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date: 01 December 2020

The First Red Scarelocked

  • Adam J. HodgesAdam J. HodgesUniversity of Houston – Clear Lake

Summary

The first Red Scare, which occurred in 1919–1920, emerged out of longer clashes in the United States over the processes of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization as well as escalating conflict over the development of a labor movement challenging elite control of the economy. More immediately, the suppression of dissent during World War I and shock over a revolution in Russia that energized anti-capitalist radicals spurred further confrontations during an ill-planned postwar demobilization of the armed forces and economy.

A general strike in Seattle in February 1919 that grew out of wartime grievances among shipbuilders raised the specter of Bolshevik insurrection in the United States. National press attention fanned the flames and continued to do so throughout the year. In fact, 1919 became a record strike year. Massive coal and steel walkouts in the fall shook the industrial economy, while a work stoppage by Boston police became a national sensation and spread fears of a revolutionary breakdown in public order. Ultimately, however, much of the union militancy of the war era was crushed by the end of 1919 and the labor movement entered a period of retrenchment after 1922 that lasted until the 1930s.

Fall 1919 witnessed the creation of two competing Communist parties in the United States after months of press focus on bombs, riots, and strikes. Federal anti-radical investigative operations, which had grown enormously during World War I and continued into 1919, peaked in the so-called “Palmer Raids” of November 1919 and January 1920, named for US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who authorized them. The excesses of the Department of Justice and the decline of labor militancy caused a shift in press and public attention in 1920, though another Red Scare would escalate after World War II, with important continuities between the two.

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