By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Chapter Three: Chaos at Home
Progressives in the Crucible of 1919
XII. Mr. Palmer's War
Within a week of the blast that had destroyed his front porch, the Attorney General was setting up his retaliatory response. His goal now, he told Secretary of War Newton Baker on June 9th, was "putting an end forever to those lawless attempts to intimidate and injure, if not destroy organized government in this country." To the Congress, he argued he was as "interested in the prevention of…crimes, if not more so, than the punishment of the perpetrators after they have been committed." To accomplish these feats, he would need men, organization, and money.2
Regarding the first two, he made several new hires to his team over the summer. The two most notable of these were "the great anarchist chaser" (and the most recognized detective in America) William Flynn, who was named head of the Bureau of Investigation, and the promotion of 24-year-old John Edgar Hoover to the directorship of a brand new Radical Division, later the General Intelligence Division (GID). Along with being considered an expert on domestic anarchists, Flynn was an avowed publicity hound, and he would be extremely useful in drumming up attention for the Department. Hoover, meanwhile - relying on skills he acquired in an earlier job at the Library of Congress - developed an intricate card system that, by his count, included detailed information on over 60,000 suspected radicals within only a few months. For money, Palmer went before the House appropriations subcommittee on June 13th and asked for a $500,000 raise to the Justice Department budget of $1.5 million. When Congress only approved a $100,000 increase, Palmer went back to the Hill again in August, after a summer of race riots and simmering labor disputes, and got one million more.3
While setting up shop, and after an initial, Flynn-orchestrated sweep of several major cities soon after the June bombings, Palmer and his revitalized organization remained mostly quiet over the summer of 1919. Flynn and other Justice Department officials intimated to the press, as well as state and local authorities, that there would be a spasm of Bolshevist activity on Independence Day. But, if this "chatter" ever in fact existed, it was incorrect. Despite an increased police presence in many American cities, including 11,000 police on 24-hour-duty in New York City, the only untoward incident that July 4th was, as historian Stanley Coben noted, "a bloody case of mayhem in Toledo, Ohio, where Jack Dempsey beat Jess Willard to a pulp to win the heavyweight boxing championship."4
As things remained quiet at the Justice Department, politicians and the press grew restless, particularly as the Red Summer faded into the fall of the Great Strikes. On October 19th, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution by conservative Miles Poindexter, asking the Attorney General to explain what actions he had taken against the Bolshevik threat in terms of arrests and deportations, "and if not, why not." Those clamoring for action were also left scratching their heads by a speech Attorney General Palmer delivered at Lafayette College, his alma mater, that month while receiving an honorary degree. In it, he affirmed America - in the past, present, and future - as a nation of immigrants. "We cannot be less willing now than we have always been," he argued, "that the oppressed of every clime shall find here a refuge from trouble, disorder, and distress." And while new arrivals must renounce force and follow the American way of intelligence, Palmer averred he "will not halt for a single moment any movement designed by its promoters to bring better conditions to any portion of our people."5
While The Survey published the entire text of Palmer's speech the following month (after it had become more ironic in nature), more conservative outlets were put off by the progressive claptrap. Palmer has "expressed ancient and outworn views on immigration," argued the New York Times. "The resolve of Americans to defend the American policy against Bolshevism is growing sterner every day. And here is the Attorney General of the United States, whose official duty it is to have these alien seditionaries, anarchists, plotters against the Government of the United States arrested, punished, deported, talking this pre-Adamite sentimentality." In other words, this was no time for Quaker sentiment to rule the day.6
In fact, Palmer was only laying the groundwork for his new division's first decisive action. The Division had had a hard enough time conducting surveillance without congressional approval and building cases against crimes for which there was no body of law. To square that circle, Palmer authorized the GID to secure evidence for crimes to be defined, in laws "which may hereafter be enacted." Even by that dubious standard, it would be hard, the GID's top brass surmised, to bring a federal case against US citizens for sedition without a declared war going on any longer. And so, word was handed down that activities "should be particularly directed to persons, not citizens of the United States, with a view of obtaining deportation cases." "The deportation statute," Palmer had told Congress at his appropriations hearings, "ought to be used liberally against these alien anarchists, these alien troublemakers, and that is one thing we propose to do."7
