The Palmer Raids

Above: The IWW office after it was raided by Palmer's squad.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had presidential hopes which he wanted to promote by publishing documents like “The Case Against the Reds” (1920). It justified actions he had taken “to tear out the radical seeds that have entangled American ideas in their poisonous theories.”  
On November 7, 1919 Palmer ordered the first round up of 650 people whom J. Edgar Hoover had  identified as subversives.  Many detainees were held for long periods without being charged with any crime and over 200, including the writer Emma Goldman, were deported.  
That was the warm up for a massive hunt for the “enemy within” in some 33 cities on January 2, 1920.  Bureau of Investigation agents and private vigilantes raided homes, meeting places, pool halls and bowling alleys and made as many as 6,000 arrests (many without warrants) of both immigrants and citizens. Palmer claimed the raids would destroy a revolutionary conspiracy.  But no explosives were uncovered, only three pistols and some radical literature were seized, and most of those arrested had nothing to do with radical organizations. 

Like those rounded up in the post 9/11 PENTBBOM raids, the detainees were denied access to their families and to lawyers and many were held for months with no charges being filed against them. Palmer demanded that thousands be deported.  He was rebuffed by Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis Post, who was in charge of deportation proceedings.  Insisting on evidence of wrongdoing,  Post overruled more than a thousand of Palmer’s deportation orders, permitting only about 500 deportations to take place.  In June 1920, George Anderson, a Massachusetts District Court judge, ordered the release from prison of 17 immigrant detainees and compared the Palmer Raids to mob rule.

Against the backdrop of the Palmer Raids, the American Civil Liberties Union was formed to protect the civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights.  As public opinion turned against the excesses of the period, A. Mitchell Palmer lost his bid to become the Democratic nominee for President.

Sowing Seeds of Distrust and Fighting Back

A January 17, 1920 editorial in The Nation entitled “Sowing the Wind to Reap the Whirlwind” described in terms foreshadowing the post 9/11 period a fearful United States in which people were rounded up and detained without any kind of due process.  

“If any of the persons, whether aliens or not, upon whom the Department of Justice has descended, have violated the law, they should be indicted, tried and punished for their offense….Wholesale arrests and deportations such as we are now witnessing will not breed respect for government….They will only…increase many times the volume of discontent….We shall not safeguard liberty by repressing it.  The only way to end dangerous discontent…is to remove its causes.  Unless that is done, those who today are sowing the wind will before long reap the whirlwind.”

A few days later the author of the editorial, Oswald Garrison Villard, took part in the founding of the ACLU.

Photo made available by the German Federal Archive.

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