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The Red Scare In Nevada, 1919-1920
by Ted DeCorte


The Stage Is Set
Immediately following the First World War (1914-1918), the United States experienced a brief yet hysterical "Red Scare," a fear of a radical communist, or bolshevik takeover of the United States. Fear of a radical takeover in the United States led to suppression and persecution of anyone perceived as "un-American." This era of intolerance and paranoia engulfed Nevada, and its citizens responded harshly to the "Red Menace." Nevada's response was both a part of and a reaction to the volatile national scene during 1919-1920.

World War I demanded personal sacrifice on the part of Americans. It created immense social and economic strains such as runaway inflaiton, labor unrest and excessive governmental controls. In 1917 Bolshevik "Reds" had overthrown Russia's repressive Czarist government, and America' newspapers had kept the public well informed of the revolution's gruesome events. Americans were also distressed by the influence of two radical organizations on their own home front: a Socialist party advocating drastic change in the existing political and economic system, and the Industrial Workers of the World preaching the destruction of capitalism and the government. Wartime superpatriotism had not only created an overwhelming suspicion and hatred of foreigners, but of domestic radicals as well. This experience of war, plus the fear of a worldwide radical conspiracy, produced a pattern of racism, intolerance and flagrant disregard for human rights which permeated American society throughout the postwar decade. Never before had the nation been so overwhelmed with fear. Economic and social dislocations combined with a series of highly suspicious and spectacular events into a common mass from which emerged the public panic and paranoia known as the Red Scare.


During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson's "Crusade for Democracy," received the support of all "loyal" Americans. In an attempt to mobilize the people behind the war effort, Wilson established the Committee on Public Information. Headed by journalist George Creel of Colorado, the Creel Committee utilized the talents of thousands of creative people in the arts, advertising and motion pictures to "sell the war." Creel's army of speakers and writers blanketed the country with propaganda, picturing the war as a crusade for freedom and democracy, and the Germans as a bestial people bent on world domination. The committee's endeavors created a national mood blending sincere idealism, patriotic dedication, nationalistic aggression and xenophobia. The Wilson-Creel propaganda machine made nationalism an American religion. By 1917 the vast majority of Americans found themselves caught up in the patriotic spirit. Most men and women believed this war would be the world's last; they felt that victory could bring a new universal freedom, and therefore fought the war with an almost evangelical zeal. President Wilson himself demanded absolute loyalty and support for America's conflict in Europe. His administration urged all "loyal" citizens to report persons who spoke against the war and advocated peace. Quick to sense the new superpatriotic mood, Congress enacted the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, making "disloyal" and seditious talk against the war - - and the Wilson Administration - - illegal.


During the war years Americans encountered severe limitations on freedom of speech and press, as well as outright suppression of dissent. The federal government arrested over fifteen hundred persons for disloyal comments and banned the dissemination of radical publications. Opening and censoring private mail also became an effective tool for monitoring "pro-German" thoughts and deeds. Periodically the Administration seized obviously loyal magazines critical of government policy. In its zeal, the Justice Department, for instance, delayed an edition of The Nation because it carried the caption "Civil Liberties Are Dead," and confiscated copies of The Public when it suggested that wartime taxes on large incomes were too low. By far the most serious wave of intolerance, of high-handed governmental disregard for individual rights, and of popular hysteria erupted during the second Wilson Administration. The Administration's forced fanning of the war fever led to a state of passion which made nonconformity and, certainly, dissent dangerous.


The United States Supreme Court contributed to the atmosphere of repression. In Schench v. United States (1919) and Abrams v. United States (1919), the Court ruled that the federal government could suspend constitutional rights when the nation faced "a clear and present danger." Charles Schenck and his associates had distributed pamphlets denouncing the Selective Service Act and urging young men to resist the draft, while Jacob Abrams and others published leaflets attacking American intervention in the Bolshevik Revolution.


