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Mitchell Palmer, “The Case against the Reds,” 1920

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In 1917, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik supporters successfully overthrew the Russian tsar and established a communist regime. The Bolsheviks called for a world revolution in which workers would rise up and overthrow capitalist governments. In 1919, the Socialist Party in the United States split apart, with its radical members leaving to form the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party of the USA. Although small (their combined membership was perhaps 50,000 to 60,000 members), the two parties launched aggressive campaigns to win workers to radical causes. That same year, a series of postwar labor strikes, race riots, and bombings by anarchist groups led to a fury that became the country’s first Red Scare. Members of the Wilson administration saw the strikes, riots, and bombings as the work of a Bolshevik-inspired campaign. Fearful of the growing appeal of these ideals in the United States, the Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, seized the offensive in late 1919. The so-called Palmer Raids led to the detaining of nearly 10,000 people and the arrest of 4,000 without due process of law. In this 1920 essay, Palmer defended his actions and explained why the threat of Bolshevism required extreme measures

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote this document?
  2. What was the author’s purpose in writing this? How might this affect his point of view?

Vocabulary Text
virile (adj): strong

seditious (adj): encouraging people to rebel against authority
In this brief review of the work which the Department of Justice has undertaken, to tear out the radical seeds that have entangled American ideas in their poisonous theories, I desire not merely to explain what the real menace of communism is, but also to tell how we have been compelled to clean up the country almost unaided by any virile legislation. Though I have not been embarrassed by political opposition, I have been materially delayed because the present sweeping processes of arrests and deportation of seditious aliens should have been vigorously pushed by Congress last spring. The failure of this is a matter of record in the Congressional files.
The anxiety of that period in our responsibility when Congress, ignoring the seriousness of these vast organizations that were plotting to overthrow the Government, failed to act, has passed. The time came when it was obviously hopeless to expect the hearty cooperation of Congress in the only way to stamp out these seditious societies in their open defiance of law by various forms of propaganda.
Like a prairie-fire, the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every American institution of law and order a year ago. 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, seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundations of society.
Robbery, not war, is the ideal of communism. This has been demonstrated in Russia, Germany, and in America. As a foe, the anarchist is fearless of his own life, for his creed is a fanaticism that admits no respect of any other creed. Obviously it is the creed of any criminal mind, which reasons always from motives impossible to clean thought. Crime is the degenerate factor in society.
exert (v): to apply or bring to bear Upon these two basic certainties, first that the “Reds” were criminal aliens and secondly that the American Government must prevent crime, it was decided that there could be no nice distinctions drawn between the theoretical ideals of the radicals and their actual violations of our national laws. An assassin may have brilliant intellectuality, he may be able to excuse his murder or robbery with fine oratory, but any theory which excuses crime is not wanted in America. This is no place for the criminal to flourish, nor will he do so, so long as the rights of common citizenship can be exerted to prevent him.
Our Government In Jeopardy
Trotzky: Leon Trotzky was a Bolshevik who worked with Lenin to overthrow the tsar It has always been plain to me that when American citizens unite upon any national issue they are generally right, but it is sometimes difficult to make the issue clear to them. If the Department of Justice could succeed in attracting the attention of our optimistic citizens to the issue of internal revolution in this country, we felt sure there would be no revolution. The Government was in jeopardy; our private information of what was being done by the organization known as the Communist Party of America, with headquarters in Chicago, of what was being done by the Communist Internationale under their manifesto planned at Moscow last March by Trotzky, Lenin and others addressed “To the Proletariats of All Countries,” of what strides the Communist Labor Party was making, removed all doubt. In this conclusion, we did not ignore the definite standards of personal liberty, of free speech, which is the very temperament and heart of the people. The evidence was examined with the utmost care, with a personal leaning toward freedom of thought and word on all questions.
scrupulously (adv): in a careful way The whole mass of evidence, accumulated from all parts of the country, was scrupulously scanned, not merely for the written or spoken differences of viewpoint as to the Government of the United States, but, in spite of these things, to see if the hostile declarations might not be sincere in their announced motive to improve our social order. There was no hope of such a thing.
