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Hoover red scare 1919 ch2

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The Red Scare In Nevada, 1919-1920 - Chapter 2
by Ted DeCorte

The Nevada Experience
The Red Scare contagion which plagued American society in 1919 also infected Nevada. Nevadans had experienced the emotional trauma of World War I and responded with nationalistic fervor and increased intolerance. Reading daily reports of Bolshevik atrocities, Nevadans also came to fear a Communist revolution. High inflation, labor unrest and widespread unemployment disrupted the local economy and intensified the social dislocations and growing public apprehensions. Finally, the press heightened local fears and frustrations by warning of a pervasive "spirit of lawlessness" and devoting extensive coverage to labor problems, radical bombings, and mob violence at the national level.

A fear of Bolshevism mingled with the war's leftover emotions to dominate the minds of most Nevadans during the Red Scare. The state's "yellow press" reported extensively on the advance of this "menace of the world," and devoted considerable space to the growing hysteria at home. Even though the U.S. Justice Department reported in January 1919 that Bolshevism showed "no promise of reaching a stage of open disorder" in the United States, many Nevadans remained terrified. Newspapapers utilized scare tactics in an effort to arouse citizens and prevent "anarchy" frm destroying Nevada's "free institutions." Publication of the so-called "Cardinal Principles of Bolshevism" further reinforced everyone's worst fears that Bolshevism advocated high wages, no work, no punishment, no taxation and the confiscation of personal property.

The editor of the Battle Mountain Scout, Mrs. Alice L. Haworth, reduced the sources of the Bolshevik danger in America to "the over-educated collge theorist and the under-educated toiler who takes his ideas form the soapboxer." "Neither of then," Haworth continued, "is a taxpayer." Her solution to the Bolshevik problem was to make these people go "out into the open and (do) some real work."

Others, such as William W. Booth, editor of the Tonopah Daily Bonanza had more "effective" remedies: "The proper punishment for every fellow who says he's a bolshevik, (should be) to make him go and live right among 'em." By the Fall of 1919 many Nevadans agreed with Booth that "there is no place in the United States for . . . enemies of the government." Hence, the only practical solution became, in the popular expression of the day, "ship or shoot."

Like most Americans, Nevadans became caught up in the emotional rhetoric and they clamored for the deportation of "Red." They believed as the Nevada State Journal put it, that "if Boshevism is as good as it is cracked up to be," why not deport the American Bolsheviks to Russia? This irrational and narrow-minded rhetoric typified the mood of Nevadans during the Red Scare. They assumed that everyone with non-conforming or nontraditonal political beliefs was "un-American" and therefore a "menace." Consequently, they felt the sooner "Bolsheviks" and "traitors" could be either imprisoned or deported, the sooner the welfare of the United States would be ensured.

Some Nevadans expressed concern that Communist Russia would unite with Germany and rise against the world. Nevadans wanted to preserve and protect their investment in the war effort; almost five thousand Nevada boys had served in the armed forces and 120 had been killed. (NOTE: an epidemic of Spanish influenza swept across the United States during the winter of 1918-1919. By February over 125 thousand Americans perished from the disease, more lives lost in the war. The flu killed over 600 Nevadans. Certainly, these deaths along with the casualties of war further aggravated the emotional instability of postwar Nevada.) The weekly casualty lists in the newspapers and perennial Victory Bond drives only fanned the flames of hatred toward the Germans and prolonged the sadness and tragedy of the war. While stories of the stalled peace negotiations and the German atrocities filled Nevada's newspapers, advertisements and posters urged Nevadans: "Don't Be A Slacker - - Buy Victory Bonds." Editorials depicted the German "Hun" as subhuman, militaristic and cunning. A typical column described the "Hun" as "the world's real yellow peril." As in other states, hostility toward the German "Beast" turned inward and Nevadans directed their bigotry toward the alien immigrants and "slackers" who refused to support America's crusade against Germany. Indeed, citizens branded anyone criticizing the U.S. as "German" or "un-American." Patriotic groups appealed to all loyal Americans and "hun killers" to prevent "slackers" from spreading anti-American propaganda.

The case of Tony Denati of Dayton provides an excellent example of the prevailing intolerance toward "slackers." Federal officials has arrested Denati in June 1918 on the charge of "obstructing the sale of war stamps," a direct violation of the Espionage Act of 1918. Witnesses at the trial in March 1919 testified that Denati believed "Germany did right in sinking the Lusitania." Furthermore, Denati had declared that the war was a "rich man's war." Given the intolerant postwar mood in Nevada, certainly Denati's statements as much as his actions led to his conviction, although he had posed no threat to Ameica's war effort in Europe.

Nevada's irregular postwar economy and soaring inflation prompted citizens to search for scapegoats to hold responsible for the high cost of living. The editors of the Reno Evening Gazette and the Battle Mountain Scout blamed "profiteers" and "hoarders" for the economic woes, and labeled them as "Judas," although one editor did note that "Judas had the grace to hang himself." To combat rising prices, citizens appointed committees to investigate profiteering by local merchants, and wore home-made overalls, the "common rainment for the common people," at work and social events.

