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The Red Scare and Civil Liberties

Written by: David E. Hamilton, University of Kentucky

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and effects of international and internal migration patterns over time

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with the Mitchell Palmer, “The Case against the Reds,” 1920 Primary Source and the Ellison DuRant Smith, “Shut the Door,” 1924 Primary Source to have students discuss the increased anxiety about radicalism and immigrants during the Red Scare.


The fighting in World War I ended on November 11, 1918, but the ceasefire halted only one of wars America was engaged in during the years 1917-1920. Another war, the internal battle against revolutionaries and radicalism, soon intensified into a national fury that became the twentieth century’s first “Red Scare.” In the name of protecting the nation from revolution, vigilante mobs fought deadly battles with labor radicals, and state legislatures passed laws criminalizing radical beliefs and actions, banning the display of red communist flags and banners, and demanding that teachers sign loyalty oaths declaring they would not teach un-American doctrines. The state of New York went further still when, in 1920, its legislature refused to seat five Socialist members on the grounds that they had been “elected on a platform that is absolutely inimical to the best interests of the State of New York and of the United States.” By far the most extreme measures were the massive dragnet campaigns of the Wilson administration’s Justice and Labor Departments, aimed at locating and then deporting anarchists and communists who were not citizens and who made up perhaps 90 percent of the war era’s radical parties and organizations.

The Justice Department raids, which were known as the “Palmer Raids” because they had been ordered by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, initially were praised as necessary acts, but they also incited a counterreaction that was one reason for the Red Scare’s demise by mid-1920. Antiradicalism hardly disappeared, but the panicked fears that the nation was in peril subsided. Difficult questions persisted, however. The individual rights of citizens and non-citizens to discuss, hold, and express unpopular beliefs under the First Amendment was a cornerstone of American constitutionalism. But the war had raised the question of the scope of the federal government and Justice Department’s legitimate powers and necessary responsibilities to protect both national security and the rights of individuals.

Portrait of Attorney General Palmer

A photograph of Attorney General Palmer taken in 1919.

The postwar fears of subversion and radicalism were rooted in part in wartime demands for loyalty and national unity by the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. During the war, Wilson stated he would not tolerate anyone who would “inject the poison of disloyalty into our most critical affairs.” The administration saw the war as a progressive crusade to “make the world safe for democracy” and to promote a rational social order, harmony, patriotism, and Americanization at home. Federal executive agencies curbed and controlled individuals’ rights in the public interest. The Committee on Public Information managed propaganda, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited alcohol, Congress passed immigration restrictions based on literacy tests, and a wave of repressive legislation limited free speech and other civil liberties.

Encouraged by Wilson, Congress had quickly passed the Espionage Act (in June 1917), which expanded the government’s power to control suspected espionage and sabotage. The federal government used this authority to convict 1,000 Socialists, anarchists, and pacifists who opposed the war under the 1918 amendments to the act, commonly called the Sedition Act. The day before, Wilson had delivered a warning in his Flag Day address: “Woe be to the man or group of men who seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution when every principle we hold dearest is to be vindicated and made secure for the salvation of the nation.” The president issued a secret executive order authorizing the firing of federal employees seen as disloyal. Postmaster Albert Burleson stringently censored the mails.

Congress also expanded the administration’s power to regulate speech. The Sedition Act of 1918 criminalized written or spoken opposition to military recruitment and the war bond drives. The war’s most strident opponents were members of the International Workers of the World (IWW), a communist labor organization that saw itself as locked in a violent struggle with oppressive capitalists and the avowedly anticapitalist Socialist Party (of America). To the Wilson Administration and much of the public, these groups’ opposition to the war was a dangerous form of disloyalty, and many of their members drew lengthy prison terms for encouraging workers to strike or to resist enlistment or conscription. Eugene V. Debs, the head of the Socialist Party, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison after he declared in a speech that workers were being sent to death to fight a capitalists’ war.

Eugene Debs is shown smiling and waving.

Eugene Debs is pictured here in 1921 after being released from his prison sentence.

The Immigration Act allowed the government to deport any alien member of an anarchist organization. The record of wartime repression was not surprising given Attorney General Thomas Gregory’s statement, “May God have mercy on [dissenters] for they need expect none . . . from an avenging government.”

With the war’s end, fears of radicalism only intensified, especially after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia of 1917, which threatened to spread to other parts of Europe. Events in the postwar United States increased social strife and made many Americans suspicious of radicals. The rapid demobilization of four million troops, a burst of price inflation, general strikes and police strikes, bombings, and race riots produced a fractious and fearful public climate. President Wilson’s disengagement from domestic issues made matters worse. In 1919, Wilson was first in Paris negotiating the terms of the peace, then was preoccupied by the debate over the League of Nations, and then was incapacitated by a stroke from which he never fully recovered. Ambitious members of his own administration seized on popular fears for their own advantage and continued the wartime repression of civil liberties.

