“The Case Against the Reds” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In “The Case against the Reds,” published in the monthly magazine The Forum, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer attempted to justify to readers his campaign against left-wing radicals (“Reds,” after the symbolic color favored by communists) and its violations of both civil liberties and congressional powers with the arrest and deportation of suspected Communists and anarchists. As he saw it, the American system was threatened by both radicals, under direction from the Soviet Union, and Congress for failing in its duty to protect the American people. He felt that this perceived failure required vigorous action from the executive branch, particularly Palmer’s own Justice Department. He portrayed these radicals as a subversive menace that was ethnically and culturally different from “mainstream” Americans–the article is tinged with anti-Semitism, anti-urban, and anti-immigrant bias. Palmer’s vigorous language portrayed radicals as a destructive “prairie-fire,” a conspiracy of criminals, and an epidemic disease.

Summary Overview

In “The Case against the Reds,” published in the monthly magazine The Forum, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer attempted to justify to readers his campaign against left-wing radicals (“Reds,” after the symbolic color favored by communists) and its violations of both civil liberties and congressional powers with the arrest and deportation of suspected Communists and anarchists. As he saw it, the American system was threatened by both radicals, under direction from the Soviet Union, and Congress for failing in its duty to protect the American people. He felt that this perceived failure required vigorous action from the executive branch, particularly Palmer’s own Justice Department. He portrayed these radicals as a subversive menace that was ethnically and culturally different from “mainstream” Americans–the article is tinged with anti-Semitism, anti-urban, and anti-immigrant bias. Palmer’s vigorous language portrayed radicals as a destructive “prairie-fire,” a conspiracy of criminals, and an epidemic disease.

Defining Moment

By 1920, the Communist regime established during the Russian Revolution had proved its staying power by surviving civil war and foreign invasion, even if it had not yet successfully spread to the rest of the world as its program called for. The Communist agenda to overthrow capitalism was global in scope, and many believed that Communists planned to subvert non-Communist governments. The Communist International, or “Comintern,” a Soviet-led international organization of Communist parties dedicated to world revolution, had been founded in 1919. The Communist Party of the United States of America, a Comintern member, had been founded the same year, although it was plagued by factional competition for the first two years before a Comintern directive forced all American Communist parties to merge.

The Communists were not the only, or even the most active, forces on the American far left in the post–World War I period. With their roots extending to the nineteenth century, American anarchists remained a powerful force and were far more willing to take direct, violent action than were the Communists, who focused on recruiting members of the working class. A series of anarchist bombings occurred on June 2, 1919, including the bombing of Palmer’s house in Washington, DC. A postwar wave of strikes also brought labor issues to the forefront of the national agenda. Anarchists, Communists, and to a lesser extent labor activists drew heavily from the immigrant population.

During World War I, civil liberties in the United States had been compromised. During the war itself, the principal target of government repression had been pacifist and “pro-German” organizations, including ethnic organizations of German Americans; after the war, the repressive apparatus was redirected at leftists in general. The leader in this effort was Attorney General Palmer, who focused the federal government’s law enforcement resources on left-wing radicals in what became known as the first “Red Scare.” Characterized by mass arrests and deportations, the Red Scare targeted aliens, who lacked many of the rights that protected US citizens. In December 1919, Palmer’s men deported 249 aliens to the Soviet Union, regardless of whether or not they were of Russian origin or sympathized with Soviet Communism.

Although Palmer is frequently identified as the face of the Red Scare, he had the full backing of President Woodrow Wilson and his administration. In fact, Wilson occasionally took a harder line than Palmer. For example, when Palmer suggested the release from prison of the ailing Socialist leader Eugene Debs on humanitarian grounds, Wilson firmly denied his request.

