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A Brief History of the “First Red Scare”
In 1919-20, in the aftermath of the First World War, the United States government implemented a series of domestic security measures to counter the threat that the Bolshevik Revolution, already spreading through Europe, would reach America’s shores. This period has come to be known as the “First Red Scare”,1 a polemical triumph for the critics of these anti-subversion policies, fostering as it does the idea that the U.S. government acted in a terribly indiscriminate and repressive manner to a threat that, if it existed at all, was inflated out of all proportion. Who can doubt there were excesses and mistakes; this was a human endeavour. But the notion of a “Scare” relies on decontextualising some of the key episodes in a manner that is quite misleading and the imposition of a retrospective judgment that the U.S. overreacted to the scale of the threat, which borders on the ahistorical in two senses: it assumes those acting at the time did or should know what is known now, and it takes no account of the role the security measures had in averting the worst fears that motivated them.
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BOLSHEVISM ON THE MARCH AND DOMESTIC TERRORISM
President Woodrow Wilson was forced into the Great War by Germany in April 1917. Wilson had not prepared for war2—it was he who coined the phrase “America First” as his 1916 campaign slogan, accusing the Republicans of being heedless warmongers—and the need for discipline as he played catch-up had a role in his firm approach to sedition.
The conscription law, the Selective Service Act, was passed on 18 May 1917 and the Espionage Act was passed a month later, on 15 June, essentially to ensure conscription—and the war effort and military cohesiveness more generally—were not interfered with by word or deed. The Espionage Act was extended in May 1918, via a provision usually called the Sedition Act, broadening the scope of banned words to include those that promoted disloyalty to the government, the Constitution, all State institutions (not just the Army), and State symbols (like the flag). In theory, the penalty could be twenty years in jail, but nothing close to that was ever implemented or even sought by a prosecutor.
Wilson was not just making up for his failure to prepare by short-circuiting public debate, however. In the years before 1914, a significant radical movement had developed in the U.S., with a foothold particularly in the labour movement, making U.S. industrial relations the most violent in the world. The Russian Narodniki terrorist-revolutionaries led the way in inspiring the “golden age of assassinations” (1880-1914) in the West.3 By the time of the massive 1905-07 terrorist revolt in Russia, most of the revolutionaries were ostensible Marxists, with important material links to radicals all throughout Europe, including the Serbian “Black Hand” gang that started the First World War, and were notably close to the Italian anarchists.4 Italians started emigrating to the U.S. in significant numbers in the 1880s, anarchists among them. The security environment in the U.S. was permissive, right up to the Presidency, as an anarchist demonstrated by assassinating William McKinley in September 1901.5 (The assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was of Polish background, but even his inspiration was the Italian anarchists murdering their King fourteen months earlier.) The anarchists made a concerted effort to disrupt conscription in the U.S. in 1917 and were the first targets of the new legislation.
By the time the U.S. was at war in Europe, the elite debacle in response to a mutiny in Petrograd had deprived Russians of their Emperor, bringing into power a Provisional Government beholden to a radical Soviet. Within just three months the Bolsheviks attempted their first putsch; they succeeded at the second attempt four months after that. In March 1919, while the Paris Peace Conference was ongoing and the outcome of the terrifying civil war the Bolshevik coup had plunged Russia into was far from certain, Lenin created the COMINTERN to coordinate international Revolution. Within weeks, a Bolshevik-directed regime took hold in Hungary, extended into southern Germany, and then Slovakia. These Red risings were defeated by August 1919, yet not even this clear statement of the Bolsheviks’ intent for global Revolution—and General Anton Denikin’s Volunteer Army preventing the Red Army joining this Communist sphere in Central Europe to the Soviet Empire—made the Allies serious about supporting the anti-Bolshevik opposition.6 The Allied “intervention” attracted much attention, at the time and since, but all told it did worse than nothing, pushing Admiral Alexander Kolchak’s Siberia-based “Whites” into foolish offensive operations that led to their destruction in May 1919.7 The Allied detachments were withdrawn soon after that.8 Denikin’s Dobrarmiya would fight on alone, launching an offensive against Moscow that would bring the Bolshevik regime as near as it would ever come before 1991 to collapse.9 Denikin’s forces were shattered in October-November 1919,10 however, and the Bolsheviks used their newfound security after this to try to march Revolution directly into Europe, having to be stopped by the Poles in August 1920.
The U.S. crackdown on Leftist radicalism takes place in this context of Bolshevism not only laying waste to Russia, murdering the Imperial Family and instituting a Red Terror that persecuted Christian believers and other dissidents on a scale with no precedent in living memory, but visibly spreading this malady to Europe and advertising its intent to bring it to America. The activities of the socialist and anarchist groups in the U.S. gave credence to the idea that Revolution was underway.
In April 1919, just as Soviet regimes took over Hungary and Bavaria, three-dozen dynamite bombs were sent through the U.S. mail by anarchists. The housekeeper of Senator Thomas Hardwick, a Democrat from Georgia who had co-sponsored the October 1918 Immigration Act that tightened up the 1903 Anarchist Exclusion Act, lost her hands and his wife was injured when a letter bomb exploded at his home. Bombs addressed to Attorney General Alexander Palmer, multiple governors, mayors, Congressmen, judges, at least one Bureau of Investigation (BOI, later FBI) agent, and the businessman John D. Rockefeller—intended to kill them on May Day—were intercepted at the post office, making the death and injury toll mercifully low.
The perpetrators were loyalists of Luigi Galleani, the most extreme and influential Italian anarchist in the period, a public supporter of terrorism.11 Galleani had been arrested in June 1917 for trying to disrupt conscription, beginning a process that saw him deported. To try to prevent this, the Galleanisti had been waging a terrorist campaign since late 1917, with bombs at police stations, attempted assassinations of government officials, and so on. The State’s assumption that the escalation with the mail bombs was a prelude to further escalation was soon borne out.
In the evening of 2 June 1919, Carlo Valdinoci—no grunt-level Galleanist, but the editor of Galleani’s Cronaca Sovversiva (“Subversive Chronicle”) newspaper—set off a bomb that destroyed the front of Attorney General Palmer’s home in Washington, D.C. Valdinoci failed at murder but succeeded at self-murder; he messed up the timing and detonated the device too early. This second attack on Palmer was not isolated. Within the space of ninety minutes, nine more bombs, all far larger than those sent through the mail in April and packed with shrapnel, had detonated in another seven cities in five states—three in Pennsylvania, two in Massachusetts, and one each in New Jersey, Ohio, and New York.12 The targets were mostly elected officials and judges, though in Philadelphia the anarchists bombed Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church and the home of a local jeweller, Louis Jajieky, moments apart, presumably as a statement of their hostility to Christianity and capitalism.13 In a feat nearly worthy of the CIA,14 the Galleanisti killed none of their intended targets, but did murder a night watchman in New York City, William Boehner.