Some of the dangers that stoked these fears were real and, indeed, ominous, and others were largely illusory. Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution inspired leftist radicals throughout Europe to form communist parties and, in the case of Germany and Hungary, to attempt ill-fated revolutions in 1919. In the United States, the Socialist Party 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 or 60,000 members, most of whom were immigrant aliens), the two parties launched aggressive campaigns to win workers to radical causes.

In the United States, Europe’s turmoil and the specter of American communists committed to Bolshevist ideals aroused new fears of radical subversion. These fears were confirmed and inflamed by a series of shocks and crises for which the United States was almost entirely unprepared.

Among these were bombings and attempted bombings by followers of the Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani. In late April 1919, the Galleanisti mailed at least 36 bombs of dynamite and acid to prominent public figures such as members of Congress, governors, mayors, and business people. These were intended to arrive on May 1, which for many worker organizations and radicals was May Day or International Workers’ Day. Most of the bombs were intercepted in post offices, but one sent to a Georgia senator badly maimed a housekeeper. More ominous were the eight bombings of June 2, in which explosives detonated almost simultaneously at the homes of public figures in eight cities. The intended victims escaped injury, but one bomb killed a night watchman and another ripped apart the front of the home of Attorney General Palmer.

The photograph shows a house with multiple broken windows in the first and second stories. A group of men stand in front of the house. Debris from trees and the house lies on the ground.

This photograph was taken in front of Attorney General Palmer’s home after the June 1919 bombing. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, a young couple who lived across the street from Palmer, were shaken by the blast.

Though they were too few to incite a revolution, the Galleanisti were dangerous terrorists, and the bombings they carried out lent plausibility to the possibility of a full-scale radical war. Massive labor unrest and a surge in extreme racial violence added to the public’s sense of imminent danger. There were perhaps 3,000 labor strikes in 1919, and four were particularly frightening. The first occurred in Seattle, where a strike by members of the shipbuilding trades escalated into a general strike by 65,000 workers. A few months later, most of Boston’s police force went on strike, which left the city vulnerable to crime sprees. Then 350,000 steelworkers went on strike, followed by 400,000 coal miners across the country. Meanwhile, there were perhaps 30 reported racial incidents, including riots in Charleston, South Carolina, and Washington, DC. In Chicago, a riot raged for five days and left more than 38 people dead; in Elaine, Arkansas, a massacre of striking farm workers claimed the lives of 100 to 200 African Americans.

Members of the Wilson administration saw the strikes, riots, and bombings as the work of a Bolshevik-inspired campaign of radical subversion and warned of a looming revolution unless the nation acted to repress the “red” threat. The Justice Department and A. Mitchell Palmer, who was understandably shaken by the June bombing and who also harbored presidential ambitions, seized the offensive late in 1919. A new intelligence division in the Bureau of Investigation was created (renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935) and headed by the 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover amassed files on suspected radicals, and in November, he and other officials launched the first of the Palmer Raids. With the help of local police, they arrested several hundred immigrants (mostly Russians), of whom 249 were subsequently deported by the Bureau of Immigration under the provisions of the Immigration Act of 1918. Then on January 2 and January 6, 1920, agents and police in 33 cities swarmed offices, headquarters, pool halls, homes, and just about any place where “reds” might be gathered. Perhaps 10,000 people were detained and 4,000 arrested without due process of law. Eventually, 3,000 were deported, including the anarchist and activist Emma Goldman, who was sent to Russia.

Men in overcoats and hats sit on rows of benches.

These men were arrested on January 2, 1920, in New York City as part of the Palmer Raids. They are waiting at Ellis Island to be deported.

The Palmer raids weakened the new communist parties, but they also ignited powerful opposition. The roundups had violated the Constitution in several ways, and it was soon clear that many of those detained had no connection to radical causes. Some suspects were imprisoned without a warrant, many were denied access to counsel when first interrogated, and others were held for lengthy periods because bail had been set at exorbitant levels. The evidence for deportation, moreover, was often flimsy. In many cases, the charges were based not on people’s actions or any intent to undermine the government, but on their associations.

Outside the Wilson Administration, some lawyers and law school professors, judges and elected officials, and church leaders denounced the raids as arbitrary and lawless actions of unchecked government bureaus. The country, they said, was in far less danger than was the Constitution. Within the administration, Louis Post, the acting secretary of Labor, began a review of more than 1,000 deportation orders, rescinded nearly three-fourths of them, and imposed stricter procedural safeguards on any future orders. Fears of subversion and revolution also waned as the public mood drifted into the “normalcy” of the 1920s. Republican president Warren Harding commuted the sentence of Eugene Debs, and he left prison in 1921. Thereafter, both Harding and President Calvin Coolidge commuted the sentences of the remaining prisoners convicted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts. The return to normalcy happened in part because of a decline in labor and racial unrest at home and in radical upheavals in Europe. But there was also a growing sense that those who had help foment the Red Scare had exaggerated the actual dangers. Palmer and Hoover warned that May Day of 1920 might bring radical violence, but when the day passed without incident, it served to discredit what now seemed to be an antiradical extremism.