Nevada's rampant inflation had actually resulted from the war. The conflict had brought an artificial prosperity to the state by increasing the demand for copper, silver and other metals. By 1918 Nevada's annual mineral production had reached $48 million, nearly two million dollars more than the heyday of Virginia City's Comstock lode during the 1870s. World War I had also stimulated agriculture in Nevada. Sugar and honey production, for instance, became increasingly profitable, as Nevada farmers shipped more overseas. The state's ranchers sent meat and horses to American soldiers and European allies, while sheepherders supplied wool for uniforms and clothing. Although the war had greatly increased the demand for Nevada's agricultural and mining products, this ceased with the armistice in 1918.

President Wilson's chaotic national demobilization abruptly cut mining activity in Nevada and also brought sharp declines imn livestock and farm prices. Because the economies of the state's small towns relied heavily on these industries, many people suffered. Nevadans felt betrayed. They had fought and sacrificed to make the "world safe for Democracy," only to see their own well-being seemingly threatened. One returning doughboy in New York City remarked, "We fought for democracy, and what we got was prohibition and influenza." In his message to the 1919 Nevada legislature, Governor Emmett Boyle warned that postwar economic readjustments would be necessary if Nevadans wished to preserve their way of life, and he pointed out the the "greatest immediate problem" of the postwar period would be unemployment.

While falling prices and unemployment helped create a wave of intolerance in the state, the enactment of prohibition laws contributed to the rising social problem of "lawless and disorderly defense of law and order." Prohibition measures were passed primarily to conserve grain during the war, but with the patriotic necessity eliminated these statutes became difficult to enforce. Many Nevadans refused to obey them, thereby creating a postwar atmosphere of disobedience in the the state. The war's end had also produced a significant transient population which contributed to the climate of restlessness and turmoil. Thousands of unemployed workers and ex-soldiers wandered from town to town, some searching for jobs, others seeking excitement. Tonopah represented a typical postwar Nevada mining community. Many of the drifters, vagrants and con-artists who took up temporary residence committed burglary, vandalism, petty larceny and other crimes.

Opposition to prohibition and the general social dislocation produced a clamor for social control in the state. The threat of Bolshevism and the occurrence of national strikes, riots and bombings, made people increasingly intolerant of criminal behavior in Nevada. In response to the rising crime and "anarchy," Nevadans demanded law and order, and organized vigilante committees and "law and order" campaigns. They urged public officials to declare war on bootleggers, gamblers and prostitutes. Looking for scapegoats, Nevadans blamed criminal activity on the IWWs, agitators and other "troublemakers." Reno police escorted employed drifters out of town while Elko citizens called for an "anti-loafing" law similar to New York's. In an effort to reduce fatal accidents and crime, a small minority of Nevadans supported legislation to stop the private sale of guns.

In Tonopah, one newspaper launched a law and order campaign, reporting all unsolved crimes and urging citizens' hel to combat the crime wave. This action provoked a violent response, not from Tonopah's "lawless" element, but ironically from the police force. Indeed, Police Chief Jack Grant assaulted the paper's editor after ordering him to "cut it out." During Grant's trial, defense witnesses asserted that he was right to assail the editor, especially since the newspaper had called Tonopah's police force "slackers." Sympathizing with Grant's indignation, the jury acquitted him. Despite the verdict, Tonopah's law and order crusade continued. Eventually, the town's business community intervened and organized the Tonopah Law Enforcement League to crack down on bootleggers and illegal gamblers. The "law and order" frenzy became a key political issue throughout the 1920s.

The Nevada press' coverage of national events contributed significantly to the state's heightened fear and apprehension during the postwar period. Accounts of mob violence and labor unrest expressed in highly emotional rhetoric convinced many Nevadans that "radicalism" would soon spread to their state.

In early 1919 the state's newspapers alerted citizens to what looked like a revolutionary takeover by radical labor in Seattle, Washington. On February 6, sixty thousand Seattle workers paralyzed the city by calling a general strike. Although the laborers had struck for higher wages, shorter hours, and the right to bargain collectively, Nevada's press labeled Seattle's walkout "an experiment in Russian Bolshevism," declared it "without much merit," and believed it had "no place in the history of the American people." After Seattle mayor Ole Hanson mobilized the national guard to "crush the reds," Nevada's newspapers praised his "courageous" efforts to protect the city from the "enemies of society" and prevent it from becoming "a battlefied for IWWs or Bolshevists."

Nevadans were further warned of the danger of radical domination in the West by reports of the Centralia, Washington episode in November 1919. Centralia's Armistice Day parade erupted into a clash between American Legionnaires and members of the IWW when the marching veterans ahd rerouted their parade to purposely pass the IWW headquarters. Anticipating this move Wobbly leaders had stationed armed members inside the hall and on rooftops overlooking the street. When paraders arrived, a group of Legionnaires rushed the hall door. They were met with a flurry of bullets leaving four Legionnaires and several Wobblies dead. After the bloody melee, officials arrested the IWWs. That night an enraged mob hauled one Wobbly agitator, a veteran himself, out of jail ad castrated him. They then dragged him behind a car, hanged him from a bridge, and shot him full of holes. Later, the coroner determined that cause of death to be "suicide."

