We’ve Been Through This Movie Before: The 82nd Anniversary of the Palmer Raids

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by S. Leon Felkins

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. ~ A Mitchell Palmer, “The Case Against the ‘Reds'” Forum (1920), 63:173-185. This holiday season, the citizens of the US have reason to reflect on the political directions being employed to “fight terrorism” under the direction of  Attorney General John Ashcroft. Well it turns out, “we have been through this movie before”, as another Attorney General, Mr. Alexander Mitchell Palmer, exposed the nation to a quite similar experience some 82 years ago. The story of this episode, commonly referred to as “The Red Scare”, is worthy of review as there are many striking parallels to the situation today, from terrorist attacks, nationwide sweeps of suspects, to radical departures from the Constitution.

December 21, 2001,  marked  the 82nd Anniversary of the departure of Emma Goldman on her extended “Cruise Ship” vacations sponsored by the U.S. Government and specifically authorized by Mr. Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Attorney General. Ms Goldman was accompanied by 248 other winners of this free cruise to Russia, a number big enough for a party, but far short of the nearly 3,000 that Palmer thought would enjoy the trip. Nevertheless, within the next few weeks, thousands of “suspects” were taken into custody with little or no due process and a few hundred more were deported.

While much of this shameful activity by our government can be explained and somewhat justified by the hysteria of the citizens, who supported such violent, unconstitutional, methods probably in even greater percentages than the overwhelming percentages that support President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft now, then as now, there were some actual “terrorist” acts.

Terrorist Acts

Interestingly, the terrorist acts of 1919 were directed toward politicians and the financial leaders and symbols of that time just as the attacks of  2001 were. While the terrorists in 1919 had not discovered anthrax, they were able to make use of mail bombs as the excerpt from “The Red Scare In Nevada, 1919-1920″ details: More dramatic events plagued American society. In April 1919 a bomb was discovered in Mayor Hanson’s mail. The next day a bomb addressed to Senator Thomas A. Hardwick blew off the hands of a domestic servant in Atlanta. A mail clerk in New York discovered sixteen parcels containing “infernal machines” addressed to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and other government officials and industrialists. All together thirty-six packages turned up. A few weeks later several bombs exploded, one in front of Attorney General Palmer’s Washington home, blowing a man, presumably the bomber, to pieces. Although the bombings were largely the work of criminal fanatics, actions like the veteran’s raid on the New York Call socialist newspaper office, the Cleveland May Day Riot, and the Centralia Washington Massacre, were planned by overzealous patriots, paranoid dissidents, or overreacting citizens. One of the most horrendous terrorist acts occurred later on September 16, 1920,  the bombing of the House of Morgan on Wall Street, where 33 people were killed and 400 were injured.

The interplay between public opinion, congressional action, and the courts in dealing with this unrest and possibly exacerbating it was evident then as it is now.

Legislative Abuse and Judicial Betrayal

Just as Ashcroft was able to get repressive legislation through an intimidated and cowardly Congress right after the September, 2001, attacks and in response to public hysteria, the Executive branch of the government right after World War I was also able to get very repressive legislation passed, most of which was later repealed by cooler heads and/or overturned by the courts. Freedom of speech in particular was severely repressed, much more then than today.

Similar to the public hysteria towards Middle Easterners witnessed recently, there was great hysteria then towards certain “aliens”. In a land in which everyone except the Native Americans could only trace back citizenship by birth, at best, a few generations, this logic seems especially fragile. The aforementioned Ms Goldman was in fact born in what is now Lithuania but was then Russia, who became a US citizen through marriage, later felt the bite of this logic.

In support of the Justice Department’s schemes to deport “undesirables”, Congress attempted, through a series of laws, to define away the rights of recent immigrants, particularly if those immigrants were naive enough to think they had freedom of speech as promised by the Bill of Rights. The three major acts are summarized here:

The Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) outlawed efforts to obstruct military recruiting, write or publish disloyal information, express contempt for the government's actions or in any way disrupt or speak publicly against the war. Under the 1918 Alien Act, the government could deport immigrants solely on political whim, if such people dared to question the rise of big business, encouraged the use of strikes, or spoke out against the war. From “In the Land of Liberty, Freedom Is Conditional” [an excellent and highly recommended reference] Of course, we all know that when Congress gets out of line and passes unconstitutional legislation, the U.S. Supreme Court will protect us and squash such legislation in short order. Don’t count on it, friend – history and current events tell us that, in fact, the Supreme will go along with about anything if there is strong public support no matter how unethical and/or unconstitutional it may be. The best example of this spinelessness of the courts in this particular period of US history is given by the Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919) case. Schenck was affirmed to be guilty of “conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act” because he passed out pamphlets that were in opposition of the war. The complete opinion is online at Findlaw.

