From 1917 throughout the early 1920s, the United States experienced a period of paranoia about the threat of communism, instigated by the successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The American government's reaction to these fears were also partly motivated by similar anti-dissent actions taken during World War I. The First Red Scare was characterized by significant government oversight and suspensions of many civil liberties.
World War I Dissenters and Bolshevism
During World War I, Congress passed legislation to silence dissenters of the government's foreign policy, and frequently lumped anti-war activists and "Red" communists together. In 1917, for example, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which allowed the government to prosecute people speaking against the war, many of whom were communist. Meanwhile, the Postmaster General was allowed to deem certain mailings "unmailable," and many of these publications were socialist or communist, like Max Eastman's "The Masses" and Emma Goldman's "Mother Earth." Targeting communists in America was motivated by the successful Bolshevik communist revolution in Russia in November of 1917, which set off international fears about the spread of communism.
The American Communist Party
American communists were inspired by the Bolshevik success in Russia, and so they formed the American Communist Party in 1919. The party began in Chicago and consisted of a mix of recent Eastern European immigrations and native-born Americans. Many Americans feared an American communist party, partly because of the international influence Moscow exerted over worldwide communism. In 1922, for example, the Comintern forced two competing American communist parties to amalgamate into one, and to follow the party line established in Moscow.
J. Edgar Hoover and the Palmer Raids
In response to fears about communism, the government took drastic actions, often directed by J. Edgar Hoover. Beginning in the late 1910s, Hoover was appointed a special assistant to Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Together, the two investigated and prosecuted suspected communists like Marcus Garvey, an African-American organizer. The Bureau of Investigation and the Attorney General's office also conducted the "Palmer Raids" in January of 1920, in which about 5,000 U.S. citizens were imprisoned without respecting their right to legal counsel.
Sacco and Vanzetti Trial
The Sacco and Vanzetti Trial against two Massachusetts Italian immigrants exemplified an era of violations against socialists' civil liberties. The two immigrants, who were anarchists and socialists, were arrested after two people were murdered in a shoe warehouse. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti both maintained their innocence in the matter, but were nonetheless charged and convicted. Fellow socialists and immigrants felt the trial was highly biased, and it set off controversy across the country. To many Americans, fear of communism had become intertwined with xenophobia, and events like the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial were the result.
Kevin Wandrei has written extensively on higher education. His work has been published with Kaplan, Textbooks.com, and Shmoop, Inc., among others. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University.