The typical refrain of the Left goes like this: the Red Scare found nothing, proved nothing, and did nothing but expose the depths of conservative America’s paranoia. As such, Senator Joseph MscCarthy of Wisconsin is often pilloried as the heir apparent to the inquisitor-magistrates of Salem in 1692. In conjunction, America of the 1950s, which the Left holds up as the great nadir of American life, is characterized as a period of relentless and cloying conformity.
In truth, Senator McCarthy actually did find indisputable evidence that communist sympathizers and Soviet spies had deeply infiltrated the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. McCarthy not only helped to unmask Alger Hiss, the effete and elitist WASP who loved Stalin, but his so-called “Lee List” of some 108 names of communist “security risks” gave decisive evidence that communism played a big role in directing U.S. foreign policy during the Great Depression and World War II.
However, because of the smears of McCarthy that have been taken as dogma, the Left also sees the understudied First Red Scare as simply a dress rehearsal for the 1950s. This is profoundly untrue.
The story of the First Red Scare is that during the late nineteenth century, anarchism and terrorism meant essentially the same thing. Long before the West knew about Wahhabism or Salafist Islam (although both existed in the hearts and minds of the Mahadist rebels of Sudan), America, Europe, and Latin America struggled in their fight against direct action terrorists who used bombs and bullets as their tools. Between 1881 and 1901, anarchists assassinated several heads of state, including Russia’s Tsar Alexander II, French President Marie-Francois Said Carnot, and U.S. President William McKinley. Other anarchist outrages included the 1893 bombing of the Liceau opera house in Barcelona, which killed seven concertgoers, and the 1920 bombing of Wall Street that killed thirty-eight.
That latter crime remains unsolved.
In Europe, the age of anarchist terror reached its apex in the 1890s. Then as now, the heart of European terrorism was Paris. The “City of Lights” had a whole cast of rakishly handsome thugs like Emile Henry and Ravachol who attacked the bourgeoisie by throwing explosives into crowded cafes. Even after most anarchist violence in Europe had petered out, France and Russia remained exceptions. Between 1911 and 1912, an anarchist gang of bank robbers called the Bonnot Gang not only innovated the getaway car, but they were one of the first terrorist organizations to masterfully manipulate the media to their advantage. Even though the Bonnet Gang’s supporters, including the future Comintern scribe Victor Serge, detested civilians, the gang became heroes to many working-class Parisians.
In America, far-Left violence had been common enough during the 19th century, especially given the particularly violent nature of the country’s class war. But it took the particularly nasty summer of 1919 to get the U.S. government to finally do something about the “Red menace.”
A multiplicity of factors made 1919 America’s “Red Summer.” Following the end of World War I, rapid demobilization and a somewhat shoddy transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime one led to a major depression. Although the depression would not take full affect until 1920, by 1919, the signs had already become quite clear. By the very next year, unemployment reached 12 percent and the GNP declined by 17 percent. Because of the sharp decline in demand for coal and textile products, places like Appalachia and New England experienced huge economic instability that lingered on until the late 1920s.
Labor agitation only helped to increase this economic uncertainty. During the war, President Woodrow Wilson gave in to labor union demands in order to head off any potentially destructive wartime strikes. Once the war was over, American businesses returned to their open shop tactics and removed many of the employee benefits unions had won between 1917 and 1918. Throughout the 1920s, the power of labor unions became insignificant, with membership rates hardly ever representing 10 percent of the country’s workforce.
So, in a single summer, radical labor unions like the IWW and others set upon a campaign of massive strikes and protests in order to revive their sinking cause. They found fellow travelers in the growing racial grievance industry, which found a lot of fuel in 1919 thanks to several race riots that played out like small-scale military engagements. In Seattle, the first ever general strike caused widespread fear among middle Americans, who now believed that a Bolshevik-style revolution was possible in the U.S.
The Soviet Union also bears some blame for America’s troubles in 1919. The newly-formed American Communist Party, which was led by the Soviet agent Arthur Adams, received funding directly from Moscow. Ludwig Martens, the founder of the Russian Soviet Government Bureau, also worked inside of the U.S. in order to fund and inspire Bolshevik organizations.
However, two events in particular made many in power realize that the threat of far-Left terrorism had to be defeated immediately. Boston proved to be central to both incidents. In that city, the heavily immigrant neighborhoods of Roxbury and the North End were home to several anarchist and far-Left organizations. Indeed, the infamous Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani made his headquarters in Boston. From here, Galleani’s supporters, including the future leftist martyrs Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, planted bombs all throughout the city.
On New Year’s Day in 1916, a suitcase bomb detonated in the Massachusetts State House. The very next day, another bomb rocked a factory in the Boston suburb of Woburn. At the very end of the year, in an act of revenge against the arrest of anti-war preparedness rioters, Italian anarchists set off a bomb inside of the Salutation Street police station.