The commemorations for the Great War on the first Armistice Day (11 November 1919) was marred by a mass shooting against the American Legion parade in Centralia, Washington, D.C.15 The perpetrators were the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union, whose members were known as “Wobblies”, an entity significantly under the sway of the Soviet-loyal Communist Labor Party of America (CLPA).16 The Wobblies’ gunmen, set up at multiple locations and directions around the parade route, murdered four Legionnaires and wounded three.17 Later in the evening, one of the arrested Wobblies was taken from prison and lynched.18 Over the next few days, thousands of people turned out for the Legionnaires’ funerals, and sporadic violence occurred as the remaining Wobblies were rounded up. At trial, the Wobblies’ defence was to claim that they were defending their nearby hall—inverting cause and effect. Legionnaires had entered the IWW hall in response to the Wobblies’ shooting rampage, as one of their own testified.19 Seven of the twelve indicted IWW Communists were convicted for their role in the massacre. The upshot was an outraged nation calling for harsher measures against the extremists, and the radicals had a martyr.20
The Centralia atrocity occurred at the height of a months-long sequence of extremely violent strikes and other labour disturbances, many of them overtly led by Communists and anarchists. The IWW had long been on the government radar as a primary instigator of these troubles. In June 1918, Eugene Debs, a former Presidential candidate, the leader of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), the seedbed from which the Moscow-loyal CLPA and CPUSA emerged, had been arrested for trying to obstruct the draft and was charged under the expanded Espionage Act with ten counts of sedition. Convicted in September 1918, Debs’ appeal was thrown out by the Supreme Court in March 1919.21 The IWW/CLPA joined with the SPA and other radicals who staged a riot in Cleveland on May Day 1919 that killed several people, wounded forty, and led to over-100 arrests.
The IWW had been well-represented among the zealots who staged a general strike in Seattle in February 1919, which had a self-proclaimed revolutionary character, broadcasting that the Bolshevik regime was its inspiration and at one point was even visited by Soviet sailors. In September 1919, a strike by the Boston police opened the way to Bolshevik-looking mob carnage that killed nearly a dozen people and threatened to become a general strike: State troopers had to be called in to restore order.22 The same month, a strike of steelworkers was initiated across the whole country. The IWW and other Communists were prominent in trying to ensure there was no peaceable settlement, inciting violence against “scabs” and the policemen who tried to protect them. Martial law had to be imposed in Gary, Indiana, to restore order after one such incident. President Wilson had his incapacitating stroke on 2 October 1919, which aborted the government plans to intervene forcibly; left to its own devices, the “Great Steel Strike” fizzled out in January 1920. Meanwhile, on 1 November, the coal workers of the United Mine Workers (UMW) went on strike. Unwilling for the deployment of the National Guard while the President was out of the picture, Palmer and Labor Secretary William Bauchop Wilson trod carefully, as did the UMW leadership, which, to its credit, largely controlled its radicals (with the major exception of Coral, Pennsylvania). The situation was defused in six weeks with pay increases for UMW members.
In 1920, violent strikes would not cease—American labour relations would continue to be an outlier on this front. Nor would the terrorism end, with intermittent attempted assassinations against State officials and most infamously the bombing on Wall Street in September 1920 that massacred thirty people and wounded 300. But the crackdown beginning in November 1919 did drastically reduce the all-consuming disorder that had threatened to overwhelm the country at that point.
The State counter-measures, drawing on powers in the Sedition Act amendment to the Espionage Act, primarily consisted of efforts to shut down the radical groups and deport subversive aliens.
It should be noted that Wilson’s concern about domestic sabotage in mid-1917 was not irrational: after the Germans’ near-death experience in the summer-autumn 1916, under the combined weight of the Anglo-French mauling on the Somme and Russian Brusilov offensive, Germany had made the Allied home front central to its strategy for victory.23 Even before that, Germany had sent spies to, and conducted terrorism within, America to try to derail support for the Allies: high profile German terrorist attacks in the U.S. in late 1916 and early 1917 had an important impact on American public opinion, and it was a German attempt to meddle in America’s domestic affairs that had finally brought America into the war.
It is true that there were political considerations involved in Wilson signing the Sedition Act in May 1918, to counter charges he had been too soft with subversives, but Wilson’s the main motivator, at this most intense moment of the war—at the height of Germany’s final attempt, already victorious in the East, to win the war in the West—was to ensure social order by taking into law-bound hands responsibility for actions against un-patriotic and subversive elements, which were at that time beginning to be carried out by vigilantes. The struggle to contain the possibility of “mob justice” by elements like the American Protective League is why the main pressure on Wilson for the Act came from State and local officials.24 The Sedition Act’s theoretically harsh penalties were meant more as a deterrent than to be used, and that is more or less its record: of 2,000 prosecutions brought under the law, only about half ended in conviction, and the Act was repealed in December 1920, along with a raft of wartime legislation. Those remaining in prison were amnestied.25
By the autumn of 1919, Attorney General Palmer—who, again, was twice personally targeted for assassination by the radicals—had been under pressure for months to get tough on the chaos that anarchists and Communists were spreading throughout the country. Palmer had been embarrassed after ordering a raid against the Spanish anarchists of the Ariete Group in Buffalo, New York, in July 1919, reacting to a pamphlet they had issued calling for a workers’ revolt to violently topple the government, only for the case to collapse on 24 July because the judge ruled that the activities of the three indicted men were protected by the First Amendment.26 The pressure on Palmer peaked with his appearance before a hostile Senate on 17 October to deliver a report compiled within the Justice Department by BOI—headed since August 1919 by J. Edgar Hoover—on groups inciting “anarchy, sedition, and the forcible overthrow of the government”.
This was the background to the Attorney General switching from trying to secure convictions under the sedition laws to using the Immigration Act to simply make these people someone else’s problem, launching the “Palmer Raids” that are, in the “Red Scare” narrative, the central offences. Soon after Hoover took over at the BOI, his agents infiltrated two major radical outfits: the SPA, whose leader Debs remained in prison, and the Union of Russian Workers (URW).27 URW, notably named after one of the Narodniki groups of the 1870s, was formed in 1908 by those who fled Russia as their ferociously lethal terrorist rebellion was beginning to wane.28 The URW was powerful, with branches across the U.S. and into Canada. The BOI detected the URW’s moves into the unions and among the miners in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. URW documents captured from their Manhattan office pointed towards plans for revolutionary violence in the U.S., and Hoover concluded they were “terrorists”.29 These two groups were the targets of the first BOI raids, executed across eleven cities on 7 November 1919, the second anniversary of the Bolshevik coup, arresting 250 people.30
The USAT Buford was repurposed to became what is remembered as “the Red Arc”, deporting 249 radicals from New York harbour to Soviet Russia on 21 December 1919. As the U.S. did not recognise Lenin’s government, the ship was sent in secret and landed in Finland. Those on board, mostly of Russian origins, had generally been in custody for months—it took time to process their deportation—rather than being recent detainees from the “Palmer Raids”. The national mood was summed up by the Saturday Evening Post: “The Mayflower brought the first builders to this country; the Buford has taken away the first destroyers.”
The most prominent deportee on the Red Arc was Emma Goldman, an anarchist agitator born in 1869 to a Jewish family in what is now Lithuania (then-the Russian Empire). She had been inspired, as all the Narodniki were, by Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s “What is to Be Done?”31 Goldman moved to the U.S. in December 1885, aged just 16, in time to witness the “Haymarket affair” six months later, which ensured her involvement in the radical scene. Acquiring citizenship along the way, she had a conviction for incitement as far back as 1893. Goldman’s meeting with Czolgosz in May 1901 was important to his decision to murder President McKinley; she wrote in Czolgosz’s defence after the assassination. Goldman had become prominent in the “anti-war” movement after 1914 and was arrested for disrupting the draft in 1917; the terms of that conviction led to her denaturalisation and deportation. In the years afterwards, Americans would somewhat revise their view of Goldman’s treatment, not based on any matter of principle—the civil libertarian argument remained where it had always been—but as part of the swing in public opinion toward a view that America’s involvement in the Great War was a mistake. It meant Goldman’s wartime activism, despised at the time as unpatriotic and worse, acquired a new and noble light, while her actual views and record went down the memory hole.
