Mr. Chairman, the spectre of Bolshevism is haunting the world. Everybody – statesman, businessman, preacher, plutocrat, newspaper editor – keeps on warning the world that it is about to be destroyed by Bolshevism . . . But the worst of it is that every movement, every new idea, every new suggestion, every new thought that is advanced, is immediately denounced as Bolshevism. It is not necessary to argue anymore with a man who advances a new idea; it is enough to say, “That is Bolshevism”.Representative Meyer London, Speaking on the ﬂoor of the U. S. Congress, February 11, 1919.
“AT PRESENT there are signs of an overthrow of our Government as a free government,” Louis Freeland Post, the Assistant U. S. Secretary of Labor, wrote in his diary on New Year’s Day, 1920. “It is going on under cover of a vigorous ‘drive’ against ‘anarchists,’ an ‘anarchist’ being almost anybody who objects to government of the people by Tories and for ﬁnancial interests . . .”
Seventy-one years old, small and sturdily built, with an unruly black beard and shaggy head of hair, Louis F. Post was a man whose boundless energy and inquiring mind belied his age. During his remarkably varied career, he had been in turn a lawyer, journalist, teacher, lecturer, essayist, historian and politician. A nonconformist in politics and former advocate of the single tax and other reformist movements, Post was a ﬁghting liberal, an inveterate champion of progressive causes.
Panic and hysteria had no appeal for the elderly Assistant Secretary of Labor. As far as Post was concerned, Attorney General Palmer’s crusade to rid America of “Reds” was a “despotic and sordid process.”
Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Post found himself in a position to do something about it . . .
In March, John W. Abercrombie, the Solicitor for the Department of Labor who had been serving as the Acting Secretary during Secretary L. B. Wilson’s illness, announced he was taking a leave of absence.
Overnight, Post assumed the authority of Secretary of Labor.
The scholarly, liberal-minded septuagenarian immediately undertook a thorough investigation of the Justice Department “Red records” on which the issuance of arrest warrants and the deportation decisions had been based. “Upon plunging into this clutter . . . I was amazed at the facts disclosed,” Post later wrote in his book, The Deportations Delirium of Nineteen Twenty. “The whole ‘red crusade’ stood revealed as a stupendous and cruel fake. Had the facts as they were then thrust upon my attention been generally known, public condemnation of the Department of Justice and its cooperating agencies would have been sure and swift.”
To supplement his findings, Post dispatched a number of Labor Department investigators into the ﬁeld to get ﬁrst-hand information on the treatment of persons jailed during the Palmer raids. He was soon receiving one shocking report after another.
Two of Post’s investigators visited Deer Island. Reporting back to their chief, they described how the prisoners had arrived at this place of detention. “The chains made a pile about that high,” said one of the investigators, holding his hand about three feet above the ﬂoor.
“Pile of chains!” exclaimed Post.
The other investigator explained, “The Department of Justice marched their prisoners through the streets of Boston in chains.
We know it, for we saw photographs of the chained prisoners lined in a group.” He paused, then added wryly, “Nothing was lacking in the way of display but a brass band.”
As soon as he had in hand detailed evidence of the illegality of the arrests and the deportation proceedings, Post went into action. He cancelled 2,500 of the warrants and ordered the prisoners set free . . .
Immediately, Post was caught up in what he subsequently described as a “hurricane” of Congressional politics and newspaper vilification.”
The New York Times, declared that the Assistant Secretary of Labor had “let loose on the country public enemies, some of them fugitives from justice.” Numerous newspapers demanded Post’s removal from office. _
In Congress, the Chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Representative Albert Johnson, charged that Post was the ringleader of “Reds” who were “boring from within” the Labor Department. A group of congressman initiated impeachment proceedings against the Assistant Secretary of Labor.
Old as he was, Post had lost none of his readiness to battle for a good cause, no matter what the odds. But in connection with the impeachment proceedings, Post knew he would need at his disposal the very best legal talent. And how, he wondered, could a man of his modest means afford a high-priced lawyer?
Late one afternoon that April, while Post was sitting in his office at the Labor Department pondering his dilemma, a businessman with whom Post was casually acquainted entered the room. His name was E. T. Gumlach. On the previous evening, Gumlach explained, he had learned of Post’s plight. He was himself of a decidedly conservative bent, said Gumlach, not a man to espouse radical causes—but he was an American who believed in justice . . .
