Saturday, January 2, 2016



January 2, 1920 -- The Palmer Raids begin. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer orders the wholesale arrest of nearly 50,000 Americans -- all of them union leaders, leftists, anarchists, and communists -- based solely on their political beliefs. Almost none had committed a crime. Most were immigrants, and Palmer openly questioned their loyalty to the United States (without evidence).

Acting Secretary of Labor in Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis Freeland Post stood up to Palmer, and canceled more than 1,140 arrest warrants (arguing they were illegal). Post's action, as well as pressure on state and local authorities, led to the release 6,500 of arrestees. Just 556 resident aliens were deported. Only a handful of American citizens were convicted.


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Since the 1880s, a class war had been raging in the United States. Employers -- particularly those in the iron, coal, steel, and manufacturing sectors -- employed machine guns, tear gas, vomit gas, water cannons, and "company police" (read: armed thugs) to beat workers into submission and prevent the spread of labor unions. Some unions (particularly those in the coal, iron, and steel industries) met violence with violence. Unionists bombed factories and mines, and employers assassinated union leaders. Courts were in lockstep in applying "Lochner-era" Supreme Court rulings, arguing that contract was the utmost right in the United States and that the contract between employer and employee could never be broken.

As labor's troubles worsened, socialist and anarchist political parties formed throughout the United States. As city police, county sheriffs, and state militia eagerly supported employers against labor, many socialists and anarchists shot back and bombed in retaliation against state-initiated violence.

The Russian Revolution occurred in November 1917, deeply alarming American conservatives -- who believed a communist revolution would soon occur in the United States. As World War I raged, Imperial Germany dared not bring troops home from the front line, as the Army was infected with communist ideology. The Kaiser feared they would foment revolution at home and topple the nobility.

In the United States, fears of "disloyalty" were so strong that President Woodrow Wilson pushed through three major laws (the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918, and the Immigration Act of 1918) which essentially made it a crime to voice anti-American, anti-British, or pro-German views. Wilson also arrested and deported "resident aliens" (legal immigrants) who in any way refused to support (strongly) American intervention in the war.


The war ended in November 1918, but many nations in Europe were on the verge of revolution. A general strike that had paralyzed the major port of Seattle in February 1919 represented a new development in labor unrest. In October 1919, President Wilson suffered a massive stroke that left him completely incapacitated. His wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, refused to allow anyone to see her husband. It wouldn't be until Febraury 1920 that Wilson would see a small group of outsiders, and not until April 14 that he would meet with his Cabinet (for the first time since August 1919).

As the country drifted, Palmer -- who had ambitions to be President of the United States himself -- saw his chance. Palmer had been appointed Attorney General only on March 5, 1919. But he was the first visitor to see the president after his stroke (on October 30). Palmer helped to whip up the "Red Scare" (the first in American history) to a fever pitch.

It didn't help matters that anarchist Luigi Galleani was just stepping up his bombing campaign against the United States government. Galleanists carried out a series of bombings in April and June 1919. About 30 letter bombs were mailed at the end of April, mostly prominent government officials, businessmen, and law enforcement officials. Only a few reached their targets, and most did not explode when opened. But a few people were injured (most notably Senator Thomas W. Hardwick's housekeeper, who had her hands blown off). On June 2, 1919, a second wave of bombings occurred. Night watchman William Boehner died. Palmer himself was targeted with a mail bomb: It exploded on the front porch, but Palmer and his family were on the second floor and escaped harm.

Fears that anarchists were about to attempt a violent revolution soared. Several of the letter bombs were sent to addresses in Washington, D.C., which "brought the war home" to members of Congress and the administration.

In July, Palmer organized a "test raid" against a small group of anarchists in Buffalo, New York. A federal judge threw out the arrest of three men, arguing that they had the First Amendment right to advocate the overthrow of the government (so long as they did not actually engage in violence). Palmer realized that he needed to target immigrants instead of citizens if his "Red Scare" was going to work.

In August, Palmer organized the General Intelligence Unit (later known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation) within the Department of Justice. He selected Treasury agent J. Edgar Hoover, a 24-year-old law school graduate who had spent the last two years deporting resident aliens, to head it.