The danger of anarchist terrorism, however, remained real. On September 16, 1920, the Galleanisti struck again with a massive bomb on Wall Street that killed 38 people and wounded nearly 150. But despite its deadly toll, the bombing did not spark a Red Scare revival. What developed instead was an uneasy search for some means of balancing the need for security with the protections of civil liberties in a constitutional democracy. The individual rights of citizens and non-citizens to discuss, hold, and express unpopular beliefs under the First Amendment was a cornerstone of American constitutionalism. But the war had raised the question of the scope of the federal government and Justice Department’s legitimate powers and necessary responsibilities to protect both national security and the rights of individuals.


Review Questions

1. The Red Scare of 1919-1920 refers to the

  1. demands for loyalty during World War I
  2. anti-German hysteria of World War I
  3. fears of a Bolshevik-inspired revolution in the United States after World War I
  4. Wilson Administration’s efforts to win support for the League of Nations

2. The purpose of the Palmer Raids was to

  1. enforce Prohibition
  2. uncover German saboteurs
  3. execute a World War I offensive
  4. arrest suspected radicals

3. What groups were especially targeted by the Palmer Raids?

  1. Anticapitalist immigrants
  2. Pro-French tourists
  3. Republican Party functionaries
  4. Democratic Party organizers

4. The Palmer Raids violated constitutional protections by

  1. convicting suspects charged with terrorist bombings
  2. decreasing confidence in the federal government’s ability to enforce the law
  3. deporting suspects who were U.S. citizens
  4. imprisoning suspects without providing warrants or access to attorneys

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain why the United States became consumed by fear of leftist radicals in 1919-1920.
  2. How did the government respond to fears of radicalism during the Red Scare?
  3. In what ways was freedom of expression under attack during and after World War I?

AP Practice Questions

“The world of capitalism is today in a state of physical collapse and moral bankruptcy and only Socialism can save it from lapsing into the barbarism of the dark ages. . . .

. . . The twin political parties of capitalism are disintegrating from their own sheer rottenness and corruption. Thousands upon thousands of decent voters are deserting both in disgust and seeking another fit for their allegiance. That other is the Socialist Party and in the campaign now in progress that fact must be made manifest in every way in our power.

Think for a moment of the present condition of this country and what it might be if the working class but made intelligent use of its organized industrial strength and its political voting power!

Let us all realize the challenge to our loyalty, our courage, our capacity to think and act, and set to work to rebuild the party. . . .

. . . We have a party to rebuild, a press to restore, a campaign of supreme account to wage, and in this great work in the service of the working class there is room and need for us all!

Let us at once provide the means to place every available speaker and organizer in the field!

Let us rally to the support of our press which has been all but strangled in the foul clutches of capitalism and renew our subscriptions and secure others who are ready now and waiting for our literature as never before! . . .

. . . Thousands are now ripe and waiting for Socialist Party membership! . . .

Let us organize meetings everywhere, on the street corners, on the commons, in public halls, schoolhouses, churches, anywhere, and see that they are attended by the people who are sufficiently alive to wish to hear the only live message that will be heard in this campaign!”

Eugene V. Debs, “Review and Personal Statement,” October, 1922

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. According to Debs, why are voters deserting “the twin political parties of capitalism”?

  1. Capitalism is rotten and corrupt, and only Socialism can save the United States from a return to the dark ages.
  2. The Democrats and Republicans are abandoning the use of the free press and no longer publishing literature about socialist meetings.
  3. The working class is too intelligent to rebuild the two capitalist parties and will need to get over its disgust with the present system.
  4. Voters are tired of meeting on street corners and need to organize meetings to campaign together for better government.

2. Debs refers several times to the need to rebuild and restore the party. What caused the party to decline?

  1. The deportation of so many party members that too few were left to continue
  2. Enforcement of the Espionage and Sedition Acts
  3. Execution of search warrants in the Palmer Raids
  4. Terrorist bombings resulting in the deaths of many party leaders

3. Which constitutional amendment is most closely related to the actions Debs suggests?

  1. The First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, free press, and freedom of assembly
  2. The Second Amendment, which guarantees a right to bear arms
  3. The Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure
  4. The Fifth Amendment, which guarantees due process

Primary Sources

Newspaper articles related to the Palmer Raids: https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/palmer.html

Suggested Resources

Cooper, John Milton, Jr. Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Murphy, Paul L. World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979.

Murray, Robert K. Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955.

Stone, Geoffrey R. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.