By stealing, murder and lies, Bolshevism has looted Russia not only of its material strength but of its moral force. . . . Because a disreputable alien—Leon Bronstein, the man who now calls himself Trotzky—can inaugurate a reign of terror from his throne room in the Kremlin, because this lowest of all types known to New York can sleep in the Czar’s bed, while hundreds of thousands in Russia are without food or shelter, should Americans be swayed by such doctrines?
Such a question, it would seem, should receive but one answer from America.
My information showed that communism in this country was an organization of thousands of aliens who were direct allies of Trotzky. Aliens of the same misshapen caste of mind and indecencies of character, and it showed that they were making the same glittering promises of lawlessness, of criminal autocracy to Americans, that they had made to the Russian peasants. How the Department of Justice discovered upwards of 60,000 of these organized agitators of the Trotzky doctrine in the United States is the confidential information upon which the Government is now sweeping the nation clean of such alien filth. . . .
Will Deportation Check Bolshevism?
Behind, and underneath, my own determination to drive from our midst the agents of Bolshevism with increasing vigor and with greater speed, until there are no more of them left among us, so long as I have the responsible duty of that task, I have discovered the hysterical methods of these revolutionary humans with increasing amazement and suspicion. In the confused information that sometimes reaches the people they are compelled to ask questions which involve the reasons for my acts against the “Reds.” I have been asked, for instance, to what extent deportation will check radicalism in this country. Why not ask what will become of the United States Government if these alien radicals are permitted to carry out the principles of the Communist Party as embodied in its so-called laws, aims and regulations?
There wouldn’t be any such thing left. In place of the United States Government we should have the horror and terrorism of bolsheviki tyranny such as is destroying Russia now. Every scrap of radical literature demands the overthrow of our existing government. All of it demands obedience to the instincts of criminal minds, that is, to the lower appetites, material and moral. The whole purpose of communism appears to be a mass formation of the criminals of the world to overthrow the decencies of private life, to usurp property that they have not earned, to disrupt the present order of life regardless of health, sex or religious rights. By a literature that promises the wildest dreams of such low aspirations, that can occur to only the criminal minds, communism distorts our social law. . . .
It has been inferred by the “Reds” that the United States Government, by arresting and deporting them, is returning to the autocracy of Czardom, adopting the system that created the severity of Siberian banishment. My reply to such charges is that in our determination to maintain our government we are treating our alien enemies with extreme consideration. To deny them the privilege of remaining in a country which they have openly deplored as an unenlightened community, unfit for those who prefer the privileges of Bolshevism, should be no hardship. It strikes me as an odd form of reasoning that these Russian Bolsheviks who extol the Bolshevik rule should be so unwilling to return to Russia. The nationality of most of the alien “Reds” is Russian and German. There is almost no other nationality represented among them.
It has been impossible in so short a space to review the entire menace of the internal revolution in this country as I know it, but this may serve to arouse the American citizen to its reality, its danger, and the great need of united effort to stamp it out, under our feet, if needs be. It is being done. The Department of Justice will pursue the attack of these “Reds” upon the Government of the United States with vigilance, and no alien, advocating the overthrow of existing law and order in this country, shall escape arrest and prompt deportation.
It is my belief that while they have stirred discontent in our midst, while they have caused irritating strikes, and while they have infected our social ideas with the disease of their own minds and their unclean morals we can get rid of them and not until we have done so shall we have removed the menace of Bolshevism for good.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What did Palmer hope to achieve by writing this essay?
  2. What did Palmer blame Congress for doing?
  3. According to Palmer, what institutions did “the blaze of revolution” affect? Do you think Palmer is exaggerating?
  4. According to Palmer, how could a revolution be prevented?
  5. How many agitators did the Department of Justice claim to have discovered in the United States?
  6. According to Palmer, what would occur if Bolsheviks were allowed to carry out their ideas into law?
  7. Why did Palmer believe the government was treating alien enemies with consideration?
  8. Why did Palmer focus on Russians and Germans?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Why did Palmer claim he ordered raids on organizations that supported communism and socialism?
  2. In this essay, Palmer stated “the nationality of most of the alien ‘Reds’ is Russian and German.” If this were true, should the U.S. government have scrutinized Russian-Americans and German-Americans more than others? Explain your answer.
  3. In what ways were the Palmer Raids a continuation of the government suppression of free speech during World War I?

“The Case against the Reds”