In addition to the federal government, the American people were also guilty of repressive acts during the war. Wartime propaganda indoctrinated the public with "100% Americanism," a hatred of the "Hun," and a general prejudice towards foreigners. Uttering ritual phrases of reverence and hate guaranteed protection from fanatical Germanphobes. Throughout the U.S. there arose a wild and fearful hatred of the Hun, the German Beast, and the murderous Kaiser. The passionate and unreasoning hatred of anything German, including literature, language and music, grew into a purge of anything un-American. Equating loyalty with conformity, the 100 Percenters belligerently demanded universal compliance. After 1917, pacificists, socialists and conscientious objectors, as well as "hyphenated-Americans," such as German-Americans or Italian-Americans, encountered unprecedented persecution and harassment. Citizens often subjected persons who refused to buy war bonds to public contempt and even assault. Local officials jailed those who questioned the draft or criticized Red Cross or Y.M.C.A. activities, while vigilante groups looked for "draft dodgers" and "slackers."

Eventually America's loyalty crusade focused on domestic radicals, chiefly the socialists, anarchists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) labor union. A radical was defined as anyone who favored progressive legislation or spoke out against governmental injustice. Nationalistic attacks on radicals gathered strength during 1917-1918 when most Americans identified the IWW and the Socialist party with the pacifist movement. By advocating peace and nonconforming political beliefs, these groups ran afoul of both antiradical nativism and anti-German hysteria. America's passionate intolerance during the war eventually led to the indictment and conviction of two Socialist party leaders, on the charges of promoting draft evasion. In mid-1918 federal courts sentenced three-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs and U.S. Senatorial candidate Victor L. Berger to ten and twenty years imprisonment respectively. Although Debs and Berger had never posed a serious threat to the country's ability to wage war, they had violated American society's notions of patriotism, nationalism and 100% Americanism. Not until 1921, after conservatives so thoroughly cowed the spirit of radicalism in America, were they freed from governmental harassment: Debs by a Presidential pardon from Republican Warren G. Harding and Berger by Supreme Court edict.


Another target of the government's antiradical campaign, the Industrial Workers of the World, advocated, at least in rhetoric, full-scale revolution. Yet, the majority of the IWW members rarely practiced what they preached, utilizing unethical and, at times, illegal methods to obtain their stated goals of labor reform and social justice, most "Wobblies" wanted only to change the unjust and oppressive conditions of western mining and lumber camps, of which Nevada had a number. IWW propaganda demanded better wages, hours (a six-hour work day) and conditions, the release of all "class-war prisoners" and the overthrow of the capitalistic system. Distraught Americans came to identify members of the radical union as agents of the Kaiser, working for the ruin of western civilization. Senator Henry Ashurst of Arizona dubbed the Wobblies "Imperial Wilhelm's Warriors." With the advent of the Russian Revolution in 1917, IWWism became more closely associated in the public mind with Bolshevism.


The disregard for individual freedoms, the increasing intolerance toward aliens, minorities and political dissidents, and the misguided patriotic spirit which flourished during wartime should have diminished after the hostilities ended in Europe. Yet, when the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, the nationalistic fervor continued unabated. The termination of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson's "war to end all wars" did not bring the peace and tranquility Americans expected. The transition from war to peace wouldnot come easy. Postwar economic and social problems spoiled the fruits of victory. Business and labor clashed; unemployment and inflation plagued the economy; and labor strikes and race riots erupted in many major cities.


During the war, Big Business had erased much of its tarnished reputation and enhanced its strength and public acceptance. Labor unions also gained increasing support, and enjoyed the benefits of high wartime wages, in addition to achieving a temporary eight-hour work day. Washington's power expanded too, leaving the government in control of the country's communication and transportation systems and theoretically regulating every aspect of America's economy. Organized labor sought to retain its wartime gains. And although the majority of the workers received high wartime wages, pay had not kept pace with the rapid inflation. Thus, unions demanded wage increases, as well as a permanent eight-hour day and better working conditions. Labor leaders also pushed for continued federal regulation of both the economy and Big Business.


In 1919 businessmen wanted a return to normalcy, to a time before Big Labor and government interference. They desired freedom from government's wartime regulation, from labor union demands, and from public responsibility. Troubled by high taxes, spreading radicalism and government ownership, the business community launched an attack on organized workers and Big Government. Labor responded with a series of strikes beginning in January 1919. The clash between business and labor forced the American public to choose sides, and by 1919 most Americans sided with business.


An ailing postwar economy led by the high cost of living as well as runaway inflation became the immediate cause of social discontent. From 1914 to 1919 the cost of living had doubled. After the armistice the Wilson Administration abruptly cut all government spending and the chaotic demobilization which followed caught Americans by surprise. Cancellation of government contracts forced wartime industries to lay off their workers, creating mass unemployment. American workers faced a serious economic recession by 1919.


