As early as 1848, the color red was used to refer to socialism, and was derived from the color of a party badge. With the revolution in Russia in 1917, it became common to use the color red to refer to anything remotely revolutionary, including anarchism, bolshevism, or communism.
When the United States became nearly hysterical with a fear of revolutionary infiltrators, the phrase “red scare” was coined. The term has been used to describe two different periods in U.S. history, both of which were characterized by a pervasive fear of a worldwide conspiracy, and both scares resulted in wide-ranging societal reactions.
The first period occurred during the years after World War I, from 1919 to about 1921, and the sensitivity then stemmed from a fear that the 1917 Russian Revolution was the beginning of a worldwide spread of bolshevism. The first red scare has been overshadowed by the second, which, of much longer duration, followed World War II and endured until about 1955, fueled by a fear of the spread of communism.
Each red scare was characterized by a willingness on the part of the U.S. societal and governmental infrastructure to take seriously the possibility that an antidemocratic, anticapitalist international conspiracy was afoot. Existing agencies at the federal, state, and local levels were expanded, and new entities were created, to observe, analyze, and address this amorphous, unidentified threat.
Red Scare of 1919–1921
Each red scare is identified with a high-ranking federal official, who acted as a promoter and driving force. In the first, it was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whose inflammatory rhetoric often used the word “red.”
Attorney General Palmer was afraid of a “red menace” made up of anarchists, radicals, “Bolshevik propagandists,” and revolutionaries, whom he suspected of trying to infiltrate and pollute the U.S. labor movement.
He feared the theme song of the proletarian revolution, “The New International,” and believed that it would help spread the socialist philosophy “like wildfire.” Labor unrest and a series of letter bombs served as evidence for Palmer that unprecedented, sinister organizing at a national level was taking place.
Palmer argued persuasively before Congress that any aliens deemed dangerous should be deported without need to show cause. Eventually this led to a series of mass arrests known as the Palmer Raids, in which thousands of suspected radicals in several cities were detained pending deportation, including the well-known socialist Emma Goldman.
Of the thousands detained, only a fraction were actually deported, because so many civil liberties were violated during the arrests that the cases were eventually thrown out. The Palmer Raids were ultimately an embarrassment to Attorney General Palmer and anyone else associated with them.
Groups with national reach took up the red scare cause, promoting fear through pamphlets, exposés, and news releases. From the National Security League, the American Defense Society, the National Civic Foundation, and the American Legion, to the American Federation of Labor and the U.S. Army and Navy, the message was that the United States was in danger of subversion.
Race was a focus of red scare fear. The federal government was convinced that American blacks as a group were vulnerable to the persuasions of the Bolsheviks, and much money and resources were allotted to monitoring and infiltrating radical black activity.
The Justice Department, the Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, the General Intelligence Division, the Department of the Post Office, the Military Intelligence Division, and the Office of Naval Intelligence are all on record as having made it their business to find a link between Bolshevik propaganda and black militancy.
Black publications, including the Messenger, the Defender, the Whip, the Crusader, and the Emancipator were carefully watched for what was referred to as “negro subversion.”
Some of the weekly newspapers and monthly magazines were investigated and censured, and in some cases were withheld from distribution, or confiscated altogether. The Post Office sometimes revoked the second-class permit of a publication, forcing an underfunded publisher to pay firstclass postage rates, effectively silencing the issue (Kornweibel).
During the first red scare, many state governments formed committees to address rising fears. The New York state legislature, for example, established the Joint Legislative Committee Investigating Seditious Activities, known as the Lusk Committee, which published in 1920 a four-volume report numbering 4,450 pages, entitled Revolutionary Radicalism: Its History, Purpose, and Tactics.
As an extreme example of the general timbre of the moment, the Lusk Committee devoted an inordinate amount of time and personnel toward thoroughly investigating all aspects of the potential radical threat. While much of what they documented was accurate—for example, they quoted extensively from Socialist publications—somehow the conclusion they reached, that the United States was vulnerable to the ideals of bolshevism, proved unfounded.
A component of the first red scare was the perception that a radical trade unionism, referred to as syndicalism, was gearing up to destroy capitalism in the United States and establish a new social order, ruled by the workers.
Personified by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the “Wobblies”), syndicalism’s major tactic was the general strike and syndicalists were widely believed to support the use of violence to achieve their aims.
The Seattle general strike of 1919, the first general walkout in the United States, as well as the Boston police strike, the Lawrence textile strike, the national coal strike, and the great steel strike, led state governments, such as Michigan, Kansas, California, and Washington, to put into place antisyndicalism legislation. Under these laws, anyone holding a gathering suspected of being radical in nature could be charged, and anyone so charged who was an alien could then be deported.
In reality, the radical movements at this time were not a tight-knit conspiracy of violent antigovernment activists, and there was great dissension among radicals, in philosophy as well as strategy. Socialists differed from Communists, who themselves were diametrically split.
