Close the Gate? Refugees, Radicals, and the Red Scare of 1919

A group of Industrial Workers of the World members freed after 18 months detention at Ellis IslandA group of Industrial Workers of the World members freed after 18 months detention at Ellis Island. (Photo: National Archives - Records of Rights)

Just before midnight on June 1, 1919, an Italian immigrant and anarchist named Carlo Valdinoci walked up the steps of the home of US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, a noted opponent of radical politics and uncontrolled European immigration. In his hands, Valdinoci held a briefcase containing a homemade bomb. Valdinoci likely became the first suicide bomber in American history that night, dying as his package exploded prematurely, ripping apart both himself and Palmer’s stately home. Within three hours of this unprecedented attack, other bombs exploded simultaneously in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and several other northeastern US cities, many at the homes or offices of prominent capitalists or political leaders. These attacks were quickly linked to an Italian anarchist group that had threatened American institutions. Amazingly, only three people died, including Valdinoci. Despite the relatively low impact of these attacks, they tapped into a strong undercurrent of xenophobia and fear: a culturally alien immigrant group suspected of radical political views and violent tendencies had struck spectacularly and widely. The gates, many believed, were undefended. More attacks seemed inevitable unless immigration was restricted – immediately, selectively, and severely.

In the aftermath of the brutal coordinated assault on Paris, we have seen similar reactions. Although most of the Paris attackers appear to have been French nationals, Americans have turned against permitting the immigration of Syrian refugees who are themselves fleeing Daesh. Thirty-one governors have publically stated they will oppose any resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states, while several members of the Republican presidential field have criticized the Obama administration for going ahead with its asylum plans. Recent polling shows that over half of Americans now oppose accepting refugees, and the House of Representatives recently passed a bill with bi-partisan support and a veto-proof majority making the process for refugees to gain entry nearly impossible. A major Presidential candidate has discussed surveilling mosques and as a consequence has gained support rather than lost it. As the public and their representatives seem ever more willing to use the state to repress in the name of security, it is worth looking back at the aftermath of those 1919 bombings, when a political opportunist tried and failed to capitalize on xenophobic fear, leaving his career in ruins and only a legacy of oppression in his wake.

The 1919 bombs were delivered at a time of great tumult in the United States. World War I, and the country’s brief but transformative involvement in it, had ended; indeed, at the time of the bombings, President Wilson was still in Paris negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. Yet even as Wilson proposed a new world order based on international cooperation and oversight, many Americans wanted only to pull back from global affairs. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 remained in effect, punishing and marginalizing suspect political views. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918, which had killed more people than the war itself, was still subsiding; its transmission was often blamed on America’s rejection of its traditional isolation and exposure to European slums. America’s cities had, in recent decades, grown more and more like their European counterparts as new immigrants crowded into them. The Russian, Italian, Greek, and Jewish immigrants who had been streaming through Ellis Island between 1890 and 1919 were seen as culturally different from the older German, Scandinavian, and especially Irish immigrants who had begun to establish themselves in American society. Labor unrest in the United States, coupled with the recent Russian Revolution, gave rise to fears of class war and radical bolshevism. That many south and east European immigrants were active in labor unions did not escape the notice of conservative commentators of the day. In 1919, for example, a general and crippling steel strike was attacked broadly in the press as an example of the radicalism of recent immigrants.

The investigation of the 1919 bombings revealed clues that pointed to that radicalism immediately. Leaflets entitled “Plain Words” were found at the scene of Valdinoci’s bomb. Signed by “The Anarchist Fighters,” they described a coming ideological conflict and warned that “[the] powers that be must reckon that they will have to accept the fight they have provoked.” The fliers were traced to a printing shop run by Italian immigrants and suspected members of an anarchist society run by Luigi Galleani, himself recently deported for anarchist activity. Valdinoci, once identified, provided another link, as he had published a periodical tied to the Galleanisti.

Almost immediately after the bombings, Attorney General Palmer and his energetic protégé, a young lawman named J. Edgar Hoover, began rounding up thousands of suspected radicals, the majority of them immigrants from Russia, Italy, and other suspect nations. The vast majority of those detained had no connection to any active violent organization. No explosives, and only four pistols, were uncovered in Palmer’s raids. Nearly 250 immigrants from Soviet territory were deported despite this lack of evidence. There were “basic certainties,” Palmer wrote, which guided these actions: “first that the ‘Reds’ were criminal aliens and secondly that the American Government must prevent crime….” This was no time for legal hairsplitting – no “nice distinctions drawn between the theoretical ideals of the radicals and their actual violations of our national laws.” If radicalism meant insecurity, and immigration meant radicalism, the government’s course was clear.

The public mood swung wildly against radicals as well, as displays of communist sympathy and membership in leftist organizations were banned in several states and newspapers across the country celebrated Palmer’s raids. Several Socialist members of the New York State Assembly were forced to resign by angry colleagues. The Ku Klux Klan’s membership rose dramatically in the years immediately following the war, fueled in part by that organization’s anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant platform. Henry Ford vilified Jewish immigrants as a single-minded cabal bent on using, in part, socialist agitation to create violent political overthrow.

Palmer had relied on exactly such a response. He hoped to ride a wave of anger and fear to the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1920. But not long after the hysteria began, it also started to buckle. Palmer’s prediction of a May Day revolt never materialized, causing his support to evaporate. Newspapers which had celebrated Palmer’s raids now wrote of their overzealousness. The fear of radical overthrow subsided, leaving Palmer a pariah.

Palmer’s fall from grace was too late to stop the deportations, and it was too late to stop the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment that remained when “Red” hysteria died down. Despite immigration rates already beginning to fall from historic levels in the 1910s, Congress had the popular support it needed to pass a restrictive new immigration law. President Calvin Coolidge himself called for support of the Immigration Act of 1924 in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for re-election that year: “We cast no aspersions on any race or creed,” he promised, “but we must remember that every object of our institutions of society and government will fail unless America be kept American.” Coolidge’s remarks lacked Palmer’s vitriol, but upheld his spirit. It would take a depression, a World War, and a generational shift for Italian and Jewish immigrants to be welcome in the United States. Palmer failed in his bid for power, but left a legacy of repression that echoed until the 1924 law was repealed by Lyndon Johnson 40 years later.

Fear doesn’t last long, but legislation based on it often does. Should Congress act to reject Syrian refugees, and should states move to challenge federal authority in granting them safe haven, Americans will live with the results for a long time. The names of anti-refugee agitators will be half-remembered by history as a cautionary tale about seeking power through manipulation and fear. Governors will forget their pledges as soon as their constituents do. But we will remember the laws and actions of our government, and so will those we turn away from our borders. Just as today’s historians have drawn parallels to the national embarrassments of Japanese internment, the rejection of the Jewish refugee ship St. Louis, and the 1919 Red Scare, tomorrow’s historians will draw them with the Syrian refugees. And once again, we will be ashamed.

About the Author

Andrew Lipsett

Andrew Lipsett teaches United States History at Billerica Memorial High School in Billerica, MA. His interests include race, identity, and membership, and he blogs about history, memory, and memorialization at Graves of Note.

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