With the collapse of Germany in November 1918, Americans continued to need some release for the nationalistic frenzy fostered by the Creel Committee. For most Americans, the Great War had been too brief. Hostilities ended in Europe sooner than expected, leaving many citizens full of unreleased patriotic emotions. The sudden halt of the war can be equated with a state of coitus interruptus. Americans had indulged in the act of intercourse with the "Whore of the World," and suddenly the war ended and the whore vanished. The aggressive nationalism of wartime could not be turned off as easily as it had been turned on. The armistice did not end the ideological war on the home front.


The defeat of the German Hun cleared by way to concentrate on the "enemies" at home, and the drive for conformity and 100% Americanism continued. Fear of Bolshevism and domestic radicals replaced the hatred of the Hun. Instead of diminishing the antiradical hysteria and demand for 100% Americanism, the war's end only intensified it. With economic abnormalities, the capital-labor dispute and the explosive national mood the stage was set for America's first Red Scare.


As opposed to America's "Red Scare" of the late 1940s and 1950s, the Red Scare of 1919-1920 erupted during the early months following the armistice which ended the First World War. Hysteria gained momentum throughout the spring and summer of 1919, and climaxed in January 1920. By mid-1920 the illiberal frenzy had fizzled.


The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had a profound effect on the American people. Stories of communist atrocities filled column after column in America's newspapers. Details of mass executions by the communists, along with the horrors of the European war, convinced Americans of the Red Menace. Millions of otherwise rational Americans listened to ugly rumors of a huge radical conspiracy and feared a Red Revolution in the United States. A series of domestic and world events convinced many Americans that the U.S. stood on the brink of its own Bolshevik. No longer willing to tolerate socialists, communists and foreign-born radicals, Americans took swift and decisive action to combat the growing Red threat.


Bolshevik uprisings plagued Bavaria and Hungary, and threatened Italy and France. In March 1919 the Communist Third Internationale in Moscow drafted plans to promote civil war and world revolution. Social unrest in the U.S. had little to do with a world-wide communist conspiracy. Nevertheless, the American people made the most preposterous connections between foreign and domestic dangers, and responded by crushing what they believed were Bolshevik-inspired strikes, suppressing radical publications, and clamoring for the wholesale deportation of alien "reds."


Ironically, the federal government's wartime repression had eliminated the majority of domestic radicals, leaving few politically active in the postwar states. In 1919 no more than 100,000 members, or .001 percent of the adult population, belonged to the two American Communist parties. Labor strikes, radical bombings, race riots, and Red demon-strations further compounded America's postwar fears. Strike activity in 1919 alone involved four million American workers in 3,600 strikes. During the Boston police strike, the little-known Governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, reflected the feelings of American people when he declared, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." Employers continually fed the antiunion sentiment by purposefully equating all strike activity with revolutionary radicalism. The anxieties of the Red Scare seriously damaged organized labor, including the moderate American Federation of Labor. In reality, most workers struck for legitimate reasons. Wages had not kept pace with wartime inflation and after the Armistice, most industries had returned to the traditional ten- to twelve-hour work day. During the fall of 1919 coal miners, and iron and steel workers struck to achieve increased wages and better working conditions. In Seattle, shipyard workers struck in an effort to equalize all wages paid by shipyard owners. Boston's "finest", its policemen walked out, hoping to achieve higher wages and recognition for their union. In each case the strikers lost. Public officials, like Seattle's Mayor Ole Hanson, denounced the workers as "Bolsheviks" and utilized the National Guard to suppress the "Bolshevik-inpired" demonstrations.


More dramatic events plagued American society. In April 1919 a bomb was discovered in Mayor Hanson's mail. The next day a bomb addressed to Senator Thomas A. Hardwick blew off the hands of a domestic servant in Atlanta. A mail clerk in New York discovered sixteen parcels containing "infernal machines" addressed to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and other government officials and industrialists. All together thirty-six packages turned up. A few weeks later serveral bombs exploded, one in front of Attorney General Palmer's Washington home, blowing a man, presumably the bomber, to pieces. Although the bombings were largely the work of criminal fanatics, actions like the veteran's raid on the New York Call socialist newspaper office, the Cleveland May Day Riot, and the Centralia Washington Massacre, were planned by overzealous patriots, paranoid dissidents, or overreacting citizens.


