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U.S. Federal Government v. Anarchist Movement, a Political
and Societal Battle in Early Twentieth Century America


The turn of the 20th century brought many changes to the lives of the American public. The influx of foreign immigrants to America created a vast array of cultures within American society. While the spread of various viewpoints might have produced an ideological melting pot, the first two decades of the 20th century saw the rise of fear and discrimination against those who espoused radical political solutions.

One of the most aggressively persecuted groups was the anarchist movement. Anarchism was growing in popularity, especially with the continuous arrival of immigrants from nations such as Germany where anarchism was well established. The fear and anger directed toward anarchism occurred primarily because of the misunderstanding of anarchism and anarchist thought. Many people simply thought that anarchists sought to destroy all governmental control and raise chaos. This misconception was mainly caused by the media's portrayal of anarchist violence incited by the anarchist call for "propaganda of the deed." Many anarchists chose to further their ideological goals through the use of violence. This frightened many people, especially in capitalist America.

From the fear of foreigners and violence, there grew a bitter hatred of anarchists in American society. With the rise of fervent nationalism attached to World War I, the anarchists were considered unpatriotic outsiders by more and more Americans. The growing agitation within the labor movement, to which many anarchists were attached, also frightened mainstream America, causing many to identify anarchists as a threat to America. This fear and discrimination gave way to anoter Red Scare.1

The well-off capitalists backed the government's targeting of the anarchists. The notion that capitalists were righteous men fighting against the ruthless and chaotic anarchists was spread through the newspapers and governmental documents. The anarchists, however, were very limited in that the government went to great end to silence the anarchist movement through censorship.

Men like A. Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover wielded tremendous power in the government, rising to power nearly solely on their record of harassing and discriminating against those from the left. Thousands of so-called "radicals" were jailed or even deported on bogus charges. The persecution and deportation of leaders such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman made this time period one of the most tense and controversial in contemporary history.

The Palmer Raids took place during November 1919 and January 1920. The U.S. Department of Justice, under the leadership of the Attorney General Alexander M. Palmer, sought to arrest and/or deport all radicals and anarchists living in the United States. Palmer used his connections with officials in the Labor Department and Bureau of Immigration to establish probable cause on those affiliated with any labor, socialist, anarchist, or Russian immigrant groups. The main purpose of the raids was to purge the United States of anarchists and radical socialists; however, while many of those deported (over 500 in total) were anarchists, many were simply members of immigrant organizations such as the Union of Russian Laborers.

1Similar campaigns against radicals occured after the Haymarket bombing and after McKinley's assassination.

From: "Civil Liberties and National Security Time Line." USA Patriot Act Civil Liberties Time Line. The Duncan Group, 2011. <>.

Time Line:

World War I, Palmer Raids and Red Scare

1917 -  With the entry of the United States into World War I, the government became increasingly concerned about rising anti-war sentiment and a growing labor and radical movement. Organized labor was lobbying for higher wages, the right to collective bargaining as well as reduced work hours. Inflation was high and workers were striking. By order of the War Department army officers were authorized to repress any activities committed under the vague umbrella of "seditious intent." The government stepped up its campaign against left-wing activists and foreign immigrants. There were mass arrests. By order of the Postmaster General, magazines, including Emma Goldman's Mother Earth and Max Eastman's The Masses, expressing anti-war sentiment were refused access to the mail. Under the law the Postmaster General was given the ability to declare "unmailable", any material that in his opinion violated the law. The Espionage Act passed in 1917 established stiff fines and hefty prison terms for anyone found encouraging disloyalty or obstructing the draft.

1918 - The Sedition Act, a further refinement of the Espionage Act, was passed. This wide-ranging law made it illegal to criticize the government or hamper the war effort in almost any manner. Thus many labor activists, dissidents and radicals became the targets of government prosecutors. To be a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union put one at the risk of deportation. Anyone found violating these acts could be fined up to $10,000 and/or sentenced up to twenty years in jail. Rose Pastor Stokes, Eugene V. Debs, Victor Berger and Emma Goldman were notable individuals that were arrested and charged under these laws.

1919 - The Red Scare and the Palmer Raids.  The Bolshevik Revolution and fear of communism that spread in its wake resulted in the development and use of aggressive tactics against suspected anarchists and communists. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, assisted by J. Edgar Hoover, then a young lawyer, conducted a series of raids against groups suspected of communist sympathies. Groups such as The Union of Russian Workers and International Workers of the World (IWW) were targeted. In one raid more than one hundred Russian-born aliens were arrested and then deported to the Soviet Union. In a later raid several hundred people in over thirty cities were arrested. Many were deported. It is estimated that by the time the "Palmer Raids" were completed several thousand had been arrested and several hundred had been deported.


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