Two Union/Socialist groups had objected to U.S. involvement in World War I. Many Americans viewed these groups as unpatriotic. Any activity even loosely associated with them was suspicious.
On January 21, 35,000 shipyard workers in Seattle went on strike. Several weeks later, 60,000 workers in the Seattle area joined the strike. There was no violence or arrests, but the strikers were immediately labeled as Reds trying to incite revolution. The Seattle strike became national news, with headlines across the country predicting Seattle's impending doom. The Seattle mayor declared war against the strikers. When strike leaders realized they could not succeed, they ended the strike.
The press called all strikes over the next six months “crimes against society,” “conspiracies against the government,” and “plots to establish communism.” Bomb plots were uncovered and rallies were held around the country. Since people cannot defend themselves against an unknown enemy, they blamed the striking workers for the unrest.
On September 9, the Boston police force went on strike. Boston panicked that "Reds" were behind the strike despite the lack of any radicalism on the part of the striking police officers. Weeks later, a nation-wide steel strike occurred.
As a result of the strikes and unrest, the strikers were called unpatriotic “Reds.” Many Americans feared that the strikes might lead to a Communist revolution. “Red hunting” became a national obsession. College professors were labeled radicals. Many public secondary school teachers were fired for membership in leftist organizations. The American Legion was founded on May 8, 1919, and it engaged in vigilante justice against Reds both real and suspected.
The national mood began to shift back to normal in the spring of 1920. A group of prominent attorneys issued a report detailing the Justice Department's violations of civil liberties. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes criticized proposed anti-sedition bills. Possibly because the proposed bills were viewed as censorship, most newspapers were opposed to them. Industry leaders began to realize that deporting immigrants deprived them of a major source of labor, resulting in higher wages and decreased profits.
The Red Scare quickly died down and, by the summer of 1920, it was largely over. The nation turned its collective attention to more leisurely pursuits.
Source: The Red Scare
Copyright © 1995 - 2021 Professor Douglas O. Linder