The Palmer Raids were a series of round-ups that led to wide-scale arrests and deportations conducted by the United States Department of Justice under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who was assisted by the future director of the FBI, John Edgar Hoover.
The raids, which took place during President Woodrow Wilson’s White House tenure, targeted suspected left-wing radicals, communists, and anarchists, many of foreign descent during the height of the First Red Scare in 1919-20.
The raids were disastrous, xenophobic, paranoid attacks against many innocent individuals and protected constitutional rights due to built-up tensions following the Bolshevik Revolution, the conclusion of World War I, a series of anarchist bombings, and labor strikes.
The summer of the initial raids is known infamously as the “Red Summer” when tensions were at their highest. The media whipped the country into a frenzy, punctuated by the Palmer Raids and white mobs’ violent attacks on black citizens and neighborhoods.
First Red Scare
Following the Russian Revolution in Russia that began in 1917 and ended in Czarist rule in favor of a Communist form of government, the American public became deeply suspicious and weary of a potential repeat on their shores.
Adding to the anxiety of the time was the deadly flu pandemic, “the Spanish flu,” and violent labor strikes that occurred across the country, often led by the Communist-leaning International Workers of the World (IWW, AKA the Wobblies).
Espionage and Sedition Acts
Congress passed the Espionage Act in 1917 as a response to the Red Scare and a part of the United States’ recent entrance into the first World War. The act attempted to root out enemy spies or collaborators within the United States.
The Sedition Act followed in 1918 and essentially made it a crime to criticize the United States government, the military, and the war effort, inflicting harsh penalties on anyone found guilty of doing so.
1919 Anarchist Bombing Campaign
Throughout the spring and early summer of 1919, bombs were mailed to various recipients affiliated with the government, a cross-section of high-level law enforcement and government officials.
One of the first recipients of the mail bombs was former United States senator from Georgia, Thomas Hardwick. He survived the bombing when his maid opened the package (she also survived, albeit with severe injuries).
Another early target was Seattle mayor Ole Hanson, he opened the package, but the bomb failed to detonate. A few days later, mail clerk Charles Caplan intercepted 36 mail bombs intended for notable citizens, including J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.
Bombing campaign resumes
The initial bombing campaign unleashed a wave of panic amongst the public spurred on by the media coverage, which pushed a conspiracy narrative.
On June 2nd, 1919, the anarchist bombing campaign continued. Two people were killed when a bomb exploded at the home of Judge Charles Cooper Nott Jr. in New York City.
That same day at Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s house in Washington D.C., a bomb exploded prematurely, killing anarchist Carlo Valdinoci.
The nation was hungry for a robust response to the anarchist terrorism, and near victim, Attorney General Palmer, was all too willing to do just that.
Palmer placed a young Justice Department lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover in charge of collecting information and intelligence about the anarchists and their networks in the bombing campaign.
In the fall of 1919, the Department of Justice began rounding up and arresting suspected radicals and foreigners identified as suspects by Hoover’s team.
Russian House incident
During the early stages, police brutally raided various locations suspected of housing radicals, including the Russian People’s House in New York City, a meeting place for Russian immigrants who gathered there for educational purposes.
While inside, Department of Justice officials beat the occupants with blackjacks and clubs. In an algebra class housed within the building, police beat the teacher and demanded that the students hand their money over to agents who subsequently ransacked the room.
Palmer’s raids continued across the United States, with police brutally dragging suspects out of their living quarters frequently without warrants. One thousand people were arrested in the raids, spread across 11 major cities.
In another particularly notable incident, 100 men were rounded up and detained in Hartford, Connecticut, for over five months without being informed of the charges against them or being allowed representation.
That December, many recently arrested radicals were deported from the country on a steamship dubbed “the Red/Soviet Ark” bound for Russia. A total of 249 radicals were aboard the ship, including infamous anarchist Emma Goldman.
The second wave of Palmer raids commenced on January 2nd, 1920. This time Justice Department officials conducted raids in 33 different cities and arrested more than 3,000 people, over 800 of whom lived in the greater Boston area.
Abuses of those arrested continued in Detroit. Nearly 1,000 men arrested were starved for a week and later tortured during questioning. These raids, in particular, proved to be a disaster for Hoover and Palmer, who were widely criticized for their poor planning and fanatical efforts.
Creation of the ACLU
One benefit of the Palmer Raids was the creation of a new organization to protect civil liberties for all, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
In response to the rampant abuses and debasement of civil rights perpetrated during the Palmer Raids, the ACLU took on many cases defending wrongly targeted immigrants and members of targeted unions like the IWW and other wrongly accused political radicals.
Though initially popular among the public, the raids eventually drew a great deal of criticism from American citizens as more information was revealed regarding the raids and the abuses committed and the lack of success in convicting actual anarchists.
Rebukes from Congress and a report from a group of lawyers and judges revealed the extent to which due process had been disregarded and the sheer number of violations committed by the Justice Department.
After a thorough review of those arrested and deported, over 1,500 deportations were invalidated. Only 556 of the numerous deportees remained deported.
Despite being widely condemned, Palmer admitted no wrongdoing and stood steadfast in his decisions.
In a last-ditch effort to swing public support in his favor and against the communists, Attorney General Palmer claimed that there would be a Communist uprising on May 1st, 1920 (May 1st being mayday or international workers day). The rebellion failed to materialize, and Palmer was widely mocked and derided.
The Palmer Raids remains a black mark in American history and serve as an example of what can happen when mass hysteria and power coincide. Today the Palmer Raids are an important reminder of the need to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights.