The 1919 Red Scare in the United States was a xenophobic period marked by fear of communists, socialists, anarchists, and radicals; recent immigrants were perceived as the major agitators. Intense patriotism had a stronghold during and following World War I. Suspicion was strong that a Bolshevik revolt, similar to the Russian Revolution of 1917, was being planned on native soil. Massive labor strikes and anarchist bombings provoked fears that democracy was at threat. Overreaction and intolerance during the 1919 Red Scare resulted in major violations of civil liberties.

At the time of the 1919 Red Scare, the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were the basis for legal actions against leftists. The Espionage Act outlawed labor dispute intimidation and military interference. The Sedition Act made it a crime in wartime to use disloyal or profane language about the military, the government, or the flag; information counter to the war effort was illegal and could not be mailed. Many radical publications were stymied or closed throughout the 1919 Red Scare.


Reds are Coming!
Cartoon of Man Reading Paper in Fear---Reds are Coming!

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) participation in many large labor strikes was interpreted as unpatriotic, helping to ignite the 1919 Red Scare. The IWW, still existent today, advocates the uniting of all workers in one union, along with the abolition of the wage system—the end of capitalism. The group took no official stand regarding U.S. participation in WWI, but it was opposed by many members. The IWW ceased antiwar activities upon the U.S. entrance in 1917; still, patriotic, vigilante mobs attacked members in several cities. Many IWW leaders were arrested and convicted under the Espionage Act, fueling the 1919 Red Scare.


A. Mitchell Palmer was Attorney General during the 1919 Red Scare. As a supporter of workers’ rights and women’s suffrage, Palmer initially had a liberal reputation. In April of 1919, numerous mail bombs were discovered which targeted, among others, the head of a senate committee investigating Bolsheviks, a Supreme Court Justice, Attorney General Palmer, immigration officials, and prominent capitalists. Within two months, more bombs exploded in eight different cities within the same hour. In 1920, a bomb exploded in front of the J. P. Morgan office on Wall Street, killing 38 and injuring another 400. Palmer became convinced a subversive plot to overthrow the government was underway; he became the voice of the 1919 Red Scare.


Anarchists March in New York City
Unemployed Anarchists March in New York City

Anarchists Bomb Wall Street New York 1920
Aftermath of 1920 Anarchist Bombing of Wall Street, New York









J. Edgar Hoover was chosen in 1919 by Palmer to head the General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the FBI). On November 7, 1919, the Bolshevik Revolution’s second anniversary, the Palmer Raids commenced; thousands of anarchists, socialists, and communists were arrested. Civil liberty violations included search and arrest sans warrant, beating during arrest and questioning, legal representation denial, prohibitively high bail setting, inhumane incarceration conditions, and unreasonably long detainment without trial.

Prominent anarchist Emma Goldman, considered the nation’s most dangerous female, was deported with hundreds of other radicals at the end of 1919. The dawn of the Roaring Twenties saw the country succumb to hysteria with Palmer's prediction that the revolution would begin on May 1, 1920, the socialist Labor Day. When the day passed without incident, Palmer was discredited and lost power. Major civil liberty violations in the trial of Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti made the U.S.1919 Red Scare worldwide news.


Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933, William Preston, Jr., Harvard University Press, 1963

Not Without Honor: The History of American Anti-Communism, Richard Gid Powers, Free Press, 1995

It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Gary Marks and Seymour Martin Lipset, W.W. Norton & Co., 2000