Title: Red Scare
Author: Robert K. Murray
Murray, Robert K. (1955) Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press
Date Posted: February 27, 2013
This book is an excellent case study of a phenomenon which has passed from the memory of most elderly Americans despite its parallelism in certain respects with the present. As the author makes abundantly clear, the “Palmerism” of 1919 and 1920 ran only less rampant than our own “McCarthyism,” and had the sympathy of the ailing Woodrow Wilson. Palmerism showed the same disheartening ability to class together all shades of liberalism and radicalism and to paint them with the glowing red of revolutionism. Over half of the narrative is devoted to an examination of the psychological background and to the events which brought the red scare to full flower. It is the author’s contention that a budding reaction against progressivism and war promoted nativism and isolationism-movements which were aided by capital’s efforts to portray unionists and strikers as part of a widespread revolutionary conspiracy. The preliminary barrage of bombs and the May Day riots of 1919 had little if any connection with the ensuing Seattle general strike and the strikes by Boston policemen, steel workers, and coal miners, but a sensational press deliberately misrepresented the facts. Communists, anxious to promote chaos and willing to have the workers goaded to desperation, joyously sought to give the impression that these strikes were steps toward revolution. The public, never given to analyzing fine political distinctions on the left, reacted violently and cried for both vengeance and preventive measures. Indeed, these strikes were far from having political implications but were desperate attempts to remedy truly pathetic wages and conditions of labor. Nevertheless shrewd publicity convinced the American people that the real issue was radicalism and removed “the last remaining barrier to hysteria.”
The war-time desire for conformity now spread into schools and churches; negroes were mobbed, and Wobblies in Centralia, Washington, were lynched. Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer, under public pressure, organized a General Intelligence (or antiradical) Division under J. Edgar Hoover, and staged two massive raids which gathered in some eight thousand presumed radicals. Most of them had to be released, but over eight hundred were convicted at administration hearings and deported. The states joined the game, acting under their criminal syndicalist laws. New York had been stirred to early action by its Lusk Investigating Committee, and now the legislature refused to seat five socialists, some of whom had previously served. Their cause was championed by Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., and Governor Alfred E. Smith vetoed five anti-radical bills intended to outlaw the Socialist Party and impose a loyalty oath on teachers.
Curiously enough the struggle over the seating of the five New York assemblymen, so the author states, marked the beginning of the ebb in the red scare. More and more prominent public figures took their stand against the popular hysteria, and newspaper editors began to reverse their position and warn of the growing threat to representative government. Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post, director of deportation proceedings, cancelled warrants by the thousands and examined the remaining cases with more care. Palmer was now left holding the bag which he had seized at public request, and his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination bogged down. Even the bombing of the House of Morgan (September 16, 1920), failed to revive the popular hysteria.
And yet, says our author, the receding red scare left a number of pebbles on the beach. Among these were a reversion to isolation from international affairs, the long refusal to recognize the fact of the existence of Red Russia, the repression not only of radical parties but of socialism, the deterioration of organized labor, a backlog of criminal syndicalist legislation, a decline in liberal thought, an apathy toward reform, and the growth of the atmosphere which made possible the tragedy of Sacco and Vanzetti.
This is one of those rare books in which there is nothing to criticize unless one deliberately rejects the limits imposed by the author or denies his right to adopt the moral approach which he freely acknowledges as his bias. He disclaims the possibility of being completely detached and he is to be commended in this, for it makes his study the more valuable. It is well to break the mold set by too many historians when they identify their leanings with objectivity. In the opinion of this reviewer the author has handled his subject with all honesty, balance, and dignity.
In closing it should be noted that the book contains several amusing cartoons, a valuable “Note on Sources,” and a good index.