Part of Goldman’s record that got airbrushed was that when her life-long friend and sometime paramour Alexander Berkman, another deportee on the Red Arc, tried to murder the steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead strike in 1892, in the hopes it would spark a revolution, Goldman begged to participate. Berkman’s biography tracks Goldman’s quite closely: born a year after Goldman, also to a Jewish family in Tsarist Lithuania, though to a far more prosperous and stable family, he was another Chernyshevsky disciple—he even adopted the name of one of the novel’s characters as a pseudonym—and found the “Haymarket affair” a stirring confirmation of his nascent ideology, though he arrived in the U.S. in 1888, after it had happened. Berkman was imprisoned from 1892 to 1906 for the attempted murder of Frick. Upon release, Berkman got involved in labour violence and, whether or not he directly returned to terrorism, he certainly tried to shield terrorists from legal consequences for their actions.
If there is anything to be said on Goldman’s and Berkman’s behalf, it is that they quickly rejected the Soviet regime that had so warmly welcomed them. The suppression of the Kronstadt sailors in March 1921 was the breaking point; they both left in December 1921. Goldman died in Canada in 1940. Berkman moved to France and inter alia became friendly with Nestor Makhno, the leader of the anarchist Black Army in the Russian civil war, a slightly odd connection given Makhno’s role in overseeing anti-Jewish pogroms and saving the Bolshevik regime Berkman had now set himself against. Berkman killed himself in 1936 to outrun cancer. We know very little of the other Red Arc passengers. One we do, Peter Bianki, a URW leader, took a totally different path. Bianki got involved in various reconstruction and administrative roles, until he was killed in Altai in March 1930 by an uprising of peasants who did not accept that History necessitated the reimposition of a serfdom their Tsar had liberated them from.
The largest of the “Palmer Raids” was launched on 2 January 1920. These raids, which arrested 4,000 Communists from thirty-three cities, were not really Palmer’s work: they were planned by Hoover as Palmer was distracted with the coal and steel strikes. About 300 further seditious aliens would be deported, a total of 550.
The criticism of the “Palmer Raids” and the deportations takes several forms. First, there are the legalistic objections, both in the arrests, where warrants were not all in order, and in the deportations: there is a particular distaste for the use of denaturalisation, and even the non-citizens had often not been convicted of a crime before being ejected. Second, free speech rights are held to have been violated. This argument—which gave birth to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—is mobilised on behalf of those detainees and deportees who are admitted to have been extremists advocating violent revolution. Third, the dragnet is considered to have been spread much too widely. This argument contends that many if not most of those detained were innocent of extremist political beliefs or associations. Indeed, Hoover is sometimes accusing of fabricating evidence and/or using entrapment. Fourth, the practical abuses: excessive force is said to have been used during raids and some of the detention centres seem to have been overcrowded. The lack of communication with prisoners—and the resulting anxiety—is frowned upon. (The families of the deportees on the Red Arc were not informed their relatives were ex-residents until the ship had sailed.) Fifth, the raids are argued to have been xenophobic and racist, an unreasoning targeting of immigrant populations.32
One need not deny there are aspects of truth in these criticisms. The question is whether the story has full context and balance—or even makes sense—if the only part of it told is the State “excesses”. Most histories of the period flatly deny the scale of the threat the U.S. was facing, presenting the contemporary belief that there was a serious threat as, at best, a ludicrous panic by ignorant officials. At worst, the belief is argued to be a cynical lie to cover for a political witch-hunt against the Left. As a morality story, this works very well. As history, less so.
An oft-given date for the end of the “Red Scare” is 1 May 1920, when Palmer’s prediction of an attempted Communist putsch went unfulfilled. This is a tidy story and plays very much to the narrative that needless State hysteria over-reached itself. The real significance of Palmer’s error was that it underlined that there had been months of relative calm after the raids and arrests.33 It was now possible to start thinking of the crisis having passed, and to begin assessing which security and legislative measures could be rolled back, as many soon were.34 Of course, as happens so often, particularly with terrorism, when the security measures work, it then becomes possible—for civil libertarians and those who substantively sympathise with the terrorists—to argue that the absence of terrorism proves that the measures were never necessary in the first place.
SACCO AND VANZETTI
The cause célèbre injustice of the period was Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, arrested in May 1920 for a robbery-murder and ultimately executed.35 Since no later than the duo’s official pardon in 1977,36 the story told is of innocent men condemned to death in a spasm of racist hysteria. The truth is a lot more complicated. Prejudice against Italians, essentially part of Protestant America’s anti-Catholicism, was real, and there was an additional hostility that saw Italians as vectors of political radicalism. Here, Sacco and Vanzetti played into a stereotype in their overt anarchism. But there was much more going on than guilt-by-association.
Sacco and Vanzetti were part of the movement devoted to Luigi Galleani.37 The Galleanisti undertook a wave of terrorism from late 1917, culminating with the bombings of April-June 1919, in “protest” at the legal actions against Galleani—and in that way terrorist cults do, the more the violence attracted State attention, the more they claimed to be “persecuted”, with no option but to “fight back”. It is very likely Sacco and Vanzetti were involved in these terrorist actions.38 Showing the milieu they were moving in, it was one the pair’s best friends, Mario Buda, who carried out the Wall Street bombing four months after their arrest.39
As to the specific double homicide for which Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death in July 1921, we simply do not—and probably cannot—know whether they were guilty.40 After much legal wrangling and appeals for clemency to the governor, who was one of the targets of a series of terrorist bombings by the Galleanisti in the midst of all this,41 the pair were executed in the electric chair in August 1927.
THE RACIAL DIMENSION
There was a wave of terrible “race riots” from April to September 1919 that did not fully end until 1921. These events were often closer in nature to pogroms against black Americans. Many narrative histories attribute these eruptions of violence to the “paranoia” about Communism bleeding over into a chauvinistic hostility to immigrants (as seen in the “Palmer Raids”) and black Americans.42 The connection is actually quite tenuous.
It is not that there is no connection. For instance, there certainly were fears that, as President Wilson put it, black soldiers returning from Europe were the “greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America”. It did not help that there was overlap between the civil rights protesters and the violent radical unions, and that Communists spearheaded much of the early civil rights movement,43 symbolised perhaps most clearly by the October 1919 arrest of Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a prominent black anti-segregation activist and IWW/CLPA operative, who was devoted to the Soviet Union. Fort-Whiteman was arrested during a speech in Saint Louis, ostensibly while on the lecture circuit speaking about the need for civil rights. In fact, Fort-Whiteman was on a Communist recruitment tour of the South, alongside his fellow (white) Party member Robert Minor, who had been in Moscow the year before, interviewed Lenin as the Red Terror set in, and returned to America convinced the Bolsheviks were the wave of the future.44 A number of other prominent black leaders were fervent public supporters of the Soviet Union, W.E.B. Du Bois being probably the best-known.45
It is to say, however, that the racialist upwelling in this period had causes and a momentum of its own.
