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Shortly after the end of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Red Scare took hold in the United States. A nationwide fear of communists, socialists, anarchists, and other dissidents suddenly grabbed the American psyche in 1919 following a series of anarchist bombings. The nation was gripped in fear. Innocent people were jailed for expressing their views, civil liberties were ignored, and many Americans feared that a Bolshevik-style revolution was at hand. Then, in the early 1920s, the fear seemed to dissipate just as quickly as it had begun, and the Red Scare was over.
During World War I, a fervent patriotism was prevalent in the country, spurred by propagandist George Creel, chairman of the United States Committee on Public Information. While American boys were fighting the "Huns" abroad, many Americans fought them at home. Anyone who wasn't as patriotic as possible--conscientious objectors, draft dodgers, "slackers," German-Americans, immigrants, Communists--was suspect. It was out of this patriotism that the Red Scare took hold.
At the time the World War I Armistice was executed in 1918, approximately nine million people worked in war industries, while another four million were serving in the armed forces. Once the war was over, these people were left without jobs, and war industries were left without contracts. Economic difficulties and worker unrest increased.
Two main Union/Socialist groups stood out at the time--the International Workers of the World (the I.W.W. or Wobblies) centered in the northwest portion of the country and led by "Big" Bill Haywood, and the Socialist party led by Eugene Debs. Both groups were well know objectors to WWI, and to the minds of many Americans therefore, unpatriotic. This led them open to attack. Any activity even loosely associated with them was suspicious.
One of the first major strikes after the end of the war was the Seattle shipyard strike of 1919 which, erroneously, was attributed to the Wobblies. On January 21, 35,000 shipyard workers in Seattle struck. A general strike resulted when 60,000 workers in the Seattle area struck on February 6. Despite the absence of any violence or arrests, the strikers were immediately labeled as Reds who and charges that they were trying to incite revolution were leveled against them. Hysteria struck the city as department stores, grocery stores, and pharmacies were flooded by frightened customers trying to ensure that they would be able to survive a prolonged strike. The Seattle strike suddenly became national news, with newspaper headlines across the country telling of Seattle's impending doom and potential loss to the Reds and urging for the strike to be put down. Seattle mayor Ole Hansen, who had long hated the Wobblies and took the strike as a personal affront to him, took the offensive against the strikers. He guaranteed the city's safety by announcing that 1500 of the city's policemen and an equal number of federal troops were at his disposal to help break the strike and keep the peace. On February 10, realizing the strike could not succeed and could even damage the labor movement in Seattle, orders were given to end the strike. Mayor Hansen took credit for the termination of the strike, proclaimed a victory for Americanism, quit his job, and became a national expert and lecturer on anti-communism.
Subsequent to the Seattle strike, all strikes during the next six months were demonized in the press as "crimes against society," conspiracies against the government," and "plots to establish communism." A bomb plot was then uncovered on April 28, and among its intended victims was Mayor Hansen, apparantly a target for his squashing of the strike. On May Day (May 1), 1919, rallies were held throughout the country and riots ensued in several cities, including Boston, New York, and Cleveland. On June 2, another multi-state bomb plot was uncovered, leading to more fear of unseen anarchists who could inflict destruction and death from afar. Since one cannot defend against an unknown enemy, the "known" enemies (those workers who chose to strike) became increasingly tempting targets for persecution.
On September 9, the Boston police force went on strike. A panic that "Reds" were behind the strike took over Boston despite the lack of any radicalism on the part of the striking police officers. Although the city experienced primarily looting and vandalism (as well as some rioting), papers around the country ran inflammatory and polemical headlines. Stories told of massive riots, reigns of terror, and federal troops firing machine guns on a mob. On September 13, Police Commissioner Curtis announced that the striking policemen would not be allowed to return and that the city would hire a new police force, effectively ending the strike. Weeks later, a nation-wide steel strike occurred. On September 22, 275,000 steel workers walked off their jobs, and soon the strikers numbered 365,000. Three quarters of Pittsburgh's steel mills were shut down, and the strikers estimated that the strike was 90% effective. Riots, attributed only to the strikers with no newspapers laying any blame on police or political leaders, resulted in many places. In Gary, Indiana, for example, unrest was so prevalent that martial law was declared on October 5. The steel owners held fast, and in January of 1920, with less than a third of the strikers still out, the strike ended without the strikers gaining a single demand.
