Red Scare

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Red Scare

Throughout much of the twentieth century, the United States worried about Communist activities within its borders. This concern led to sweeping federal action against Aliens and citizens alike during periods known today as Red scares. Using the derogatory term Red for Communist, the phrase is a form of criticism: it implies overreaction resulting from excessive suspicion, unfounded accusation, and disregard for Constitutional Law.

The first Red scare followed the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in November 1917, and lasted until 1920. It was marked by antiradical legislation in U.S. immigration law, extensive federal probes of suspected radicals and their organizations, and mass arrests and deportations of aliens. The second Red scare arose prior to World War II, and reached new heights during the Cold War years.

The origins of the first Red scare lay in the Russian Revolution and the horrendous experience of World War I. Communism was not yet perceived as the only enemy; Anarchism (the advocacy of violent overthrow of government and law) also caused fear. In the United States, no great effort was made to separate these two political philosophies, for they both seemed to represent a single threat: foreign attempts to undermine the nation's government and institutions. Congress responded by putting new anti-radical protections in the Immigration Act of 1918 (§§ 1–3, as amended, 8 U.S.C.A. § 137 (c, e–g)). Although antagonism toward different races and beliefs had marked immigration law for decades, this change introduced political limits: it allowed for the deportation of aliens on the grounds of anarchist beliefs or membership in anarchist organizations. Riding a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, lawmakers frequently grumbled about "foreign troublemakers."

Early in 1919, Congress began pressuring the Justice Department to take action against radicals. It had a receptive audience in Attorney General a. mitchell palmer. A self-styled enemy of foreign subversion who hoped to become president, Palmer was given to making public statements like "fully 90 percent of the communist and anarchist agitation is traceable to aliens." Then, on June 2, 1919, a bomb exploded outside Palmer's Washington, D.C., home. Found among the remains of the dead bomber was a pamphlet signed by "the anarchist fighters," warning of more violence to come. The attack set in motion changes that would leave a lasting mark on federal law enforcement: Palmer created the Radical Division of the Justice Department, and assigned a promising young bureaucrat named j. edgar hoover to head it. Within a few months, Hoover had compiled thousands of names of suspected radicals and their organizations; later, as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), he would compile more.

Spurred by public expectations, the Justice Department acted in November 1919 and January 1920 by launching massive raids. More than ten thousand people were arrested—some for membership in Communist or left-wing groups, others on no greater pretext than that they looked or sounded foreign—and then jailed and interrogated with little regard for their right to due process. Hundreds were subsequently deported, some aboard a U.S. Navy troop transport. But the raids backfired: Congress was scandalized by the disregard shown for constitutional rights. Along with the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Bar Association, lawmakers denounced the attorney general. The raids had two unforeseen consequences for Palmer: first, they ended his presidential aspirations, and second, they dashed his hopes of seeing new federal legislation that would allow for the arrest of subversive citizens, much as the 1918 Immigration Act permitted deportation of subversive aliens. Hoover, who had overseen the execution of the raids and some deportations, escaped reproach.

The backlash against the first Red scare did nothing to prevent a recurrence. Fears of anarchism subsided, but the onset of World War II produced new worries about fascism, Nazism, and Communism. The instigators of the second Red scare turned their gaze inward: not foreigners but U.S. citizens now seemed dangerous. These concerns led to the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1938. Lasting until 1969, this panel of the House of Representatives held many hearings into alleged subversion by private citizens, unions, and Hollywood. The cold war years also saw another dramatic manifestation of Red scare tactics: the Communist witch-hunts of Senator joseph r. mccarthy, who brought unfounded accusations of Communist infiltration of the State Department and the military. Both HUAC and McCarthy benefited substantially from the cooperation of the FBI, whose durable director, Hoover, fed them information.

HUAC represented the last gasp of the Red scares. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the cold war still had important geopolitical implications. However, federal interest in hunting down radicals had waned: a backlash against McCarthyism was one reason, as was the divisive experience of the Vietnam War. Although the cold war continued until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, its effects were felt primarily in foreign policy and military expansion. Today, the legacy of the Red scares to U.S. law can be measured in several ways: a greater interest in civil liberties; a decline of Congress's role as a forum for interrogating private citizens; federal reform that has curtailed the power of the FBI; and a 1990 reform of immigration law that removed anarchism and Communism as grounds for deportation (Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990, U.S.C.A. § 1101 et seq.).

Further readings

Gentry, Curt. 1991. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets. New York: Norton.

Heale, M. J. 1998. McCarthy's Americans: Red Scare Politics in State and Nation, 1935–1965. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press.

Morgan, Ted. 2003. Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Random House.

Powers, Richard G. 1987. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Free Press.

Schmidt, Regin. 2000. Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anti-communism in the United States, 1919–1943. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen.


Communism "House Un-American Activities Committee" (In Focus); Goldman, Emma; Smith Act.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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