After the collapse of Reconstruction—the Northern occupation of the South that tried to enforce legal equality—in 1877, white counter-revolution succeeded in legally institutionalising apartheid in 1896. Jim Crow had made the situation for black Americans worse in some ways than slavery: the grimly predictable cruelty and death toll of bondage, which provided some incentive for slave-owners to provide physical security to their “property”, was replaced by a pervasive, random terror, where the murder laws were less honoured in practice than the “Slave Codes” had been.46
By 1910, the “Great Migration”—the flight of black Americans from South to North—had already begun,47 a social dislocation that both induced a backlash in the North and diminished what little collective ability black Americans had in the South to assert rights that existed on paper.
Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1913—the first Southern Democrat to be President for forty years48—accentuated these dynamics:
Segregation was brought into the national capital. The federal bureaucracy, the only institution in the country where black Americans had something like a fair chance and consequently the centre of gravity for their economic betterment, was segregated by Wilson, largely blocking the hiring of black Americans and firing black civil servants wherever he could. Physical screens separated black and white areas in government departments. In one dreadful case, where the nature of a black clerk’s work in the Post Office made this impractical, a physical cage was built around the man to separate him from white employees.
Symbolic aspects of black empowerment were scaled back. Since Ulysses S. Grant took office as President in 1869, beginning the post-Civil War Republican ascendancy, it had been the practice to appoint a black ambassador to Haiti and Liberia. Wilson ended this practice in Haiti—replacing Henry Furniss with Madison Smith—though interestingly not in Liberia, appointing George Washington Buckner.
The Ku Klux Klan was re-founded. D.W. Griffith’s “Lost Cause” movie The Birth of a Nation (1915)—based on a book by Wilson’s friend Thomas Dixon—was the first film screened at the White House, after which Wilson supposedly remarked, “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Whether Wilson ever said this, it represents his outlook. The film’s commercial success was to be the launchpad for the revival of the KKK.
Wilson remains, with a single exception,49 the most racialist President the U.S. has ever had, not only in beliefs but actions. As adumbrated above, Wilson worked diligently to worsen the condition of black America and inflamed the atmosphere considerably by making it clear to the most recalcitrant white supremacist forces that they had one of their own in the White House.50 The most visible sign of this was the Klan’s revival, which had led to a spike in anti-black lynchings and racialist terrorism. The racial violence of 1919 is far better understood as an extension of that dynamic than anything related to Leftist radicalism.
Given that the anti-black pogroms of 1919 represent the post-Reconstruction social and political processes reaching their nadir, it is unhelpful that the term “Red Summer” has stuck as the shorthand.51 The overwhelming majority of the violence against black Americans in 1919 had no connection, even notional, to Communism, socialism, or anarchism. The cumulative events that set the racial stage in America, occurring long before the advent of Bolshevism, created the “norms” that led to white America reacting with murderous outrage to any hint, real or imagined, of black American assertiveness, and it was anxieties about black Americans defying their subordinate status that led to the mayhem in 1919.52 Whether the pretext was returning black soldiers being “uppity” (which often simply meant wearing their uniforms in public), resentment at perceived white displacement in workplaces,53 a boy swimming on the “white side” of the beach, or some allegation of black crime, usually rape, the pattern was depressingly familiar.
Moreover, in the cases where there was a Communist or anarchist dimension to the violence—either their involvement (usually in the form of white Northerners) in organising black unions or, later in the year, calling for (and organising) black self-defence, which the pogromists then presented as an aggression they were “reacting” to54—it was clearly the racial “norms” that were again primarily at play, rather than the spectre of Communism per se. It would not have mattered what doctrine black Americans were being organised under: the reaction to their potential empowerment out of subordination would have been the same.
In short, the anti-subversive campaign (official and popular) and the racial violence were largely parallel phenomena, rather than having any deep causal connection.
The “Second Red Scare” refers to the effort after the Second World War to undo the massive infiltration of Soviet spies into the U.S. government under the cover of the “alliance” against the Nazis. The scale of the problem caused by President Franklin Roosevelt’s “remarkably lax security” was such that every major government department was penetrated by Stalin’s intelligence apparat, as, of course, was the MANHATTAN Project. Had FDR died a few months earlier, while Henry Wallace was still his Vice President, two Soviet agents would have been brought into the Cabinet. This history is often obscured by a focus on Senator Joseph McCarthy, who ostensibly took up this issue, though McCarthy never actually understood the full dimensions of the problem—and never cared. McCarthy exploited the security issue to give himself a platform for a self-serving campaign of demagogy and hysteria. Nasty as some of this was, nobody went to prison as a result of McCarthy’s carry-on and the tiny percentage of government employees who lost jobs in this period did so under President Truman’s loyalty-security program, often for very good reasons. In the end, the true damage done by “McCarthyism” was to Western counter-intelligence, which was hindered by the Left side of the political spectrum largely rejecting it for the rest of the Cold War, and more generally the anti-Communist cause. See: Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (1999), The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, pp. 107-09.
President Wilson’s stubborn refusal to prepare for war can be seen in his handling of the German campaign against passenger ships headed to America. After the Germans sank the SS Ancona in November 1915 and SS Persia in January 1916, two boat-loads of civilians—and would-be Americans at that—Wilson declared, “I will not be rushed into war, no matter if every damned Congressman and Senator stands up on his hind legs and proclaims me a coward.” Wilson accepted an apology from Berlin as sufficient for these two atrocities, and the long wrangling over the RMS Lusitania, another passenger liner sunk by a German U-boat (in May 1915), ended rather anti-climactically in February 1916 with a quiet diplomatic deal: the Germans partially accepted liability and a tacit agreement was made to settle accounts fully after the war. In May 1916, Germany announced that it was acceding to the American request to terminate unrestricted submarine warfare (in fact, this was a pause: it recommenced in February 1917, and ten American ships were sunk over nine weeks before the U.S. finally declared war. American journalist Floyd Gibbons, aboard the RMS Laconia when it was sunk on 25 February 1917, was asked as he waded ashore by a British acquaintance, “Well, … is this your blooming overt act [of war]?”, referring to what President Wilson had said would be necessary for the U.S. to enter the Great War. Gibbons took this question to the American public in his column.). The crucial point is not just that any one of the 1915-16 outrages could have been a casus belli, but that the diplomatic process had made Wilson personally aware of the reckless belligerence of the German High Command: it was quite clear that powerful voices in Berlin wanted the controversy to end in a rupture of U.S.-German relations. Wilson’s refusal to even make contingency plans for dealing with a hostile Germany after this was grossly irresponsible. See: John Milton Cooper (2009), Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, p. 307-08.
Christopher Andrew (2018), The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, pp. 425-29.
Anna Geifman (1993), Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917, pp. 204-06.
The Secret World, pp. 435-36.
Evan Mawdsley (1987), The Russian Civil War, pp. 169-74.
As the Red conquest of Siberia proceeded in late 1919, the Allies did not even move to help get Kolchak out: the Admiral was murdered by the Bolsheviks in February 1920. See: The Russian Civil War, pp. 212-13, 320-21.
The French had ignominiously withdrawn from Odesa in April 1919, the last of the American troops involved in the “Polar Bear Expedition” left Russian soil in August 1919, and the British decided on a pullout in July 1919, undertaking a few limited “offensive” operations to cover a retreat that was completed by 12 October 1919. See: The Russian Civil War, pp. 178-79, 220.
