Known to some as the Red Scare of 1919, the First Red Scare was a precursor to the Red-baiting and witch hunting that occurred in the years following World War II. During this period:
People truly believed that Reds were under the bed — not to mention in the water supply, creeping through the halls of government, and even spying from space.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First some background.
After the Russian Revolution, communism was dreaded by America’s business and industrial leaders. Fearing labor unrest, they treated it like the plague. According to Red Scared!: The Commie Menace in Propaganda and Popular Culture, a 2001 book by Michael Barson and Steven Heller:
These same leaders forged secret alliances with racists, jingoists, and other America-first fanatics in spreading anti-Communist propaganda throughout the nation. In turn, they succeeded in convincing a mass of Americans that their lives were threatened by Communists who were nestled among the immigrants entering the United States.
After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Bolshevism became totally entrenched in Russian life, and in 1919 the American Communist Party was founded in Chicago. Refusing to recognize Lenin’s government, President Wilson committed arms and troops to the war against Bolshevism abroad and increased the level of anti-Communist propaganda at home.
Interestingly, though, the Red Scare begins much earlier than 1917. Let’s start our timeline with the Manifesto of the Communist Party, published in 1848.
Red Scare Timeline: 1848-1927
1848: Karl Marx and Frederic Engels write the Manifesto of the Communist Party. It declares: “A specter is haunting Europe, and that specter is Communism.”
1879: Josef Stalin is born in the Georgian village of Gori and christened Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. In 1912, Lenin gives him the name Stalin — Man of Steel.
December 26, 1893: Mao Zedong is born in the farm village of Shaosan, not far from Changsha, the capital city of Hunan province.
1903: Lenin leads the split from the 5 year old Russian Social Democrat Labor Party. He forms the Bolshevik Party.
January 9, 1905: Bloody Sunday erupts. The Imperial Guard of the absent Czar Nicholas II, at the direction of the grand duke, opens fire on a crowd of several thousand unarmed laborers marching on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to protest mistreatment; 1500 demonstrators are wounded or killed.
1905: Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1900 and 1904, founds the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The group is known as the Wobblies.
November 7, 1917: The October Revolution (the Russian calendar was used) marks the Bolshevik seizure of power with forces that number no more than 250,000. The 15 member Politburo is formed immediately. Josef Stalin, a founding member and an experienced revolutionary activist, is given the post of People’s Commissar of Nationalities.
1917: Lenin’s State and Revolution is published.
1917: Congress passes the Espionage Act, making it illegal to mail literature “advocating or urging treason, insurrection, or forcible resistance” to the laws of the United States.
April 1918: Lenin forms the Revolutionary Military Council.
July 8, 1918: The Romanov royal family — the czar, the empress, and their children — are shot to death by the Bolshevists. Their bodies are buried in a remote forest, but their graves are rediscovered in 1922.
1918: Congress passes the Sedition Act, which forbids anything “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive” being either spoken or written about the US government or the Constitution.
September 1918: Eugene V. Debs is tried in Cleveland and found guilty of violating the Espionage Act. He is sentenced to 2 concurrent 10 year terms, asserting: “While there is a lower class, I am in it: while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” He served his time in an Atlanta penitentiary, even though Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer urged President Wilson to grant him clemency.
March 1919: Lenin establishes The Comintern, the Third Communist International. Its mandate is to coordinate Communist activity worldwide via decree from Moscow.
April 30, 1919: A postal clerk in New York discovers bombs in 20 packages addressed to a variety of government officials. The bombs are set to explode the next day, on May Day. The attack launches America’s First Red Scare.
August 1919: The Justice Department creates the General Intelligence Division. Its first director is J. Edgar Hoover, a graduate of George Washington University Law School.
August 1919: Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer asks Immigration to deport black activist Marcus Garvey. But he doesn’t go to prison until his arrest in January 1922 on charges of mail fraud. His sentence is commuted in 1927, and Garvey is deported back to his native Jamaica.
1919: John Reed’s books, Red Russia and Ten Days That Shook the World, are published. They’re based on his first-hand account of the 1917 Revolution. Back in the US, Reed is expelled from the Socialist Party. He and Benjamin Gitlow form the Communist Labor Party. For a few years, it competes with the Russian led Communist Party of America. Later in 1919, Reed returns to Russia. The Comintern gives him money and instructions to further the growth of the Communist movement in America. Jailed in Finland on his way back to America, Reed falls into poor health. He dies in Moscow in 1920. Lenin sees to it that he is buried within the walls of the Kremlin — the only American to ever be so honored.
January 10, 1920: The League of Nations is formed. It’s dissolved on the same day in 1946, shortly after the founding of the United Nations.
September 16, 1920: A bomb explodes on Wall Street, killing 30 and injuring many others. Anarchists are blamed.
1920: The Red Army, led by Georgi Zhukov, defeats the White Army of the Cossacks and other counter-revolutionaries. This ends Russia’s civil war.
November 1920: The first Chinese Communist Manifesto is published in Shanghai.
May 1921: The Communist Party of America (CPA) and John Reed’s Communist Labor Party (CLP) merge into the American Communist Party (ACP) at a convention held in Woodstock, NY.
December 24, 1921: Newly elected President Warren G. Harding orders the release of Eugene V. Debs from prison. In 1920, while in prison, Debs had run as the Socialist Party candidate for president. He boldly stated: “I consider the Russian Revolution] the greatest single achievement in all history. I am still a Bolshevik. I am fighting for the same thing here they are fighting for there.”
April 3, 1922: Stalin is elected general secretary to the Central Committee, the most important post in the Party.
December 1922: The USSR is officially formed.
January 21, 1924: Lenin dies and is succeeded by Josef Stalin.
January 1925: Leon Trotsky is removed from his position as commissar for the army and navy and chairman of the military council.
October 1925: The National Negro Labor Congress is organized by the Communist Party.
August 23, 1927: Anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are electrocuted. They were convicted of robbery and murder in 1921. Their trial and execution become rallying points for American progressives.
Thanks to Red Scared a book by Michael Barson and Steven Heller, for the information presented in this post.