But that line of attack posed another problem -- deportation was the purview of the Department of Labor, not the Department of Justice, and Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson and his top staff did not appreciate the attempted intrusion. "I have observed from several recent newspaper reports," Secretary Wilson wrote Palmer, "that apparently it is the intention of the Department of Justice to undertake considerable special work in connection…with members of anarchistic and similar classes…[O]f course, the enforcement of the only laws which authorize deportation…is vested in this department."8
To sort out the matter, Palmer had met with several of Wilson's top deputies in June. The meeting went badly. Most of the Labor men were aghast at Palmer's apparent ignorance of basic constitutional principles like probable cause and evidentiary requirements. "Do you mean to tell me that there is no law under which you can issue a warrant for the arrest of an alien when I certify that he is subject to deportation?" asked Palmer, only to be explained to that such a law would be unconstitutional if no evidence had been brought forth against the alien in question. After the meeting, the Labor attendees reported to Assistant Secretary Louis Post, who was handling much of the day-to-day responsibilities of the department on account of the illness of Secretary Wilson's wife, and chuckled over Palmer's naiveté.9
All but Anthony Caminetti, Labor's Immigration Chief and a man who already used his powers to strike against suspected radicals whenever he could. Caminetti thought Assistant Secretary Post a soft progressive ill-suited to the urgency of the times, and he held an especially intense loathing for Emma Goldman, the famed anarchist who was currently nearing the end of a two-year sentence in a Missouri penitentiary for interfering with conscription. Goldman's deportation status had been a sticky wicket for months, since she had once been married to an American citizen, Jacob Kersner, for a year in 1894. So, after the ill-fated interdepartmental meeting, Caminetti reached out to Palmer's staff, and, working alongside young Edgar Hoover, forged an agreement at the staff level which could be given to the respective higher-ups as a fait accompli: So long as Palmer's office would back the deportation of Goldman, Caminetti would be more than happy to accede to anyone else the GID chose to deport. And so it was, early in the fall, a conference was held between the Departments of Justice and Labor providing for the GID to take part in deportation efforts under immigration laws.10
With politicians and the press chomping at the bit for action, with a strategy of deportations agreed upon, and with all the bureaucratic niceties finally sorted out, all Palmer and Hoover's GID needed was a target, which they readily found in the Union of Russian Workers (URW). The URW dated back to 1907, when it was created by immigrants fleeing Russia after the abortive 1905 revolution. (Its chief founder had since returned to the Motherland to become the new Bolshevik chief of police.) And it served as part-social club and settlement house for new Russian émigrés to learn English, part-political society devoted to the principles of class struggle and social revolution. Due to its 12-year history in America, the URW made for a juicier target than the recently created Communist and Communist Labor Parties, which had opened shop in September. And, in fact, the New York Times had begun making the case in the press for a move on the URW over the summer, when they had published excerpts from its manifesto under the blaring headline "RUSSIAN REDS ARE BUSY HERE: Workers' Union Has 500 Agents Spreading Bolshevism in the United States - Constitution Proclaims War on Government"11
With a target acquired, Palmer was at last ready for the show of force the papers wanted. At 9pm (in each respective time zone) on November 7th, 1919 -- a date chosen to coincide with the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia - the GID struck in fifteen cities simultaneously. In New York and Hartford, Cleveland and Newark, Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco, hundreds of URW members were clubbed, beaten, and summarily arrested. Telling the story of the assault on the Russian People's House in New York, where roughly 200 men and women were rounded up, the Socialist paper The Call told of "one of the most brutal raids ever witnessed in the city," with police officers "clubbing and blackjacking" everyone in sight. (The editors of The Call were in a position to know: Along with being ransacked and raided themselves several times, the Russian People's House had been descended upon at least four times previously.)12