The Russian Civil War, p. 268.
The Russian Civil War, pp. 279-80.
In Cronaca Sovversiva (“Subversive Chronicle”), the newspaper Galleani launched in June 1903, he forthrightly celebrated the assassinations of King Umberto I of Italy in July 1900 and President McKinley as examples of what anarchists should be doing. When Galleani published a bomb-making manual in 1905, La Salute e in Voi (“Health is in You”), he advertised it in Cronaca Sovversiva.
There were: (1) two bombs in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, against the Roman Church and the jeweller; (2) one bomb against Harry Klotz, a silk industrialist in Paterson, New Jersey (they got the wrong house); (3) one bomb against Harry L. Davis, the Mayor of Cleveland; (4) one bomb against Judge Albert F. Hayden in Boston; (5) one bomb against Massachusetts State Representative Leland Powers in Newton; (6) two bombs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, targeting Federal Judge W.H.S. Thompson and Immigration Chief W.W. Sibray; (7) Judge Charles C. Nott in New York; and (8) Attorney General Palmer in the District of Columbia.
The Italian heritage of many anarchists focused their anti-Christian zealotry on the Roman Catholic Church, but another inspiration in the ether for the radical groups was Mexico, where the Revolution (1910-1920) had unmercifully persecuted the Roman Church—and by the mid-1930s, after the doomed Cristero rebellion (1926-29), would nearly eradicate the Church altogether. One radical, who ended up with the Communists rather than the anarchists, who saw Mexican anti-clerical savagery as a model to emulate, was Lovett Fort-Whiteman. See: Glenda Gilmore (2008), Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950, pp. 33-34.
As William F. Buckley once put it, one detects “all the earmarks of a CIA operation [if] the bomb [has] killed everybody in the room except the intended target”.
For the story of the events at Centralia, see: Tom Copeland (1993), The Centralia Tragedy of 1919: Elmer Smith and the Wobblies, pp. 49-77.
Defying Dixie, p. 36. In early 1919, Lenin invited the Socialist Party of America (SPA), founded in 1901, to join the COMINTERN, the coordinating body for the Soviet-run “fraternal” Parties around the world. The SPA’s leadership refused, but a large Soviet-loyal “Left-Wing Section” emerged that supported this course. This being the far-Left, merely one schism would be insufficient, so one faction of the “Left-Wing Section” broke away from the SPA in New York to form the CLPA on 31 August 1919 and the next day another faction of the Section broke away in Chicago to form the Communist Party of America (CPA). Since both the CLPA and CPA answered to Lenin, as members of the COMINTERN, the distinction between them was somewhat hazy and in December 1921 all ambiguity was resolved when the two factions were brought together as the Workers Party of America (WPA)—the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) after 1929—which was a creature of the Soviet intelligence apparatus from the first to the last. For the full story, see: John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev (2009), Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.
The first Legionnaire murdered was Post Commander Warren Grimm, a local high-school football star who served with distinction on the Western Front until his unit was sent to Russia as part of the American expeditionary force in August 1918. Grimm returned to the U.S. in April 1919, shortly before this confused and hollow mission was terminated. The other Legionnaires murdered were Arthur McElfresh, Ben Cassagranda, and Dale Hubbard, and the three men injured were John Watt, Bernard Eubanks, and Eugene Pfister. See Note 14.
The IWW member Wesley Everest, by the testimony of one of his own colleagues (Loren Roberts) a fanatic with no sense of self-preservation who had fired three shots and murdered at least one Legionnaire, was taken from his prison cell by a mob that included Legionnaires and hanged from the Mellen Street Bridge over the Chehalis River. See Note 14.
The leading IWW figure convicted was Britt Smith, and five of the others convicted—Eugene Barnett, O.C. Bland, Bert Bland, and John Lamb—were Centralia natives and all knew each other well. Ray Becker and James McInerney were from a nearby town. (McInerney admitted to carrying a gun but denied firing it.) Elmer Smith, an IWW layer and one of its leading figures, had certainly conversed with the killers that morning, but evidence was not produced proving his direct involvement in the massacre, so he was acquitted. Mike Sheehan’s denial that he carried a gun was believed, so he was acquitted. (Sheehan was one who testified that the lynched Wesley Everest had fired lethal shots on the day.) Charges against Bert Faulkner were thrown out. Loren Roberts’ had said there was premeditation to IWW’s behaviour, but Roberts’ testimony counted for little after he was declared insane and institutionalised. IWW’s premeditation was testified to by a much more credible source, the most interesting IWW character involved in the Centralia saga, Tom Morgan, who had been drifting away from the IWW for some time and at the trial became a witness for the State. See Note 14.
The radicals would add to their false claim that their murder spree was a defensive action further hysterical lies, including that Everest had been castrated before being lynched. See Note 14.
Debs v. United States was not actually that difficult a case for the Supreme Court: a week earlier, the Court had, in Schenck v. United States, upheld a conviction under the Espionage Act against Charles Schenck, the General Secretary of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia, and Elizabeth Baer, who had distributed leaflets calling for people not to cooperate with the draft. It was in writing for the majority in Schenck that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes produced the phrase he is probably best remembered for. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic”, wrote Holmes, and, mutatis mutandis, what Schenck and Baer had done was “of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that … will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent”.
The collapse of Boston into such widespread lawless violence in so short a period—less than two days—spooked the country and paralysed a lot of local officials. The exception was Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, whose decisiveness in bringing in the troopers and restoring order made him a national figure. This popularity was part of why Coolidge was chosen less-than-a-year later as Republican Warren Harding’s running mate against the Democratic ticket of Ohio Governor James Cox and his would-be Vice President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Harding died seventeen months into his Presidency, Coolidge took office. Being able to add the law-and-order reputation to Coolidge’s otherwise down-the-line classical liberalism, including notably progressive views on race (not just by comparison with Wilson) and backing for women’s suffrage, proved to be a winner: the “Roaring Twenties” took place on his watch, and the ending of Wilson’s official support for the “Lost Cause” racialists allowed the issue to simmer down, contributing to the Klan’s conspicuous decline by the time Coolidge left office in March 1929 as a very popular President.
