The Palmer Raids

The Palmer Raids2018-11-28T09:55:20+00:00

The Palmer Raids for APUSH

About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.

In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.

The Palmer Raids

The Palmers Raids were a series of government actions against suspected radicals, anarchists, and communists commenced in 1919 by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.  The raids rounded up more than 10,000 suspects, deported more than 600 people, but eventually fizzled when Palmer’s dire prediction of a communist uprising to overthrow the U.S. government failed to materialize on May 1, 1920.

The Palmers Raids were a series of government actions against suspected radicals, anarchists, and communists commenced in 1919 by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.

The raids ignored the constitutional safeguards guaranteed citizens by the Constitution and jailed many people innocent of any crime or intent.  The raids were fueled by a number of factors that both preceded and followed World War I as well as by Palmer’s desire to be the Democratic candidate for president in 1920.

Nativist and New Immigrants- A Beginning

Prior to World War I, nativist sentiment in the United States rose as a result of the influx of “new” immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe after 1890.  Many of these immigrants came from autocratic dictatorships where peaceful protest was nearly impossible.  Among these immigrants were many who sought to improve life for average people by replacing capitalistic economic systems with socialism or communism.  Many in the United States saw this a threat to American institutions and sought immigration restriction.  Palmer was able to play on these fears of anarchy in April of 1919 when 38 bombs were discovered being mailed to prominent American citizens.   In part, Palmer used the fear of anarchy associated with the influx of immigrants to commence the first “Red Scare.”

Among the immigrants, during the 1890s and 1900s, were many who sought to improve life for average people by replacing capitalistic economic systems with socialism or communism. Many in the United States saw this a threat to American institutions and sought immigration restriction.

As well, during World War I the U.S. government established the Committee on Public Information (also known as the Creel Committee after its head, George Creel).  CPI was a major propaganda arm of the U.S. government designed to win and sustain support for the American war effort.

As part of their effort in carrying out that charge, the Creel Committee encouraged Americans to be suspicious of aliens and people who advocated change and turn their names in to the Department of Justice. The CPI created extralegal vigilance organizations like the American Protective League, Boy Spies of America, and the Sedition Slammers, to name a few.  These organizations threatened union members, broke up strikes, and encourage neighbors to spy on neighbors, creating an atmosphere of suspicion that, in all likelihood, did not end with the World War I armistice. Thus, Palmer was able to play off of these suspicions and transfer hatred of Germans to hatred of radicals during the Red Scare.

Palmer was able to play off of these suspicions and transfer hatred of Germans to hatred of radicals during the Red Scare.

And Then the Labor Unions

Coupled with this was the association of immigrants with labor unions.  Following World War I, a series of violent strikes and race riots spread across the country as workers tried to stretch wages to meet the rising cost of living.  The American public, convinced by industrialist propaganda that all labor unions were radical, reacted negatively to a series of highly publicized strikes in 1919, including the Seattle General Strike, the steel strike, and the Boston Police Strike.

Taking a page from the Committee on Public Information’s successful strategy, propaganda from the National Association of Manufacturers warned the American public that unions and their demands were fueled by foreign and radical interests.  American industrialists and the government, shaken by the Russian Revolution of 1917, sought to equate union action with the beginning of a worldwide revolution of the proletariat and turned on all advocates of social change, leading to widespread repression in the 1919-20 Red Scare.

Taking a page from the Committee on Public Information’s successful strategy, propaganda from the National Association of Manufacturers warned the American public that unions and their demands were fueled by foreign and radical interests.

Mitchell Palmer himself said that Bolshevism “further embraces the various organizations in this country of men and women obsessed with discontent…” including “the most radical socialists, the misguided anarchists, the agitators who oppose the limitations of unionism, the moral perverts and the hysterical neurasthenic women who abound in communism.”

And Black Americans Are Caught Up To

African-Americans were sometimes caught up in the Red Scare mentality. During the “Great Migration” hundreds of thousands of blacks move from the South to northern urban centers enticed by jobs opportunities available during the war only to find that racial discrimination followed them.

A combination of factors following the war led to bloody racial confrontations and significantly increased lynching of African-Americans.  White soldiers returning from the war replaced black workers who had been actively encouraged to move north by industrialists during the war. African-American soldiers returning from the war found racial discrimination they had not been subjected to in Europe.

As a result, African-Americans, encouraged by the more militant National Association of Advancement for Colored People, agitated for change, demanding equal rights.  In response, one southern Congressman warned that the “Reds” were inciting a black uprising in the South, the Ku Klux Klan gained over 1000,000 members, and more then twenty-five race riots resulted in hundreds of deaths.

And Remember, The Russians Were Revolting

Against this domestic backdrop was the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II in Russia in 1917 and the subsequent establishment of communism in the Soviet Union. In 1919 Soviet leaders organized the Third International designed to foster worldwide communist revolution. Fueled by post-war disorientation, communists made significant gains in Eastern Europe in 1919.  In the United States threats of a communist takeover, though highly publicized, were feeble at best.

The American Socialist Party had divided into three faction the combined membership of which accounted for less than one-half of one-percent of the population of the United States.  In April of 1919 thirty-eight bombs were sent to prominent Americans, all but one intercepted by the Post Office.

In June there were seven additional bombings carried out by what one historian described as “lunatic radicals”, but not part of any overall communist plot. Nevertheless, a degree of hysteria swept the country and Americas came to see “Red” in all they were afraid of or disliked.

Whatever his motives Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, on his own authority, ordered a series of raids on suspected radicals.

Whatever his motives (many say the Palmer Raids were designed to bolster his bid for the presidency in 1920) Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, on his own authority, ordered a series of raids on suspected radicals.  The raids began in November off 1919 and ultimately arrested and jailed as many as 10,000 individuals, many of whom were guilty of no crime or radical association.

Two-hundred and forty-nine were deported to Russia on the U.S. S. Buford, dubbed “the Soviet Ark”, though most of those deported were neither communists or criminals.  Palmer’s plan was to deport many more individuals (as many as 1600) but Secretary of Labor Louis Postintervened and cancelled the orders, recognizing that the constitutional rights of those scheduled for deportation had been violated.

Palmer made dire prediction that a revolutionary outbreak of violence would was scheduled for May 1, 1920, leading cities like New York to mobilize their entire police force and Boston to mount machine guns on police cars.  Public support for Palmer fizzled when those predicted plots failed to materialize, and he quickly became the subject of ridicule.

Public support for Palmer fizzled when those predicted plots failed to materialize, and he quickly became the subject of ridicule.

Conclusion

The failure to respect constitutional rights and civil liberties, of course, did not die with the first “Red Scare.”  Discriminatory immigration restriction accelerated during the 1920s with the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924. Labor unions fared poorly in improving the condition of workers and discrimination against African-Americans continued unabated as the United States returned to the “normalcy” of the 1920s. More importantly, the lessons of how mass hysteria erodes constitutional rights civil liberties seemed lost on the American people by the time of the McCarthy hearings rolled around during the “Second Red Scare” the 1950s.

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