THE postwar wave of reaction in the United States cost the American people many of their most cherished democratic rights. It fomented nationwide intolerance, hysteria, hatred and fear. Thousands of innocent persons had been arrested, jailed and tortured. Scores had died in labor struggles, lynchings and race riots. Never before had terror and repression been so widespread in the nation. What were the causes behind this “foulest page in American history?”
Federal authorities explained the Palmer raids and other postwar repressions as necessary measures to protect the nation against a “Communist plot” to overthrow the United States Government.
Actually, the crusade against Communism played a role of secondary importance. The left-wing forces in the United States at the time were extremely few in number. According to an estimate made late in 1919 by Professor Gordon S. Watkins of the University of Illinois, the combined membership of the Socialist, Communist and Communist Labor Parties was between eighty and one hundred thousand. “In other words . . .,” writes Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday, “the Communists could muster at the most hardly more than one-tenth of one per cent of the adult population; and the three parties together . . . brought the proportion to hardly more than two-tenths of one per cent, a rather slender nucleus, it would seem, for a revolutionary mass movement.”
. . . the American businessman . . . had come out of the war with his ﬁghting blood up, ready to lick the next thing that stood in his way. . . . Labor stood in his way and threatened his proﬁts . . . he developed a fervent belief that 100-percent Americanism . . . implied the right of the businessman to kick the union organizer out of his workshop . . . . he was quite ready to believe that a struggle of American laboring-man for better wages was the beginning of an armed rebellion directed by Lenin and Trotsky . . .1
“To smash these strikes,” writes Henry M. Morais and William Cahn in their biography, Gene Debs, “the cry of a ‘red plot’ was raised.”
The Associated Employers of Indianapolis called for the immediate passage and “enforcement of laws to check the radicalism of the A. F. of L. and the Bolshevists . . .”
The stratagem of the “Red Menace” was well adapted to the mood of the time. As Selig Perlman and Philip Taft state in The History of Labor in the United States:
For the large strata of the general population, the wartime emotion was now ready to be transferred into an anti-red hysteria, with strikes and wage demands often held manifestations of “redness”.
The chief objectives of the Palmer raids and the postwar crusade against “Communism” were to crush the organized labor movement, drive down wages, restore the open shop on a national scale, and effect greater proﬁts for the large corporations.
The Department of Justice shared the objectives of big business. From the ﬁrst, the Palmer raids and the “anti-radical” operations of J. Edgar Hoover’s General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation were aimed chieﬂy at the trade unions and the labor movement.
According to the subsequent testimony of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer before the House Rules Committee, a strike in June 1919 at the Ansonia, Connecticut, branch of the American Brass Company had been “instituted entirely by the foreigners” and was dealt with in this effective fashion:
A number of the most active leaders were arrested on deportation warrants; some were included in the passenger list of the Buford … However, a number of prominent agitators who were citizens continued their efforts. The strike failed after federal and state prosecutions.
The Attorney General went on to tell the members of the Rules Committee that the great steel strike of 1919 was “terminated . . . through the action of the Department of Justice.”
On January 3, 1920, the New York Times offered this account of the Justice Department preparations for the Palmer raids of the previous night:
The action, though it came with dramatic suddenness, had been carefully mapped out, studied and systematized . . . For months, Department of Justice men, dropping all their work, had concentrated on the Reds. Agents quietly inﬁltrated into the radical ranks . . . and went to work, sometimes as cooks in remote mining colonies, again as steelworkers, and when the opportunity presented itself, as agitators of the wildest type. . . several of the agents, ‘under-cover’ men, managed to rise in the radical movement and become, in at least one instance, the recognized leader of the district . . .
During the steel strike, coal strike, and threatened railway strikes, secret agents moved constantly among the more radical of the agitators and collected a mass of evidence. For months an elaborate card index of the utterances, habits, and whereabouts of these men had been made. From time to time the Department of Justice will, from now on, round up these disturbers and either send them to the courts or out of the country.
“The whole ‘red’ crusade,” Wrote Louis F. Post in The Deportation Delirium of Nineteen-Twenty “seems to have been saturated with ‘labor spy’ interests — the interests, that is, of private detective agencies . . . in the secret service of masterful corporations . . .
The Commission of Inquiry of the Interchurch World Movement recorded in its Report of the Steel Strike of 1919:
Federal immigration authorities testiﬁed to the commission that raids and arrests, for “radicalism,” etc., were made especially in the Pittsburgh District on the denunciations and secret reports of steel company “under-cover” men, and the prisoners turned over to the Department of Justice.
According to one Federal agent operating in the Pittsburgh area, who testiﬁed before the Commission of Inquiry of the Interchurch World Movement, “ninety per cent of all the radicals arrested and taken into custody were reported by one of the large corporations, either of the steel or coal industry . . .”