The military duumvirate in Berlin, determined never to repeat a Somme-style land-based set-piece, turned back to unrestricted submarine warfare, knowing this meant war with the Americans, but betting the British and French could be suffocated into defeat before the U.S. mobilised [Forgotten Victory, pp. 184-89]. Germany hoped that inflicting starvation on civilians would collapse the Allies from within, forcing them accept German “peace” terms. To reinforce this, German political warfare, which had already been seen with the Easter Rising in Ireland in April 1916, was stepped up. As there was a dip in the belligerents’ morale in early 1917—including, for the one and only time in the war, on the Allied side [pp. 56, 73]—the German plan seemed to have favourable conditions, and in Russia, through Lenin, it worked. Britain and France had begun to re-energise their populations by emphasising the idealistic nature of the war, explaining it was not only a struggle of democracies against grisly despotisms, but for democracy: the reforms to expand democratic participation at home, and even the democratisation of Germany (something earnestly hoped for and believed by Allied leaders to be necessary for peace in Europe), were only possible with Allied victory [pp. 58-73]. Still, it was the Germans who ensured the success of Allied “remobilisation”. If there was a gruesomely harsh treaty in the First World War, it is the Brest-Litovsk Treaty the Germans forced on the Russians in early March 1918. Allied resolve was stiffened by seeing clearly what “peace” with the Second Reich meant, and it remained resolute to the end [pp. 73-74]. Civilian support for the war in Britain was as high by the time of the Armistice in November 1918 as it had been at any time during the war [p. 57]. The reckless criminality of the German High Command that had started the war in the first place, then widened the war to include the Americans and revived the flagging morale of the Allies, would, fittingly, be the Germans’ final undoing. Germany had won the war in the East; it could have traded Allied recognition of its vast new Empire for withdrawals from Belgium and France. Instead, the Germans gambled yet again, launching the Spring Offensive in the West in late March 1918 [pp. 73-74]. Germany’s behaviour being so world-historically appalling in the Second World War has had the ironic effect of concealing the brutality of Germany’s conduct in the First, especially towards occupied peoples [p. 61], and this factor was an important reason why Germany’s plan failed. Germany had found considerable numbers of collaborators against Russia from among the national minorities, notably the Baltic Germans and Ukrainians, but victory in the East did not free up German troops for use in the West because the cruelty of the occupation provoked so much resistance, in Poland and even more so in Ukraine, that half-a-million Germans and a quarter-million Habsburg troops were needed to hold on to the conquests, and the other anticipated benefits—namely grain shipments to shore-up the German home front—were disrupted [pp. 61-62, 74].
M. J. Heale (1990), American Anti-Communism: Combating the Enemy Within, 1830-1970, p. 53.
President Wilson had been set to issue the amnesty for those detained under the Sedition Act amendment to the Espionage Act just before he left office in March 1921, three months after the amendment had been repealed. (The Espionage Act itself was upheld several times by the Supreme Court and remains on the books to this day.) For reasons unclear, Wilson did not do this. His successor, President Warren Harding, pardoned and released Eugene Debs and twenty-four others on Christmas Day 1921. In December 1923, four months after Calvin Coolidge replaced Harding, who died suddenly, the few remaining people in prison for Sedition Act offences were freed. Almost exactly a decade later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went beyond pardons to amnesty everyone who had been convicted under the Sedition Act. See: Geoffrey R. Stone, ‘Mr. Wilson’s First Amendment’, in: John Milton Cooper [ed] (2008), Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace, p. 213.
Paul Avrich (1991), Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, p. 174.
Tim Weiner (2012), Enemies: A History of the FBI, p. 25.
Thou Shalt Kill, 20-21.
Weiner, Enemies, p. 25
R. Emmett Murray (1998), The Lexicon of Labor: More Than 500 Key Terms, Biographical Sketches, and Historical Insights Concerning Labor in America, p. 217.
Andrew Michael Drozd (2001), Chernyshevskii’s What is to be Done?: A Reevaluation, p. 13.
See, for example: The Lexicon of Labor, pp. 217-18; and, Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti, pp. 174-75.
Ronald Allen Goldberg (2003), America in the Twenties, p. 13.
The release of many of those who had been rounded up in the “Palmer Raids” and the repeal of the war laws in December 1920 was in-keeping with the American tradition of the State doing what was necessary in war-time and cleaning up the legal niceties afterwards, going back at least to the case of Lambdin Milligan, an Indiana resident and supporter of the Confederate insurrection, who was arrested and sentenced to death by a military tribunal in December 1864. A year after the Confederacy had been obliterated and the war was at an end, in March 1866, the Supreme Court ruled that this was quite improper, Mr. Milligan’s rights had not been respected, and he must go free.
The armed robbery of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts, had taken place on 15 April 1920: the thieves murdered Alessandro Berardelli, a security guard, shooting him four times as he reached for his gun, and then they murdered Frederick Parmenter, an unarmed paymaster, shooting him twice.
Sacco and Vanzetti’s pardon on 23 August 1977, the fiftieth anniversary of their execution, was issued by then-Governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis, the famously disastrous 1988 Democratic Presidential candidate. In fairness to Dukakis, he managed to carry ten states against George H.W. Bush, while the Democrat in 1984, Walter Mondale, the Vice President under Jimmy Carter, won just one state against President Ronald Reagan.
Susan Tejada’s 2012 book, In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti: Double Lives, Troubled Times, and the Massachusetts Murder Case That Shook the World, which is rather sympathetic to its subjects, plainly says Galleani was their “inspiration” [p. 278], and makes clear they both were nurtured “under the radical wing of the American labor movement”, which was notoriously violent [p. 51]. Sacco (aged 17) and Vanzetti (aged 20) arrived in the U.S. in 1908. Both had extremist leanings already and were further radicalised by the spring 1912 strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, orchestrated by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union. In the months afterwards, both subscribed to Galleani’s newspaper, Cronaca Sovversiva (“Subversive Chronicle”). By the time of the U.S. entry into the Great War, Galleani was the most important figure among Italian anarchists, inspiring the kind of cult-like devotion that the Bolsheviks had to Lenin, and, indeed, advocated a similar program, at least in method: bank robberies and other theft, cast as “revolutionary expropriation” [p. 297] to support a relentless campaign of terrorism—the “propaganda of the deed”, a phrase Galleani popularised—to bring about an immediate, violent revolution that involves the apocalyptic destruction of the old world [pp. 64-65]. The Galleanisti had been recognised as one of the premier domestic security threats for some years by the time the State made its move against Galleani in June 1917, raiding his compound in the forest near Taunton and arresting him. Galleani’s newspaper was shut down in June 1918 and a year after that he was deported. The final straw had been Galleani’s seditious incitement to defy the Selective Service Act, the law on conscription, specifically of the provision that meant all males aged 21 to 30 had to register with the authorities by 5 June 1917. While keeping the cell around him within the U.S., Galleani told other of his followers to evade the draft by returning to Italy, where he believed revolution was imminent, and to travel via Red Mexico. It was in adhering to this instruction that Sacco and Vanzetti first met in late May 1917, while travelling south towards the border. The Galleanisti, among them Sacco and Vanzetti, stayed in Mexico on a kind of commune around Monterrey; around September 1917, they started to trickle back to America, and all were home by November [pp. 65-68].
After returning to the U.S. in late 1917, Sacco and Vanzetti remained within the Galleanisti milieu as it worked itself into a frenzy about Galleani’s treatment: as early as November 1917, they planted a bomb in a church in Milwaukee, and there were further such attempts at mass atrocities, as well as assassination attempts on government officials. As mentioned, this set off a cycle of State reactions and further claims of “persecution”. During this eighteen-month period (November 1917-April 1919) of the Galleanisti’s intense Baader-Meinhof syndrome, there is a curious gap in the records about what precisely Sacco and Vanzetti were doing. Their associates were in no doubt Sacco was a fanatic capable of murder; some expressed doubts about whether Vanzetti would personally throw a bomb, but there is little doubt he was not ideologically opposed to terrorism for the sake of his ideology. Paul Avrich, another historian who was by no means hostile to the anarchist terrorist-revolutionaries generally or Sacco and Vanzetti in particular, wrote in Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (1991), which is based on a lot of primary material from within the Italian anarchist population that the pair lived in, that they both lived double lives: appearing to participate in society as family men and workers, while working in the shadows on terrorism. Avrich specifically points to circumstantial evidence the pair were involved in the January 1918 dynamite plot in Youngstown, Ohio, and to the likelihood that at least Vanzetti was involved in placing the Milwaukee church bomb in November 1917, which ended up detonating at a local police station in the most lethal pre-9/11 attack on law-enforcement. See: In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti, pp. 103-09.