Gumlach came to the point of his-visit. “In these circumstances,” he said, “you will need money, need it bad, and I am here to tell you to draw on me at sight for ten thousand dollars.”
Recovering from his astonishment, Post told Gumlach he would accept the offer because he knew “the spirit in which it was offered.”
With funds advanced by Gumlach, Post retained as counsel Jackson H. Ralston, one of the country’s most eminent attorneys. . . .
On May 7, 1920, Post was called for questioning before the House Rules Committee.
The hearing quickly took a dramatic and wholly unexpected turn. In the person of the erudite mettlesome and passionately democratic old man, the inquisitorial congressmen encountered far more than their match. Deftly parrying their questions, speaking with a fervent eloquence and incontrovertibly documenting every statement he made, Post transformed his own trial into a trial of his accusers.
The members of the Rules Committee had less and less to say as Post vividly recounted the numerous violations of constitutional law during the Palmer raids, the hundreds of illegal arrests, the lawless searches without warrants and the inhuman treatment of the arrested. It was the duty of American citizens and particularly Government officials, Post told the Committee, to protect the rights of the alien‘. “We should see to it that no injustice is done him,” Post forcefully declared. “If he has a domicile here, he is entitled to the protection of our Constitution, of our laws . . .”
Describing Post’s testimony, Mrs. William Hard wrote in the New Republic:
As he stood there, unbowed, ungrayed by his seventy-three years1, there seemed to pass forms, shadowy, real. They were the ﬁgures of the ignorant, the hampered, and the misunderstood, the Aliens. Back of them were the terriﬁed upholders of our Government. And back of them there seemed, shadowly, to be the Committee of Americanizers that sit in high places. But in the foreground, unterriﬁed by the unreined emotionalism of either, stood a little man, cool but ﬁery, who set his belief in the Constitution of the country above all fears, and who could amass facts . . .
The little man and his facts won out. The Rules Committee decided to call off the impeachment proceedings.
“The simple truth,” commented the New York Post, “is that Louis F. Post deserves the gratitude of every American for his courageous and determined stand in behalf of our fundamental rights. It is too bad that in making this stand he found himself at cross-purposes with the Attorney General, but Mr. Palmer’s complaint lies against the Constitution and not against Mr. Post.”
There were other patriotic and courageous citizens who recognized, like Louis F. Post, that behind the facade of the anti-Red crusade an assault was being made on the very tenets of American democracy.
In May 1920, twelve of the most distinguished attorneys in the United States published a profoundly signiﬁcant, sixty-three-page pamphlet entitled To The American People – Report Upon the Illegal Practises of the United States Department of Justice. Among the authors of this report were such noted jurists as Roscoe Pound, Dean of the Harvard Law School; Felix Frankfurter, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School; Zechariah Chafee, Jr., one of the nation’s outstanding authorities on constitutional law; and Francis Fisher Kane, who had resigned from his post as U. S. District Attorney in Philadelphia in protest against the Palmer raids.
The report of these attorneys contained a painstakingly documented account of the unconstitutional activities of the Justice Department at the time of the Palmer raids, and a penetrating analysis of the ominous implications of these activities.
The report opened with these words:
For more than six months we, the undersigned lawyers, whose sworn duty it is to uphold the Constitution and Laws of the United States, have seen with growing apprehension the continued violation of that Constitution and breaking of those Laws by the Department of Justice.
Under the guise of a campaign for the suppression of radical activities, the office of the Attorney General . . . has committed illegal acts . . .
The report charged that in order to convince the American public of the existence of a “Red plot” against the Government and “to create sentiment in its favor, the Department of Justice has constituted itself a propaganda bureau, and has sent to newspapers and magazines of this country quantities of material designed to excite public opinion against radicals”.
Proceeding to a comprehensive study of the Palmer raids, the report catalogued various violations of the Constitution by the Justice Department, under such headings as: Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Arrests Without Warrants, Unreasonable Searches and Seizures, Compelling Persons to be Witnesses Against Themselves.
“The American People,” stated the lawyers in a section entitled Provocative Agents, “has never tolerated the use of undercover provocative agents or ‘agents provocateurs’, such as have been familiar in old Russia or Spain.” But the Justice Department had been using such agents for “instigating acts which might be called criminal . . .”
Concluding, the twelve eminent attorneys declared:
Free men respect justice and follow truth, but arbitrary power they will oppose until the end of time . . .
