Palmer Raids

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Alexander Mitchell Palmer Alexander Mitchell Palmer.jpg
Alexander Mitchell Palmer

The Palmer Raids were a series of raids conducted in November 1919 and January 1920 during the First Red Scare by the United States Department of Justice under the administration of President Woodrow Wilson to capture and arrest suspected radical leftists, mostly Italian and Eastern European immigrants and especially anarchists and communists, and deport them from the United States. The raids particularly targeted Italian immigrants and Eastern European Jewish immigrants with suspected radical leftist ties, with particular focus on Italian anarchists and immigrant leftist labor activists. The raids and arrests occurred under the leadership of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Though more than 500 foreign citizens were deported, including a number of prominent leftist leaders, Palmer's efforts were largely frustrated by officials at the U.S. Department of Labor, which had authority for deportations and objected to Palmer's methods.

First Red Scare

The First Red Scare was a period during the early 20th-century history of the United States marked by a widespread fear of Bolshevism and anarchism, due to real and imagined events; real events included the Russian Revolution and anarchist bombings. At its height in 1919–1920, concerns over the effects of radical political agitation in American society and the alleged spread of communism and anarchism in the American labor movement fueled a general sense of concern.

United States Department of Justice U.S. federal executive department in charge of law enforcement

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ), also known as the Justice Department, is a federal executive department of the U.S. government, responsible for the enforcement of the law and administration of justice in the United States, equivalent to the justice or interior ministries of other countries. The department was formed in 1870 during the Ulysses S. Grant administration.

Woodrow Wilson 28th president of the United States

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was an American statesman and academic who served as the 28th president of the United States from 1913 to 1921. A member of the Democratic Party, Wilson served as the president of Princeton University and as the 34th governor of New Jersey before winning the 1912 presidential election. As president, he oversaw the passage of progressive legislative policies unparalleled until the New Deal in 1933. He also led the United States during World War I, establishing an activist foreign policy known as "Wilsonianism."


The Palmer Raids occurred in the larger context of the Red Scare, the term given to fear of and reaction against communist radicals in the U.S. in the years immediately following World War I and the Russian Revolution. [1] There were strikes that garnered national attention, race riots in more than 30 cities, and two sets of bombings in April and June 1919, including one bomb mailed to Palmer's home. The Palmer Raids preceded the Immigration Act of 1924, which also targeted Southern European and Eastern Europe immigrants on not just political grounds but also mostly ethnic and racial grounds.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

Russian Revolution 20th-century revolution leading to the downfall of the Russian monarchy

The Russian Revolution was a pair of revolutions in Russia in 1917 which dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the rise of the Soviet Union. The Russian Empire collapsed with the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II and the old regime was replaced by a provisional government during the first revolution of February 1917. Alongside it arose grassroots community assemblies which contended for authority. In the second revolution that October, the Provisional Government was toppled and all power was given to the Soviets.

1919 United States anarchist bombings

The 1919 United States anarchist bombings were a series of bombings and attempted bombings carried out by the Italian anarchist followers of Luigi Galleani from April through June 1919.


During the First World War, there was a nationwide campaign in the United States against the real and imagined divided political loyalties of immigrants and ethnic groups, who were feared to have too much loyalty for their nations of origin. Particular targets were Germans, with sympathies for their homeland, and Irish, whose countrymen were in revolt against America's ally, the United Kingdom. In 1915, President Wilson warned against hyphenated Americans who, he charged, had "poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life." "Such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy", Wilson continued "must be crushed out". [2] The Russian Revolutions of 1917 added special force to fear of labor agitators and partisans of ideologies like anarchism and communism. The general strike in Seattle in February 1919 represented a new development in labor unrest. [3]

Hyphenated American

In the United States, the term hyphenated American refers to the use of a hyphen between the name of an ethnicity and the word "American" in compound nouns, e.g., as in "Irish-American". It was an epithet used from 1890 to 1920 to disparage Americans who were of foreign birth or origin, and who displayed an allegiance to a foreign country through the use of the hyphen. It was most commonly directed at German Americans or Irish Americans (Catholics) who called for U.S. neutrality in World War I.

Seattle General Strike

The Seattle General Strike of 1919 was a five-day general work stoppage by more than 65,000 workers in the city of Seattle, Washington, which lasted from February 6 to February 11 of that year. Dissatisfied workers in several unions began the strike to gain higher wages after two years of World War I wage controls. Most other local unions, including members of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), joined the walkout. Although the strike was non-violent and lasted less than a week, government officials, the press, and much of the public viewed the strike as a radical attempt to subvert American institutions.

