100 Years Ago, the First Red Scare Tried to Destroy the Left

The first Red Scare that began a century ago with the Palmer Raids wasn’t rooted in irrational hysteria. The government agencies that carried out the raids had an unambiguous goal: to destroy the radical left in the United States.

Radicals rounded up in New York City in a nighttime raid wait for deportation proceedings at Ellis Island on January 3, 1920. (CORBIS/ Wikimedia Commons)

On November 7, 1919, raiding parties in twelve US cities, composed of federal agents and a motley assortment of local police and American Legionnaires, descended on the offices of the Union of Russian Workers, an organization of leftist immigrants. The raids coincided with the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and rounded up for arrest as many as one thousand people. Over the next two months, the onslaught continued, as leftists of various stripes were targeted all over the country. The largest assault came on January 2, 1920, with raids in some thirty-three cities aimed mainly at Communist groups. But this sustained attack on the Left would persist through the middle of February.

Dubbed the Palmer Raids after the man in charge of them, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, this operation is widely regarded as the definitive event in the nation’s first great Red Scare. Coming only a few months after the Communist movement’s emergence in the United States, and capping off the most tumultuous year of social conflict the country would see all century, the raids were conducted with little concern for constitutional norms. All told, they resulted in the arrest of some ten thousand leftists, hundreds of whom were ultimately deported or criminally prosecuted.

The one-hundredth anniversary of this extraordinary series of events is an apt occasion to reflect on the Red Scare’s significance in US history. But in doing so it is crucial to go beyond the conventional wisdom and consider more carefully what the Red Scare was really about.

Perhaps the most important thing to recognize is that the Red Scare was only partly a “scare” at all — if by that one means, as many scholars and civil libertarians clearly do, an event deeply rooted in “hysteria,” xenophobia, or other irrational motives. The Red Scare was a sprawling enterprise, marked by all these tendencies. But at its center was a clear purpose, one that gave it considerable rationality and focus and sustained it from 1917 — where some historians locate its beginning — well into the 1920s.

That purpose was simple: to destroy the Industrial Workers of the World.

Law, Progressivism, and Antiradical Repression

Founded in 1905, by 1917 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had finally begun to realize its audacious goal of organizing the industrial working class around a program of militancy at the “point of production” and toppling capitalism through a massive general strike. In the West, especially, the union had found considerable success among migratory workers in industries like lumber, agriculture, construction, oil, and maritime shipping. By the spring of 1917, the union was encountering a rising tide of resistance from employers and their allies in government who were increasingly committed to using state power to crush the organization.

At the center of this campaign were the Progressives, whose middle-class visions of a well-ordered capitalist society were incompatible with the IWW’s syndicalist aspiration, its proletarian ethos, and its ambition to destroy the profit system. The union was of course abhorred by most conservatives and capitalists as well. But it was among the Progressives — who were preoccupied with shaping the law and the state into ideal institutions of reform and social control, and who broadly supported World War I as a means of realizing these notions — that a program of decimating the IWW by lawful means really took hold.

Progressives, for instance, were instrumental in the enactment and enforcement of the federal Espionage Act. Adopted in the early summer of 1917, the law was used to imprison about two hundred IWW members, most of them in three mass trials in 1918 and 1919. The prosecutions — initiated by a series of raids in the fall of 1917 — were premised on the claim that the union had conspired to undermine war production, using sabotage and strikes to do the bidding of Imperial Germany. The historical record not only confirms that these charges were utterly false. It also makes clear that the prosecutions were the work of big capitalists in the West, who conspired with the region’s Progressive politicians and the Wilson administration to make criminals of much of the union’s top leadership, including crucial figures like William “Big Bill” Haywood and Ralph Chaplin.

Just as important to the crackdown were state-level “criminal syndicalism” laws. The first of these was enacted, also with strong support from Progressives, in Idaho and Minnesota, in the weeks leading up to the United States’ formal entry into the war. Within two years, some twenty other states, most of them in the West, had also adopted these laws, along with a number of western municipalities like Spokane and Los Angeles.