It is a fallacy to suppose that, any more than in the past, any servant of the people can safely arrogate to himself unlimited authority. To proceed upon such a supposition is to deny the fundamental theory of the consent of the governed. Here is no question of a vague and threatened menace, but a present assault upon the most sacred principles of our Constitutional liberty.
An equally scathing indictment appeared in a lengthy report that was inserted into the Congressional Record by Senator Thomas J. Walsh, the chairman of a Senate committee investigating the practices of the Justice Department. The report was entitled – The Illegal Practice of the Department of Justice.
“Those who conceived the procedure here criticized,” stated this Senate report, “were oblivious of the letter and wholly unappreciative of the spirit of the Bill of Rights.”
But the sensational disclosures and grave admonitions of men like Louis F. Post, Senator Thomas J. Walsh, and the twelve attorneys who authored the report, To the American People, were largely ignored or grossly distorted by the press. Their sober voices were drowned out in a rising tide of anti-radical hysteria, prejudice and repression.
2. “The Foulest Page”
The months of inﬂammatory agitation against the “Reds,” the ominous warnings by Government officials of imminent revolution, the blood-curdling bomb plots, and the panic and terror surrounding the Palmer raids had had their effect on the country as a whole. Fear of the Red Menace pervaded the nation like a contagious madness.
“Innumerable . . . gentlemen now discovered that they could defeat whatever they wanted to defeat by tarring it conspicuously with the Bolshevist brush,” historian Frederick Lewis Allen later wrote. “Big-navy men, believers in compulsory military service, . . . book censors, Jew-haters, Negro-haters, landlords, manufacturers, utility executives . . . all wrapped themselves in the Old Glory and the mantle of the Founding Fathers and allied their opponents with Lenin.”
Newspapers and magazines overﬂowed with hair-raising accounts of “Bolshevik atrocities” in Russia and sinister plots of “paid Soviet agents” in America. On January 8, 1920, the nation’s press headlined the news that Justice Department agents were “hunting down” the Soviet representative to the United States, Ludwig C.A.K. Martens, who was reported to be financing a “conspiracy to overthrow the American Government.”2 Two days later, the House of Representatives refused to seat Socialist Congressman Victor Berger of Milwaukee declaring that his “continued presence” in the Lower House constituted “a menace” to that legislative body.
Soon afterwards, the New York State Assembly announced the expulsion of ﬁve Socialist members on the grounds that they were affiliated with “a disloyal organization composed exclusively of traitors.” Commented the New York Times regarding their expulsion: “It was an American vote altogether, a patriotic and conservative vote.”
More than seventy Federal sedition bills were under consideration in Congress. Some of these bills stipulated a maximum penalty of twenty years imprisonment for “unlawful discussion”, and the denaturalization and deportation of naturalized citizens for similar offenses. Senator Kenneth D. McKellar of Tennessee called for the establishment of a penal colony in Guam to which “subversive” native-born Americans might be deported.
Almost every state had enacted criminal syndicalist laws making it a felony to advocate “revolutionary” changes in American society. The West Virginia statute deﬁned as criminal any teachings in sympathy with “ideals hostile to those now or henceforth existing under the constitution and laws of this state.”
In thirty-two states it had become a criminal offence to display publicly a red ﬂag. Some of these states provided penalties for the use of any emblem of any color “distinctive of bolshevism, anarchism, or radical socialism.” In several states the wearing of a red tie constituted a misdemeanor . . .
In schools and universities throughout the land investigations of the “loyalty” of teachers and students were instigated by local and state authorities. On the recommendation of the Lusk Committee Investigating Seditious Activities, the New York State Legislature passed a law requiring “teachers in public schools to secure . . . a special certificate certifying that they are of good character and that they are loyal to the institutions of State and Nation.” The bill read in part:
No person who is not eager to combat the theories of social change should be entrusted with the task of ﬁtting the young and old of this State for the responsibilities of citizenship.
Well-known liberals of the day like Jane Addams, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Oswald Villard and Felix Frankfurter were widely denounced as “tools of the Reds.” Charles Chaplin, Will Rogers, Norma Talmadge and other actors and entertainers were accused of being “Communists.” According to the Better American Federation of California, Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Main Street, was “subversive” because it “created a distaste for the conventional good life of the American.”
An Indiana jury, after deliberating two minutes, acquitted a man who had murdered an alien for shouting, “To hell with the United States” . . .