Author Biography

Democrat Alexander Mitchell Palmer was born May 4, 1872, in Moosehead, Pennsylvania. He served in Congress from 1909 to 1915. He took a progressive line, supporting women’s suffrage and the abolition of child labor. After losing a Senate race in 1915, he served as custodian of alien property during World War I, organizing the forced sales of German-owned property in the United States. He became attorney general in 1919, serving for the duration of the Wilson administration. As attorney general, he alleviated the wartime repression of German Americans. Palmer was the subject of two anarchist assassination attempts in 1919, increasing his interest in domestic radicalism and leading to a series of repressive measures known as the Red Scare. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for president in 1920. He lost his position when the administration of Republican Warren G. Harding came to power, after which he retired to private life, remaining active in the Democratic Party. He died May 11, 1936.

Document Analysis

Palmer’s aim in “The Case against the Reds” is to establish violent left-wing, anti-capitalist movements as a direct threat to his readers. Since the left-wing movement was small and geographically and culturally remote from most ordinary Americans, Palmer examines the threat in some detail to make it “real” to his readers. He enumerates many areas of American life, including workplaces and even churches that had come under attack from the “Reds,” although he gives little specific evidence of infiltration. Throughout his article, Palmer shows little awareness of the many differences between left-wing movements, lumping Communists with anarchists, long demonized figures to many Americans and particularly to Palmer, whom they had tried to kill.

Like many progressives, Palmer was distrustful of urban and immigrant populations, both of which he identifies with left-wing threats. The internal threat of subversion is portrayed as a foreign, “un-American” threat. Palmer employs the metaphor of a raging, out-of-control fire burning down American homes, schools, and churches–“It was eating its way into the homes of the American workmen, its sharp tongues of revolutionary heat were licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes.” The threat is not only political but also sexual, as Palmer describes “libertine” radicalism as a threat to marriage–a common theme in early anti-Communist propaganda. He appeals to the anti-Semitism of many American Christian readers, associating the Soviet Communist leader Leon Trotsky (spelled “Trotzky” in the article), a person of Jewish descent, with his original last name Bronshtein (“Bronstein”) and referencing the (Lower) East Side of New York City, a center of the American Jewish community. While never directly associating Jews with revolutionary subversion, Palmer insinuates as much. He also connects subversion to New York and Chicago, the leading urban centers in the United States, appealing to the rural and small-town prejudices of many Americans, who saw big cities as immigrant-dominated dens of political and moral iniquity. He justifies the attack on persons for their political beliefs–attacks that many believed were themselves un-American–by consistently associating left-wing views with criminality. He portrays Communism not as a school of political thought, but as a vast conspiracy to destroy everything Americans held dear. He also compares Communism to an infectious disease, at a time when the United States and the world were emerging from the nightmare of the great epidemic of Spanish influenza.

Essential Themes

Although Palmer’s Red Scare ended shortly after the publication of the article and was widely mocked in its later phases, anti-Communism and the fear of subversion remained a powerful feature of American politics and culture into the late twentieth century. The 1921 trial of the Italian American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for murder exploited the fear of violent anarchism (though Communism replaced anarchism as the perceived greatest threat to American capitalism, as the international anarchist movement declined in popularity). The rise of the Soviet Union and the dramatic expansion of the Communist world during and after World War II further contributed to the American fear of Communism. A subsequent, larger Red Scare was associated with the late 1940s and early 1950s. The association between anti-Communism and anti-Semitism also continued into the 1950s, reaching a height in the trial of the Jewish “atomic spies,” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Unlike Palmer’s Red Scare, which stemmed from the executive branch and blamed Congress for a lack of interest in domestic subversion, subsequent red scares, particularly that led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, were instigated by the legislative branch. Congressional anti-Communist leaders made similar charges against the executive branch that Palmer made against Congress, although they went much further than Palmer, claiming that the executive branch had actually been infiltrated by Communist spies and other agents. Although the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 marginalized Communism as a threat, some of the techniques employed during the Red Scare, including attacks on the “foreignness” of the subjects, were seen in the response to domestic Islamic groups in the War on Terror that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ackerman, Kenneth D. Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties. New York: Carroll, 2007. Print.
  • Coben, Stanley A. Mitchell Palmer: Politician. New York: Columbia UP, 1963. Print.
  • Powers, Richard Gid. Not without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. Print.
Categories: History Content