Historic Spotlight: The Red Summer

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer

Photo Credit to the FBI

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer

Nicholas Silva, Layout Editor

See the rest of the Series here.

In 1917 the Russian Revolution forever reshaped the landscape of world politics. It changed Russia from an Imperial tradition into a communist party. This revolution, combined with the aftermath of World War I -national sentiments and rising unemployment- set the stage for a wave of fear and terror to rip through America in what came to be known as the “Red Summer”.

After the end of World War I, there was no longer a massive need for the production of war supplies, and so the need for workers also declined. The workers that held onto their jobs began to form labor unions to try and safeguard their positions. However, this began to lead to labor strikes, and sparked the fear that radicalized individuals or groups intended on striking out, and possibly even rebelling.

A leading factor that contributed to the fear of rebellion was the example set by the Russian Revolution -a movement which called for a communist government that would help workers. To try and avert any similar actions by American citizens -and to defend the United State’s involvement in WWI- the U.S. Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918. The Sedition Act -spearheaded by U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer- limited First Amendment rights, and made it easier to prosecute any individual or group found to be casting the U.S. Government in a poor light. The efforts to monitor these ‘radicals’ were especially targeted at immigrants and prominent labor unions, such as the Chicago based Industrial Workers of the World union.

In the spring of 1919, several bombs were shipped to prominent government officials, including former U.S. Senator Thomas Hardwick. A day later, a vigilant U.S. Postal worker discovered 36 more bombs waiting to be shipped. The bombs failed to kill any of their targets, however, it raised serious concerns about anarchists.

Then the bombs continued, with more grave consequences. According to History, “On June 2, 1919, a bomb exploded at the home of  Judge Charles Cooper Nott Jr. in New York City, killing two people.” Later, a bomb was also exploded outside of Alexander Palmer’s home. The government was unable to convict any suspects due to a lack of evidence.

The government, now enraged, responded. Palmer established a special organization that would later become the FBI, then known simply as the Bureau of Investigation. The Bureau was designed to collect information on radicals and anarchists. A Justice Department lawyer by the name of J. Edgar Hoover was appointed to head the Bureau, and he quickly began to coordinate a massive investigative effort.

The information gathered resulted in the Palmer Raids, massive raids targeting anyone who spoke out for change. It didn’t matter what the issue was that a person raised, anyone who was vocal about anything from anti-US redirect to the need for birth control were considered anarchists and often arrested. Many prominent anarchist leaders were arrested and deported, along with over one thousand people in eleven different cities. Police and government agents would also raid locations such as the Russian People’s House in New York City where Russian immigrants would gather for purposes such as attending school, with classes such as algebra. Most members of organizations such as the Union of Russian Workers were detained, even though very few were eventually found to have connections to actual anarchist activity.

Many supposed Communist sympathizers and anarchists were deported on the USAT Buford,  a passenger ship under the command of the US Navy in December of 1919.

However, this was not the end of the Palmer Raids. On the first and the second days of January 1920, the Justice Department conducted widespread raids in 33 cities across the United States, arresting 3,000 people. Many of these people and their families were then starved and tortured during interrogations.

Following this second wave of raids, the American Civil Liberties Union was formed, and began representing immigrants and other people caught up in the raids in an effort to combat Palmer’s agenda. Perhaps encouraged by this backlash, Palmer and his raids began facing criticism from many outlets including members of Congress, and later a group of lawyers filed a report showing the massive disregard of due process in the raids.

Soon, Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post began to criticize the raids, and successfully stopped the deportation of over fifteen hundred falsely accused individuals. Still, Palmer defended his position.

However, his fears were no longer recognized or supported by the public. On May 1st, 1920, his reign came to an end. Palmer predicted that armed Communists would rise up against America. This never happened, and the last ounce of faith that America had in Palmer was lost, and his raids came to an end. He also failed in a last-ditch, career-saving run for president later that year.


Keep an eye out for the second part of this series, Setting the Stage for the Red Scare, which will be posted soon.