Although typically treated as a footnote in histories of both the IWW and antiradical repression, criminal syndicalism laws had an enormous effect on the union’s fortunes and the contours of the Red Scare. The first prosecutions occurred in the fall of 1917, just as federal agents were detaining union members for trial under the Espionage Act. The prosecutions escalated rapidly during the latter months of the war through 1919, particularly in the West, where Wobblies, as the union’s members were called, had come to be treated as outlaws. The purported end of the Red Scare late in 1920 did nothing to slow this campaign, which responded only to the rise and fall of IWW activism. In places like Kansas, Oklahoma, and especially California, where the IWW showed great resilience after the Red Scare, union members were rounded up and imprisoned in large numbers as late as 1923 and 1924.

In an extraordinary number of cases, these defendants were arrested and prosecuted by Progressive police and prosecutors. In almost every case, too, they were charged and convicted based entirely on their membership in the IWW. Under the criminal syndicalism laws, all that prosecutors had to do was demonstrate that defendants belonged to or were affiliated with an organization that advocated “industrial” or political change, by means of “sabotage,” “violence,” “terrorism,” or other criminal acts.

In some respects, the IWW made their job easier. It rhetorically celebrated sabotage in earlier years, and union members, like many other workers, occasionally did engage in minor acts of destruction on the job. Even more consequential was the widespread denigration of the IWW on the part of the newspapermen and government officials, who generally did not care to make nuanced judgments about the union’s goals and methods. In this environment, criminal syndicalism trials, like the federal Espionage Act trials, inevitably took shape around a deluge of lurid tales of IWW intrigues and breathless readings of every kind of radical text that could possibly be tied to the union.

When the prosecution of IWW members for criminal syndicalism finally ended in 1925, the union had been broken everywhere. By then, probably 2,500 Wobblies had been arrested and charged, at least informally, with criminal syndicalism. Perhaps half of these defendants were picked up under municipal, misdemeanor statutes, especially in California and Washington State. All of this was on top of the federal cases and tens of thousands of arrests and prosecutions of Wobblies for vagrancy, a crime that was also equated with membership in the union. At least a thousand defendants, many of them organizers, were actually prosecuted for felony criminal syndicalism, and many did serious prison time. In California alone, 131 defendants ended up in San Quentin and Folsom on criminal syndicalism convictions; 30 were imprisoned in Idaho, about 200 in Washington and Oregon, and a handful in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

Clear and Present Dangers

Not everyone charged with criminal syndicalism or violating the Espionage Act was a Wobbly, of course. According to Department of Justice records, 1,055 people were convicted under the act’s antiradical provisions. Socialists, including the famed Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, who was convicted in September 1918 for an antiwar speech he had given earlier that year, were the largest group of defendants. Many pacifists and religious objectors were also convicted.

In fact, during World War I, it was extraordinarily easy to obtain a guilty verdict against nearly anyone who dared criticize the conflict, even unintentionally. Federal prosecutors convicted a man named Robert Goldstein for producing The Spirit of ’76, a motion picture that depicted atrocities committed by the United States’ First World War ally, England — in the Revolutionary War. Still, these prosecutions were not merely an expression of out-of-control militarism and jingoism. They were also instruments of class rule.

A few dozen non-IWW were convicted of criminal syndicalism as well — most of them connected to the Communist Labor Party, which drew strength from regions in the West and, not coincidentally, was fairly close to the IWW. But it was the Wobblies who embodied all that was most threatening about the US left to Progressives and other elites — and association with the union did more to ensure repression than the more familiar fact of being connected to the Bolsheviks.

The enforcement of these laws was rarely based on any real evidence of sabotage, sedition, or even vagrancy. What was common, though, was the introduction of inflammatory and prejudicial evidence; the harassment and even disbarment of lawyers who deigned to represent radical defendants; the prosecution of defense witnesses, sometimes merely for identifying themselves as IWWs; and the routine commission of perjury on the part of government witnesses. Two “professional witnesses” and turncoats, one a Klansman named John Dymond, the other a convicted felon named Elbert Coutts, made their living testifying in dozens of trials, including several federal trials and nearly every prosecution in California. Despite all the chicanery, trial judges almost never reined in these prosecutions.

