Home / General / This Day in Labor History: January 16, 1920

This Day in Labor History: January 16, 1920


On January 16, 1920, those arrested in the vile anti-communist Palmer Raids were allowed to see legal representation at their deportation hearings. This is a moment to discuss the Red Scare and just how out of control the government violations of leftists’ civil liberties was after World War I.

The nation barely tolerated anything it considered radical before World War I. The history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are littered with not-that-radical movements being crushed with massive state violence based on the idea that evil European revolution had reached American shores. Meanwhile, even more conservative unions could not achieve many victories in such an anti-union environment.

Not surprisingly, desperation can lead to violence. In the case of the Iron Workers, not a radical union at all, their own president and his inner circle decided to blow up the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, a complete disaster. Other Americans, especially immigrants from southern and eastern Europe but also itinerant native-born Americans, found ideologies coming over from Europe quite appealing. Socialism covered a lot of ground before 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution channeled it all into one ideological path. That socialism could mean everything from the so-called sewer socialism of the German immigrants who made Milwaukee a socialist center but without real radical politics or it could mean anarcho-syndicalism. The forces of order barely tolerated the former but they really didn’t tolerate the latter. When the Industrial Workers of the World developed after 1905, it got the attention of government pretty fast, in part because Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor were more than happy to lobby the forces of order to crush their radical rivals.

Even the pre-World War I history of the IWW and other anarchist-type radicals was filled with oppression, but with the rise of World War I, the forces of order just unleashed holy hell on the radicals. In Bisbee, Arizona, mine owners just rounded up everyone thought it was a Wobbly, loaded into cow-shit filled rail cars, and dropped them off in the New Mexico desert to starve or die or whatever (the military eventually rescued them). The mine owners suffered no negative consequences for such actions. It was the same in Butte, Montana, when mine owners hired vigilantes to lynch the IWW organizer Frank Little. Basically, no one cared. The Wilson administration was doing everything it could to launch a nationalist campaign on a nation mentally unprepared to enter World War I and crushing violence backed it up.

As World War I continued and then ended, attacks on radicals grew even more extreme. Eugene Debs was arrested and thrown into prison for a quite mild speech where he opposed the draft. The war may have ended in November 1918 but in November 1919, American Legion members in Centralia, Washington decided to use the first anniversary of Armistice Day to rid their town of the IWW once and for all, but the Wobbly loggers shot back and four Legionnaires were killed. The Centralia Massacre became a national event and the loggers were railroaded into prison after their leader was lynched from a bridge.

So the government was going to get rid of these radicals once and for all. By 1919, Woodrow Wilson’s health was beginning to fail and whatever control he had over the more extreme members of his Cabinet was fading. A. Mitchell Palmer as Attorney General was very excited to engage in widespread arrest of radicals and deportation of the ones who were immigrants. He hired a young investigator named J. Edgar Hoover to lead the effort and we all know what kind of a person Hoover turned out to be.

Meanwhile, a group of anarchists decided to strike back at the government and the rich for the Red Scare by engaging in a poorly conceived terrorist bombing campaign. Mostly Italian anarchists under the leadership of the theorist Luigi Galleani, send letter bombs through the mail in April 1919. The vast majority failed to explode–these were anarchists after all and you can’t expect them to do anything right when it counts–but the main one that did go off just blew the hands off the poor maid working for Senator Thomas Hardwick. A second wave of bombings in June were slightly more effective, killing a night watchman, and blowing the porch off the house of A. Mitchell Palmer. So they figured out to get the bombs to explode but were hopeless in actually successfully targeting anyone.

All this bombing campaign did was give more political space for oppression of radicals of all stripes, whether they supported this idiotic terrorist campaign or not. For Palmer, this was all gold, especially the bombing of his own house. He was making up all kinds of stuff about radical threats that weren’t true, with judges often throwing out his ideas for being out of touch levels of unconstitutional. The bombings gave him more space to act. After being involved in putting down the miners strike in West Virginia in 1919, he moved to a more universal solution to radicalism at the end of that year and the beginning of 1920–arrest and deport. He and Hoover and their men rounded up hundreds of anarchists–Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman most famously, but lots of people forgotten to the distant past. The Palmer Raids received immediate attention from the nation’s forces of order, mostly to approval. For example, the Washington Post stated, “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty.” Ah, OK then.

They were largely denied proper legal proceedings, though on January 15, they were at last allowed legal proceedings. While some were deported, as 1920 went on, the nation began to wonder what the hell was going on here. When Wilson named Louis Post as Assistant Secretary of Labor, Palmer had a real enemy in the Cabinet. He started questioning Palmer in the media. Palmer demanded that William Wilson, the unionist who was Secretary of Labor, fire Post, but both Wilsons told him to go jump in a lake. Then Palmer made outlandish claims that May 1, 1920 was going to be a moment of a wide-scale rebellion. Cities armed themselves in preparation. Then, nothing happened. Palmer was discredited and the Palmer Raids ended. Most of the deportation orders were rescinded.

But the Palmer Raids really did change America. They depressed radicalism for the next decade, much as McCarthy era did in the 1950s and early 1960s. It also led to the creation of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been an organization with problems over the years, but it’s existence has generally been a good thing for the world. Palmer had hoped to use the raids to become the Democratic presidential nominee in 1920, but by the summer, his reputation was in toilet. As George Anderson, a Massachusetts judge, said when revoking a bunch of deportation orders, “a mob is a mob, whether made up of Government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and the vicious classes.” Unfortunately, the forces of order have long sought mob rule to overturn justice, from that time to the failed January 6, 2021 coup.

This is the 467th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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