The Red Scare of the 1920s: Definition, Summary & Causes

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  • 0:06 From War to Peace
  • 1:20 Uneasiness
  • 2:38 Red Scare
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Lobb
The Red Scare of the early 1920s would not be the last. During this time, post-WWI America felt vulnerable and turned its fear on a perceived leftist or 'Red' threat. This lesson will help you to develop an understanding of the Red Scare of the 1920s.

From War to Peace

While the decade of the 1920s is remembered as 'roaring,' with the rise of big business, jazz and urban culture, it did not start off that way. The decade opened to a prelude of fear, anxiety and suspicion.

President Woodrow Wilson returned to the U.S. in 1919 from peace talks in France following the Great War only to see his dream of a 'peace without victory' dashed at Versailles and his 14 points ignored. He was in ill health, and suffered a stroke upon his return. And, although the president made a remarkable recovery, the last thing the nation needed at the anxious start of a new decade was an incapacitated leader.

To make matters worse, the American economy was in transition from wartime to peacetime. War contracts were cancelled, leaving workers and businessmen to cope with this transition. In addition, the Armed Forces began to discharge soldiers, all of whom were now looking for jobs. This was paralleled by a massive flu epidemic. The Spanish Flu spread across the globe in 1918, killing over 22 million people, twice as many as died in World War I. In the U.S. alone there were over 600,000 deaths blamed on the flu. It got so bad citizens could be fined for sneezing without a handkerchief, phone booths were locked and public facilities, such as dance halls, were closed.


Americans felt vulnerable. With the business slump that followed the war, labor unrest worsened. Prices went up after the war and disillusioned workers, free from the constraints of war, were more willing to strike. In 1919, some four million workers went out on strike. Some won their demands, but the general mood in America towards labor unions turned hostile. Foreign ideas were thought to be at the heart of the unrest in America. The mayor of Seattle blamed a strike there on 'Bolshevik influence.' Moves by large labor organizations to stage strikes brought accusations of radicalism, communism and socialism, all of which were viewed as anti-American.

In addition to economic slump, flu epidemics and strikes, racial tension erupted into violence at the beginning of the 1920s. 1919 saw a series of race riots in the North and South. In Longview, Texas, a white mob went through a black neighborhood searching for a man accused of having an affair with a white woman. Shops were burned. In Washington DC, reports that a white woman was attacked by a black man aroused white mobs, and for four days whites and blacks did battle until soldiers restored order. These were but preliminaries to the Chicago riot in the summer of 1919, in which 38 people died and over 500 people were injured.

Red Scare

The American public responded to all of this with fear. Many blamed all of the unrest in America on foreign ideas of communism and radicalism. Many feared that America was ripe for the same type of revolution Russia had experienced at the start of World War I. Wartime hysteria, which had seen a fear and mistrust of Germans, easily became an attack against the left, or Reds.

The Red Scare that hit America at the start of the roaring 1920s would not be the last. Many fears about leftist radicals were dormant until concerns became real. In April of 1919, the U.S. Post Office intercepted some 40 bombs addressed to prominent Americans. However, some got through. One of particular note was the letter bomb that reached the home of Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer. This was enough for the U.S. government to take action.

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