If anything, appellate judges were worse. Appeals courts overturned convictions in only a small number of cases, and almost always on technical grounds — not because they decided there was something fundamentally wrong with prosecuting people for being radicals. In this, the courts could point to their own doctrine, including the so-called clear and present danger test.

Formulated by Progressive US Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, the test is often celebrated as a great advancement in free speech and freedom of association. It was nothing of the sort. The test allowed judges to make occasional gestures at protecting radicals, but only when the Left was weak and insignificant or otherwise unworthy of prosecution. It was only after this and subsequent red scares had faded away — along with the radical hopes of the IWW and its left successors — that judges stopped regarding these people as the very definition of clear and present dangers.

The Long Shadows of Repression

If the Red Scare confirmed what many Wobblies had always believed about law and the state, it also stirred in them immense courage. Many Wobblies insisted on being prosecuted or welcomed conviction at trial. Many of those who were convicted disdained judges’ offers of dismissal or leniency if they would renounce their beliefs or testify against their fellow workers. And a remarkable number rejected offers of early release from prison, even without any conditions, unless they were fully pardoned or, even more remarkably, until their fellow Wobblies were also freed.

These defendants also led innumerable strikes while in custody, often in defense of their fellow inmates, and usually well aware that their actions would result in their being beaten, chained to the bars, or thrown in prison units with monikers like the “dungeon,” the “slaughterhouse,” or the “dark hole.” Some died while locked up; others went insane.

The Wobblies’ incredible displays of bravery in defense of solidarity and class struggle should perhaps be the primary legacy of this otherwise tragic story. But it is just as important to remember that resolution is not the same as perseverance.

Repression was, of course, not the only reason the IWW collapsed. The union suffered from a festering schism that exploded in open, factional warfare in 1924. The rise of Communism peeled away supporters and fostered dissension. But it is impossible to understand the IWW’s demise without considering what it suffered in the name of the law. The prosecutions disrupted union activities and aggravated conflict within the organization. They cost the IWW hundreds of thousands of dollars. As some historians have suggested, they turned the union into a defense organization, distracting the union from its main business. They cemented the public perception that the union was a criminal enterprise. Most importantly, the vicious crackdown devastated the lives of the people who comprised the IWW, including a great number of leaders and organizers. It wore them down while serving ominous notice to anyone who dared wage this kind of struggle.

Consider the case of Nicholas Steelink. Convicted of criminal syndicalism in California in 1920, Steelink was a model of courage and determination. But he worried constantly while locked up in San Quentin, especially about his wife and what she had to endure. He labored in a soul-killing job in the prison’s jute mill. And he was persecuted in custody for his “IWW-ism.” When Steelink was finally released from prison in March 1922, he found he “was still under surveillance by the government.” Viewing himself as a “veteran soldier,” he remained committed to the cause and, for a time at least, optimistic about resuming the struggle. “I thought that if we had a hundred individuals like myself, we could make an impact.” But it was not to be. “We still had IWW members conducting strikes, but the movement made from 1910 to 1920 had been destroyed. We didn’t have enough workers to carry on.” Reflecting later in life on what prison had done to him, Steelink concluded, “I could not be the same IWW that I was before.”

One hundred years later, it is clear that the Red Scare was neither some grand historical mistake nor the country’s unfortunate detour from a destiny defined by freedom and tolerance. Even less is its anniversary a proper occasion to muse, in the fashion of so many liberals, about how their Progressive forbearers somehow put the country back on this path, even when working to destroy the lives of thousands of people like Nicholas Steelink. Instead, the Red Scare should be remembered, above all, as a calculated and predictable exercise in the defense of capital — one that has proven all too central to the history of the United States.