Buda became a Fascist spy after his return to Italy, acting as an agent provocateur in anarchist ranks and thwarting at least one of their plots to assassinate Benito Mussolini. See: In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti, pp. 278-79.
Even in Tejada’s sympathetic hands, she can do no more with the witness testimony and physical evidence than emphasise that she prefers the bits that exculpate the condemned men. Everyone can choose their own adventure. More solid and interesting, though by no means dispositive: the two leading defenders of Sacco and Vanzetti during the trial and appeals process came to believe that at least Sacco was guilty. The pair’s defence lawyer, Fred Moore, strongly believed in 1923 in their innocence, but by 1927 “had come reluctantly to the conclusion that Sacco was guilty of the crime for which he had died and that possibly Vanzetti also was guilty.” Carlo Tresca, one of the leaders of the IWW who coordinated with Moore to lead the fundraising and publicity efforts for the accused, said just before he was shot down in the street in New York in January 1943, “Sacco was guilty, but Vanzetti was not”. (As to who killed Tresca, he had always been a critic of the Mussolini government, though the Fascists never mastered foreign “wetwork”. The Soviet NKVD is a leading suspect. Tresca had become outspoken in his criticism of the Soviet Union, inter alia for its use of the Communist Party USA for espionage and the murder of those who lost faith like Juliet Stuart Poyntz. Tresca’s public refutation of the Moscow Trials’ “charges” against Leon Trotsky, and his more general support for Stalin’s great nemesis, are particularly dangerous things to have done at that time and in his milieu. The other obvious possibility is the Mafia, whom Tresca worked tirelessly to keep out of the unions.) See: In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti, pp. 288-95.
Boston police intercepted a mail bomb sent to Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller on 10 May 1927, intended to pressure him into pardoning Sacco and Vanzetti [Beverly Gage (2008), The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror, p. 385]. Three months later, as Governor Fuller was arriving at his final decision, “Bombs went off in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore on August 6; a bomb exploded and another was defused in Chicago on August 8 and 9; and a powerful explosion destroyed the home of Dedham juror Lewis McHardy on August 16.” [In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti, p. 246]
Glenn Feldman (2015), The Great Melding: War, the Dixiecrat, Rebellion, and the Southern Model for America’s New Conservatism, p. 28.
Defying Dixie, pp. 7-8.
Except for Fort-Whiteman, Minor, and a police informant, everyone arrested at the Saint Louis meeting was a foreign citizen: five Romanians, four Russians, and an Austrian. Three of those apprehended were part of the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet Russia, a relief organisation started by émigrés in May 1919 that was inevitably co-opted by Lenin’s Cheka. Fort-Whiteman was charged under the Espionage Act with, among other things, advocating “resistance to the United States”: he remained in prison for months, but was never given a serious sentence. The raids on the CLPA and CPA offices forced these Soviet entities underground for two years, until they emerged with a legal, public face—the Workers Party of America—in December 1921 [Defeating Dixie, pp. 38-40]. Bob Minor remained within the CPUSA, even temporarily acting as its leader in 1941 when General Secretary Earl Browder was briefly arrested. Fort-Whiteman spent the next several years openly acting at Moscow’s instructions and with its funds to spread Communism among black Americans and bring the civil rights movement under Soviet control [Defeating Dixie, pp. 48-51]. In 1927, Fort-Whiteman left the U.S. to move to the Soviet Union. A decade later, in early June 1937, at the height of Yezhovshchina, Fort-Whiteman made the mistake of applying for permission to return to the U.S.: for Stalin, this was nothing less than a confession of “counter-revolutionary” conspiracy. Fort-Whiteman was arrested on 1 July and deported to a GULAG concentration camp in Kazakhstan. After a “review” of his case in May 1938, Fort-Whiteman was convicted of being a Trotskyist and sent to the infamous Kolyma camp in Siberia, where the death toll was staggering because the prisoners were deliberately underfed and regularly tortured while being used as slave labour. Fort-Whiteman perished in January 1939 at the age of 49. Most of the black Americans who came as settlers in the 1920s and 1930s to the imagined workers’ paradise were consumed in Stalin’s Great Terror.
As the character of the Soviet Revolution made itself clear—the Terror of the Cheka; the persecution of religious believers; the GULAG concentration camps; the collectivisation, dekulakisation, and resulting terror-famines; the show trials; the Pact with the Nazis and the conquest of defenceless States like the Baltics—Du Bois’ support only became more intense. Du Bois’ obituary for Stalin expressed a level of devotion that even the Soviet leadership could not match. Among other things, Du Bois lauded Stalin for having “set Russia on the road to conquer race prejudice”, which must have been news to Poles and Ukrainians, and for overcoming the treacherous Leon Trotsky—whose “magnificent lying propaganda” had fooled Western liberals—to “advance toward a real socialism instead of the sham Trotsky offered”. Du Bois was also particularly impressed by Stalin prevailing over the kulaks, “the rural bloodsuckers” who “were near wrecking the revolution”. It goes without saying, Du Bois took the Soviet Line that airbrushed Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler to present the Second World War as a heroic Soviet struggle not only against Nazism, but against a Britain and America “willing to betray [the Soviet Union] to fascism”. Du Bois’ “anti-fascism” did not extend to Asia, where he enthusiastically supported Japan’s rampage in China and denounced the American war against Japan as a racist enterprise.
Of the 4,000 people murdered in lynchings in America between 1883 and 1941, three-quarters were black (the white lynchings were mostly “frontier justice” in the Wild West in the 1880s: they declined rapidly after 1900, a decade after the closing of the frontier, and virtually disappeared after 1920). The peak of these atrocities against black Americans was the 1890s, especially in the run-up to Plessy v. Ferguson, and there was a smaller spike in the late 1910s into the early 1920s, after the re-founding of the Klan. The murder of Emmett Till for speaking to a white woman in Mississippi in 1955 was a shocking crime by any definition, in its brutality and because of Till’s young age (14), but it was doubly so at that time because lynchings had become markedly less frequent over the preceding twenty years. The last “classic” lynching was in 1959: Mack Parker, a young black man in his early 20s, was abducted from a jail cell in Mississippi, where he was being held under accusations of raping a pregnant white woman, and shot dead after being savagely beaten. A lynching—one of the last—by the Klan, also in Mississippi, of three civil rights workers in June 1964—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (the latter two Jews from New York)—played an important part in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
The “Great Migration” can be differentiated into two waves, 1910-40 and 1945-70. There were ten million black Americans in 1910, ninety percent of them in the South, overwhelmingly living in the countryside; by 1940 two million had moved out, mostly to Northern cities, and some hundreds as settlers to the Soviet Union. By 1965, another three million black citizens had moved from the South to the North and West; at least another million made the journey over the next half-decade or so. By the early 1970s, the American South was home to just over half the black population (twelve million out of twenty-four million). The demographics within the South had also been altered: there were no longer black majorities in South Carolina and Mississippi, and there had been an internal “Great Migration” of black Americans from rural zones to cities. The push factor is obvious: racialist persecution. The pull factor was the vacancies left in Northern industries by the conscription of white men into the Army. The job opportunities during the Great War, even if employers tended to pay black workers less than the white workers they replaced, and the tightening of labour conditions after the Immigration Act of 1924 improved the collective economic situation of black America, despite the social and political efforts to worsen their position that continued at a high level until the mid-1920s. The gradual upward trajectory continued through the 1930s, when there was a relative decline in the concerted efforts at disenfranchisement, and sharply ticked up in the 1940s as America mobilised for total war. The necessity for black labour empowered the civil rights movement to extract Executive Order 8802 from FDR in June 1941 that banned racial discrimination in employment for federal agencies, unions, and businesses involved in the war effort. In the 1950s, the civil rights movement began gaining serious traction, both at a popular level and in legal-political terms, assisted by the discrediting of Jim Crow for being too closely associated with the ideology of the vanquished Nazi foe and the problems domestic apartheid caused for the U.S. as it competed for political influence in the “Third World” against the Soviet Union. For all the benefits accrued to black America, the migration of six million people over a half-century—one of the largest movements of humanity in the shortest periods in recorded history—was obviously never going to be cost-free. The social and other stresses caused in the upheaval led to “white flight” in the 1950s and 1960s that inter alia led to an intensification of problems in the inner-cities and created political dynamics that extended into the 1990s, and really have not settled out even now. (One can see a similar process, albeit without the racial coding, in the rural-to-urban migration in China over recent decades, which is on a scale that is truly stupefying.)