One Russian laborer and veteran, Jacob Uden, told The Call of how he and 50 others had been waiting for a class when "[s]ome detectives came in, and they pushed us up against the end of the room. I asked one why he was pushing me, and he lifted up his leg and kicked me in the stomach. Then another one hit me in the head with a club. Others were hit. Everybody was hit. There was blood. I saw it, and when they pushed us together close, like in the subway, I got some on my face." Another student told of how he "was struck on my head…by one detective, who knocked me down again, sat on my back, pressing me down to the floor with his knee and bending my body until blood flowed out of my mouth and nose." Almost every retelling of the raid followed a similar pattern. Meanwhile, outside, bystanders "chuckled with delight." When a Call reporter asked them about the scene, members of the crowd "used the words 'seditious,' 'Bolsheviki,' 'anarchist' as if that was sufficient explanation for the merciless beating of men and women."13
As an anti-radical operation, the November 7th raids left much to be desired. Ultimately, thirty-nine of the hundreds arrested were determined to be worth holding. Most of the rest were just Russian workmen who had been trying to learn some English or socialize with their fellow emigrés, and even those were held for absurd lengths of time in some areas - five months without a hearing in Hartford, Connecticut. The Palmer raids were followed the next day by even more anti-radical actions by local and state authorities, all looking to be a part of this great swipe against Bolshevism. In New York City, seven hundred police raided seventy buildings and arrested five hundred. But, across the nation, only 246 alien radicals were found worthy of deportation.
But, as a press event, the raids were a major coup, with A. Mitchell Palmer (to whom all the credit and blame redounded -- Edgar Hoover had consciously tried to downplay his role) outdoing even Ole Hanson and Calvin Coolidge before him as the man of the hour. (This was particularly true given that Palmer had brought down the injunction against the coal strike the week before.) Here was "A Strong Man of Peace," "a tower of strength to his countrymen," "a lion-hearted man" who "brought order out of chaos." - In short, the man America had been waiting for.14
Six weeks later, on December 21st, 1919 -- and after Frederic C. Howe, the former Commissioner of Ellis Island, had been forced to resign for being insufficiently amenable to deportations -- A. Mitchell Palmer made his first down payment on his promise to expunge all the troublemakers threatening the United States. That day, the Buford sailed from New York City, carrying 249 deportees - 199 of whom had been picked up in the November raids, and one of whom was Emma Goldman, making good on Hoover's promise to Caminetti. Once again, much of the popular press was effusive. "Just as the sailing of the Ark that Noah built was a pledge for the preservation of the human race," editorialized the New York Evening Mail, "so the sailing of the Ark of the Soviet is a pledge for the preservation of America." Others deemed the "Soviet Ark" as "epoch-making as the immortal voyage of Columbus" and as important to American history as the Mayflower, except instead of bringing "the first of the builders to this country; the Buford has taken away the first destroyers."15
Progressives and left-leaning observers were less sanguine about the introduction of Palmerism into their midst. For over a year, they had asked Woodrow Wilson time and time again to scale down the war footing and take a stand on behalf of civil liberties. "The President," Oswald Villard had warned Colonel House as early as February 1918, "will be completely unable to put through his peace program in America unless he can rally behind him the liberal and radical opinion of the country." A year later, The Dial informed Wilson his beloved League would be "met by a storm of reactionary opposition. Where in America can you turn for aid and comfort save the American people - to American liberals?...They cannot accept your leadership in the League of Nations movement so long as…you persist in ignoring their single demand." John Palmer Gavit, editor of the New York Evening Post, told the president that the civil liberties crackdown in America was "the very reason that you are not having now the liberal backing that is your right," and that he should "uplift and electrify the country" by declaring "immediate and unconditional amnesty for all those persons convicted for expression of opinion." Like Gavit, Charles Beard argued that "the time has come…[t]o release political prisoners whose offense was to retain Mr. Wilson's pacifist views after he abandoned them."16
But the administration, AWOL on so many other key issues in 1919, mostly ignored these pleas and instead seemed to have chosen Palmerism as its approach to Bolshevist hysteria. This choice would have consequences. Since Wilson and Palmer had "made it a penal offense to defend the policy which the President was enunciating," argued The Dial, the battle for the League of Nations could not be won. Or, at former CPI head George Creel told the president himself: "All the radical, or liberal friends of your anti-imperialist war policy were either silenced or intimidated. The Department of Justice and the Post Office were allowed to silence and intimidate them. There was no voice left to argue for your sort of peace."17
