The Red Scare of 1919: Persecution, Fear, and Consequences

The Red Scare of 1919 was the initial of two significant periods in American History marked by anxiety over radicalism leading to the persecution and expulsion of individuals believed to be radicals (communists, anarchists, or socialists). This unprecedented occurrence illustrates the damaging repercussions that can arise from widespread suppression and fear of radical beliefs.

One of the main reasons for the Red Scare was the laws passed during World War I. Social-anarchists opposed American involvement in the war and the draft, leading Congress to amend the Espionage Act to create the Sedition Act.

This law allowed for censorship of radical materials and regulation of mail, targeting subversives broadly. As a result, many people, including Eugene Debs, were arrested for distributing anti-military media during this time.

Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes established the "clear and present danger" doctrine in response to the Sedition Act of 1918, marking the beginning of modern First Amendment jurisprudence. The Act was crucial in implementing censorship post-World War I as "Reds" were feared to be a threat to the American government, economy, and way of life.

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This environment of intolerance towards subversives fueled the Red Scare of 1919, with the Sedition Act being used as grounds to control, censor, prosecute, and remove Americans believed to be radicals.

Intolerance during the war bred fear of immigrants and radicals in Americans, leading to heightened hysteria with just a small trigger. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia intensified these fears, as Americans worried about a similar uprising. The post-World War I labor unrest played a crucial role in fueling the flames of the Red Scare of 1919.

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The post-war years were difficult due to economic instability and labor problems. Before, workers had anticipated that the favorable working conditions prevalent during wartime would persist. The economy flourished during the war thanks to lucrative contracts that boosted industry. Labor was backed by the government to ensure high production levels. However, once the war concluded, contracts were terminated, leading to increased joblessness, strained relations between management and labor, and a sharp 99% increase in living costs by 1919 due to inflation.

The lack of government support led to labor unions resorting to striking to regain the progress they had achieved during the war, with a notable strike in Seattle involving sixty thousand workers according to Painter. These strikes were quickly branded as communist activities aimed at destabilizing the American economy, sparking a wave of paranoia. Labor unions were now viewed as tools of Bolshevik influence, and their members were unfairly marked as communists. As a result, America started to fear the erosion of their way of life, prompting them to take action.

The fear of radicalism can be traced back to the era of intolerance in World War I. The propaganda methods used to unite the American public against Germany and hyphenated Americans during the war were repurposed to demonize Bolsheviks. As Russia's departure from the war and adoption of a non-capitalist economic system did not sit well with America, Bolsheviks were perceived as a menace to democracy.

Similarly, the establishment of the Communist International was viewed as an effort to globalize communism. In the aftermath of the war, people were fearful, especially with the perception that communists were aiming to dismantle the American economy and government. The discovery of mail bombs, including one that exploded at Attorney General Palmer's residence, further heightened these concerns and attributed them to a communist plot to destabilize America. This marked the onset of the Red Scare in 1919.

Labor unions, elected officials who were members of the socialist party, and anyone perceived as radical, were all targeted during this time of persecution, labeled as "reds." This was exemplified by the dismissal of five elected socialists in the New York State Assembly and the Palmer raids, where six thousand people were arrested and five hundred were deported. Despite the low number of Communists in the country in 1919, they were considered a significant threat by Palmer.

Encouraged by Congress, Palmer initiated a series of high-profile raids targeting radicals and leftists. Operating without warning or warrants, Palmer's agents raided union offices as well as the headquarters of Communist and Socialist groups. They primarily targeted aliens over citizens, as aliens had fewer legal protections.

Despite the swift end of the Red Scare of 1919, lasting consequences remained. The hysteria and raids were ultimately deemed ineffective, with only a small percentage of suspected communists being deported. The government's persecution ceased due to its lack of success, but the fear and hatred towards radicals persisted. This sentiment would resurface in the 1950's during the McCarthy era, leading to a more organized and intense Red Scare. Lessons learned from dealing with communists in the past would be applied in the next crusade against communism in America.

The Red Scare of 1919 led to a heightened fear of immigration among Americans, which was a prominent and immediate consequence of the era. Palmer's visible and impactful raids brought the "enemy" to light, leading to restrictions and quotas on immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe. The fear of communism evolved into a hostility towards immigrants, making it difficult for American citizens to welcome new arrivals. Immigrants were often unjustly labeled as subversives, anarchists, and communists.

The negative impact on American immigrants in the years to come was clearly shown through the trial of Sacco and Venzetti, highlighting the connection between immigrants and social unrest. Additionally, unions were viewed negatively for many years, with the association of communism continuing to hinder labor advancements and reform efforts.

Updated: Feb 21, 2024
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The Red Scare of 1919: Persecution, Fear, and Consequences. (2016, Jun 20). Retrieved from

The Red Scare of 1919: Persecution, Fear, and Consequences essay
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