A New Decade, Same Xenophobia-1920 Palmer Raids

A century ago a new decade was about to dawn on New Years’ Eve 1920.

As tipsy Americans toasted one another with their last legal bottle of Champagne before Prohibition would go into effect at the stroke of midnight, Attorney General A. Mitchel Palmer was gleefully celebrating in his own manner, gearing up his loyal minions for one of the largest raids against immigrants, and political radicals the country had ever seen. Forever known as The Palmer Raids, our  Constitution faced a major test.

The first roar of the roaring 20’s was pretty ugly.

 Happy New Year

Palmer Raids

At daybreak of the New Year and new decade, Lady Liberty must have blinked back her tears, as the first raids against the huddled masses began in Chicago.

Fueled by fear and paranoia generated by revolutions overseas and social unrest at home, police in Chicago swooped down on union halls, bookstores stocking radical literature and other gathering places of suspected political dissenters and labor activists arresting around 150 Chicagoans thought to be Communists, Socialists, anarchists and aliens on New Year’s day 1920.


NY Times Headline Palmer Raids Jan 1920

The following day Friday, Jan 2,  the Feds got into the act when massive nationwide raids ordered by Palmer saw thousands of people arrested,  beaten, held without warrants merely upon suspicion.

In one brutal day in 33  American cities, 3,000 people, mostly of Italian, Eastern European and Jewish descent were dragged into the xenophobic net, detained on suspicion of sympathizing with communists, anarchists, and simply being anti-American.

The madness that was the “Red Scare” of 1919-1920 reached its apex that January.

It was a period when morbid fears of the “other,” caused many to view immigrants of certain ethnicities as subversives targeting the American way of life, leading government officials to put civil liberties on hold. Political prisoners went behind bars by the thousands. Newspapers were shut down for publishing items deemed to be critical of the Wilson Administration. College professors were expelled for teaching “subversive” doctrines out of the standard textbooks they had always used.

Police and Department of Justice officials broke into citizen’s homes for no other reason than those who lived there were foreign-born and held unpopular views like opposing our involvement in the recently ended Great War and demanding better wages and working conditions.

Today as anti-immigration sentiment is at a high pitch and the Constitution is being torn to shreds it’s worthwhile to take a look back at a time exactly 100 years ago when fueled by fears, immigrants’ lives were threatened. The past feels very present

The Red Scare – A Real Witchhunt

political cartoon Palmer Raids

A century before Trump and his ICE raids, our government rounded up thousands of immigrants, seriously testing the Constitution.

What became known as the “First Red Scare” was a period of national panic and paranoia that used a defense of Good old Americanism” to identify and punish those accused of being anarchists, often immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

The Sedition Act of 1918, which was an expansion of the 1917 Espionage Act (instituted during WWI), was a direct result of the paranoia. Targeting those who criticized the government, the Sedition Act set into motion an effort to monitor radicals, especially labor union leaders, with the threat of deportation looming over them.


palmer raids

Palmer Raids confiscated all material deemed to be subversive

When Johnny came marching home from The Great War in which he fought to make the world safe for democracy, he ironically would find his own country’s democratic principles sorely lacking.

The Great War had ended in 1918 but xenophobia didn’t.

A wave of hysteria swept over the US in the aftermath of WWI. Both the war and the 1917 Russian Revolution inflamed American fears of the spread of radicalism and immigration from Europe. America was on high alert, fearing Communist revolutionaries on their own shores.

It wasn’t long before foreign communists and anarchists ( typically Italians, Russians, and Jews ) supplanted the German Hun as perceived threats to the peace and security of the US.


These leftist thinking radicals were demanding fair wages, shorter workdays and a 40-hour workweek. After the Bolshevik Revolution, any anti-capitalism talk automatically meant support for a communist state. Conflating unionists with Communists fears that a similar overthrow of government could happen here took root. Employers worried that such a conspiracy would become a reality as more than 3,600 worker strikes took place in 1919. Demonstrations erupted in various cities and were often fueled not so much by political ideology but economics.

In Attorney General Palmer’s view, workers strikes were not just considered labor action but anti-American immigrant rebellions. Labor organizers were thought to be the most dangerous. If they were successful in unionizing workers, capitalism would come crashing down in a dramatic economic collapse.

Fourteen states made it a crime to belong to a radical organization in 1918.

State and local governments purged radicals from public service and cracked down on left-wing labor organizing. Congress authorized the deportation of aliens simply on the grounds that they belonged to an organization that advocated revolt or sabotage.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer used the Department of Justice to conduct raids to round up anarchists, communists, and other political radicals and then deport them back to Russia when possible.

Those suspected of spreading anti-capitalist views underwent covert surveillance. Telephones were tapped and letters were intercepted and read. Officers with the Department of Justice went undercover and hung out in ethnic saloons hoping to hear plans about bombing government offices, organizing unions, or planning mass protests.

Categorized as anarchists and “dangerous” people were university professors that taught about communism and assigned Karl Marx’s Das Capital. Organizations that formed with the sole purpose of fighting for anti-lynching laws or to assist southern blacks in their migration to cities like St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit were targets. Women who opened settlement houses in ethnic neighborhoods for the purpose of assisting immigrants in their acclimation to America were also marked.

Essentially, anyone who was not a part of the status quo could be considered a violent and dangerous anarchist and needed to be deported.

Spring Time For Palmer 1919 Bombs

A series of mail bombs sent in the spring of 1919 to well-known capitalists like JD Rockefeller and  JP Morgan, along with government officials such as Attorney General Palmer confirmed the suspicion that immigrants were dangerous after an investigation identified the Palmer bomber as an Italian immigrant from Philadelphia.

