The Palmer Raids: Early Red Scare Crackdown on Suspected Radicals

Mass Arrests of Radicals Led to Deportations and Public Outrage

Aliens being deported in the Palmer Raids
Immigrants to be deported following 1919 police raids.

Getty Images 

The Palmer Raids were a series of police raids targeting suspected radical leftist immigrants—particularly Italians and Eastern Europeans—during the Red Scare of late 1919 and early 1920. The arrests, which were directed by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, resulted in thousands of people being detained and hundreds being deported from the United States.

The drastic actions taken by Palmer were inspired in part by terrorist bombs set off by suspected anarchists in the spring and summer of 1919. In one instance, a large bomb was detonated on Palmer's own doorstep in Washington.

Did You Know?

During the Palmer Raids, more than three thousand people were detained and 556 were deported, including prominent figures like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

Origins of the Palmer Raids

During World War I, anti-immigrant sentiment rose in America, but the animosity was largely directed at immigrants from Germany. Following the war, fears prompted by the Russian Revolution resulted in a new target: immigrants from Eastern Europe, especially political radicals, some of whom openly called for revolution in America. Violent actions attributed to anarchists helped create public hysteria.

In April 1919, former Pennsylvania congressman A. Mitchell Palmer became attorney general. He had worked in the Wilson administration during the war, overseeing the seizure of alien property. In his new post, he promised a crackdown on radical aliens in America.

US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Getty Images 

Less than two months later, on the night of June 2, 1919, bombs were set off at locations in eight American cities. In Washington, a powerful bomb exploded on the doorstep of Attorney General Palmer's house. Palmer, who was at home on the second floor, was unharmed, as were members of his family. Two men, thought to be the bombers, were, as the New York Times described it, "blown to bits."

The nationwide bombings became a sensation in the press. Dozens were arrested. Newspaper editorials called for action by the federal government, and the public seemed to support a crackdown on radical activity. Attorney General Palmer released a statement warning anarchists and promising action. In part, he said: "These attacks by bomb throwers will only increase and extend the activities of our crime-detecting forces."

The Palmer Raids Begin

On the night of November 7, 1919, federal agents and local police forces conducted raids across America. The date was chosen to send a message, as it was the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The warrants for the raids, which targeted dozens of individuals in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and other cities, had been signed by the federal government's commissioner of immigration. The plan was to seize and deport radicals.

An ambitious young lawyer in the Investigations Bureau of the Justice Department, J. Edgar Hoover, worked closely with Palmer in planning and executing the raids. When the Federal Bureau of Investigations later became a more independent agency, Hoover was chosen to run it, and he transformed it into a major law enforcement agency.

Boston Police pose with seized radical literature.
Boston Police pose with seized radical literature. Getty Images 

Additional raids took place in November and December 1919, and the plans to deport radicals moved forward. Two prominent radicals, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, were targeted for deportation and given prominence in newspaper reports.

In late December 1919, a U.S. Army transport ship, the Buford, sailed from New York with 249 deportees, including Goldman and Berkman. The ship, which was dubbed "The Red Ark" by the press, was assumed to be heading to Russia. It actually discharged the deportees in Finland.

Backlash to the Raids

A second wave of raids began in early January 1920 and continued throughout the month. Hundreds more suspected radicals were rounded up and held in custody. Public sentiment seemed to change in the following months, when the gross violations of civil liberties became known. In the spring of 1920 the Labor Department, which oversaw immigration at the time, began canceling many of the warrants used in the raids, leading to the release of those being held.

Palmer began to come under attack for the excesses of the winter raids. He sought to increase public hysteria by claiming that the United States would be coming under attack on May Day 1920. On the morning of May 1, 1920, the New York Times reported on the front page that the police and military were prepared to protect the country. Attorney General Palmer, the newspaper reported, warned of an attack on America in support of Soviet Russia.

The great May Day attack never happened. The day proceeded peacefully, with the usual parades and rallies in support of labor unions. The episode served to further discredit Palmer.

Legacy of the Palmer Raids

Following the May Day debacle, Palmer lost his public support. Later in May the American Civil Liberties Union released a report blasting the government's excesses during the raids, and public opinion turned completely against Palmer. He tried to secure the 1920 presidential nomination and failed. With his political career finished, he returned to private law practice. The Palmer Raids live on in American history as a lesson against public hysteria and government excess.

Sources

  • "The Palmer Raids Begin." Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, edited by Jennifer Stock, vol. 6: North America, Gale, 2014, pp. 257-261. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Palmer, Alexander Mitchell." Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, edited by Donna Batten, 3rd ed., vol. 7, Gale, 2010, pp. 393-395. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Avakov, Aleksandr Vladimirovich. Plato's Dreams Realized: Surveillance and Citizen Rights from KGB to FBI. Algora Publishing, 2007.