Writing to Newton Baker in January of 1920, Walter Lippmann also read the Wilson administration the riot act for its embrace of repression under A. Mitchell Palmer. "'The events of the last few months, he wrote, "are too disturbing and the behavior of this administration too revolutionary not to put a severe strain upon men's patience":
'You know what hopes were put in this administration, how loudly and insistently it proclaimed its loyalty to the cause of freedom. Well, it was possible to fail in those hopes. It was credible that the wisdom and the strength to realize them would be lacking. But it is forever incredible that an administration announcing the most spacious ideals in our history should have done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years. 18Wilson's administration, Lippmann argued, had 'done everything humanly possible to add fresh excitement to an overexcited community." They made the most "determined and dangerous…attack" on the constitution since the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, and fostered a "reign of terror in which honest thought is impossible, in which moderation is discountenanced, in which panic supplants reason." He warned of a "reaction against this reaction" coming in very short order.19
The Sage of Baltimore was inclined to agree. "[T]he issue of Americanism is being murdered by idiots," Mencken sighed. "Day by day its exponents pile up proofs that to be an American, as they conceive it, is to be a poltroon and an ass…Between Wilson and his brigades of informers, spits, volunteer detectives, perjurers, and complaisant judges, and the Prohibitionists and their messianic delusion, the liberty of the citizen has pretty well vanished in America." But Mencken also felt a change coming. "I begin to see signs that, deep down in their hearts, the American people are growing tired of government by fiat and denunciation. Once they reach the limit of endurance, there will be a chance again for the sort of Americanism that civilized men can be proud of, and that sort of Americanism will make an issue a thousand times as vital as the imitations put forward by the Prohibitionists, the Palmer White Guard, the Wilson mail openers, and the press agents of the American Legion."20
That reaction was not here yet, but it was indeed coming. "So far as I am presently concerned," former Roosevelt Progressive Raymond Robins would write a friend the following year. "I shall give up my entire time to battling against Wilson's administration, Wilson's League and the witch-hunting of Postmaster General Burleson and Attorney General Palmer. I hope to make the infamy and betrayal of Wilson's pseudo-liberalism and secure its overwhelming repudiation at the polls, which is to me the first obligation of our progressive citizenship."21
Along with this reaction, among progressives, was a renewed sense that an American civil liberties tradition would have to be better established in the future battles to come. Speaking to the Women's Club in 1919, New York World editor Frank Cobb took a preliminary stab at it by invoking the Bill of Rights and the writings of Jefferson. "The Bill of Rights is a born rebel," he argued. "It reeks of sedition. In every clause it shakes its fist in the face of constituted authority and thunders "Thou shalt not." Because of this, "it is the one guaranty of human freedom to the American people unless they themselves destroy their safeguard. We are in danger of forgetting this under the terrorism of mass thought, but we can forget it only at our imminent peril. There is revolution in reaction as well as in radicalism, and Toryism, speaking a jargon of law and order, may often be a graver menace to liberty than radicalism bellowing the empty phrases of the soap-box demagogue."22
Quoting Jefferson's dictum that "the spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it always to be kept alive," Cobb also noted that "[i]f the author of the Declaration of Independence were to utter such a sentiment today, the Post Office Department could exclude him from the mail, grand juries could indict him for sedition and criminal syndicalism, legislative committee could seize his private papers and search them for evidence of bolshevism, and United States Senators would be clamoring for his deportation on the ground that he had been tainted with the ribald doctrines of the French Revolution and should be sent back to live with the rest of the terrorists. Thus the political philosophy of one generation becomes the political anathema of another."23
In sum, Cobb concluded, "[t]he policy of repression…to meet this propaganda of radicalism is fatal. Two thousand years of history bear witness to this folly. Nobody ever succeeded in bettering the weather by putting the thermometer in jail, and nobody will ever remove the causes of unrest and discontent by trying to suppress its manifestations."24
