In the closing decades of the 19th century, ideas associated with the writings of Karl Marx and the 1848 European revolutions were carried to the United States by immigrant workers. Trade union organizers and sympathizers with the effort of workers to fight for better pay and conditions were denounced as “communists” or “socialists” who wanted to overthrow the established order. From its earliest years, the century-long “war on communism” had the ulterior motives of curbing the trade union movement and stifling dissent.
The first major “Red Scare” coincided with a real war – World War I. Once war was declared against Germany in April 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, making it a crime to interfere with military recruitment. The Sedition Act of 1918 – repealed three years later – prohibited saying or printing anything “disloyal…scurrilous, or abusive” about the government, or saying anything to bring the military into contempt or disrepute. Soon the prisons filled up with anti-war protesters, striking workers and immigrants seen as dangerously radical.
Anti-Red hysteria grew after the Communists came to power in Russia through the November 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The mindset of the period was captured by these words of former President Theodore Roosevelt: “He who is not with us, absolutely and without reserve of any kind, is against us, and should be treated as an enemy alien” (quoted in Peter H. Buckingham, America Sees Red: Anticommunism in America, 1988, p. 15). These words were echoed by Attorney General John Ashcroft soon after the 9/11 attacks.
A few examples show what the atmosphere was like in 1917. Rose Pastor Stokes wrote a letter to a St. Louis newspaper that stated: “I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers.” She was convicted of sedition and sentenced to ten years in prison. In the same year, 1917, Robert Goldstein of Los Angeles made a film about the American Revolution entitled “The Spirit of ’76.” It depicted British soldiers committing massacres and shooting women. Goldstein was given ten years in prison for violating the Espionage Act; the government seized his film and the courts refused to order it returned to him.
The end of World War I did not bring about the end of repression. The fear of “Bolshevism” was manipulated to crush the growing trade union movement and to scare people into silence. At a time when two dozen cities around the nation were convulsed by riots against African Americans, “Bolsheviks” were accused of stirring up not just labor unrest, but also Black resentment.
As the country endured strikes, race riots, and bombings, the sense of hysteria grew. States passed sedition laws, and courts convicted people for criticizing the government, the Constitution or the flag. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer denounced “criminal aliens” for importing “Red” ideology and insisted that it was necessary to “tear out the radical seeds that have entangled American ideas in their poisonous theories” (quoted in Nelson Blackstock, COINTELPRO: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom, 1976, p. 22). He pushed vigorously for an Immigration Act to allow for the deportation of aliens who were active in certain trade unions and compiled a list of 12 proscribed “subversive” organizations.
All around the country, the strikes of 1919 involving millions of longshoremen, stockyard workers, shoe workers, subway workers, steel workers, coal mines and members of the Boston Police were depicted in The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers as “Bolshevik” or “Soviet-inspired” or as a kind of “terror.” Anti-union fever was solidly bipartisan, with the political parties stridently denouncing labor organizing as an attack on America and its way of life. The Massachusetts Secretary of State Albert P. Langtry stated about political radicals: “If I had my way, [I would] take them out in the yard every morning and shoot them, and the next day would have a trial to see whether they were guilty.” The US Senate passed a resolution urging the Attorney General to arrest and deport radical aliens, giving rise to what were called the Palmer Raids.
For most of the 20th century, the “war on communism” ebbed and flowed, and sometimes hit riptide as it did during the McCarthyism period of the 1950s. By then the agencies formed to deal with national security had multiplied, and so had the government files on American citizens.