The First Red Scare, 1919-1920
During the Gilded Age, 1878-1889 post-reconstruction era, America experienced exponential growth in industry. Mining boomed, oil boomed, and railroad development boomed. And entrepreneurs like John D. Rockefeller (oil tycoon) and Andrew Carnegie (steel), “achieved wealth [and] celebrated it as never before.” More and more families were moving closer to urban developed areas, like New York City and Chicago, attempting to tap into the growing wealth being made in the factories and mills that dotted once rural areas. However, in 1890 “11 million of the nation’s 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line.” Mark Twain coined the phrase, “Gilded Age,” as a reflection on the growing divide between the rich and poor. He pointedly mocked in 1871, “What is the chief end of man?–to get rich. In what way?–dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.” Discontent was brewing among the nations battered working poor who grinded long hours for low wages in America’s booming factories and sweatshops. According to economists near the turn of the century, “a widespread feeling of unrest and brooding revolution” was about to dawn.
Throughout the early morning years of the 20th century, America experienced a brash of labor strikes and boycotts, aimed to motivate the American conscience and to organize the mass of working people to campaign for better working conditions and treatment from their employers. Though, these movements tended to falter due to lack of cohesiveness and outside support from the government, the movements in themselves became an important aspect of the American landscape and helped promote the common interest of workers throughout the nation, not just for better wages, reasonable hours or safer working conditions, but also as early social reform platforms geared toward abolishing child labor and promoting women’s suffrage. However, many Americans saw organizations, such as: IWW, AFL, and Knights of Labor as radical insurgencies working against the common interests of America. Government agents, such as: J. Edgar Hoover and A. Mitchell Palmer, and branches from our own government, such as: the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as members of the Senate and House, saw these radicals as Bolshevik revolutionaries and anarchists.
The First Red Scare was marked by a widespread fear of Bolshevism and anarchism. At its peak between 1919 & 1920, government agencies were concerned with the effects these radical political dissenters were doing to the American society at-large, both in reality and the imagined. Thanks in part to the October Revolution in Russia during 1917, paranoia spread like wildfire and was, for the most part, directed toward the American labor movement. With this general notion that all labor movements were in fact radical-anarchist-communist-Bolshevik insurgents, propaganda began to permeate in newspapers throughout the United States. The early labor and reform movements at the dawn of the 20th century is one of the most interesting periods of American history, filled with a subversive desire to be heard. Unfortunately, on the curtails of labor reform, events, such as: the disturbances during the General Seattle Strikes, the April and June bombings, violence during the 1919 May Day parade in Boston, the Chicago race riots, and the police, steel, and coal strikes throughout 1919 were all at the forefront of the American conscience.
The Palmer Raids in November 1919 and January 1920 fundamentally ended the era known as The First Red Scare. Though, I’ve often wondered about Attorney General A. Mitchel Palmer’s position in the infamous radical deportation. He most certainly desired to put a stop to these small bands of anarchists and without a doubt believed them to be the source of violence during the reform movements, but it is questionable if his original agenda was their eventual deportation. One could make a strong argument that it was the U.S. Senate that prodded Palmer to “launch his campaign against radicalism.” 556 were rounded up, but in December of 1920, on board the Buford, also known as the “Soviet Ark,” only 249 deportees left New York harbor, among them was Emma Goldman. The Cleveland Plain Dealer commented enthusiastically following Goldman’s departure, “It is hoped and expected that other vessels, larger, more commodious, carrying similar cargoes, will follow in her wake.”
Despite the Palmer Raids and the effectual end to the First Red Scare, the Labor Movement did not dwindle and would move to play a larger role in political attitudes and the eventual rebirth of social reforms during the Civil Rights Movement. Modern labor unions seemed to have lost their swagger, but in the heyday of labor reform, they were the loudest voice for discontent against a system of abuse and helped establish some of the most common worker rights we take for granted, such as: the 8 hr work day, disability, vacation, the weekend, sick time, investments, break rooms, and other benefits that would not have existed without the men and women who cried out, “On strike for fare wages!”>>Sources: Who Built America? Volume I: Through 1877: Working People and the Nation’s History, December 2007, St. Martin. PBS, American Experience documentary on Andrew Carnegie and the Gilded Age, 1999. PBS, American Experience documentary on Emma Goldman, 2004. Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919–1920 (1955); Edwin P. Hoyt, The Palmer Raids, 1919–1920: An Attempt to Suppress Dissent (1969); Hans P. Vought, The Bully Pulpit and the Melting Pot: American Presidents and the Immigrant, 1897–1933 (2004).