(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 31, 2020.)
One hundred years ago this month, the second and final set of “Palmer Raids” took place. These government raids, named after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, targeted mainly Eastern Europeans and Italian immigrants with ties to radical left organizations. This episode in US history again highlighted a recurrent issue for all liberal democracies like the US: In an emergency, when and to what extent is a government allowed to curtail civil liberties and rights in order to protect lives?
To understand the raids, one must understand the context. During World War I (1914-18), there was a strong nationalistic movement in the US against immigrants suspected of possessing excessive loyalty to their countries of origin. The xenophobia was especially strong against Germans, because the war pitted Germany against the United Kingdom, a country with strong ties to the US, and also strong against Irish, because they were in revolt against the British.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson warned against those immigrants who “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”
In the fall of 1917, as WW I continued, the Russian Revolution erupted. The Russian monarchy was dissolved and replaced eventually by a communist government, led by Vladimir Lenin. Rooted in Marxism, communist ideology not only called capitalism an enemy, it also predicted its ultimate demise, spreading fears in Western democracies. One of the reasons that Lenin withdrew Russia from the allied war effort was his belief that workers of all warring countries, inspired by Russia’s example, would place class identity above national loyalty, forcing a peace settlement. This Revolution and its communist ideology gave rise to the Red Scare in the US, the fear of communist infiltration and subversion.
The fears of many in the US were confirmed when Italian radical anarchists (those shunning all government structures) conducted a series of bombings in 1919. In April, 30 letter bombs were mailed to prominent government and law enforcement officials and businessmen, some exploding and causing harm. On June 2, a second wave of bombings occurred. Italian anarchists exploded large package bombs in eight American cities. One damaged the home of Attorney General Palmer in Washington, DC. Accompanying each package were flyers declaring war on capitalism.
In October, the US Senate demanded action. In response on November 7, agents of the newly-formed General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation, headed by 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, executed raids against the Union of Russian Workers in 12 cities. Exceeding the number of official warrants, the arrests made were sometimes indiscriminate and included innocents who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Of 650 arrested in New York City, the government succeeded in deporting only 43.
On January 2, 1920, the Justice Department launched another series of raids, extending over six weeks. The raids, many again indiscriminate, were conducted in over 30 cities and towns and 23 states. At least 3000 were arrested, with some of the arrests and seizures made without search warrants and with the detentions conducted under harsh conditions.
Criticism of the raids eventually erupted. Resigning in protest, Francis Fisher Kane, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania stated: “It seems to me that the policy of raids against large numbers of individuals is generally unwise and very apt to result in injustice. People not really guilty are likely to be arrested and railroaded through their hearings….” Palmer replied that the raids were warranted given the “epidemic” and asserted the government’s “right for its own preservation….” The Washington Post supported him, indicating: “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties.”
In May, 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union, established only five months earlier, published a report documenting and criticizing the unlawful and excessive government actions.
In June, a decision by the Massachusetts District Court Judge George Anderson ordered the discharge of 17 arrested aliens and criticized the government’s actions. He wrote: “…a mob is a mob, whether made up of Government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and the vicious classes.” This decision essentially halted any further raids.
The anarchist bombing campaign continued intermittently for another 12 years.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.