Along with Uncle Sam, independent organizations like the National Security League and American Defense Society helped promote the message that foreign radicalism was being brought to the US by hordes of unassimilated foreigners.

Palmer now undertook the most visible campaign against radical individuals.

After the bombings, the raids began. Conducted at all hours of the day and night, agents grabbed people off the street, out of bed and threw them in jail.

November 1919

By the fall of 1919 strikes affecting the steel coal and Railroad, industries exacerbated anti-immigrant fervor.

Attorney General Palmer told the U.S. House Appropriations Committee that he and his office would be able to rid the country of all anarchists in one clean swoop if his budget was dramatically increased. Urging deportation of foreign radicals, a special Division of the Bureau of Investigation – the precursor to the FBI was set up with gathering all the information on leftist radicals and a young 24-year old lawyer J. Edgar Hoover was put in charge.


Raid of the IWW headquarters

Raid of the IWW headquarters in N.Y. Anyone who was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World Union was, particularly at risk.

On the second anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, November 7, 1919, a series of violent and well-publicized raids happened in 12 cities against the Union of Russian Workers. Palmer, the Department of Justice, J. Edgar Hoover, and local police officers cast a wide net and began arresting over 1,000 immigrants mainly Russians. Some were just passers-by, people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others were American citizens that had no ties to Russia. Still others were teachers working in the same space as those who were targeted.

Dragged and shoved into patrol wagons and taken into custody, agents searched among the detainees for members of the Union of Russian Workers. The questioning that followed revealed that only 39 of the people arrested had anything to do with the union.

Vintage Political cartoon Bolshevism control of world

After the Bolshevic Revolution, the US government was convinced radical communists were going to overthrow the government.

Newspapers reported extensively on the Palmer Raids in a favorable light. The sentiment spreading over the country was to prevent a Russian-type revolution at all costs. If that meant arresting and deporting people without probable cause or an arrest warrant, most people were okay with that.

Publications with a leftist view condemned the ongoing raids stating that they were illegal and in direct violation of the very ideals for which Americans stood.

Palmer Raids Continue

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer used the Department of Justice to conduct raids to round up anarchists, communists, and other political radicals and then deport them when possible.

Raids across the United States continued, with police pulling suspects out of their apartments, often without arrest warrants. Abuses of arrestees were routine: In Detroit, nearly 1,000 men were detained and starved for almost a week in a small area without windows on the top floor of the federal building. In Hartford, Connecticut, 100 men were held for five months, during which time they weren’t allowed lawyers and were not informed of the charges.

One thousand people were arrested in 11 cities. Seventy-five percent of the arrestees were released.

Many of the alleged Communist sympathizers that were rounded up were deported in December 1919. The boat used for this was nicknamed the “Soviet Ark” and the “Red Ark.” A total of 249 radicals were deported aboard the ship, including Emma  Goldman.

January 2, 1920

Vintage newspaper NY Tribune Headline Jan 3, 1920

And in a grand show for the New Year, on Jan. 2, 1920, Hoover’s agents swept through 33 cities in a spectacular show of force in the one day raid arresting more than 3,000 labor activists. Only 40  actually admitted that they had had any anarchist goals.

Twelve prominent lawyers denounced the raids as “utterly illegal acts” whose warrantless arrests, police violence and widespread property destruction “brought the name of our country into disrepute.” That same month, the American Civil Liberties Union was established and began defending the targets of the raids. Nearly all the resulting arrests were voided.

Vintage newspaper The New Majority 1920

Publications with a leftist view condemned the ongoing raids stating that they were illegal and in direct violation of the very ideals for which Americans stood. Front Page of the Chicago Federation of Labor newspapers “The New Majority” Jan. 10, 1920 features an article that describes the Palmer Raids as Terrorism (Source: Newberry Library )

As news of the brutality of the raids became public and the constitutionality of the actions were brought into question many publicly charged Palmer. Like Chicken Little, Palmer’s dire predictions of a communist uprising to overthrow the government on May Day 1920 that never happened,  destroyed his credibility with the public diminishing the red scare and ending the Palmer raids.

By the summer of 1920, the Red Scare was mostly over. Still the effects of the raids and arrests decimated the communist left and greatly affected the socialist party and the Industrial Workers of the World.

It also justified the actions of federal authorities to target entire groups of “new immigrants” as foreign radicals and political subversives. These political affiliations soon became part of the alleged “radical character” of specific immigrant groups like Jews and Italians.

These erroneous characterizations exist to this day.

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.






  1. Pierre Lagacé

    Thanks for preserving the past Sally.
    2020 will be a tumultuous year.
    I hope world leaders will find the courage to stop this madness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is essential to remember our past and learn from it, yet I feel we often end up repeating the same mistakes. I feel hopeful that 2020 will be a year of some dramatic changes. Today on New years Day I feel optimistic. That, of course, can change on a dime.


  2. david j

    This is an interesting bit of US history.

    Wilson’s presidency was apparently full of evil stuff. I hadn’t realized – if I thought of him at all it was WWI, maybe some isolationism, and the League of Nations. This is where J. Edgar Hoover got his start too.


    On Wed, Jan 1, 2020 at 20:01 Envisioning The American Dream wrote:

    > sallyedelstein posted: ” A century ago a new decade was about to dawn on > New Years’ Eve 1920. As tipsy Americans toasted one another with their last > legal bottle of Champagne before Prohibition would go into effect at the > stroke of midnight, Attorney General A. Mitchel Pal” >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Chris Chilson

    Sadly, history is repeating itself, as every Jew in Manhatten, and Negro in Baltimore already knows. I hope Pierre’s prediction doesn’t come true. Bad night in Bagdad to be an American. :((


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