung himself to his death – or was pushed– from a window on the fourteenth floor.14
The total number of deaths, permanently injured, and victims of irreparable emotional shock will never be known.
No member of the Justice Department was ever brought to trial or punished for these atrocious crimes committed during the Palmer raids under the pretense of defending the Constitution of the United States. Albert E. Kahn, 1950
1. On January 17, 1920, after being escorted across the English Channel by a British destroyer and passing through the Kiel Canal to the Baltic Sea, the Buford deposited its human cargo at the port of Hango, Finland. The Finnish Government immediately transported the deportees to the Russian border and turned them over to the Soviet authorities.
2. Winston Churchill, then British Secretary of War, temporarily replaced Prime Minister Lloyd George, as the British spokesman at the Paris Peace Conference in February 1919.
3. By the summer of 1919, without declaration of war, the armed forces of fourteen states had invaded the territory of Soviet Russia. The countries involved were: Great Britain, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, China, Finland, Greece, Poland, Rumania, Turkey and the United States.
The intervention and the civil war in Russia lasted into the summer of 1921 and finally ended in the defeat and routing of the interventionist forces and their White Russian allies by the Red Army.
Although receiving scant attention in most histories, the two-and-a-half years of intervention and civil war were responsible for the death through battle, starvation or disease of some 7,000,000 Russian men, women and children. The material losses to Soviet Russia were later estimated by the Soviet Government at $60,000,000,000. No reparations were paid by the invaders.
With irony and characteristic bluntness, Winston Churchill, who himself supervised the Allied campaign against Soviet Russia, later wrote in his book, The World Crisis: the Aftermath: “Were they [the Allies] at war with Russia? Certainly not; but they shot Soviet Russians at sight. They stood as invaders on Russian soil. They armed the enemies of the Soviet Government. They blockaded the ports and sank its battleships. They earnestly desired and schemed its downfall. But war – shocking! Interference – shame! It was, they repeated, a matter of indifference to them how Russians settled their own affairs. They were impartial – bang!”
On September 5, 1919, Senator William Borah declared in the U. S. Senate: “Mr. President, we are not at war with Russia; Congress has not declared war against the Russian Government or the Russian people. The people of the United States do not desire to be at war with Russia . . . Yet … we are carrying on war with the Russian people. We have an army in Russia; we are furnishing munitions and supplies to other armed forces in that country . . . There is neither legal nor moral justification for sacrificing these lives. It is in violation of the plain principles of free government.”
Under the direction of Herbert Hoover, the American Relief Administration channeled all possible food supplies into territory occupied by the troops of General Nicholas Yudenitch and other ex-Czarist and White Guard commanders, while withholding supplies from Soviet territory, where hundreds of thousands were starving. The ARA also arranged for the delivery of military equipment to the White forces. Finally, after the end of the intervention and civil war, public pressure in America forced the sending of food to famine-stricken Soviet Russia.
“The whole of American policy during the liquidation of the Armistice”, Herbert Hoover wrote Oswald Garrison Villard on August 17, 1921, “was to contribute everything it could to prevent Europe from going Bolshevik . . .”
4. As a wartime expedient, various concessions had been made to the labor movement by industries which, in the words of the labor historians, Selig Perlman and Philip Taft, “spurred on by war-time profits, staged a reckless competition for labor”. Wages had been increased, hours of labor shortened. Workers poured into unions. Between 1913-1920 the American Federation of Labor membership rose from 1,996,000 to 4,078,000.
But despite the wartime gains of organized labor, the lot of most American workers was still extremely arduous at the war’s end. In the steel industry, for example, there was a seven-day work-week in 1919, and many steel workers put in twelve to fourteen hours a day. Commenting on working conditions in the steel industry in 1919, a Report by the Commission of Inquiry of the Inter- church World Movement stated: “ . . . The 12-hour day is a barbarism without valid excuse, penalizing the workers and the country”.
5. The Employer was referring to John Llewellyn Lewis, then Acting President and later President of the United Mine Workers of America; and to William Z. Foster, then Secretary of the National Committee for the Organizing of the Iron and Steel Industry and leader of the great steel strike, and later the National Chairman of the American Communist Party.
6. For James F. Byrnes’ activities as U. S. Secretary of State after World War II, see Book Four.
7. The name of this division of the Justice Department was changed in 1924 to Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI.
8 The Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party were formed in September 1919 after a split within the Socialist Party. The two groups later merged and founded the Workers (Communist) Party of America. In 1928 the name became Communist Party of the United States of America.
9. The perpetrators of these conveniently timed bombings were never apprehended, nor was any evidence uncovered establishing their identity. Algernon Lee, director of the Rand School, told a reporter from the New York Tribune on June 4, 1919: “I am convinced that it is a frame-up . . . because of its calculated effect upon the State Commission for the investigation of Bolshevism, and upon Congress in the matter of legislation designed to curb radical movements”.
On September 16, 1920, a tremendous bomb explosion took place in Wall Street, directly opposite the building of J. P. Morgan & Co. Thirty people were killed in this bombing and hundreds injured. As with the previous bombings, none of the culprits was apprehended.
Nineteen years later, on October 10, 1949, Life magazine printed an article dealing with the atom bomb, entitled “Can Russia Deliver the Bomb?” Accompanying the article was a picture of the wreckage caused by the 1920 Wall Street bombing with the caption: “In 1920 Reds Exploded Bomb in Wall Street, Killed 30, Wounded Hundreds.” However— despite Life’s lurid caption—the crime, as historian Frederick Lewis Allen writes, “was never solved”.
10. The Bureau of Immigration operated under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor until June 14, 1940, when it was transferred to the Department of Justice.
11. This figure of 3,600 arrests was one of several figures given out by Justice Department officials.
12. In later years when J. Edgar Hoover as FBI chief had become a national figure, he vigorously denied he had played an active part in the Palmer raids and declared he had wholeheartedly opposed them at the time they occurred. “I deplored the manner in which the raids were executed then, and my position has remained unchanged”, Hoover told Bert Andrews of the New York Herald Tribune in a written statement which was published in that paper on November 16, 1947.
Had former Attorney General Palmer been alive in 1947, he would probably have been somewhat surprised at Hoover’s statement. When Palmer appeared in 1920 before the House Rules Committee and in 1921 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on occasions when both committees were investigating the raids, his special assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, sat at his side and frequently prompted the Attorney General on answers.
When Senator Thomas Walsh at the Judiciary Committee hearings asked Attorney General Palmer how many search warrants had been issued for the raids, Palmer replied: “I cannot tell you, Senator, personally. If you would like to ask Mr. Hoover who was in charge of this matter, he can tell you.”
13. This and other sworn statements in this section are taken from the treatise, To the American People — Report Upon the Illegal Practices of the Department of the United States Department of Justice, which was made public in May 1920 by twelve outstanding American jurists.
14. An Italian anarchist printer named Andrea Salsedo.