The Centralia Massacre triggered a violent reaction from Nevada's press, which labeled the "wholesale murder of citizens" as a "cowardly plot . . . executed by a lot of fools." Editors endorsed the "lynch law" and believed that "no regret" could be expressed; the shots fired at Centralia "have been heard over the entire country," and should "awaken Americans to take steps to end IWWism . . . whenever and wherever it shoves its snaky head above ground." According to the press, "The spirit of IWWism, of Bolshevism, or anarchy, is in the air," and they predicted that "blood may flow in our streets."

After Centralia, the press and patriotic groups in Nevada clamored for the arrest and deportation of all "un-American, disloyal, disturbing, radical, or destructive individuals." In December 1919 the U.S. Justice Department began to arrest and deport "alien reds." Newspapers praised the government's action: "Uncle Sam is doing the right thing in sending undesirable citizens back to Russia"; these radicals "should be deported in a leaky boat with the pumps clogged." When 249 radicals left on the "Soviet Ark," Nevadans bid them "Good Riddance." In a particularly bewildering Christmas message the Sparks Tribune wrote: "The Justice Department is cleaning the Nation of the citizens of other climes who teach and preach against our government and the best ideals of Christianity . . . Let greed, envy, malice, and hatred be cast into the junk pile for the day, at least."

As Nevada's press also fueled passions with irrational denunciations of Socialists and other political nonconformists, Nevadans freely denounced all Socialists as "Bolshevists" or "traitors." One "traitor" who provoked the wrath of citizens was the Socialist, Congressman-elect Victor L. Berger of Wisconsin. In early 1919 Congress refused to seat this duly elected representative from Milwaukee. Although the House's decision violated the principle of representative government, the vast majority of Nevadans supported the ruling. The press' attack on Berger's radical beliefs reveals the imflammatory role of the third estate within Nevada. The Sparks Tribune insisted that Berger "should never be allowed to again participate in the benefits of liberty, let alone be mentioned in the same breath with Congress." Reno's Evening Gazette called Berger's election a "disgrace," and denounced Berger as one "who speaks English with the gutteral accent of the enemy." The Gazette urged the federal government to deport Berger along with "all other offensively active alien born citizens." The paper also declared: "Victor L. Berger, felon, is no more eligible to a seat in Congress than a yellow dog would be."

In a special election to choose a replacement, Milwaukee voters again selected the controversial Socialist. Nevada's press was outraged, denouncing the voters as "a menace to the nation." In fact the Nevada State Journal 's editor called for the disenfranchisement of Berger's supporters: "The country should know each man who voted for Berger, then it would be possible to disenfranchise those who deliberately put into jeopardy the welfare of the country by . . . casting a ballot (for) an avowed enemy of American institutions." After Congress again refused to seat Berger, Wisconsin's governor declined to call another election. In response, the Yerington Times congratulated the Governor "for refusing to waste money by returning to Congress a man wasteful to that body." Milwaukee voters went unrepresented in Congress until the 1920 election.

Another Socialist, Eugene V. Debs, also provoked Nevada's reactionary press. Following his conviction in 1918 for violation of the Espionage Act, Debs and his supporters sought a presidential pardon from President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson refused, forcing Debs to reamin in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta. Nevada's Republican newspapers labeled Debs an "avowed revolutionist," and believed his sympathizers should be forced to join him in prison, so they too could "study the difference between 100 percent Americanism and rotten pretensions."

The press' treatment of former Nevadan Louise Bryant, the wife of American Communist leader John Reed, further illustrates Nevada's hostility toward political nonconformists. Ms. Bryant, after a trip to Bolshevik Russia, wrote a book entitled Six Red Months in Russia . (NOTE: Ms. Bryant was raised in Wadsworth, Nevada and spent her first two college years at the Univesity of Nevada in Reno. In 1919 her stepfather, Sheridan Bryant, was a conductor for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Ms. Bryant's relationship with John Reed was depicted in Warren Beatty's film "Reds.") The press immediately branded the former University of Nevada student a "revolutionary." In response to this criticism, Ms. Bryant, in a letter to the Reno Evening Gazette wrote, "I have never written a revolutionary pamphlet in my life." Bryant's opposition to American interventon in Russia and claim that the Bolshevik Revolution was "like the American civil war," infuriated people. To many Nevadans, radicals like Bryant, Berger, and Debs symbolized the foreign "plot" to overthrow democracy.

Most of the factors that had produced the Red Scare on the national scene were also present in Nevada. Economic and social dislocations combined with pent up wartime emotions to produce anxiety and frustration. Disoriented and apprehensive, Nevadans viewed Bolshevik activities with a wary eye. When the press fanned the flames of this mounting hysteria with sensational accounts of national events, Nevadans began to last out at the "un-American" groups in their midst.

All Rights Reserved, 1979, 2002 by Ted DeCorte.

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