The Long Shadow of the Palmer Raids

A century ago, the Wilson administration cracked down on immigrant anarchists. The raids lasted three months, and their impact was felt for decades.


The last of the Palmer raids happened a century ago, at the end of January 1920. Launched the previous November by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the raids had been a sweeping crackdown: Police had arrested thousands of immigrants across the country, most of them originally from Italy or Eastern Europe. Many of the arrests were carried out without warrants, and many of the arrestees were guilty of nothing more than being foreign-born; the majority were eventually released without charge. But hundreds still found themselves on ships to their countries of origin, even after decades of living in the United States.

The raids were a response to a wave of anarchist mail bombings in the summer of 1919, a spree that had sent shock waves through the country. (The number of injuries was small, but this was due more to the bombers' incompetence than to anything else.) Labor unrest had spread in 1919 too, and many Americans blamed foreign conspirators for the trouble. Much of the country was open to repressive responses. One city—Gary, Indiana—dealt with a chaotic strike by declaring martial law.

For the White House, this was also an opportunity to show the back of its hand to a group it didn't much like anyway. President Woodrow Wilson had already signaled his distrust of "hyphenated Americans," and his administration was skeptical about immigration in general. The First World War had proven useful in this respect: It enabled measures against "enemy aliens," which proved to be a more flexible phrase than simply targeting supporters of the Kaiser. It also permitted the passage of the 1918 Immigration Act, which aimed to "exclude and expel from the United States aliens who are members of the anarchistic and similar classes."

The two most famous anarchists deported in the wake of the Palmer raids were Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. They were already in prison before the raids, so their cards were marked. But when they left in December on the Buford—a ship nicknamed "the Soviet Ark," since it was carrying its human cargo to the nascent Soviet Union—they were joined by dozens of others nabbed in the raids, scooped up and shipped out as perceived threats. The was some irony in taking people who had emigrated from Czarist Russia and deporting them to the new Bolshevik state, which was not the country they had left. (Goldman quickly realized that the revolution did not live up to her anarchist ideals, and she described the authoritarian atmosphere there in her 1923 book My Disillusionment in Russia.)

Unlike Goldman and Berkman, most of those deported weren't famous; they were just working-class immigrants with leftist politics. This helped maintain the idea that anarchists were shadowy foreigners and strangers to the American society. Anarchism was thus cast as both anti-American and un-American, a scourge that could be driven away and pushed back abroad. The immigration laws were tightened to reduce arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe, regarded as the main sources of anarchist influence.

Initially, public support for the raids was strong. A New York Times editorial in December 1919 reflected the views of many: "There are ten or eleven millions of aliens here. Why give any questionable new arrival the benefit of the doubt? Why not give the country that benefit? Why let loose aliens who are to be deported? The humane sympathies of the immigration authorities do them honor, no doubt, but sometimes lead them into strange tenderness towards undesirables and even anarchists."

But the mood shifted after the raids. Predicted future violence did not occur, and the threat seemed to have passed, as anarchist bombings largely disappeared from the American political scene. (Giuseppe Zangara's attempt to assassinate President Franklin Roosevelt was a last remnant, in 1933.) Some Americans saw this as evidence that the raids had worked, but for others it was evidence that Palmer had overreached. The public appetite for mass roundups faded, and the post–World War I red scare was over.

Yet its influence lingered. What historians and sociologists call the "great pause" of immigration had begun, and it didn't end until a change in immigration law in 1965. The scare had a still longer demographic tail, as the last of the pre-1920 immigrant generation died out: The percentage of foreign-born people living in the U.S. was lowest in 1973.

For the authorities, anarchists had served their purpose as bogeymen for general social unrest. Some anarchists were dangerous, of course, but "anarchists," writ large, had become a focus for a more broad-based social fear. They were a leaderless group to whom anyone could claim affiliation, and which could not disclaim any purported members. That made them a perfect villain. And the blame that fell on them extended easily to entire populations of immigrants.

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  1. Since the raids are where J. Edgar Hoover got his start, I’m not going to be making the “libertarian case for Palmer raids.”

    I’d note, though, that the great immigration pause was about more than calling all foreigners anarchists. It dealt with general assimilabilty questions – too complex for a single snarky comment, except to note that the backlash against Palmer had already happened by the time the new national-origins immigration laws had passed.

