Historian Beverly Gage explains how fears of Bolshevism sparked the first ‘red scare’ in the United States, resulting in the deportation of hundreds of foreign workers back to Bolshevik Russia.
JOANNE: Lenin believed that American workers would naturally support the cause of global proletariat revolution, but as we heard earlier, the US government viewed the Bolshevik Revolution with considerable alarm.
BEVERLY GAGE: A lot of the worry is that the kinds of things that the Bolsheviks are saying are going to be very, very appealing to workers, not only in the United States, but around the world.
BRIAN: This is a familiar voice to BackStory listeners, historian Beverly Gage. Gage says that by 1919, with the First World War safely behind them, US officials began to view the Bolsheviks as an internal ideological threat.
BEVERLY GAGE: It became clear that the Bolsheviks were there to stay, and it also became clear that the Bolshevik government was quite interested in exporting revolution.
BRIAN: What was going on here in the United States that might lead people to believe that, you know, this really might have international implications?
BEVERLY GAGE: 1919 was, even in the United States, a really dramatic year of social unrest. The year begins with the general strike in Seattle, so that is January of 1919. It’s something that’s really never happened before in American history, that all the working people in the city came together to basically shut down that city for five days.
BRIAN: Wow, yeah.
BEVERLY GAGE: And that was really the opening event of a year that turned out to be one of the most dramatic years in American labor history, so about 25% of the working people in the United States went out on strike. It was a dramatic, dramatic year.
NATHAN: Wilson administration officials looked on these strikes with deep suspicion, and many suspected they were provoked by foreign radicals. That’s certainly how the newly appointed US Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer, viewed the labor unrest. And he made it his mission to crack down on political radicals of every stripe.
BEVERLY GAGE: I think when Palmer came to power as Attorney General in early 1919, he had a basic anti-radicalism, right? He certainly thought the communists, revolutionaries of various stripes were a danger to the country. A couple of pretty significant bombings happened in late April, early May of 1919, and then again in June of 1919, his own house is bombed.
BRIAN: Yeah, well, that will get your attention when your own house is bombed.
BEVERLY GAGE: Exactly. He was at home, and all of a sudden, the front of his house blew up. And one of the bombers died on his front lawn. There are very gruesome descriptions of this bomber having been blown apart and his scalp on Palmer’s roof.
BRIAN: So was this what we would call today a suicide bombing? Or just a bombing gone wrong?
BEVERLY GAGE: It was not supposed to be a suicide bombing, and it seems pretty clear that these bombings were carried out by a group of Italian anarchists, so actually not Bolsheviks at all, and people who have very little to do with anything in the Russian Revolution or the American Communist Party, aside from a kind of general revolutionary sentiment.
BRIAN: I certainly understand Palmer taking his house being bombed personally, but why would he go after Bolsheviks in response to an anarchist bombing?
BEVERLY GAGE: He was the Attorney General, so he’s under lots of pressure, and he starts looking around for what to do. And I think the larger sense is that there is this kind of sweeping revolutionary left that is somehow dangerous. You know, the federal government is not making a lot of distinctions at this point between who’s in the Communist Labor Party versus the Communist Party versus being an anarchist versus being a militant syndicalist. It was sort of all one big stew of militant revolutionary sentiment and action.
BRIAN: Palmer was in a tight spot. It was public pressure to act, yet legally, he couldn’t just round up American workers with radical political beliefs, even if he wanted to. What he could do was deport foreign radicals, who seemed to be stirring up these strikes and bombings. He began to assemble a list of names with help from a zealous young Justice Department official, a guy named J. Edgar Hoover.
BEVERLY GAGE: On November 7, they launched the first big deportation race.
BRIAN: And is that date a coincidence?
BEVERLY GAGE: It is not a coincidence. So they plan that first raid for the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and they specifically target a group that is allied with Russia, a fairly obscure radical group called the Union of Russian Workers. They conduct raids in several cities at once, round up several hundred people, and ultimately deport 249 people out of New York in December of 1919, back to, quote unquote, “Bolshevik Russia” where they belong.