Senator William Borah, always a ready audience for progressive arguments which invoked the Founders, applauded Cobb for his "splendid editorial upon the strange lunacy which is now prevalent -- this idea that you must destroy all guarantees of the Constitution in order to preserve the rights of the American people." As the Senator lamented to a constituent, "[i]t is my judgment that we have traveled backward upon this question a hundred years at least. We are now seeking to invoke just such principles as the autocratic forces were seeking to invoke a hundred years ago…In fact, second to the cowardly policy to sell our country to foreign powers is this apparent determination to break down the fundamental principles upon which it is built." 25
This, to Borah, was the chickens of the Espionage and Sedition Acts coming home to roost. "During the war," he wrote, "the perfectly vicious doctrine was announced and practiced that the constitution is suspended during a state of war. This doctrine was both unnecessary and untrue…But this insidious and demoralizing doctrine was nevertheless announced and practiced. Now that peace is here we are gathering its fruits. Men are yet perfectly willing to deny the right of free speech, a free press, and peaceable assemblage and a free representation in utter disregard of the plainest provisions of our constitution… Three thousand years have demonstrated beyond controversy that arbitrary laws and persecution however persistent and drastic cannot control men's thoughts." Instead of raids and deportations, Borah argued, "[t]he only way to save the Constitution and to continue to enjoy our orderly and regulated liberty is to respect and preserve its terms and to enforce them as they are written."26
In fact, Borah was particularly contemptuous of the newfound regard for deportations. "I am opposed to deportation as a matter of policy," he argued, "first, because it will prove wholly ineffective, secondly, because it is a cowardly way to meet this great question which we have before us. We cannot deal with the situation effectively which now confronts us by deporting a few people. Besides, why should we deport people into Russia and then go to the great expense of sending troops over there to shoot them. We now assume it to be our business to compose the troubles of Russia. As a mere matter of business would it not be better to compose those we have here."27
Stanford president David Starr Jordan concurred with Borah's basic assessment of Palmer's policies. "Permit me to express my belief," he told him, "that you are wholly right in your opposition to 'Alien and Sedition Laws,' promiscuous round-ups of unpleasant people, and irresponsible control of the press. Such lines of action more or less outside of law and in violation of the principle of fair trial spread sedition and aggravate the distemper."28
And he was not alone. "The idea that discontent in America in the twentieth century," wrote Edward T. Devine in an open letter "To the President" for The Survey, "is to be overwhelmed by force of arms…is fantastic. The idea that radical agitation is to be 'stamped out' by imprisonments, deportations, raids, and the denial of the constitutional rights of assembly and discussion, is ridiculous. The idea that public officials are not to be criticized for official acts or strenuously opposed when they exceed their authority and abuse their powers is un-American… The only possible danger to American institutions lies in a policy of suppression."29 Elsewhere in The Survey, Richard Roberts made the case that "in the interest of public safety and a quiet life we cannot allow erroneous opinion to be driven underground by suppression (for that is what always happens), there to grow in the dark and to become explosive." In TNR, Walter Lippmann pointed out that "the very essence of any sincere belief in the liberty promised by the First Amendment is a willingness to defend the liberty of opinions with which you disagree. That means protecting some pretty poor opinions, ignorant, wild and mean opinions, occasionally even sinister ones…There are pleasanter occupations."30
Across the board, progressives disgusted with the Palmer raids were moved to begin articulating a more robust defense of civil liberties. It is a project that would continue throughout the remainder of the coming decade, with a significant step forward occurring in the first month of 1920. Then, in a building on W. 13th St. shared by Max Eastman's Liberator and The Dial, the National Civil Liberties Bureau was reborn the American Civil Liberties Union, with Roger Baldwin -- out of jail since October -- as director. "[A]ll thought on matters of public concern," argued its Statement of Purpose, "should be freely expressed, without interference. Orderly social progress is promoted by unrestricted freedom of opinion." Baldwin was particularly desirous to have the ACLU become involved in "the industrial struggle…clearly the essential challenge to the cause of civil liberty today." Within a month, the organization was running ads in journals like The Survey asking for subscribers and boots on the ground. "Help in the Fight for Civil Liberty," it pleaded, and join an organization that "ties together labor, liberal, and radical groups" to carry the fight "directly into the areas of industrial conflict."31
The newly-christened ACLU would have to hit the ground running, because, as 1919 faded in 1920 at long last, A. Mitchell Palmer and Edgar Hoover unveiled their next encore.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Hagedorn, 230. Ackerman, 28.
