In the 11th grade I was given an assignment to write an essay explaining the Red Scare of the 1920s.
The Red Scare
Although the red scare from 1919-1920 was extremely brief when compared to it’s 10 year sequel (and even more so brief when compared to it’s 44 year spiritual successor, the Cold War), it’s drawn out build up, the gigantic waves of strikes that occurred during it, and it’s over-the-top responses are all testimonies to it’s serious effect on American culture.
Karl Marx was a German philosopher who was more often than not involved in political theories. He is most popularly known for writing The Communist Manifesto, which is one of the most influential books regarding communism. A section of The Communist Manifesto describes the concept of capitalism turning to socialism, which in turn leads to communism. America, a capitalist country, was home to socialist party that was led by Eugene V. Debs, who had attained quite a name for himself through his efforts. With this concept and this accepted presence of socialism in, at least very minor parts of, America, there was room for fear of a communist uprising. When the Russian Revolution of 1917 occurred, communist took over Russia. If one considers the duo USA and French democratic revolutions, and the rate at which revolutions took place in Central America, it may become a bit more clear to understand why America feared communist revolutions to occur in the country. With this idea in mind, America was kept on toes after the fighting of World War One had ceased.
With the war over, labor was scarcely as necessary as before, and, as is usual in these events, there was a generally negative social and economic backlash. As is typical in such poor conditions, workers took strike (Hernandez). On January 21, 1919, 35,000 Seattle ship workers took strike. On February 6, 1919, they were joined by general workers in the Seattle area and the strike toll went up to 60,000 (Burnett). The strike had been organized by the International Workers of the World, which was partly founded by Eugene Debs. This thin connection was all that was required, and the strike was soon nationally attributed to communist up risers (Burnett). However, the absurdity of this claim is found in the fact that the strikers, not wanting to face such hostilities from the public, backed down on February 10, 1919. The next large strike occurred in Boston, where police officers attempts to unionize had led to claims of communist uprisings. After 19 officers were fired for attempting to get the force into the AFL, the remaining police held a walkout on September 9, 1919 (Hernandez). Once again, the media raved about the strike, largely over exaggerating (Burnett). On September 22, 1919, 275,000 steel workers walked out, and this number soon increased to 365,000, nationwide (Burnett). On November 1, 1919, 400,000 coal miners walked out of the mines (Hernandez). In the midst of the strikes, a homemade bomb was found on April 28. This was the first of up to at least 48 mail bombs, all of which were attributed as being communist created, especially considering that they were addressed to large political and economic figures.
On May 18, 1919, the American Legion was founded with the goal of fighting communism, and by the end of the year had over 1,000,000 members (Burnett). In November of 1919, Attorney General Palmer started the Palmer Raids, in which people suspected of being communist would be arrested unwarranted. In November several hundred were arrested, in January over 4,000 were arrested, and many of those arrested were deported (Hernandez). Thirty-two states made it illegal to hang a red communist flag (Burnett).
The red scare would eventually come to a stand-still in 1920, particularly after May Day when Palmer’s predictions of a final uprising were definitely disproved (Hernandez). Although the concept of a red scare certainly didn’t disappear permanently, as evidenced by battles in modern American politics, it was not a state of hysteria as it was for that year. Ultimately fueled by elements already present in America and encouraged by an, at that time, isolated incident of communist uprising, the red scare was mistakenly driven by strikes that had nothing to do with communism, and the government, particularly Attorney General Palmer, did nothing short of blowing the event largely out of proportion. Clearly over exaggerated, but nonetheless serious, the red scare of 1919-1920 had a clear affect on Americans.
Burnett, Paul. “The Red Scare.”UMKC School of Law. Web. 25 Mar. 2011.
Hernández, Bonar L. “The Red Scare: Liberal and Socialist Patterns of Reaction, 1919-1920 by Bonar Ludwig Hernández.”SFSU WWW Home Page Is Not on This Server. Web. 25 Mar. 2011. <http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~epf/2000/hernandez.html>.