It was a very dramatic deportation. It was widely celebrated. They were sent on this old army transport ship that became dubbed the Soviet Ark, and the people on board were a lot of members of the Union of Russian Workers and also quite significantly the two most famous anarchists in the United States, both of whom had been born in Russia, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. That’s how they’re sent back. And then they’re sent into a country that is really in deep chaos, so we know very little about what happened to most of those people.
BRIAN: Can you take us inside that raid? I mean, what did it look like? What did it feel like?
BEVERLY GAGE: It was pretty chaotic. It was pretty violent. So the federal government is coordinating all of this, and this was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s first significant jobs. But the federal government had pretty limited capacities at that point, so they’re working with local police departments. They’re working with sometimes even deputized volunteers to kind of rush into these meetings, mostly in meeting halls, because everybody’s there, celebrating the Bolshevik Revolution.
BRIAN: And that’s what communists do, right? They meet.
BEVERLY GAGE: Exactly. They meet. They meet in meeting halls. So yes, so they go in. They arrest lots of people. Some people they have warrants for, some people they don’t have warrants for. People who resist are often met with a great deal of violence. There are stories of people being pushed down stairs and clubbed over the head. But it is really quite a mass raid, relatively indiscriminate, quite violent in some cases.
BRIAN: Now there’s a second raid in 1920. Was that more of the same?
BEVERLY GAGE: It once again targets groups associated with Bolshevism, associated with revolutionary Russia. There are a couple of pieces that are really important and different though. So one is that they arrest a lot more people. It’s somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 people, so really quite indiscriminate–
BRIAN: Hold on, hold on. 6,000 and 10,000 people?
BEVERLY GAGE: That’s right. Some, again, some people with specific warrants. In other cases, they just took in everyone who was in the meeting hall, plus their spouses, plus anyone who happened to be at the Russian language class down the hall. And so–
BRIAN: Basically everybody eating borscht.
BEVERLY GAGE: Exactly. If you looked suspicious, you were probably getting arrested. It turns out that a bunch of the people arrested were actually American citizens as well, so that posed some serious problems. And as it turned out, because the scale was different, also I think because people were having a little bit of self-searching about whether this was really how America wanted to be conducting itself, there’s also a pretty big public backlash to this second round of raids. The first ones were hugely popular. The Justice Department assumed bigger and better would be even more popular, but as it turns out, that’s not what happened.
BRIAN: Now the fear of Bolshevism in the United States waxed and waned, I suppose. Most of our listeners would identify the high point of concern about communism as being McCarthyism in the ’50s. Could you sketch for us some of that waxing and waning in the 1920s and some of the reasons for that?
BEVERLY GAGE: Yeah, I think 1919 was a year of intense fear about Bolshevism, and that continued into 1920. And this took all sorts of forms, so we talked about what the federal government did. There are all sorts of other things happening, cultural screeds being written, warnings that the Bolsheviks– this is one of my favorites– that the Bolsheviks wanted to nationalize women, and they were going to become government property to be parceled out.
Russia was this land of free love. Right, so there were all sorts of things, atheism. You get a huge cultural pushback, but the idea that revolution was going to sweep the world, including the United States, that seems a lot less likely by 1920 than it did in 1919. It’s hard for us to remember this, I think, but it seemed like a real possibility.
BRIAN: Well, nonetheless, if you look back at this particular moment, whether it’s 1919 or 1920, what are the lasting legacies of that, Bev?
BEVERLY GAGE: Certainly the idea that it is within the purview of the federal government and of federal intelligence agencies to keep track of people’s opinions, to watch revolutionary movements, to conduct all sorts of legal and deportation proceedings. That premise, that this is something that the federal government does and has a right to do, lasts and is really significantly shaped by that moment.
I think the idea of Bolshevism as a threat and of the American left being somehow tied up with this foreign government, that’s a really significant shift. And then you look at a figure like J. Edgar Hoover, and this is his founding moment. This is the moment that his ideas about communism are shaped.
It’s the moment that he learns how to do all sorts of things, conduct surveillance, conduct raids. And it’s also a moment that he learns what not to do, like maybe mass raids aren’t a great idea, and we should do a lot of this much more secretly. And he, of course, goes on to be the most significant anti-communist in American history.
JOANNE: Beverly Gage is a historian at Yale University and the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded, A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror. She’s completing a biography of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.