    The anti-Palmer backlash started when acting Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post released most of the arrestees (the Labor Department then being responsible for deportation decisions), and then defended himself eloquently in the U. S. House and in a book on the subject. Then there was the judicial backlash. Not to mention that the labor turbulence subsided (not everywhere, just not a nationwide phenomenon as it had originally manifested itself).

    The Soviets *did* get their tentacles into America, but they did so through espionage and agents of influence and commie fronts, not by a direct overthrow and bombing campaign. Palmer’s Presidential bid fizzled.

  2. What historians and sociologists call the “great pause” of immigration had begun…

    …and our nation was saved from destruction.

    1. …and our nation was saved from destruction.


    2. +1000

    3. Until the present day….

  3. “most of them originally from Italy or Eastern Europe”

    Guess who you don’t hear whining about it today?

  4. Wilson was the worst president in US history, and a model for Mussolini, Hitler, and FDR. The Palmer raids were wrong, unjustifiable, and unamerican.

    What is also true is that Marxist anarchists are anti-/unamerican. Somehow, avowed anarchists always end up in service of communism.
    By the way, Alexander Berkman was famous for trying to assassinate a business owner for breaking a union strike/siege.
    Collectivist anarchism is not something to sympathize with.

    1. By the way, Alexander Berkman was famous for trying to assassinate a business owner for breaking a union strike/siege.

      That would have been Henry Frick, at Carnegie Steel.

    2. Somehow, avowed anarchists always end up in service of communism.

      That’s because anarchists tend to be naive idealists. They’ll destabilize things and then the communists say “thanks for the power vacuum!”

      An Iranian friend of mine opined that this is essentially what happened in Iran in 1979, too – students and pro-democracy agitators wanted to overthrow the Shah, but didn’t really have a plan for what would come next. Unfortunately, Khomenei did have a plan . . .

    3. Wilson is pretty far down there, but worst? I’d rate FDR worst. Also arguably ranking lower: James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, and Andrew Johnson. Still, no better than 6th worst is a pretty bad showing. (We’ve had some amazingly bad presidents).

      Not all anarchists are communist. The non-communists tend to be too academic to actually blow anything up, though. Anarcho-capitalism is definitely an intellectual movement – but when your philosophy declaims the initiation of force, you don’t get many bomb makers.

      1. Getting the US into a war which cost over 100,000 American lives, when American national interests were only tangentially affected, is pretty damned irresponsible. There are lots of contestants, but that’s probably the worst foreign policy decision in US history.

    4. Moreover, anarchist violence was actually enough of a big deal then, and had widereaching effects that ISIS would be envious of today. Killing a US President and several world leaders is a hell of a lot more than any Islamic lone wolves have been able to do.

      Add to that people were just starting to freak out about Communist and other groups getting labor agitated, and it’s not surprising Palmer’s people did what they did.

  5. The raids were a response to a wave of anarchist mail bombings in the summer of 1919, a spree that had sent shock waves through the country.

    1919? I bet they falsely yelled fire in a crowded theater, too.

  6. And as the right-wing zealots at PBS remind us, 1920 was also the year of the Wall Street bombing.


    1. The cops never knew who did it, but the odds are it wasn’t the Chamber of Commerce.

  7. Looks like they missed a few, including Bernie Sander’s family (his dad was born in 1904 in North Eastern Austria Hungary, now part of modern day Poland, and immigrated in 1921).

    So close to keeping the commie out of Congress. But I jest, I doubt too many of those folks going back to the then new USSR had a good time.

  8. She was the worst president ever!

  9. Giuseppe Zangara’s attempt to assassinate President Franklin Roosevelt

    Only if you think he was the target rather than Cermak. I don’t.

    I also think Oswald was aiming at Connally.

    1. Oswald didn’t aim at anyone. He was in the lunchroom drinking a Coke.

    2. “Hands off Cuba , Governor Connally” ? Really?

  10. While the raids might have been excessive and you wont link support for your claims, the raids were based on real crimes.

    We know now that the commies sent hundreds of spies and agents to sow unrest in the USA, manage American traitors turned spies, and infiltrate the US Government. The USA does need a federal investigative agency but the FBI is too political to objectively protect the USA from criminals and foreign agents.

    If you speak against the USA, who cares? You will be ignored because Americans dont want to listen to your bullshit. If you try and harm Americans, fuck you and your anti-American Anarchist retardedness. Leave the USA and buy land to form Anarchyland.

  11. “most of those deported weren’t famous; they were just … with leftist politics.”

    Can’t we do that now? 😉

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