During World War One, a crisis in civil liberties began brewing as Germanophobia combined with anti-union sentiment and resistance to immigration from southern and Eastern Europe to ignite widespread fear of political radicals and anarchists.
Vigilante groups formed to root out heresy and dissent, while Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition Laws to prosecute suspected spies and vocal opponents of the War. Nor did this jingoistic fever abate with the Armistice. Instead, it was further fueled by inflation, unemployment, massive and violent strikes, brutal race riots and the Russian, or Bolshevik, Revolution.
After a massive truck bomb on Wall Street killed thirty six people and a mail bomb plot was discovered, many became convinced there was a communist conspiracy to overthrow the government. The U.S. even sent troops to Northern Russia to fight against the Bolsheviks; and at home, people began seeing Reds everywhere.
It was then that Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, together with J. Edgar Hoover, created the General Intelligence Division of the Justice Department to monitor and disrupt domestic radicals.
In late 1919, Federal and local authorities arrested more than two hundred individuals at New York City’s Union of Russian workers. On December 21st of that same year, two hundred and forty nine radicals, including anarchist Emma Goldman, were deported to Russia on the USS Buford, which was dubbed The Soviet Ark by the press. And on January 2nd, 1920, the most spectacular of all the so-called Palmer Raids occurred.
Without search warrants, Federal agents entered the homes of thousands of suspected anarchists. They also jailed labor leaders, and held an estimated three thousand citizens without access to legal counsel - many guilty of nothing more than having a foreign accent.
Palmer went on to insist there were more than three hundred thousand dangerous communists still inside the United States – and publicly predicted a communist-led May Day uprising on May 1, 1920. But when that didn’t happen, he lost much of his credibility and public opinion shifted again, due to the brutality and questionable constitutionality of the raids.
Today, I find it richly ironic that Trump advisor Steve Bannon proclaims himself a follower of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and declares war on what he calls the "administrative state" – while at the same time advocates for anti-immigration actions that would have made Attorney General Palmer proud.