Home > Uncategorized > 100 Years Ago: The Palmer Raids and Deportation Mania – posted 11/24/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/5/2019

100 Years Ago: The Palmer Raids and Deportation Mania – posted 11/24/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/5/2019

It is easy to be subjective and think we are living in the worst of times. After all, we have thousands of immigrant children being held in cages, an epidemic of white-supremacist-inspired mass shootings, and rampant climate change denial in the face of a climate emergency.

However, contrary to what you might think, these are definitely not the worst of times. One hundred years ago, the United States experienced a three year period from 1917 to 1920 when anti-immigrant hysteria, mass imprisonment of labor activists and radicals and unprecedented censorship ruled the country.

The extent of that political repression far surpasses anything we have seen, to date. That repression zeroed in on people who had been living in the country – not people trying to enter.

The peak of that hysteria was the Palmer Raids, named after then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Anyone who saw the movie J.Edgar in which Leonardo DiCaprio played J. Edgar Hoover might remember that the movie started with Hoover’s role in the Palmer Raids.

The government carried out raids in 35 cities, sweeping up thousands of immigrants and suspected radicals. There are no clear records of how many were arrested during the raids carried out in November1919 and January 1920. Estimates range from 3,000 to 10,000 people arrested.

There were no search warrants. Suspects were grabbed off the street and from their residences; they were often badly beaten up by the police, thrown in jail, and left to rot there for months.There was no meaningful due process. America was in the grips of a Red Scare and powerful politicians and business leaders favored mass deportation of immigrants and radicals.

Fear got completely out of hand. In understanding why the Palmer Raids happened, the historical context is critical. The United States had entered World War I in 1917. In November 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution occurred, with seismic shock impact. Many American business leaders feared social revolution would happen here.

There was an active radical labor movement led by the Socialist Party and by the International Workers of the World also known as the IWW or the Wobblies. Part of the resistance in that era was a small anti-war movement opposing America’s role in World War I. Radicals like Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman organized against the draft.

For the powers-that-be, deportation became a political weapon to be used. If they were not citizens, foreign-born radicals especially became government targets. For example, federal authorities put Emma Goldman (and 248 others) on a boat back to Russia even though she had lived in America for over 30 years.

The Palmer Raids had followed on the heels of attacks on the Wobblies. In September 1917, Federal agents raided 48 Wobbly offices around the country as well as the homes of activists. Over 100 Wobblies were put on trial in Chicago. This still remains the largest mass trial in American history.

The judge found all the accused guilty on all counts, handing out sentences totaling 807 years of prison time and fines of more than $2.4 million. The punishment delivered a crippling blow.

In Butte, Montana, in August 1917, a mob lynched a Wobbly organizer named Frank Little. Vigilantes played an important role in the Palmer Raids, supplementing the authorized persecution.

Little was not the only one lynched. Lynching has been an American tradition and 1919 saw more lynchings than in the previous ten years. President Wilson himself stoked the racism by predicting that American blacks “would be our greatest medium for conveying Bolshevism to America”. 83 African Americans were lynched in 1919.

That era had seen a huge increase in immigration to America, especially from people living in Italy, Eastern Europe and Russia. There were many Jewish immigrants too. Not unlike now, many Americans believed immigrants should go back where they came from. Nativism was a powerful current.

Anarchists had tried to blow up the home of Attorney General Palmer himself. Palmer believed that 90% of socialist and anarchist agitation was “traceable to aliens”. The American Establishment looked down their noses at aliens as undesirable and inferior. Shortly after the Palmer Raids, the government initiated strict immigration quotas.

Many of those arrested during the Palmer Raids had no relationship to anything radical but they were foreign born. In New Hampshire, federal agents and local police conducted a series of raids around the state, including in Berlin, Nashua and Manchester.

Russians were particularly suspect because of the fact of the Russian revolution. State-wide, 260 people were rounded up for such offenses as reading Russian newspapers or for being members of the Tolstoy Club.

Part of the repression was an assault on the media. President Wilson’s Postmaster General Albert Burleson went after a wide range of progressive newspapers and magazines especially those connected to the Socialist Party and the Wobblies. Over 75 different publications were either censored or completely banned.

Interestingly, most of those seized in the Palmer Raids were not ultimately deported although almost 600 were. 80% of those arrested ended up being released without charge.The reason more extensive deportations failed was because of the actions of an unknown hero, Louis F. Post, the acting Secretary of Labor. In that period, while Palmer’s Justice Department had the power to arrest people, deportation was under the jurisdiction of the Immigration Bureau which was then part of the Labor Department.

Post was a wily opponent of Palmer and Hoover. He invalidated over 3000 arrests when he discovered that many of the raids had been made without warrants or with warrants based on faulty information. Post also found that many of those swept up in the raids were questioned without being informed their answers could be used against them. They had never been given access to lawyers. Post managed to eliminate or dramatically reduce bail for many of those held.

Hoover unsuccessfully tried to get the American Legion to pressure for Post’s dismissal. There was then an effort to get Post impeached. That failed. Post prevented thousands from being deported.

I am struck by how little known the Palmer Raids are. They have been largely forgotten. In comparing that era and our own, I do think there is a greater awareness now of due process and constitutional rights.There is also greater media attention to violations of civil liberties. Still, both eras point to how hysteria about immigrants can quickly lead to the erosion of fundamental rights and values.

If Trump thought he could pull off something like the Palmer raids, does anyone doubt that he would try? The Palmer Raids stand as an example of how bad things can get when hysteria commands public policy.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. November 26, 2019 at 3:55 pm

    In part because it’s the 100th anniversary and holds so many lessons for today, the Palmer Raids are getting some good attention. The November 11th issue of The New Yorker has an expansive piece on much of what’s here by Adam Hochschild — https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/11/when-america-tried-to-deport-its-radicals —peter miller

    • November 26, 2019 at 4:20 pm

      Hey Peter, thanks for reading it! The Hochschild piece is really good. I saw it when I researched and much of the stuff I learned about Louis Post came from that. I had never even heard of him before.

  2. Suzy Colt
    December 5, 2019 at 1:41 pm

    I read with great interest all of your pieces in the Monitor and always learn something. Have you read a book by Ann Hagadorn called Savage Peace? I highly recommend it! It covers this subject and much more about the year 1919. You can get it through interlibrary loan at your local library – Suzy Colt

    • December 5, 2019 at 4:39 pm

      Thanks Suzy. I did not know that book. Thanks so much for the tip. I will check it out. I hope everything is good with you. Jon

      • Suzy Colt
        December 5, 2019 at 6:54 pm

        Jon, All’s well here. I’m writing a book – a biography of my father’s life. I love the research part. He was born in 1905, so I’m immersing myself in the first half of the 20th Century. You have been writing fabulous pieces that have made it into the Monitor that have piqued my interest. Suzy

      • December 5, 2019 at 7:48 pm

        Thank you Suzy. You are really sweet to say that. You should definitely share your book when you are ready.

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