Actions by the Justice Department

The Justice Department was quick to make use of these abusive laws and court decisions. Another quote from “In the Land of Liberty, Freedom Is Conditional” : The Socialist Party, which at the time had close to 100,000 members, also fell victim to these new laws. In May 1917 the party's office in Indianapolis was raided. By September the federal government had rounded up most of the leaders and brought them to trial in February 1918. Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs was also arrested and after his trial was sentenced to ten years in jail. The following year, the Supreme Court ruled that the speech Debs gave supporting socialism and opposing military recruitment was not protected by the First Amendment. . . . In 1919 President Wilson authorized Attorney General Palmer to arrest and deport thousands of foreign-born radicals. On one notorious night that December, 249 resident aliens, including anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, were arrested and ultimately deported to the Soviet Union. Just as the public and the victims know little about who are detained and for what reason now, so it was in 1919-1920. In an essay written by A.G. Palmer, the policy toward the arrests is expressed in tones we are so familiar with today; “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….” (emphasis added. Quoted from The Case Against the “Reds”)

One man, Herbert Warner, gets six months in jail for uttering, “There is what I consider one of the brainiest men in the world,” while pointing to a picture of Lenin. (See “The Most Brainiest Man” for details)

And just like today, we have the hysteria about our flag by the public (but not a hoot about the Constitution!). One story told in the article, “Freedom of Opinion?”, goes like this: Chicago, May 6 – Disrespect for the American flag and a show of resentment toward the thousands who participated in a victory loan pageant here tonight may cost George Goddard his life. He was shot down by a sailor of the United States Navy when he did not stand and remove his hat while the band was playing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Eventually the public, the Congress and the Courts began to get a little embarrassed by these abuses and the trashing of the Bill of Rights. Everyone, that is, but Mr. Palmer. This wind-down of hysteria and abuse is described in the essay,  The Red Scare: The Red Scare finally came to an end after a series of actions by high government officials, especially in the Justice Department itself, which showed dissent from Palmer’s philosophy. Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post began to reject most of the cases brought before him concerning the immigrants. Even the Secretary of Labor himself, William B. Wilson turned against Palmer. Out of 6,000 warrants issued during the raids, less than 1,000 deportations resulted. Even with all this opposition to his actions, Palmer still aspired to the office of the Presidency. He was never nominated. By 1920, the Red Scare was dying down, and by 1921 it was virtually dead. Palmer’s outstanding achievements in documenting, locating and harassing tens of thousands of “suspects”, in a time long before computers and electronic databases were invented, were made possible by the talent and efforts of his number one assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, of which more discussion will follow. An online essay, “America responds to Terrorism: The Palmer ‘Red Raids’  summarizes these accomplishments: Even though deportation matters were not normally the concern of the Department of Justice, Attorney General Palmer soon created an alliance with officials in the Bureau of Immigration to find and deport alien “reds.” J. Edgar Hoover, Palmer’s chief investigating officer, ordered Justice Department agents to go undercover and join suspected radical organizations.

By December 1919, Palmer, Hoover, and their allies in the Bureau of Immigration had decided to arrest alien members of the Communist Party and other foreign radicals. Hoover issued the instructions to Department of Justice agents which called for the arrests to take place during a series of raids planned for the evening of January 2, 1920.

The Palmer “Red Raids” took place on schedule in more than 30 cities, located mainly in eastern states. Between six and ten thousand people were arrested. In many cases, arrest warrants had not been issued until after individuals found themselves in custody. Moreover, Department of Justice agents rarely carried search warrants during the raids. Nevertheless, the raiders seized political literature, membership cards and lists, organization records, and other papers. Very little evidence of revolutionary or criminal activity actually turned up. Days after the raids, thousands of aliens were still being held without formal charge, without bail, without the assistance of a lawyer and in many cases, without family or friends knowing where they were.

