The Red Scare of the 1920s – Communist Witch Hunts and the Sacco and Venzetti Trial

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After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which led to Vladimir Lenin becoming dictator, democracies around the world became nervous at the thought of Communism.

Reason quickly gave way to fear, and soon “The Red Scare” was spreading like wildfire across the United States.

Labor Unions Targeted

Socialist publications and labor unions were particularly suspect, and conflict soon erupted. On Armistice Day in November 1919, members of the American Legion paraded in front of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) headquarters in Centralia, Washington. A confrontation led to gunfire, and when it was all said and done four Legionnaires were dead and an IWW worker was lynched by an angry mob.

Communist Witch Hunts

Government officials added fuel to the fire by conducting “witch hunts” in the name of democracy. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer told people who had invested in Liberty bonds that the “Reds” sought to take away all they had. He distributed “boiler plate propaganda” to the press with “horrid-looking Bolsheviks with bristling beards,” asking if that was who people wanted to rule America. He created mass hysteria.

FBI Looks for Un-American Activities

Soon the FBI began monitoring groups, looking for “un-American” activities. Nearly 1000 “alien radicals” were deported over the next few months in the so-called “Palmer Raids.” Five duly elected New York state senators and one Congressman from Milwaukee, who were members of the Socialist Party, were ejected from their seats.

People started to realize they could smear anything, if they just labeled it “red.” Writing in 1931, historian Frederick Lewis Allen said, “Upholders of every sort of cause, good, bad, and indifferent, all wrapped themselves in Old Glory and the mantle of the Founding Fathers and allied their opponents with Lenin…. A cloud of suspicion hung in the air, and intolerance became an American virtue.”

The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti

Communism was not the only fear in the 1920s. During that era, Americans developed a fear of immigrants as well. Often the two issues were related. The Sacco and Vanzetti case is a stunning example of anti-immigrant feeling in the 1920s.

In April 1920, two men in South Braintree, MA shot a guard and a paymaster of the Slater and Merrill Shoe Company and fled with the payroll funds. Police arrested two Italian immigrants and charged them with robbery and murder.

Sacco and Vanzetti Questioned as Anarchists

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were questioned for two days, mostly about their political beliefs, without being told why they were being held. In the trial that followed, their ethnic background and political ideas seemed to play a larger role than the facts of the case. Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the case, called them “those anarchist bastards.”

Even though Sacco had a substantial alibi placing him miles from the scene of the crime, both men were convicted and sentenced to death. Their lawyers tried to get them a new trial based on new evidence, including a confession from another inmate who strongly resembled Sacco. Eight appeals, including one to the Supreme Court, failed and the men were executed in August 1927.

Sources:

  1. Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig
  2. The 1920s by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber
  3. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920’s by Frederick Lewis Allen