Old Values vs. New Values

47a. The Red Scare

The conviction of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti sparked protests throughout the world.

World War I was over, but the hysteria lingered. The Eastern front had not gone well for Russia. The pressures of their losing effort forced the Russian czar to abdicate. The new government had not fared much better. Finally in November 1917, Lenin led a successful revolution of the Bolshevik workers. The ideas of Karl Marx had been known since 1848, but nowhere in the world until now had a successful communist revolution occurred. Once the war against Germany was over, the Western powers focused their energies at restoring Czar Nicholas. Even the United States sent troops to Russia hoping the White Russians could oust the communist Reds. All this effort was in vain. The Bolsheviks murdered the entire royal family and slowly secured control of the entire nation.

The Communist Party Forms

Back in the United States, veterans were returning home. Workers who avoided striking during the war were now demanding wage increases to keep pace with spiraling inflation. Over 3,300 postwar strikes swept the land. A small group of radicals formed the Communist Labor Party in 1919. Progressive and conservative Americans believed that labor activism was a menace to American society and must be squelched. The hatchetman against American radicals was President Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer was determined that no Bolshevik Revolution would happen in the United States.

The Sacco-Vanzetti Case

On April 15, 1921, two employees of a shoe warehouse in South Braintree, Massachusetts, were murdered during a robbery. The police investigating the crime arrested two Italian immigrants named Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

Sacco and Vanzetti maintained their innocence, but they already had a strike against them: they were anarchists and socialists. Just a little over two weeks after their arrest, they were found guilty.

Many people, particularly fellow socialists, protested the verdict, saying the two men were convicted more on political and ethnic prejudice than on any real evidence. Indeed, four years later, another man said he had committed the crime with a local gang.

Despite appeals, Sacco and Vanzetti were never granted a retrial. When they were sentenced to death on April 9, 1927, protests erupted around the country. But to no avail — the men were executed on Aug. 23, 1927. They claimed they were innocent until the moment of their deaths.

Scholars still debate the guilt and innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti, but there is little question that the trial was biased against them.

Palmer's Efforts

From 1919 to 1920, Palmer conducted a series of raids on individuals he believed were dangerous to American security. He deported 249 Russian immigrants without just cause. The so-called "Soviet ark" was sent back to Mother Russia. With Palmer's sponsorship, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was created under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover. In January of 1920, federal agents broke into the homes of suspected anarchists without search warrants, jailed labor leaders, and held about 5,000 citizens without respecting their right to legal counsel. Palmer felt that American civil liberties were less important than rooting out potential wrongdoers. Eventually most of the detainees were released, but some were deported.

The climate set by Palmer and Hoover could not be contained. Still agitated by wartime propaganda, members of the American public took matters into their own hands.

American Legionnaires in Centralia, Washington attacked members of the Wobblies. Twelve radicals were arrested; one of them was beaten, castrated, and then shot. The New York State Legislature expelled five Socialist representatives from their ranks. Twenty-eight states banned the public display of red flags. It seemed as though the witch hunt would never end. Responsible Americans began to speak out against Palmer's raids and demand that American civil liberties be respected. By the summer of 1920, the worst of the furor had subsided.

On the Web
Palmer Raids
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson's Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer claimed to have knowledge of a Communist plot to overthrow the American government. On November 7th of that year, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested. In January 1920, another 6,000 were taken into custody. Read more at this FBI site.
American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election
Hear history from the mouths of the people who made it. This Library of Congress site contains almost 60 recorded speeches by figures who were prominent during World War I and its aftermath. The collection includes a speech by Attorney General Palmer and one by General Leonard Wood who declares, "There is no room for the Red flag. It is opposed to everything our government stands for. It stands for anarchy, chaos, and ruin. Smash it!"

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