Socialists believed in Marxism, and one Communist group supported Stalin while the other favored Lenin and Trotsky. One group advocated change from within, and moderate political action, while the other preferred revolutionary activism. Congruent conventions held by the different groups in 1919 were clear demonstrations of their lack of unity and purpose.
Red Scare of 1947–1955
The champion of the second red scare was Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy. While a growing conservative movement at both the national and local level was an integral component in the manifestation of the scare, McCarthy’s association with the second red scare is so complete that the phenomenon itself and the extreme behaviors associated with it are referred to as McCarthyism.
McCarthy, like Palmer, was afraid of a red menace, but by the time McCarthy’s menace surfaced, the various strains of socialism and radicalism had coalesced to form a threat that was simpler and easier to name—communism. When the Soviet Union demonstrated that it had the atomic bomb in 1949, its action gave concrete weight to the doctrine of the conservative movement in the United States at that time.
Many who might not otherwise have been concerned suddenly embraced the fear that unless the United States became more vigilant, it would not be safe from, at the least, Communist subversion and spying and, at worst, a Communist takeover.
With the second red scare, the federal government moved into action. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had been established in 1938 as a temporary committee, but in 1945 it was made permanent and given great budgetary latitude to investigate Communist propaganda and membership.
At the local level, many states, including Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Arizona, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Michigan, established comparable entities, sometimes called “little HUACs.” California’s little HUAC was perhaps the longest running, publishing its reports into the 1970s.
Washington State’s Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, headed up by the avid anticommunist Albert Canwell, was created to investigate any organization with Communist members.
The Canwell Committee held hearings to determine Communist leadership of labor organizations such as the Washington Pension Union, and other targets as diverse as the state university and the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. These activities were typical of all the little HUACs, as their goal was to disarm the red menace through exposure.
Another measure popular with the state and federal governments was the loyalty oath. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman instituted a loyalty program for federal employees.
The federal loyalty program consisted of an investigation of each employee, usually conducted by the Civil Service Commission, which could include an examination of any files held by any government agency, including those of the FBI, military intelligence, HUAC, local law enforcement, and schools.
Once charged with disloyalty, an employee would be entitled to a hearing, at which the local Loyalty Review Board would recommend removal from the job or not, as they deemed appropriate. Refusal to participate in any phase of the program was considered evidence of disloyalty. Many states, including New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and the territory of Hawaii, followed suit.
Particularly popular on the local level were loyalty oaths for teachers. Perhaps the most active controversy was in California, when, in 1949, the Board of Regents of the University of California instituted a loyalty oath requirement for all university employees.
Many faculty and staff refused to sign as a matter of principle, finding the requirement to be a violation of academic freedom, and many were summarily dismissed from their jobs. Such loyalty legislation is still on the books in some states.
In Georgia, for example, the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act of 1953 still requires all state government job applicants to fill out a state security questionnaire/loyalty oath form. Every state employee working more than thirty days in Oklahoma must sign a loyalty oath, as well.
Anticommunist legislation passed during or near the red scare years included the Smith Act of 1940, making it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the government by force; the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which had a provision requiring an affidavit from all labor union officials attesting to a noncommunist stance; the Internal Security Act of 1950, requiring Communist organizations and their members to register with authorities; and the Communist Control Act of 1954, disallowing Communist candidates for elective office. The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee established in 1951 went after university professors, organizations, and government officials, particularly diplomats.
While there was an active Communist Party and there was authentic Soviet espionage in the United States during the second red scare, the threat of the former and the extent of the latter were highly exaggerated.
In recent years many documents from the Soviet archives have become available and many U.S. government documents from the era have been declassified. In 1995, for example, the National Security Agency (NSA) declassified the work of the Venona Project, which had been examining encrypted Soviet diplomatic communications since 1943.
According to the NSA, U.S. Army Signal Intelligence analysts ultimately decrypted more than 2,000 messages, most of which are now accessible to the public. Researchers have gleaned from this and other material specifics regarding an active Soviet espionage program.
The red scare, however, must be understood as a phenomenon existing apart from that reality, because of those accused by McCarthy or investigated by the HUAC and the little HUACs, few were actively promoting communism, and even fewer were actually spies.
The individuals and parts of the federal government that were aware of the actual participants and their level of activity in the Soviet espionage program were not the people and agencies that were the governmental voices of the red scare.
The Cost of the Red Scares
All of the formal government activity helped maintain the general climate of fear and distrust out of which it was generated. In the first scare, the result of the exercise of governmental vigor was the deportation of many aliens; in the second, many citizens were blacklisted and many lives and careers ruined.
With both red scares, there continues to be disagreement among scholars as to whether public opinion drove the government to its vigorous response, or whether the government incited public opinion.
In either case, in spite of grueling interrogations, elaborate investigations, the involvement of many people at all levels of government, and seemingly limitless financial resources and administrative support, no definitive evidence was found supporting the kind of conspiracy feared.
Eventually both red scares lost momentum as their cheerleaders discredited themselves in various ways and the majority of people came to value peace, stability, and their own civil liberties over constant vigilance against an unquantifiable and unsubstantiated enemy.