In October 1919, the United Mine Workers went out on a nationwide strike. Palmer was infuriated: He invoked the Lever Act, a wartime measure that made it a crime to interfere with the production or transportation of necessities. (Meant to punish hoarding and profiteering, the law had never been used against a union.) Palmer obtained an injunction on October 31 requiring the union to go back to work, but 400,000 coal workers struck the next day. UMWA president John L. Lewis, however, was facing prison for defying the court order. Lewis declared that his union's striking miners were engaged in an illegal act, and he helped to break his own strike in late November. (A final agreement came on December 10.) Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson opposed Palmer's actions in the strike, and was outraged when Palmer publicly declared that "the entire Cabinet" had backed him.

On November 7, four weeks after Wilson's stroke, Palmer began whipping up the "Red Scare". He engineered a second series of test raids against a labor union, the Union of Russian Workers, in 12 cities. Local and state police severely beat union members, and tortured some to obtain "confessions" about revolution. The raids were sloppy: some American citizens of Russian descent were also arrested, most of them passers-by who admitted to being Russian. Others were teachers conducting night classes in the same office building where the union rented space. Deportations were minimal: Just 43 of the 650 arrested in New York City were ejected.

But Palmer was not deterred. He testified before Congress on November 17 that anarchists and "Bolsheviks" were ready to lead a nationwide revolt on May 20, 1920. Palmer specifically targeted African American leaders, whom (he said) were in "open defiance" of the government. (He pointed to race riots that had occurred during the summer.) Using a tactic later used to great effect by Joseph McCarthy 30 years later, he declared that he had amassed a list of 60,000 names of "dangerous radicals" who were conspiring to overthrow the government.

The Palmer Raids went nationwide on January 2, 1920. The majority of raids occurred on January 2, with additional large-scale raids occurring over the next few days. Smaller raids, led by local police, continued over the next six weeks. Raids occurred in more than 30 cities and towns in 23 states. Raids west of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio were "publicity gestures" designed to make the effort appear nationwide in scope. The "serious" raids occurred largely in the Northeast and Ohio.

The raids targeted entire organizations, not just individuals. Their goal was to break political parties, not target crime. Agents arrested everyone found in organization meeting halls or buildings, not just those who actually belongs to a political party or association. Agents arrested mothers, children, visitors, and even janitors. Although the raids were supposed to target immigrants, many American citizens not eligible for deportation were also arrested.


At least 3,000 people were arrested on January 2 alone. Ultimately, more than 10,000 people were arrested. As many as 50,000 had been detained for a few hours or a day or two. Almost none of the raids used a search warrant. The raids exclusively targeted labor unions, anarchist and communist political parties, socialist debating societies, and similar organizations. Perpetrators of right-wing violence, including fascist and dictatorial groups, were ignored. The Justice Department claimed to have discovered numerous bombs. In fact, only a few iron balls were shown to the press; after the first day or two, they were never mentioned again. Four pistols were also seized.

Nearly all the arrestees were held in temporary facilities which were overcrowded and unsanitary. Brutality was common; thousands of detainees and arrestees were severely beaten, and police and Justice Department agents tortured hundreds of individuals in an attempt to wring confessions from them.

The press lauded the raids and Palmer's refusal to uphold constitutional liberties. The "Washington Post" editorialized: "There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties." Only a handful of leftist publications like "The Nation" and "The New Republic" criticized the Palmer Raids.

But Palmer had widely miscalculated. Federal law gave the Secretary of Labor the power to issue deportation orders, not the Attorney General. Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson found on January 24 that mere membership in the Communist Part of America was grounds for deportation.