3. Ackerman, 27-28. Murray, Red Scare, 193-194. Hagedorn, 230. Regin Schmidt, Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States, 1919-1943 (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000), 153-154.
4. Murray, Red Scare, 116. Robert Justin Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America from 1870 to 1976 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 149.
5. Murray, Red Scare, 195-196. Hagedorn, 382-383. A. Mitchell Palmer, "The American Experiment," The Survey, November 22nd, 1919, 146-147.
6. Paul Carrington, "Fearing Fear Itself," Duke University http://paulcarrington.com/Fearing%20Fear%20Itself.htm
7. Goldstein, 150. Murray, Red Scare, 196. Ackerman, 34. The "October Revolution" took place on October 25th according to the Julian calendar and November 7th according to the Gregorian calendar.
8. Ackerman, 51.
9. Ibid, 54-57.
10. Ackerman, 88-89. Kate Claghorn, Immigrants Day in Court (New York: Harper Brothers, 1923), 359.
11. Ackerman, 89-90. Claghorn, 366-368. "Russian Reds are Busy Here," New York Times, June 8, 1919.
12. "IWW and People's House Raided," New York Call, November 8, 1919 (v. 12, no. 313), 1, 5. Ackerman, 112. Murray, The Red Scare, 196-197.
14. Ackerman, 90. Murray, Red Scare, 198. Hagedorn, 382-383.
15. Murray, Red Scare, 208. In his widely-read 1925 book Confessions of a Reformer, Frederic Howe would rail against the Palmerism he had tried to stand against at Ellis Island. "I hated the Department of Justice, the ignorant secret-service men who had been intrusted with man-hunting powers; I hated the new state that had arisen, hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism, that made profit from our sacrifices and used its power to suppress criticism of its acts. I hated the suggestion of disloyalty of myself and my friends; suggestions that were directed against liberals, never against profiteers. I wanted to protest against the destruction of my government, my democracy, my America. I hated the new manifestation of power far more than I hated the spoilsmen, the ward heeler, the politician, or even the corruptionists who had destroyed my hope of democracy in Cleveland. I had cherished a free city, but I cherished a free people more". Howe, 279-280.
16. Knock, 160, 238, 237, 182, 186.
18. Steel, 167.
20. Mencken, 9.
21. Robins to Hon. Julius Kespohl, September 4, 1920, in Neil Salzman, Reform and Revolution: The Life and Times of Raymond Robins (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1991), 301.
22. Cobb and Heaton, 335.
25. Borah to Charles F. Koelsch, December 22, 1919. WJB, Box 82: 1919-20 Espionage.
26. Borah to Frank Rea, January 5, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - Alabama. Borah to H. Austin Simmons, January 21, 1920. WJB, Box 82: 1919-20 Espionage.
27. Borah to Warren E. Dennis, January 5, 1920. WJB, Box 82: 1919-20 Espionage.
28. David Starr Jordan to Borah, January 8, 1920. WJB, Box 82: 1919-20 Espionage.
29. Edward T. Devine, "To the President," The Survey. December 27, 1919, 305.
30. Richard Roberts, "The Restoration of Civil Liberty," The Survey. November 15, 1919, 109-110. Walter Lippmann, "Unrest," The New Republic, Nov. 12, 1919, Vol. XX, No. 258, p. 315-322.
31. Cottrell, 121. "A New Civil Liberties Union," The Survey, January 31, 1920, 480. The Survey, February 21, 1920, 623.
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