As a result of the strikes and unrest, the strikers were branded as "Reds" and as being unpatriotic. Fear of strikes leading to a Communist revolution spread throughout the country. Hysteria took hold. "Red hunting" became the national obsession. Colleges were deemed to be hotbeds of Bolshevism, and professors were labeled as radicals. The hunt reached down to public secondary schools where many teachers were fired for current or prior membership in even the most mildly of leftist organizations. The American Legion was founded in St. Louis on May 8, 1919 "[t]o uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America; to maintain law and order; to foster and perpetuate a one hundred per cent Americanism." By the fall, the Legion had 650,000 members, and over a million by year's end. While most of the Legion engaged in such relatively innocuous activities as distributing pamphlets, the patriotic and anti-communist fervor of the Legion led many to engage in vigilante justice meted out against Reds both real and suspected. The Legion's prevalence in the country and reputation for anti-communism was so great that the phrase "Leave the Reds to the Legion" became the "Wazzzzup" of the late teens.
The government, too, was not immune to anti-communistic hysteria. The Justice Department, under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, started the General Intelligence (or antiradical) Division of Bureau of Investigation on August 1, 1919 with J. Edgar Hoover as its head. Its mission to uncover Bolshevik conspiracies, and to find and incarcerate or deport conspirators. Eventually, the antiradical division compiled over 200,000 cards in a card-filing system that detailed radical organizations, individuals, and case histories across the country. These efforts resulted in the imprisonment or deportation of thousands of supposed radicals and leftists. These arrests were often made at the expense of civil liberties as arrests were often made without warrants and for spurious reasons. In Newark, for example, a man was arrested for looking like a radical. Even the most innocent statement against capitalism, the government, or the country could lead to arrest and incarceration. Moreover, arrestees were often denied counsel and contact with the outside world, beaten, and held in inhumane conditions. If the national press is any indicator of the predominant mood of the country, then the efforts of the Justice Department was overwhelmingly supported by the masses because the raids, deportations, and arrests were all championed on the front page of most every paper. All told, thousands of innocent people were jailed or deported, and many more were arrested or questioned. On January 2, 1920 alone over 4,000 alleged radicals were arrested in thirty-three cities.
Legislatures also reflected the national sentiment against radicals. Numerous local and state legislatures passed some sort of ordinance against radicals and radical activity. Thirty-two states made it illegal to display the red flag of communism. The New York Legislature expelled five duly elected Socialist assemblymen from its ranks. While Congress was unable to enact a peacetime anti-sedition bill, approximately seventy such bills were introduced.
The national mood, however, began to shift back to normal in the spring of 1920. In May twelve prominent attorneys (including Harvard professors Dean Pound, Zachariah Chaffee, and Felix Frankfurter, who later became a Supreme Court Justice and a proponent of Sacco and Vanzetti's innocence) issued a report detailing the Justice Department's violations of civil liberties. The New York Assembly's's decision to bar its Socialist members was met with disgust by national newspapers and leaders such as then-Senator Warren G. Harding, former Republican presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes and even Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer who felt it unfair to put Socialists and Communists in the same category. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes criticized proposed anti-sedition bills. Possibly because the proposed bills were viewed as censorship, most newspapers came out against the anti-sedition bills. Industry leaders, who were early proponents of anti-communism, began to realize that deporting immigrants (as many of the communists were alleged to be) drained a major source of labor, which would result in higher wages and decreased profits. Suddenly, political cartoons in newspapers that months earlier had been virulently opposed to Reds now featured over zealous Red-hunters as their objects of scorn and ridicule.
The Red Scare quickly ran its course and, by the summer of 1920, it was largely over. The nation turned its collective attention to more leisurely pursuits.
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