In the years immediately after World War One, a Red Scare swept the US. Following the Russian Revolution there were fears that the Bolsheviks would seek to undermine America and democracy, leading to various laws being enacted. Jonathan Hennika (site here) continues his Scared America series below (following articles on strained 19thcentury politics here, Chinese immigration here, and anti-German propaganda during World War One here).

A drawing depicting the Steel Strike of 1919. From New York World, October 11, 1919.

A drawing depicting the Steel Strike of 1919. From New York World, October 11, 1919.

In a Forbes Magazine editorial, political science Professor Donald Brand wrote, “Donald Trump’s nativism is a fundamental corruption of the founding principles of the Republican Party. Nativists champion the purported interests of American citizens over those of immigrants, justifying their hostility to immigrants by the use of derogatory stereotypes: Mexicans are rapists; Muslims are terrorists.” The United States is not the only nation affectedby Nativism. Great Britain faced its nativist fight in the referendum regarding the nation’s involvement in the European Union. “Nativism … is prejudice in favor of natives against strangers, which in present-day terms means a policy that will protect and promote the interests of indigenous or established inhabitants over those of immigrants. This usage has recently found favor among Brexiters anxious to distance themselves from accusations of racism and xenophobia” journalist Ian Jack wrote in The Guardian.[i]

In 2018, voters in both nations facedthe consequences made in 2016. Great Britain struggled with the formalization of an exit from the European Union; theUnited States grappled with a President who calls himself a “nationalist.” In the lead up to the midterm elections,President Trump demonized a caravan of Latin Americans seeking asylum in the United States; proposed ending birthright citizenship; and threatened to shut down the border between the United States and Mexico. President Trump'slast-minute anti-immigrant rhetoric did not yield him noticeable benefit in the mid-terms; his party retaineda precarious hold on the United States Senate and lost the majority in the House of Representatives.  It is possible the American electorate understood the tactic as one of fear; it is possible President Trump pushed the issue toofar and crossed a line. Perhaps President Trump is a man out of time, as he said at a campaign rally in Houston, Texas” "You know, they have a word. It sort ofbecame old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist," he continued. "And I say, 'Really, we’re not supposed to use that word?' You know what I am? I'm a nationalist. ... Use that word."[ii]


America at a Crossroads 

The United States at the end of World War One was a nation in turmoil. After running on a re-election campaign touting, he kept America out of the European war; Wilson became a War President in April 1917. The President postulated that if Americans went towar “they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance.”[iii]American culture changed over-night as war fervor gripped the nation: “Every element of American public opinion was mobilized behind `my country, right or wrong,’ dissent was virtually forbidden, democracy at home was drastically curtailed so that it could be made safe abroad, while impressionable children were `educated’ in Hun atrocities, or their time was employed in liberty loan, Red Cross, war saving stamp or YMCA campaigns.”Soon, this Americanism became codified under the Espionage Act of 1917 and further enforced with the Sedition Act of 1918. Taken together, the Alien-Sedition Act is an early 20thcentury version of the post-September11, 2001,the PatriotAct, in that they curbed criticism of America’s involvement in the First World War. “There was clear implication that people who utilized free speech as a means of gaining improper ends had to be restricted.”[iv]

Once the war ended, those encouragedby the implementation of the Alien-Sedition Act wanted similar peacetime laws. Therefore, a new enemy was required. Political leaders pointed towards the radical revolutions sweeping Eastern Europe and Russia. Their tactic in creating this Red Scareincluded propaganda, which proved politically useful to President Wilson and his public relations man, George Creel. Inciters of the Red Scare painted a picture of Eastern European immigrants as non-conformists and declared they and “their Socialist `cousins’ rejected the premises upon which the American system rested, namely that rights and privileges were open in a free society to anyone who was willing to work up patiently within the system. Or if the individual wereincapable of utilizing this technique, he would eventually be taken care of in a spiritof paternalism by the affluent class, as long as he stood with his hat in his hand and patiently waited.” The fear of the socialist and Bolsheviks was so great that “by 1920 thirty-five states had enacted some form of restrictive, precautionary legislation enabling the rapid crackdown on speech that might by its expression produce unlawful actions geared toward stimulating improper political or economic change.”[v]

These politicians cast themselves as defenders of the United States and all things American. A partial list of these defenders includes Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, former First Army General Leonard Wood, Post Master General Albert Burleson, William J. Flynn, director of the Bureau of Investigation and his head of intelligence, J Edgar Hoover.  Both Palmer and Wood were contenders for the Republican nomination in the 1920 election. Flynn, Hoover, and later Flynn’s successor, William Burns, used the Bolshevik threat to enhance the power and prestige of the Bureau of Investigation, as well as their reputations. 


Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and the Red Scare of 1919

The end of the war, which had been an economic boon for the United States, brought with it a depression due in part to the cancellationof no longer needed war orders. As the economy slumped, retail prices climbed more than doubling by 1920, the worse increases occurring in the spring and summer of 1919. The workers who had prospered during the boom years of the warnow complained about low wages. Over 4,000,000 workers participated in 3,600 strikes in 1919. Veterans, returning to civilian life, resulted in high unemployment. Speaking at a public event, Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson indicated that two significantstrikes in Seattle and Butte, Montana were “instituted by the Bolsheviks…for the sole purpose of bringing about a nationwide revolution in the United States.”[vi]

Americansoldiers arereturning to civilian life, having performed their patriotic duty, found their jobs had been taken over by African-Americans and others who had not served in the war. There was a sharp rise in unemployment which increased nativist sentiment. Soldiers returned to a country where Socialists and other radicals were striking and threatening violence against the government and the democracytheyhad defended in the trench warfare of France. The threats of violence became real in April and June 1919. Bombing campaigns targeted various cities and public officials. Speaking of the June 1919 bombings, William Flynn, Director of the Bureau of Investigation, declared that the “bombers were connected with Russian Bolshevism aided by Hun money,” placing the enemy directly at the feet of the old enemy, Germany, and the new enemy, Russia.[vii]

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was one of the public officials targeted by the April bombings. Palmer began a swift retaliation campaign between 1919 and 1920. Palmer’s Justice Department rounded up and deported over six thousand aliens and arrested thousands more upon suspicion of belonging to subversive or radical groups. At this time President Wilson had taken ill (having suffered a stroke), Palmer went unchecked. Of the thousands arrested, most were taken within a warrant and detained for inexcusably long sentences. Thosearrested were later released.[viii]In a precursorof what was to come in the 1950s, Attorney General Palmer presented a report to Congress in November 1919. In his report, Palmer stated that “the Department of Justice discovered upwards of 60,000 of these organized agitators of the Trotsky doctrine in the US… confidential information upon which the government is now sweeping the nation clean of such alien filth…. The sharp tongues of the Revolution’s head were licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes and seeking to replace marriage with libertine laws.”[ix]

As a result of the Red Scare of 1919-1920, New York State disbarred five Assemblymenas socialist.  Being the nation’s top-crusader against the Red menace, Palmer was unable to turn his campaign of fear and red-baiting into higher political office. Unlike President Trump in 2016, Palmer lost his party’s bid for the nomination. However, as an intended consequence of the Red Scare, in 1921 Congress enacted the Quota law. This was the first of many billspassedduring the Roaring Twenties to sharply curtail an influx of immigration to a country founded by immigrants. These immigration and Naturalization Laws increased the United States’ move towards a return to pre-war isolation and harbored disastrous consequences as the fascists began to seize power in the 1920sand 1930s Europe.


What do you think of the post World War One red Scare in the US? Let us know below.

[i]Donald Brand, “How Donald Trump’s Nativism Ruined the GOP,” Forbes, June 26, 2016.; Ian Jack, “We Called it Racism, Now it’s Nativism,” The Guardian, November 12, 2016.


[ii]Brett Samuels, “Trump: `You Know What I Am? I’m a Nationalist,” The Hill, October 28, 2018.

[iii]Ray Stannard Baer, Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters(New York: Scribners and Son, 1927), 506-07.

[iv]Paul L Murphy, “Sources and Nature of Intolerance in the 1920s,” The Journal of American History, 51 (June, 1964), 63.

[v]Ibid,62,  65

[vi]Stanley Coben, “A Study in Nativism: The American Red Scare of 1919-20,” Political Science Quarterly, 79 (March, 1964,)66-8.

[vii]Ibid, 60.

[viii]Ibid, 72-3.

[ix]Paul Johnson, Modern Times: From the Twenties to the Nineties(New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 205.