With each new frightening event, America's fear of the "Red Menace" increased. Public figures and the media reflected this concern. Senator Kenneth D. McKellar of Tennessee advocated sending native-born redicals to a penal colony in Guam. Evangelist Billy Sunday wanted to stand all the "ornery wild-eyed Socialists and IWWs" in front of a firing squad. The Tacoma (Washington) Leader crudely demanded,


"We must smash every un-American and anti-American organization in the land. We must put to death the leaders of this gigantic conspiracy of murder, pillage, and revolution. We must imprison for life all its aiders and abettors of native birth. We must deport all aliens."
Various governmental agencies responded to the anti-"red" clamor. In New York, the Lusk Committee of the State Assembly authorized a raid on the Communist headquarters. The Committee's investigation led to the eventual arrest of hundreds of Bolsheviks and "fellow-travelers." The federal government also acted. In November and December of 1919 and in January of 1920 the Justice Department led by Attorney General Palmer and special investigator John Edgar Hoover conducted a series of "Red Raids" and arrested thousands of alien radicals. Believing that the United States stood on the brink of revolution, Palmer and his assistants ignored fundamental human and civil rights. Many arrests took place without warrants. Suspected communists were seized in their homes and jailed, often without any knowledge of the specific charges against them. In Detroit, authorities herded over a hundred men into a bullpen measuring twenty-four by thirty feet and kept them there for a week under intolerable conditions. In Hartford, overzealous officials took the further precaution of arresting and incarcerating all visitors who came to see the suspects.


The American public supported the "Palmer Raids" and the removal of alien radicals. Utilizing the power given by the Immigration Act of 1917, the Labor and Justice Departments cooperated in the first deportation of 249 anarchists, including the notorious Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. The ship, dubbed the "Soviet Ark," left for Russia on December 21, 1919. Constantine M. Panunzio, in a study of these cases, argued that,

"To deport a person merely for the possession of ideas, however objectionable, is not only an illiberal, but a wholly futile, method of directing intellectual development."
According to Panunzio the majority of those deported were hard working Russian and Ukrainian immigrants with families who have lived in the United States from six to ten years. Only a small minority of those exiled could be called "dangerous radicals."


Gradually, opposition to these practices emerged. Twenty-two New York clergymen denounced the "deportation delirium," while one U.S. district attorney resigned in protest. Acting Labor Secretary Louis F. Post held up these proceedings, and released most of the six thousand prisoners against Attorney General Palmer's wishes. Palmer retaliated by calling Post a "Bolshevik." Mounting opposition and legal obstacles caused the movement to quickly subside, but only after 556 had been deported.


Society's intolerance did not limit itself to the purging of Eastern European immigrants. During the war, blacks and other disadvantaged groups had experienced unprecedented economic gains. The army had siphoned millions of men from the labor market creating a huge labor shortage, and with immigration reduced to a trickle, blacks migrated form the rural South to the industrial centers of the North to fill wartime jobs. As more and more blacks came into contact with whites, racial conflicts erupted. In 1917 for example, a bloody riot gripped East St. Louis, leaving forty blacks clubbed, beaten, stabbed or hanged. A series of race riots continued throughout the war. With the return of America's soldiers many employers fired the unwanted blacks and whites, and contributed substantially to black unemployment and poverty.


Following World War I, race riots broke out inseveral cities, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Omaha, Tulsa, and Knoxville. Hundreds of lives were lost. In addition, the number of blacks lynched rose from thirty-six in 1917 to seventy-seven in 1919. The meteoric revival of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s symbolized and embodied this increased nativism and racism.. The new Klan defended white against black, gentile against Jew, and Protestant against Catholic.


The agonies and sacrifices of the First World War and its aftermath along with the threat of a communist conspiracy, had elicited from Americans strong feelings of superpatriotism and xenophobia. This nationalistic and nativistic emotion triggered increasing intolerance of political dissidents, prejudice towards minorities and a flagrant disregard for human rights. Confronted with a mounting concern over radicalism, labor strikes, runaway inflation, and high unemployment, American society capitulated to the postwar Red Scare.


This Page Copyright 1979, 2002 by Ted DeCorte. All Rights Reserved.



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