The fears of Wilson and other government officials were confirmed when Galleanists—Italian followers of the anarchist Luigi Galleani—carried out a series of bombings in April and June 1919. [4] At the end of April, some 30 Galleanist letter bombs had been mailed to a host of individuals, mostly prominent government officials and businessmen, but also law enforcement officials. [4] Only a few reached their targets, and not all exploded when opened. Some people suffered injuries, including a housekeeper in Senator Thomas W. Hardwick's residence, who had her hands blown off. [4] On June 2, 1919, the second wave of bombings occurred, when several much larger package bombs were detonated by Galleanists in eight American cities, including one that damaged the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in Washington, D.C. [4] At least one person was killed in this second attack, night watchman William Boehner, and fears were raised because it occurred in the capital. [4] [5] [6] Flyers declaring war on capitalists in the name of anarchist principles accompanied each bomb. [4]

Galleanists anarchist followers of Luigi Galleani

Galleanists, followers of anarchist Luigi Galleani, were primary suspects in a campaign of bombings between 1914 and 1920 in the United States.

Luigi Galleani Italian insurrectionary anarchist (1862–1931)

Luigi Galleani was an Italian anarchist active in the United States from 1901 to 1919. He is best known for his enthusiastic advocacy of "propaganda of the deed", i.e. the use of violence to eliminate those he viewed as tyrants and oppressors and to act as a catalyst to the overthrow of existing government institutions. From 1914 to 1932, Galleani's followers in the United States, carried out a series of bombings and assassination attempts against institutions and persons they viewed as class enemies. After Galleani was deported from the United States to Italy in June 1919, his colleagues are alleged to have carried out the Wall Street bombing of 1920, which resulted in the deaths of 38 people.

Letter bomb

A letter bomb, also called parcel bomb, mail bomb, package bomb, note bomb, message bomb, gift bomb, present bomb, delivery bomb, surprise bomb, postal bomb, or post bomb, is an explosive device sent via the postal service, and designed with the intention to injure or kill the recipient when opened. They have been used in Israeli assassinations and in terrorist attacks such as those of the Unabomber. Some countries have agencies whose duties include the interdiction of letter bombs and the investigation of letter bombings. The letter bomb may have been in use for nearly as long as the common postal service has been in existence, as far back as 1764.


In June 1919, Attorney General Palmer told the House Appropriations Committee that all evidence promised that radicals would "on a certain day...rise up and destroy the government at one fell swoop." He requested an increase in his budget to $2,000,000 from $1,500,000 to support his investigations of radicals, but Congress limited the increase to $100,000. [7]

The United States House Committee on Appropriations is a committee of the United States House of Representatives.

An initial raid in July 1919 against an anarchist group in Buffalo, New York, achieved little when a federal judge tossed out Palmer's case. He found in the case that the three arrested radicals, charged under a law dating from the Civil War, had proposed transforming the government by using their free speech rights and not by violence. [8] That taught Palmer that he needed to exploit the more powerful immigration statutes that authorized the deportation of alien anarchists, violent or not. To do that, he needed to enlist the cooperation of officials at the Department of Labor. Only the Secretary of Labor could issue warrants for the arrest of alien violators of the Immigration Acts, and only he could sign deportation orders following a hearing by an immigration inspector. [9]

Buffalo, New York City in Western New York

Buffalo is the second largest city in the U.S. state of New York and the largest city in Western New York. As of July 2016, the population was 256,902. The city is the county seat of Erie County and a major gateway for commerce and travel across the Canada–United States border, forming part of the bi-national Buffalo Niagara Region.

American Civil War Civil war in the United States from 1861 to 1865

The American Civil War was a war fought in the United States from 1861 to 1865, between the North and the South. The Civil War is the most studied and written about episode in U.S. history. Primarily as a result of the long-standing controversy over the enslavement of black people, war broke out in April 1861 when secessionist forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina shortly after Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated as the President of the United States. The loyalists of the Union in the North proclaimed support for the Constitution. They faced secessionists of the Confederate States in the South, who advocated for states' rights to uphold slavery.

Freedom of speech political right to communicate ones opinions and ideas

Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. The term "freedom of expression" is sometimes used synonymously but includes any act of seeking, receiving, and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.

