Red Scare

In the wake of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, xenophobia and fear of communism reached hysterical proportions in the United States.

Summary of Event

Late in the afternoon of Friday, January 2, 1920, agents of the U.S. Department of Justice, in a concerted raid on reputedly communist headquarters, began arresting thousands of persons in major cities throughout the United States. Palmer raids They poured into private homes, clubs, pool halls, and coffee shops, seizing citizens and aliens, communists and noncommunists, tearing apart meeting halls and damaging and destroying property. The agents jailed their victims, held them incommunicado and without counsel, and interrogated them. Those who could demonstrate U.S. citizenship were released, although often into the custody of state officials who hoped to try them under state syndicalist laws. Aliens were released a few days later, unless they were members of the Communist Party Communist Party;U.S. or the Communist Labor Party—two factions in the new U.S. communist movement. The Department of Justice hoped to deport these “undesirables.” Red Scare (1919-1920)
Communism;Red Scare (1919-1920)
[kw]Red Scare (Aug., 1919-May, 1920)
Red Scare (1919-1920)
Communism;Red Scare (1919-1920)
[g]United States;Aug., 1919-May, 1920: Red Scare[04810]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug., 1919-May, 1920: Red Scare[04810]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug., 1919-May, 1920: Red Scare[04810]
[c]Government and politics;Aug., 1919-May, 1920: Red Scare[04810]
Hoover, J. Edgar
Palmer, A. Mitchell
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Red Scare

In two days, nearly five thousand persons were arrested in such raids; over the next two weeks, some estimates have it, another thousand were seized. The arrests were conducted without regard for due process of law, and the treatment of those who found themselves under arrest was sometimes barbarous. The raids were the climax to a wave of chauvinism, antiradicalism, and anxiety-ridden intolerance known as the Red Scare of 1919-1920.

A. Mitchell Palmer.

(Library of Congress)

In 1919, less than half of 1 percent of adults in the United States belonged to the newly formed communist movement, and even this minute element was ridden with dissension, conflict, and ineffectuality. Although U.S. “Reds” caught the full fury of the raids, it was not merely the idea of the presence of communists that had stirred national panic. Emotions that had been building since the turn of the century were brought to a peak of intensity during World War I, and a series of domestic crises after the armistice led to their bursting into overt expressions of xenophobic repression.

When President Woodrow Wilson took the steps that led the United States into war in 1917, he dolefully told a friend that war “required illiberalism at home to reinforce the war at the front” and that a “spirit of ruthless brutality would enter into the fiber of American life.” Required or not, illiberalism and brutality appeared. Radicals were a prime target, as they had been since at least 1903, when Congress passed an immigration law discriminating against them, and especially since 1905, when the Industrial Workers of the World Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a socialist labor organization popularly known as the Wobblies, was formed in Chicago. In September, 1917, federal agents raided the headquarters and meetings of the IWW; for two years, Wobblies remained in jail and in the courts as the government sought their conviction.

The armistice in November, 1918, did not end the ideological war at home. The wartime crusade against anything associated with Germany never slackened, but it changed direction and surged into the postwar period as a crusade against things un-American—which, in 1919, meant radical or Red. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson, Burleson, Albert Sidney who during the war had censored mail when, in his view, it obstructed the war effort, now censored mail that espoused radical ideas. Conscientious objectors, who had been imprisoned for their refusal to fight during the war, remained in jail because the Wilson administration refused to grant them amnesty. The American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union created in wartime to cope with violations of civil rights, now found even more to do. New patriotic societies that advocated “100 percent Americanism” abounded and sought to propagandize through schools and fraternal orders.

In the summer of 1918, U.S. troops, along with British, French, and Japanese forces, had entered Russia shortly after that nation’s Bolshevik Revolution, ostensibly to renew the war against Germany that the Bolsheviks had abandoned. Whatever Wilson’s motives, the presence of U.S. troops on Russian soil served to mark American opposition to the new Bolshevik regime—and, indeed, such opposition was well justified by the Bolsheviks’ establishment, in March of 1919, of the Third International, the avowed purpose of which was to foment world revolution in service of the new communist world order. Americans, aware of this and of postwar atrocities perpetrated by Bolshevik revolutionaries against the old aristocratic classes, were vulnerable to the unreasonable fears that soon would be whipped up by politicians at home.