In this miasmic climate, vigilante groups of self-styled patriots were mushrooming in every corner of the land. The white plague of the Ku Klux Klan began swiftly spreading through Georgia, Indiana, Colorado, Ohio and a score of other states; and every month tens of thousands of new members joined the hooded terrorists who were pledged to purge America of “Catholics, Communists, Jews and aliens.”3 In Michigan, the Dearborn Independent, a weekly newspaper published by the famous auto magnate, Henry Ford, launched a nationwide campaign of vitriolic anti-Semitic propaganda with a front page editorial headlined, “The International Jew: the World’s Problem”; and shortly thereafter Ford’s newspaper began serializing the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion.
Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington that summer, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer declared:
“I apologize for nothing that the Department of Justice has done . . . I glory in it. I point with pride and enthusiasm to the results of that work; and if . . . some of my agents out in the ﬁeld were a little rough and unkind, or short and curt, with these alien agitators . . . I think it might be well overlooked in the general good to the country which has come from it.”
The Attorney General recommended that Congress pass a law stipulating the death penalty for “dangerous acts” of peacetime sedition . . .
The round up of “Soviet spies” and “dangerous radical aliens” continued. Among those arrested – taken into custody on May 5 in a small town near Boston and charged with robbery and murder – were two obscure Italian anarchists whose names were destined to become world famous: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.4
In Boston that same May, an undistinguished Republican Senator told a group of businessmen: “America’s present need is not heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy, not revolution but restoration.”
The Senator was Warren G. Harding of Ohio.
“America is no longer a free country, in the old sense; and liberty is, increasingly, a mere rhetorical ﬁgure “ wrote Katherine Fullerton Gerould in an article in Harper’s Magazine. “On every hand, free speech is choked off in one direction or another. The only way in which an American citizen who is really interested in the social and political problems of his country can preserve any freedom of expression is to choose the mob that is most sympathetic to him and abide under the shadow of the mob.”
During the course of a sermon delivered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, Bishop Charles D. Williams of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan declared:
Businessmen are seeing “red.” They commenced seeing “red” with their drive on radicalism. They branded everyone who had a progressive thought as a “parlor bolshevist,” and persons have been secretly arrested by paid spies on manufactured information and deported without cause.
Bishop Williams added:
The very principles of Americanism have been undermined by hysteria and panic. It is the foulest page in American history!
Albert E. Kahn, May 1950
1. Mrs. Hard was mistaken about Post’s age. He was seventy-one years old when he testiﬁed.
2. Acting on the request of the Justice Department, the Department of Labor had issued a warrant for Marten’s arrest for deportation. The ‘Brief against Martens was prepared by J. Edgar Hoover.
In December 1920, Secretary of Labor Wilson ruled that Martens “was not proved to have done anything unlawful as an individual”. The illegal deportation warrant that Hoover had obtained was cancelled. In January 1921, Martens returned to Russia of his own accord.
3. Organized during the Reconstruction era of the 1870s to deprive Negroes of rights won in the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan had been dormant from the turn of the century until 1915, when the secret terrorist society was revived under the leadership of a former preacher and traveling salesman named William J. Simmons. In 1920 the membership of the Klan soared to 700,000. By 1925 its members numbered almost 9,000,000; and the Klan had become a national power. ‘
With its vast secret apparatus – the Invisible Empire – the Klan came to dominate the political life of Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Oregon, and other states. In 1924 Klan-sponsored candidates won the gubernatorial elections in Kansas, Indiana and Maine and the senatorial races in Oklahoma and Colorado.
“The rise of the Ku Klux Klan from 1922 to 1925 was no accident,” Roger N. Baldwin, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, later wrote. “Its organized intolerance was only a transfer to the ﬁeld of racial and religious conﬂict of the domination of the ruling economic class. . . .”
In large sections of the country, the hooded Klansmen terrorized the population with cross burnings night riding, intimidatory parades, floggings, mutilations and lynchings. In Louisiana, Klansmen killed some victims with a steamroller. In Oklahoma, an investigation revealed over 2,000 cases of violence by the Klan in two years. There were no arrests or prosecutions in connection with these crimes.
In the late 1920s, after a series of newspaper exposes and public investigations, the membership of the Klan and its influence underwent a rapid decline. The secret society, however, began to grow again in the middle 1930s when its members played a leading role in combating the growth of industrial trade unions.
4. For details on the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, see later chapters.