Complementing the drive against organized labor was the concerted campaign against the entire progressive movement. The essential aims of this campaign were to stiﬂe all liberal protest; crush the political opposition of the Socialist, Communist and other left-wing parties; intimidate champions of civil liberties; and suppress the struggles of minority groups for decent living standards and equal rights.
Among minority groups, the Negro people were singled out for special attack. While lynchings and other anti-Negro outrages were occurring on a nationwide scale, Attorney General Palmer compiled an extensive report entitled Samples of Negro Propaganda, which he later submitted to the House Rules Committee. “Toward the close of the European war,” the Attorney General told the members of the Rules Committee, “the Department of Justice was confronted with considerable agitation and unrest among the Negroes”. The Department, said Palmer, had as yet “not found any concerted movement on the part of Negroes to cause a general uprising throughout the country.” . . .
A ﬁnal objective of the “anti-Communist” drive was to silence voices demanding an end to America’s participation in the war of intervention against Soviet Russia and urging diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Government. As the New York Time: observed on January 5, 1920 regarding “radicals” arrested during the Palmer raids: “These Communists are a pernicious gang. In many languages they are denouncing the blockade of Russia.”
“Even were one to admit that there existed any serious ‘Red menace’ before the Attorney General started his ‘unflinching war’ against it,” wrote the authors of the Report Upon the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice, “his campaign has been singularly fruitless.” Pointing out that Attorney General Palmer, after announcing the Justice Department possessed a list of 60,000 “Bolshevik suspects”, had deported a total of only 281 aliens and ordered the deportation of 529 others, the Report commented: “The Attorney General has consequently got rid of 810 alien suspects, which, on his own showing, leaves him at least 59,160 persons (aliens and citizens) still to cope with.”
But in terms of its real objectives, the postwar “anti-communist” crusade was far from fruitless. Along the entire industrial front, from New Jersey to California, major strikes were broken, wages driven down, the open shop restored and the organized labor movement reduced to a shadow of its wartime strength. The case of the Seamen’s Union was not exceptional: its membership in 1920 had been 100,000; two years later, its membership was 18,000. By 1923, ‘the American Federation of Labor had lost more than a million members.
The success of this campaign against the labor movement was due not only to the enormous power of American industrial- ﬁnancial interests, which had emerged from the war with far greater resources and inﬂuence than ever before, and to the extensive assistance rendered these interests by the Justice Department and other Government agencies. The success of the campaign was due also to major weaknesses in the labor movement. With the exception of a few militants like William Z. Foster,2 the trade union leadership was in the hands of opportunistic, corrupt or timid officials, who were scarcely less alarmed than the employers themselves by the militancy of the workers. Red-baiting and internecine squabbles wracked the organized labor movement. Of the leadership of the railroad brotherhoods, the Wall Street Journal observed:
It is no paradox to say that their inability to stand shoulder to shoulder throughout the strike was the most fortunate thing that could have happened, first for the country at large and eventually for the investor in the railroads.
The defeat that was suffered by the American labor movement represented at the same time a defeat for the American people as a whole. The nation was to pay heavily for the victory which big business had won.
The anti-democratic excesses and the undermining of the progressive movement during the years immediately following the Great War paved the way for one of the most shameful and disastrous eras in American history. It was to be an era of unprecedented corruption and crime in high places; an era of absolute domination of the Government by predatory vested interests, of profiteering, fraud and embezzlement on a prodigious scale, of ruthless and unrestrained looting of the land. It was to culminate in the Great Depression.
Albert E. Kahn, May 1950
1. During the war itself, there had been harsh, widespread repressions against those sections of the labor movement whose demands were regarded as “unreasonable,” and against left-wing elements opposed to America’s participation in the war on the grounds that it was an imperialist war. Throughout the country, members of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) were subjected to intense persecution by law-enforcement agencies and vigilante mobs, were brutally beaten, jailed and lynched. Militant trade union leaders and radicals were convicted on trumped-up charges and imprisoned.
The two most famous working class leaders to be jailed during the war were Thomas J. Mooney and Eugene V. Debs.
An outstanding trade unionist in California, Mooney was framed on a bombing charge in San Francisco in July 1916 and sentenced to be hanged. Nationwide protests resulted in the commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment. In 1939, after serving twenty-two years at San Quentin Penitentiary, Mooney was granted an unconditional pardon by Governor Culbert Olson of California and released.
The renowned Socialist and former leader of railroad workers, Eugene V. Debs, was sentenced in September 1918 to ten years imprisonment on charges of violating the Espionage Act, because of his opposition to America’s participation in the war. After serving three years, Debs was pardoned by President Harding in December 1921. (In 1920, while still in prison, Debs received 910,000 votes as the candidate of the Socialist Party for President of the United States.)
2. Historian Frederick Lewis Allen describes William Z. Foster as “the most energetic and intelligent of the strike organizers”.