Wilson had been the Governor of New Jersey, but he was born in Virginia in 1856 and raised in Georgia. The one previous Democratic President between 1869 and 1913, Grover Cleveland, is the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms (1885-89 and 1893-97). Cleveland was a New Yorker, who won precisely by distancing himself from the mainstream of the Democratic Party and its corrupt Tammany Hall practices, attracting an important constituency of Republican defectors, the “Mugwumps”. Even so, Cleveland was notably worse on racial issues than his Republican predecessors and successors, whether in black patronage hires or his notorious approach to Chinese immigrants. The next Democrat after Wilson left office in 1921 was FDR in 1933, who remained notably less legislatively active against lynching and efforts to suppress black voting rights than his Republican predecessors, but FDR was the first ever Democratic President to do anything for black civil rights.
The only President more flagrantly racialist than Wilson was Andrew Johnson, the successor to Abraham Lincoln. For example, Johnson’s statement vetoing the Civil Rights Act in March 1866, at a time when Confederate guerrillas, including the first incarnation of the KKK, were killing dozens of black Americans every week, shows he simply did not care about black lives: he brushed aside the need for additional security to protect freed slaves, complaining that the bill would permit inter-racial marriage and bias the law “in favor of the colored and against the white race”. (Not coincidentally, the KKK was only suppressed in 1872, after Johnson left office and was replaced by Grant.) The caveat here is that Wilson was extreme by the standards of his own time, whereas Johnson was far closer to the mainstream of his. When Wilson took office, outside of the former Confederacy, where the situation was already worsening, there were national moves in the opposite direction, some symbolic (though no less important for that), like President Theodore Roosevelt inviting Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House as one of his first acts in 1901, and some substantive, notably a growing campaign against segregation, fuelled by the emerging black middle class Wilson did so much to cripple, embodied in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909.
Wilson’s tenure as President marked the high-water mark of the “Lost Cause” mentality, and the horror of it—specifically the lawless violence of 1919—was sufficient to frighten even parts of the Southern white elite. Beliefs in white racial superiority remained, of course, but the trajectory since the 1890s of ever-escalating lawless terror against black Americans was seen as a threat ultimately to everybody’s interests. It was also an embarrassment to Southern whites, whose self-image of a genteel, communitarian South, as against the rapacious, heartless, industrial North, was difficult to sustain when the whole country’s primary image of Dixie was the lynch mob. The reforms of the 1920s that some, including many black leaders, hoped would lead to gradualist integration would do no such thing: the South’s “special circumstances” these policies were trying to work around—namely the widespread and determined support for Jim Crow—reasserted themselves as signs of integrationist progress began to show. It required direct State intervention in the South in the 1950s-60s, for the first time since Reconstruction, and a persistent public-political campaign, to push American apartheid into its grave. But the 1920s reforms did, in a relative sense, ease the situation for black Americans in the South: the very worst days were behind them. One indication of this changed mood is the rapid fading of the second Ku Klux Klan in the later 1920s, albeit there were contingent factors in how rapidly this happened. See: Kimberley S. Johnson (2010), Reforming Jim Crow: Southern Politics and State in the Age Before Brown, pp. 28-32.
The term “Red Summer” was coined by the contemporary NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson. There was some contemporary press coverage that portrayed the “riots” as the work of black Bolsheviks, but this is notably late in the major outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, occurring in July-August 1919, when the violence had begun in April. In other words, this interpretation was ideologised and already retrospective, being put forward as the mayhem was tapering off (albeit with the very notable exception of the Elaine massacre in Arkansas still to come); it did not reflect the events as they actually occurred or were perceived by those involved.
Michael Pierce and Calvin White [eds.] (2022), Race, Labor, and Violence in the Delta: Essays to Mark the Centennial of the Elaine Massacre, p. 169.
Black Americans had continued to make advances in the workplace, despite Wilson’s effort to smother these gains, in no small part because of the drastic reduction in immigration: over a million European immigrants arrived in America in 1914; this was down to about a quarter-of-a-million in 1915. Employers had no choice but to begin hiring larger numbers of black Americans, leading to a material betterment that many whites were always going to see as threatening. There were, however, particulars about the way black Americans entered the workforce on an even greater scale after 1917 that further embittered this sentiment. In the Great War, the U.S. mobilised 4.7 million men, 380,000 (8%) of them black. This was a slight under-representation for black Americans, who were 10% of the population, though the demographics were more exactly represented in the deployments on the Western Front: 200,000 of the 2.1 million Americans sent to Europe were black. The upshot was that black men filled a lot of the labour market posts vacated by whites sent to the Front; the availability of these positions in Northern industries was a significant pull factor in the “Great Migration”. This change was not automatically reversed after the war because employers had been able to pay black workers so much less than the whites they had replaced. Anger was generated by returning soldiers, promised a “land fit for heroes”, finding they were now struggling for work, and this was often expressed in the resentful tones of “blacks taking our jobs”. Though this issue was smaller in the South for the simple reason that it was less industrialised, any sense of black economic empowerment was magnified in the popular imagination because it was seen as a threat to the very fabric of their segregated societies. Another important aspect was the “threat” to white “honour” that came from the implicit equality of black Americans having served on the Western Front—in the same conditions, under the same flag, for the same cause. This is why black Americans acting with any sense of pride about their service, symbolised by wearing their uniforms in public, became such a trigger-point as American soldiers returned home in the spring and summer of 1919. See: Reforming Jim Crow, pp. 26-28.
The most prominent of these groups was the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), led by Cyril Briggs, a pro-Soviet “journalist”, who mixed black nationalism and Marxism in a way that would later be more famously associated with the Black Panthers. It should be noted, however, that it was not solely or even mainly the Communists who organised black self-defence squads: the fact that so many black Americans so vigorously fought back during the attacks on them in 1919 was one of the aspects that most shocked white society, helping convince them that, even from a selfish point-of-view, this kind of widescale lawless violence was dangerous and must not be repeated. To that end, changes would be needed, leading to the ascendancy of those proposing reforms, however limited. See: Reforming Jim Crow, p. 27.