Does that sound familiar? Has Ashcroft been studying Palmer’s notes? If so then he needs to also take note that Palmer did not make it to the Oval office and while he got a lot of support from the public for awhile, he is not now very highly regarded. In fact, just the opposite.

At this point, it seems worthwhile to take a side trip to learn more about this talented assistant of Mr. Palmer, J. Edgar Hoover.

J. Edgar Hoover and the Birth of the FBI

The  “General Intelligence Division (GID)”, which later became the FBI, was established in August of 1919 by Attorney General Palmer. The purpose of the GID was to gather information on “radicals”. Mr. J. Edgar Hoover was put in charge.

These facts are worthy of some elaboration and analysis. First, the FBI was formed out of the government’s perceived need for the control of political dissent. Its birth was inspired by political control, not criminal prosecution. Second, the person in charge, Mr. Hoover, was particularly adept at gathering political information on the “suspects”. In view of this, it should be no surprise that the FBI has always had more of hankering for political intrigue and investigations than criminal pursuits.

From the very beginning, the actions of the FBI were extremely harsh and cruel. The ship that I jokingly referred to above that Emma Goldman and 248 other anarchists were shipped to Russia on was crowded, filthy and cold. David B. Kopel and  Joseph Olson in the 1996 article, “PREVENTING A REIGN OF TERROR: CIVIL LIBERTIES IMPLICATIONS OF TERRORISM LEGISLATION”, relates the following on the actions of Palmer and Hoover: In August 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer established the predecessor of the FBI, the “General Intelligence Division,” of the Department of Justice. The Division was headed by J. Edgar Hoover, and charged with gathering information on radicals. Over the next year, six thousand people were seized in the “Palmer Raids,” many of them innocent of any crime, and unconnected to radical politics. Many suspects were held in filthy jails and beaten into false confessions. Even people who came to visit these victims in jail were arrested, on the theory of guilt by association. Congress enthusiastically funded these efforts to control and eliminate “radicals” just as it has today to support the fight on terrorism. The following description of activities from “INTELLECT SURVEILLED then sounds strikingly familiar to recent events: In June, responding to Garvan’s [initial head of GID] sensationalistic claim that a new wave of bombings and terrorist acts would begin on July 4th, Congress authorized an additional half million dollars for the “Radical Division” above and beyond its initial appropriation of 1.5 million dollars. In December of that same year Congress authorized yet another million dollars for “running down reds” and prosecuting them. 

Garvan brought in J. Edgar Hoover, then 24, to head the GID. While at the Library of Congress, Hoover had compiled a name index of 150,000 radicals, their organizations and publications. At the GID he expanded the index to 450,000 names, thereby increasing the prestige of his new Division. Next he added short bios of identified radicals, which by February 1920 numbered 70,000. He appended press clippings and reports of their speeches and publications for ready reference.

This is an incredible technical achievement. There’s no mention of the size of staff Hoover may have had but today, I doubt that even with massive computers and a staff of thousands, this could be accomplished in such a short time. Truly an inspired civil servant. Some ideas on how this was accomplished are further described: One of Palmer’s early innovations was to create a corps of citizen informers, an idea first proposed by Chicago advertising executive Albert Briggs. By the time the United States entered World War I, more than fifty such groups – typically comprised of “leading citizens” – were watching and reporting on their fellow citizens all across the country. In his annual report for 1917, Palmer remarked that: the American Protective League has proven to be invaluable and constitutes a most important auxiliary and reserve force for the Bureau of Investigation. Its membership, which is carefully guarded, included leading men in various localities who have volunteered their services for the purpose of being on the lookout for and reporting to this department information of value to the Government, and for the further purpose of endeavoring to secure information regarding any matters about which it may be requested to make inquiry. What had begun as the “Slacker Raids” targeting military draft evaders and conscientious objectors soon became a systematic campaign to manipulate public fear of “Reds.” In the early stages of what came to be known as the “Palmer Raids,” entire libraries were seized, “almost by the bale” the Attorney General boasted. Of these confiscated materials, 625 newspapers and periodicals were filed and indexed. Two hundred and fifty-one were classified as “ultra-radical.” Three hundred and twenty-five in 25 foreign languages were translated by a corps of 40 multi-lingual translators. Special project studies were made of the Negro press and IWW publications. (from: “INTELLECT SURVEILLED: THORSTEIN VEBLEN AND THE ORGANS OF STATE SECURITY”)

Well, well, there is nothing new under the sun; the FBI has relied upon citizens to snitch on each other from the very beginning. The only difference I can see of the way it was done then compared to today is that snitches then were volunteers and today they are well paid. That’s progress I suppose.