But a series of coincidences left Secretary Wilson out of the picture. On March 1, Senator John H. Bankhead of Alabama died, and the Department of Labor's Solicitor General, John Abercrombie, resigned to run for the seat. Wilson took a leave of absence from his job on March 6 to care for his ill mother and wife. This left 70-year-old Louis Freeland Post as Acting Secretary of Labor. Post, who had been Assistant Secretary of Labor since 1913, was a strong liberal and civil rights advocate who had long opposed attacks on leftists and immigrants. Indeed, Post had written in his personal diary on January 1 that the "real" overthrow of the government was being conducted by people like Palmer who were ignoring the Constitution at the behest of financiers and capitalists. Furthermore, the triumphant Palmer had allowed a massive backlog of deportation orders to stack up without processing.

Beginning March 6, the very day Abercrombie resigned and left Post in charge, Post began cancelling deportation orders. Working 12 to 14 hours a day (in addition to his usual work), Post and a private secretary, departmental clerk, and messenger began disposing of the deportations. Wherever evidence had been obtained illegally, or wherever evidence was insufficient, Post cancelled the deportation. Between March 6 and April 10, Post cancelled 1,140 deportation orders. He deported just 160 aliens, and ordered additional hearings in the remaining 300 cases on his desk.

Palmer was outraged. At a Cabinet meeting in April 1920, Palmer demanded that Secretary of Labor Wilson fire Post. But the Secretary of Labor Wilson defended his subordinate. President Wilson, his attention span limited and his stamina low, ended the meeting without a decision. But as he was wheeled out, Wilson cryptically told Palmer that he should "not let this country see red." Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who was present at the meeting, considered this a reprimand. Palmer, Daniels said, "was seeing red behind every bush and every demand for an increase in wages."

Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover was showing his stripes: As early as January 1920, he began compiling a file on Post and his political leanings, but failed to find evidence of radical connections. Nevertheless, Hoover leaked what he had to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, which then issues a sensationalist report about Post and his deportation cancellations. A firestorm misrepresentation exploded in the press and Congress. But Post had such a stellar character that many members of the House defended him. On April 15, 1920, Rep. Homer Hoch (R-Kan.) called for his impeachment. The House Rules Committee asked President Wilson to fire him. Post requested and was granted a chance to testify and defend himself before the Rule Committee. Beginning April 30, he delivered a seven-hour-per-day, nine-day-long, caustic attack on Attorney General Palmer and others who had led the "Red Scare". Post's testimony was so effective that Rep. Edward W. Pou (D-NC), an ardent supporter of the Red Scare campaign, praised Post and left the room in stunned silence.

No further action was taken against Post. He retired in 1923, and died in Washington, D.C., in 1928.

In June 1920, Massachusetts District Court Judge George Anderson ordered the release of the last remaining arrested aliens and denounced the Department of Justice: "[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." Judge Anderson's decision effectively ended the Palmer Raids.

Palmer and Hoover tried to keep up the "Red Scare" by focusing on the May 20 "revolution" being planned. When the day came and went without incident, the press excoriated Palmer and ridiculed him at length. (The anarchist bombing campaign continued intermittently for another 12 years.)

Palmer hoped that his raids would catapult him to the Presidency. He ran for the the Democratic Party nomination in 1920, proclaiming "I am myself an American and I love to preach my doctrine before undiluted one hundred percent Americans, because my platform is, in a word, undiluted Americanism and undying loyalty to the republic." The press laughed at him: "We assumed, of course, from the tone of Mr. Palmer's manifesto that his opponents for the nomination were Rumanians, Greeks and Icelanders, and weak-kneed ones at that....We happened into Cox's headquarters wholly by accident and were astounded to discover that he, too, is an American. ... Thus encouraged we went to all camps and found that the candidates are all Americans." Nevertheless, Palmer ran a respectable third until his support collapsed late in the convention and the nomination went to Ohio Governor James Cox.

Resigning on March 4, 1921, Palmer went into private practice. He tried to re-enter politics by becoming an early supporter of New York Governor Al Smith when he ran for the Democratic nomination in 1928.

Palmer died on May 11, 1936, in Washington, D.C., from a heart attack precipitated by an appendectomy two weeks earlier.

His actions in the Palmer Raids are widely seen as one of the most extreme violations of American civil liberaties in U.S. history. He is widely dismissed as an Attorney General for his mendacity and scheming, and for engineering the Palmer Raids as a means of advancing his political ambitions.

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