Amid this residue of wartime fears, a series of events in 1919 brought on a nationwide demand for action to crush what appeared to be a conspiracy to destroy the United States. First came a strike by city police in Boston, which newspapers promptly labeled Bolshevik. Labor strikes;Red Scare Then came a widespread strike in the steel industry, during which the United States Steel Corporation played on existing anxieties by accusing labor of having Bolshevik affiliations. Labor leaders were trying so desperately to affirm their own “Americanism” that many U.S. communists actually opposed the strike as a futile trade union tactic. Next came a strike in the coal industry. Meanwhile, several public officials had been the targets of crude, homemade bombs either sent through the mail or thrown at them.

In early 1919, a congressional investigation into German propaganda activities quickly veered into an anti-Bolshevik investigation. During the summer of 1919, race riots in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Illinois, seemed to confirm the suspicions of many that in addition to threats to U.S. society from labor organizations and radical political associations, African Americans were to be feared, as they were especially vulnerable to Bolshevik lures given the economic, social, and political injustice under which they lived. As early as 1918, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Bureau of Investigation;Red Scare convinced that radicals had already made significant advances in the African American community, had hired its first official black informant. Propaganda, much of it distributed by Ku Klux Klan members and other white supremacists, went so far as to suggest that the summer riots were only a prelude to a Red-sponsored race war. Propaganda;Red Scare

By the fall of 1919, public clamor for some kind of government action against the perceived communist threat was intense. U.S. attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer responded to the swelling chorus demanding the arrest and deportation of the alien radicals who supposedly were instigating subversive events. In August, 1919, Palmer had established the antiradical General Intelligence Division in his department. At its head he had placed young J. Edgar Hoover, who promptly began to assemble an elaborate card index of radical organizations, publications, and leaders.

On November 7, 1919, Hoover’s agents raided the headquarters and branches of a labor society known as the Union of Russian Workers. Throughout the country, state and local officials carried out smaller actions, which came to be known as Palmer raids, on suspected radicals. Members of Congress began to introduce deportation bills; one senator even proposed that radical native-born citizens be expelled to a special penal colony on the island of Guam. On December 21, a group of 249 deportees set sail from New York aboard the old army transport ship Buford, informally labeled “the Soviet Ark.” In January, 1920, the last and largest of the Palmer raids were carried out as the Red Scare crested and finally broke.


Although the public’s concern over the intentions of the new Soviet regime may be understandable, in retrospect it is difficult to comprehend the hysteria that marked Americans’ response to small groups of poorly organized radicals at home. Social psychologists have explained the events of 1919-1920 as follows: People who are fearful of losing an established social and economic position in society may become hostile toward or fearful of anyone they see as threatening that equilibrium. They may even be willing to launch a purge to try to ensure that the “intruder” cannot harm them. The rapid changes in American life brought about first by industrialization and urbanization and then by World War I may have left many Americans in such a state of disequilibrium that they could not relieve their anxieties and regain their sense of security without taking some sort of action. The postwar drive for “100 percent Americanism” may well have been an attempt to reaffirm traditional beliefs and customs and to enforce conformity by eradicating the “alien” who appeared to be wrecking the traditional society.

From the perspective of the present day, the actions that the U.S. government, state and local officials, and others took during the Red Scare may seem despicable. In 1919, however, a few thousand Bolsheviks had suddenly become the masters of more than a hundred million Russians, murdering the czar and his entire family along with thousands of nonconforming Russians. In the light of such an example, many otherwise fair-minded people in the United States were not inclined to allow a few thousand Bolsheviks to repeat the performance in their country.