On August 1, 1919, Palmer named 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover to head a new division of the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation, the General Intelligence Division (GID), with responsibility for investigating the programs of radical groups and identifying their members. [10] The Boston Police Strike in early September raised concerns about possible threats to political and social stability. On October 17, the Senate passed a unanimous resolution demanding Palmer explain what actions he had or had not taken against radical aliens and why. [11]

At 9 pm on November 7, 1919, a date chosen because it was the second anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, agents of the Bureau of Investigation, together with local police, executed a series of well-publicized and violent raids against the Union of Russian Workers in 12 cities. Newspaper accounts reported some were "badly beaten" during the arrests. Many later swore they were threatened and beaten during questioning. Government agents cast a wide net, bringing in some American citizens, passers-by who admitted being Russian, some not members of the Russian Workers. Others were teachers conducting night school classes in space shared with the targeted radical group. Arrests far exceeded the number of warrants. Of 650 arrested in New York City, the government managed to deport just 43. [12]

When Palmer replied to the Senate's questions of October 17, he reported that his department had amassed 60,000 names with great effort. Required by the statutes to work through the Department of Labor, they had arrested 250 dangerous radicals in the November 7 raids. He proposed a new Anti-Sedition Law to enhance his authority to prosecute anarchists. [13]

Raids and arrests in January 1920

Men arrested in raids awaiting deportation hearings on Ellis Island, January 13, 1920 Radicals awaiting deportation.jpg
Men arrested in raids awaiting deportation hearings on Ellis Island, January 13, 1920

As Attorney General Palmer struggled with exhaustion and devoted all his energies to the United Mine Workers coal strike in November and December 1919, [14] Hoover organized the next raids. He successfully persuaded the Department of Labor to ease its insistence on promptly alerting those arrested of their right to an attorney. Instead, Labor issued instructions that its representatives could wait until after the case against the defendant was established, "in order to protect government interests." [15] Less openly, Hoover decided to interpret Labor's agreement to act against the Communist Party to include a different organization, the Communist Labor Party. Finally, despite the fact that Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson insisted that more than membership in an organization was required for a warrant, Hoover worked with more compliant Labor officials and overwhelmed Labor staff to get the warrants he wanted. Justice Department officials, including Palmer and Hoover, later claimed ignorance of such details. [16]

The Justice Department launched a series of raids on January 2, 1920, with follow up operations over the next few days. Smaller raids extended over the next 6 weeks. At least 3000 were arrested, and many others were held for various lengths of time. The entire enterprise replicated the November action on a larger scale, including arrests and seizures without search warrants, as well as detention in overcrowded and unsanitary holding facilities. Hoover later admitted "clear cases of brutality." [17] The raids covered more than 30 cities and towns in 23 states, but those west of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio were "publicity gestures" designed to make the effort appear nationwide in scope. [18] Because the raids targeted entire organizations, agents arrested everyone found in organization meeting halls, not only arresting non-radical organization members but also visitors who did not belong to a target organization, and sometimes American citizens not eligible for arrest and deportation. [19]

The Department of Justice at one point claimed to have taken possession of several bombs, but after a few iron balls were displayed to the press they were never mentioned again. All the raids netted a total of just four ordinary pistols. [20]

While most press coverages continued to be positive, with criticism only from leftist publications like The Nation and The New Republic , one attorney raised the first noteworthy protest. Francis Fisher Kane, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, resigned in protest. In his letter of resignation to the President and the Attorney General he wrote: "It seems to me that the policy of raids against large numbers of individuals is generally unwise and very apt to result in injustice. People not really guilty are likely to be arrested and railroaded through their hearings...We appear to be attempting to repress a political party...By such methods, we drive underground and make dangerous what was not dangerous before." Palmer replied that he could not use individual arrests to treat an "epidemic" and asserted his own fidelity to constitutional principles. He added: "The Government should encourage free political thinking and political action, but it certainly has the right for its own preservation to discourage and prevent the use of force and violence to accomplish that which ought to be accomplished, if at all, by parliamentary or political methods." [21] The Washington Post endorsed Palmer's claim for urgency over legal process: "There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties." [22]


In a few weeks, after changes in personnel at the Department of Labor, Palmer faced a new and very independent-minded Acting Secretary of Labor in Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis Freeland Post, who canceled more than 2,000 warrants as being illegal. [23] Of the 10,000 arrested, 3,500 were held by authorities in detention; 556 resident aliens were eventually deported under the Immigration Act of 1918. [24]

At a Cabinet meeting in April 1920, Palmer called on Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson to fire Post, but Wilson defended him. The President listened to his feuding department heads and offered no comment about Post, but he ended the meeting by telling Palmer that he should "not let this country see red." Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who made notes of the conversation, thought the Attorney General had merited the President's "admonition", because Palmer "was seeing red behind every bush and every demand for an increase in wages." [25]

Palmer's supporters in Congress responded with an attempt to impeach Louis Post or, failing that, to censure him. The drive against Post began to lose energy when Attorney General Palmer's forecast of an attempted radical uprising on May Day 1920 failed to occur. Then, in testimony before the House Rules Committee on May 7–8, Post proved "a convincing speaker with a caustic tongue" [23] and defended himself so successfully that Congressman Edward W. Pou, a Democrat presumed to be an enthusiastic supporter of Palmer, congratulated him: "I feel that you have followed your sense of duty absolutely." [26]

