January 2, 1920 – The U.S. Government Stages Massive Raids in 33 Cities

On this date in history, over five hundred government agents in 33 U.S. cities arrested between 6-10,000 aliens suspected of communism, radicalism and anarchism. These so-called “Palmer Raids” were conducted at the direction of President Wilson’s U.S. Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer.

U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer

U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer

Born in 1872, Palmer was a supporter of the Democratic Party and was even associated with the progressive wing of the party. However, once in office, he became convinced that communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. Palmer recruited J. Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.

On November 7th, 1919 – the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, they arrested over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists. In spite of finding no evidence of any revolutionary activities, a large number of suspects were held without trial. Most were eventually released but 248 of them, including Emma Goldman, were deported to Russia.

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

In January, 1920, more were arrested (as described above) and held without trial. Again, the two found no evidence of a proposed revolution, but as before, a large number of these suspects continued to be held without trial.

When Palmer announced that a communist revolution was likely to take place on the first of May, mass panic took place. When the May revolution failed to materialize, attitudes towards Palmer began to change and he was criticized for disregarding people’s basic civil liberties. Unfortunately, however, his second in command, Hoover, survived not only unscathed but with even more power.

In 1920 Palmer wrote an article explicating his views. It is worth taking a look at, as it can be quite scary in parts:

Justifying the raids, he wrote:

My information showed that communism in this country was an organization of thousands of aliens who were direct allies of Trotzky. Aliens of the same misshapen caste of mind and indecencies of character, and it showed that they were making the same glittering promises of lawlessness, of criminal autocracy to Americans, that they had made to the Russian peasants. How the Department of Justice discovered upwards of 60,000 of these organized agitators of the Trotzky doctrine in the United States is the confidential information upon which the Government is now sweeping the nation clean of such alien filth….”

Very frightening indeed…

New York Evening Telegram, November 1, 1919

New York Evening Telegram, November 1, 1919


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