The Boston anarchists had tentacles all across the country. Thanks to large Italian populations in New York City and Patterson, New Jersey, anarchists on the East Coast found it easy to coordinate attacks. Furthermore, these seaboard cities allowed U.S.-based anarchists to trade weapons and soldiers back and forth with Italy and other terrorist hotbeds.
By June 1919, Boston’s immigrant agitators began a second campaign of terror. After months of inflammatory flyers that read “We will dynamite you” sprung up all in the city, a series of bomb attacks struck all across the country at the same time. Two detonated in Boston, including one bomb at the home of Representative Leland Powers and one at the home of Judge Albert Hayden. Other bombing victims included Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frederic C. Howe, the Port of New York Commissioner of Immigration, and A. Mitchell Palmer, the Attorney General of the United States. Palmer’s Washington, D.C. home had actually been targeted by anarchist bombs earlier, when in April 1919, over thirty mail bombs exploded in the United States.
All told, between 1914 and 1920, anarchist bombs killed between fifty-seven and sixty-seven people. Most of these bombers came to America as immigrant laborers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As such, the anti-anarchist push conducted by state and federal agencies often involved massive deportation raids. Luigi Galleani himself was deported during the summer of 1919, while, beginning in November 1919, the Palmer Raids began in earnest.
Orchestrated by AG Palmer, federal agents began arresting foreign radicals and disrupting their organizations. The Russian Peoples’ House in New York was raided on November 25, 1919, by federal agents who discovered a “secret chamber” full of “material for 100 bombs.” By the end of that month, more than 600 criminal aliens received their deportation papers. In December 1919, approximately 249 radicals, including the feminist firebrand Emma Goldman, were placed upon the “Soviet Ark,” an old U.S. Army transport ship called the Buford. The ship ultimately docked in Hango, Finland. From there, America’s unwanted aliens wound up in Soviet Russia.
At about the same time as the federal government began making moves to round up and deport foreign-born terrorists, the Boston Police Department went on strike. Angry over stagnant wages and long hours without overtime pay, a majority of the police force (some sources say over seventy percent) walked off the job on September 9, 1919. The strikers wanted the city to recognize their right to unionize. Boston Mayor Andrew Peters, a Democrat from the cushy Jamaica Plain section of Boston, wanted to work with the strikers in order to stop a riot. Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis and Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge disagreed. The Republican Protestants Coolidge and Curtis, both of whom came from old Massachusetts families, were hated by the mostly Irish Catholic Boston police officers. Therefore, the strike, which lasted for three days, took on the flavor of an ethnic struggle between Old and New Americans.
While the strike initially had many supporters in the city, the subsequent riots turned public opinion. In Boston’s Public Square, illegal gambling and fighting resulted in hundreds of arrests, including the arrest of 106 immigrant socialists. South Boston, a working-class Irish enclave, saw the worst violence, with shots fired and businesses destroyed. Many papers at the time reported frightening stories about women being gang-raped by roving bands of thugs. Others mused that the entire riot was being orchestrated by Boston’s anarchists, socialists, and communists. At one point, the normally moderate American Federation of Labor considered calling a general strike in a show of solidarity.
Rather than give into the demands of the strikers, Governor Coolidge called out the State Militia (the original name for the National Guard) and deputized thousands of officers for the Special Police. Harvard students, businessmen, middle class husbands, and World War I veterans all volunteered to bring order back to their city. For their efforts, the U.S. media lionized both the city of Boston and Governor Coolidge as the defenders of “Americanism.” When the riots ended and the striking officers were barred from reentering the ranks, Coolidge’s popularity soared. He eventually entered national politics, while the “Americanism” that Boston produced became a popular slogan during the 1920s. Most notably, members of the American Legion fought IWW anarchist and Communist sympathizers under the banner of “100-percent Americanism.”
Many lessons can be taken from this history. For starters, the violence of 1919 ended thanks to naked force targeting foreign actors who had settled in the U.S. and hard legislation. The restrictive immigration act of 1924, which President Calvin Coolidge signed, had its origins in the crucible of Boston in 1919. Furthermore, the fight for “100-percent Americanism” meant more than just fisticuffs in Seattle or the streets of Paris. It became a social program whereby European immigrants had to assimilate to American norms, whether it be taking mandatory English lessons provided by their employers or taking citizenship tests that did not just rubber stamp every application. The “Red Summer” of 1919 drastically altered America’s relationship with its immigrant class, with justified restrictions remaining in place until the implementation of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965.
And, if nothing else, the First Red Scare decisively proves that America really did have a problem with far-Left subversion and violence.