When bombs terrorized America, the Attorney General launched the “Palmer Raids”

Alexander Mitchell Palmer
Alexander Mitchell Palmer Wikimedia Commons

In April of 1919, a bomb blew off the hands of a maid opening the mail of the Georgia senator. Over the course of the next several days, Manhattan postal officials discovered and intercepted 34 more identical mail bombs which targeted influential figures such as J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Anarchy seemed to be on the loose. When another bomb (one of several directed at legislators and businessmen across the East Coast) later blasted the front of his Washington home in June, A. Mitchell Palmer, newly appointed Attorney General, took action.

Palmer, spurred by public outcry against the perceived "Bolshevik menace" emerging from the new Soviet Union, assembled a new division at the U.S. Department of Justice specifically to hunt down anarchists. Invoking the wartime Espionage Act of 1917 and the 1918 Sedition Act, Palmer sought to flush out "Reds" and socialist supporters remotely capable of carrying out terrorist acts. In the next few months his officials conducted raids on "anarchist" organizations, schools, and gathering places in over 30 cities nationwide. Often without warrants, they rounded up some 5,000 mostly innocent resident aliens, incarcerated many and deported some back to the Soviet Union, including feminist Emma Goldman. "Not for at least half a century," wrote William Leuchtenburg, "had there been such a wholesale violation of civil liberties."

In the face of the mounting Red Scare, the Assistant Secretary of Labor, Louis F. Post, took a bold step and canceled more than 1,500 deportations. He saw not a Bolshevik menace but Palmer's power unchecked by law. Palmer angrily demanded that Post be fired for his "tender solicitude for social revolution." The House of Representatives tried to impeach Post, but his eloquent indictment of the "Palmer Raids" during the trial swayed Congress and calmed the nation.

The public lost interest by spring of 1920 as one Palmer- predicted terrorist attack after another failed to occur. When Wall Street was bombed in September 1920, most Americans considered it an assault by a deranged individual rather than a socialist conspiracy. Palmer, once considered a rising Presidential candidate, was largely forgotten.

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