On May 28, 1920, the nascent American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published its Report Upon the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice, [27] which carefully documented unlawful activities in arresting suspected radicals, illegal entrapment by agents provocateur, and unlawful incommunicado detention. Such prominent lawyers and law professors as Felix Frankfurter, Roscoe Pound and Ernst Freund signed it. Harvard Professor Zechariah Chafee criticized the raids and attempts at deportations and the lack of legal process in his 1920 volume Freedom of Speech. He wrote: "That a Quaker should employ prison and exile to counteract evil-thinking is one of the saddest ironies of our time." [28] The Rules Committee gave Palmer a hearing in June, where he attacked Post and other critics whose "tender solicitude for social revolution and perverted sympathy for the criminal anarchists...set at large among the people the very public enemies whom it was the desire and intention of the Congress to be rid of." The press saw the dispute as evidence of the Wilson administration's ineffectiveness and division as it approached its final months. [29]

In June 1920, a decision by Massachusetts District Court Judge George Anderson ordered the discharge of 17 arrested aliens and denounced the Department of Justice's actions. He wrote that "a mob is a mob, whether made up of Government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and the vicious classes." His decision effectively prevented any renewal of the raids. [30]

Palmer, once seen as a likely presidential candidate, lost his bid to win the Democratic nomination for president later in the year. [31] The anarchist bombing campaign continued intermittently for another twelve years. [32]

See also

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  2. Kennedy, 24
  3. Shepley, Nick (2015). The Palmer Raids and the Red Scare: 1918-1920: Justice and Liberty for All. Andrews UK Limited. pp. 18–19. ISBN   978-1-84989-944-4.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Avrich, Paul, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background , Princeton University Press, ISBN   0-691-02604-1 (1991), pp. 140–143, 147, 149–156
  5. "Plotter Here Hid Trail Skillfully; His Victim Was A Night Watchman", The New York Times, 4 June 1919
  6. "Wreck Judge Nott's Home", The New York Times, 3 June 1919
  7. Hagedorn, 229–30; Coben, 211
  8. Pietruszka, 146–7
  9. Coben 217–8
  10. Coben, 207–9
  11. Coben, 214–5
  12. Coben, 219–21; Post, 28–35. Post says 11 cities.
  13. The New York Times: "Palmer for Stringent Law," November 16, 1919, accessed January 15, 2010
  14. "Miners Finally Agree" (PDF). The New York Times. December 11, 1919. Retrieved June 11, 2014.
  15. Coben, 222–3
  16. Murray, 223–7
  17. Murray, 227–9
  18. States (cities where available): California (Los Angeles, San Francisco), Colorado (Denver), Connecticut (Ansonia, Bridgeport, Hartford, Meriden, New Haven, New London, South Manchester, Waterbury), Florida, Illinois (Chicago, Rockford, East St. Louis), Indiana, Iowa (Des Moines), Kansas (Kansas City), Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts (Boston, Chelsea, Brockton, Bridgewater, Norwood, Worcester, Springfield, Chicopee Falls, Holyoke, Gardner, Fitchburg, Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill), Michigan (Detroit), Minnesota (St. Paul), Nebraska (Omaha), New Hampshire (Claremont, Derry, Lincoln, Manchester, Nashua, Portsmouth), New Jersey (Camden), New York (Buffalo and "nearby towns", New York City), Ohio (Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown), Oregon (Portland), Pennsylvania (Chester, Pittsburgh), Washington (Spokane), Wisconsin (Milwaukee, Racine). Others were arrested in West Virginia by agents working from Pittsburgh. Post, 91–2, 96, 104–5, 108, 110, 115–6, 120–1, 124, 126, 131
  19. Post, 96–147, passim
  20. Post, 91–5, 96–147
  21. Coben, 230; The New York Times: "Palmer Upholds Red Repression," January 24, 1920, accessed January 15, 2010,
  22. The Washington Post, "The Red Assassins," January 4, 1920
  23. 1 2 Coben, 232
  24. Avakov, Aleksandr Vladimirovich, Plato's Dreams Realized: Surveillance and Citizen Rights from KGB to FBI, Algora Publishing, ISBN   0-87586-495-3, ISBN   978-0-87586-495-2 (2007), p. 36
  25. Daniels, 545–6
  26. Post, 273
  27. Report Upon the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice. National Popular Government League. 1920.
  28. Chafee, 197, ch. 5 "Deportations"
  29. Murray, 255–6
  30. Murray, 250–1; Post, 97
  31. Pietrusza, 257
  32. Avrich, 213