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Palmer Raids of 1920: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Jason McCollom
Fearing a communist revolutionary takeover of the U.S., Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer set in motion a hunt for conspirators, called the Palmer Raids. Read about these raids and test your understanding with a quiz.

The Red Scare

Though the U.S. and the Allies won World War I in 1918, there was still fear in the air. Influential journalist Walter Lippman wrote, 'We seem to be the most frightened victors the world ever saw.' So what were Americans so scared of?

In 1917 the Bolsheviks (nicknamed the 'Reds') took control of Russia and created the world's first communist state. They declared their goal of fomenting a worldwide communist revolution. Many Americans were sympathetic to the Bolshevik's anti-capitalist views: socialists were elected as mayors and council members in many U.S. cities, and the socialist candidate for president Eugene V. Debs, languishing in federal prison for criticizing America's role in World War I, received almost 1 million votes in the 1920 election. Radical labor unions challenged their employers with a series of strikes and violent confrontations. And anarchists triggered bombs in courthouses and police stations, killing dozens. This set off the Red Scare: a fear of revolutionary violence in the United States.

Many Americans feared revolutionary violence during the Red Scare
red scare

When a bomb destroyed the front of the U.S. Attorney General's house in June, 1919, he vowed to stop the pending anti-capitalist revolution in America. The Attorney General, a man named A. Mitchell Palmer, proclaimed that a 'blaze of revolution' was 'sweeping over every American institution of law and order.'

The aftermath of the bombing of the house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer
palmer bomb

The Palmer Raids

Beginning in 1918 and continuing through 1920, Palmer spearheaded a nationwide hunt for potential revolutionaries. He argued that anyone who might harbor ideas that could lead to violence should be detained and deported, even if they hadn't committed an actual crime. Palmer set up a Radical Division within the Justice Department, and the new division's sole aim was to seek out revolutionaries.

The Palmer Raids targeted radical labor unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Union of Russian Workers. Federal officials also roughed up and arrested immigrants, socialists, and communists.

The largest of the Palmer Raids occurred in January, 1920, when Palmer's henchmen broke down doors in over 30 cities. Almost 6,000 people were arrested, many taken from their homes without arrest warrants. Though Palmer claimed to have captured a variety of conspirators and subversives, the truth was something different. Most of the 500 people that were deported as result of the raids were nothing more than intellectual radicals who had committed no crime nor participated in anything illegal. But Americans were scared, so they allowed Palmer to act with impunity.

Fear-mongers like A. Mitchell Palmer usually go too far. And Palmer did when he announced that he had uncovered a revolutionary conspiracy set to be unleashed on May 1, 1920. Palmer predicted an orgy of violence and destruction. Heeding his warning, states sent out militias, bomb squads, and police en masse.

A. Mitchell Palmer
palmer 2

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