Hoover’s incredible talents became more evident with time. Even the current trend to interference between lawyers and their clients (such things as wire tapping conversations and seizure of legal fees, etc.) was anticipated by Hoover. But first you need the names of the lawyers. On the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, November 7, 1919, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested in twenty-three different cities. Many of those arrested, of course, hired lawyers. Hoover then added the names of all these hundreds of lawyers to his ever growing card indexed database.

To get the public on his side, Mr. Hoover decided he needed to arrest someone that was high profile and would likely stir the passions of the public for “quick justice”. He selected: Emma Goldman, as he had been particularly upset by her views on birth control, free love and religion. Goldman had also been imprisoned for two years for opposing America’s involvement in the First World War. This was a subject that Hoover felt very strongly about, even though it was never willing to discuss how he had managed to avoid being drafted.

Hoover knew it would be a difficult task having Goldman deported. She had been living in the United States for thirty-four years and both her father and husband were both citizens of the United States. In court Hoover argued that Goldman’s speeches had inspired Leon Czolgosz to assassinate President William McKinley. Hoover won his case and Goldman, along with 248 other people, were deported to Russia. (From   “John Edgar Hoover”)

Other related incidents

Even well known politicians and celebrities were not safe from possible harassment and imprisonment by the hyper investigative agencies testing their strength on the public right after World War I. A couple of examples is given by the article, The Red Scare In Nevada, 1919-1920: In mid-1918 federal courts sentenced three-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs and U.S. Senatorial candidate Victor L. Berger to ten and twenty years imprisonment respectively. Although Debs and Berger had never posed a serious threat to the country’s ability to wage war, they had violated American society’s notions of patriotism, nationalism and 100% Americanism. Not until 1921, after conservatives so thoroughly cowed the spirit of radicalism in America, were they freed from governmental harassment: Debs by a Presidential pardon from Republican Warren G. Harding and Berger by Supreme Court edict.

Conclusion

The hysteria of the public – a hysteria fed by the media and the politicians – provided the basis and the environment that allowed extensive abuse by the policing agencies of our government right after World War I. The interaction between the oppressed individuals, the congress and the Justice Department tended to feed upon itself and exacerbated the situation. The acts of terrorism of 1920 may have never occurred had there been a more sane approach to the initial fears created by the war.

I again quote from the article, The Red Scare In Nevada, 1919-1920:  

According to [Constantine M. Panunzio, in a study of these cases] the majority of those deported were hard working Russian and Ukrainian immigrants with families who had lived in the United States from six to ten years. Only a small minority of those exiled could be called “dangerous radicals.”

Gradually, opposition to these practices emerged. Twenty-two New York clergymen denounced the “deportation delirium,” while one U.S. district attorney resigned in protest. Acting Labor Secretary Louis F. Post held up these proceedings, and released most of the six thousand prisoners against Attorney General Palmer’s wishes. Palmer retaliated by calling Post a “Bolshevik.” Mounting opposition and legal obstacles caused the movement to quickly subside, but only after 556 had been deported.

One should note that neither the public nor the courts were responsible for correcting this drift into totalitarianism No, responsible citizens in positions of leadership raised enough hell to get the country back on track – at least for awhile.

The similarities that exist today – the “raids” of Attorney General Ashcroft, the detainment of thousands of “aliens”, the quickly passed “terrorist” acts that severely infringe our civil liberties, the unquestioning support by the public – to that which happened in 1919-1920 are remarkable. However, the people of that time were fortunate in that the hysteria quickly passed and the enforcement of the bad legislation subsided.

Today, we may not be so lucky. Due to the massive financial interest involved and the enormous growth in government power, what we lose today we may have a tough time ever getting back.

Mr. Felkins [send him mail] is a retired former military officer, college professor, and computer systems engineer. He is now an activist in the fight for the reform of the forfeiture laws now plaguing the US and the world. He is presently serving as the Executive Director of F.E.A.R., the forfeiture reform group. In addition, he maintains a web page on Political Philosophy, “A Rational Life” and another on the history of politics, “The Political Almanac.”

© 2001 LewRockwell.com

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