Whatever the origins of the Red Scare, the raids and deportations diminished sharply after January, 1920. This decline in anxiety is even more difficult to explain than its rise. Perhaps the Red Scare never really ended. Amnesty for World War I conscientious objectors and other political prisoners became no easier to obtain under President Warren G. Harding than it had been under Wilson. The U.S. Army conducted antiradical training and seminars during the 1920’s. Restrictions on immigration grew tighter: In 1924, the National Origins Act imposed a quota system that drastically checked the flow of aliens into the United States.

Throughout the 1920’s, neopatriotic organizations appropriated the nationalistic rhetoric of the Red Scare to attempt to deny pacifist associations, such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, legitimacy as foreign policy interest groups. Antipacifists invested words such as “patriotism” and “internationalism” with meanings that linked the peace movement to un-American ideas and activities. These attacks often forced pacifists to moderate their ideas and actions. In addition, measures such as loyalty oaths, textbook censorship, and an “American plan” for labor unions were characteristics of U.S. society in the 1920’s.

Nevertheless, the degree of panic after early 1920 was minimal. The very excess of the Palmer raids aroused opposition and renewed an appreciation for toleration and freedom of expression. U.S. secretary of labor William B. Wilson, who, in his Immigration Bureau, had never condoned the antiradicals, regained control over them. It is possible that the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Russia in 1920 and the failure of communist revolutions in Germany and Central Europe brought about a modicum of reassurance. In June, 1920, federal judge George W. Anderson, Anderson, George W. in the case of Colver v. Skeffington, Colver v. Skeffington (1920) found the Justice Department’s methods to have been brutal and unjust, and its raids sordid and disgraceful. Attorney General Palmer, whose actions had been not entirely unrelated to his thirst for a presidential nomination, failed in his bid at the Democratic National Convention in 1920. Persons of more moderate views had begun to regain the initiative. Red Scare (1919-1920)
Communism;Red Scare (1919-1920)

Further Reading

  • Craig, John M. “Redbaiting, Pacifism, and Free Speech: Lucia Ames Mead and Her 1926 Lecture Tour in Atlanta and the Southeast.” Georgia Historical Quarterly 71, no. 4 (1987): 601-622. Examines the pervasiveness of Red Scare rhetoric in the attempts of antipacifist, anti-internationalists to discredit women peace activists and deny them legitimacy as a political interest group.
  • Draper, Theodore. The Roots of American Communism. 1957. Reprint. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2003. A detailed examination of the patterns, characteristic themes, and leaders of U.S. communism in its formative years, during the period from 1919 to 1923.
  • Gengarelly, W. Anthony. Distinguished Dissenters and Opposition to the 1919-1920 Red Scare. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996. Describes the efforts of a loosely organized civil liberties movement to counter the repression of rights perpetrated in the United States during the Red Scare. Includes discussion of the work of the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. 25th anniversary ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Study of the impact of World War I on U.S. society and culture explores topics of race, gender, and radicalism.
  • Kornweibel, Theodore, Jr. “Black on Black: The FBI’s First Negro Informants and Agents and the Investigation of Black Radicalism During the Red Scare.” Criminal Justice History 8 (1987): 121-136. Discusses the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s hiring of African American operatives during and after World War I as the agency attempted to scrutinize more effectively the large number of black persons it had identified as radical suspects.
  • Murray, Robert K. The Red Scare: A Study in the National Hysteria, 1919-1920. 1955. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Analyzes the fears of the period, the events they engendered, and the personalities involved.
  • Pfannestiel, Todd J. Rethinking the Red Scare: The Lusk Committee and New York’s Crusade Against Radicalism, 1919-1923. New York: Routledge, 2003. Uses the specific case of the state of New York to discuss the causes and the events of the Red Scare and the impact of those events on later instances of political repression. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Post, Louis F. The Deportations Delirium of Nineteen-Twenty. 1923. Reprint. Seattle: University Press of the Pacific, 2003. An account by the assistant secretary of labor in 1920, one of the few men in the Wilson administration who showed restraint and concern for due process during the Red Scare.

Founding of Industrial Workers of the World

U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World War I

American Civil Liberties Union Is Founded

Immigration Act of 1924

Hoover Becomes the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation