On that historic day, January 2, 1920, thousands detained by the DOJ in nationwide ‘Palmer Raids’


The Justice Department unleashed a shocking and often violent nationwide unconstitutional crackdown – detaining up to 10,000 people – on that historic day, January 2, 1920.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, appointed to the post 10 months earlier by President Woodrow Wilson, led the sweep against suspected communists and anarchists, and their sympathizers.

The action was soon dubbed the Palmer Raids.

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“The raids constituted a horrific and shameful episode in American history, one of the lowest moments for freedom since King George III quartered troops in private homes,” writes the Foundation for Economic Education.

The foundation calls the effort under President Wilson “America’s Reign of Terror.”

Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer launched a series of unconstitutional raids on January 2, 1920, arresting up to 10,000 people suspected of being communists or anarchists.
(Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

The Wilson administration also targeted political opponents.

“Even a simple criticism of the government was enough to land you in jail,” according to Christopher Finan, author of the 2007 book “From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America.”

“Even a simple criticism of the government was enough to send you to prison.”

The Palmer Raids marked the height of the country’s first Red Scare, a response to the Bolshevik Revolution and the Communist takeover of Russia.

The radical ideology spread rapidly across Europe and the United States after the tectonic social upheaval caused by World War I.

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The Age of Fear was further fueled by widespread postwar worker discontent and the deadly 1919 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, many of them children, in just a year and a half. .

“The Constitution was tested on that day in 1920 when raids ordered by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer saw thousands detained without warrants merely on general suspicion,” the National Constitution Center wrote the year last.

“Facilitated by a young Justice Department official, J. Edgar Hoover, what became known as the Palmer Raids culminated on the night of January 2, 1920, when between 3,000 and 10,000 people in 35 cities were arrested.”

(Original caption) 1928: Washington, DC: J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, sits at his desk at the Department of Justice. Hoover played a key role in the Palmer Raids; he was appointed director of the FBI in 1924.

(Original caption) 1928: Washington, DC: J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, sits at his desk at the Department of Justice. Hoover played a key role in the Palmer Raids; he was appointed director of the FBI in 1924.
(Getty Images)

Many media applauded the raids.

“There is no time to waste arguing over the violation of freedoms,” the Washington Post wrote on January 4.

Alexander Mitchell Palmer was a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania when Wilson chose him to lead the Justice Department.

“There is no time to waste arguing over the violation of freedoms.” — The Washington Post, January 4, 1920

The Wilson administration called the new attorney general “young, militant, progressive and fearless.”

The Justice Department has been accused of recklessly using warrantless searches, illegal wiretapping and aggressive interrogation techniques that could be considered torture today.

Palmer may have been motivated by personal revenge.

“On June 2, 1919, an anarchist militant named Carlo Valdinoci blew up the facade of new Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home in Washington, D.C. — and himself in the process when the bomb went off too soon,” reports the FBI in its online history of the bureau.

Anti-Bolshevik political cartoon published in the Literary Digest on July 5, 1919.

Anti-Bolshevik political cartoon published in the Literary Digest on July 5, 1919.
(Photo by: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“A young Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who lived across the street, were also shaken by the blast. The bombing was just one in a series of coordinated attacks this day against judges, politicians, law enforcement officials and others in eight cities across the country.”

Palmer was also driven by personal ambition.

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He launched his raids while launching a bid for the White House.

He lost the Democratic nomination to James M. Cox at the party convention in July.

His “reign of terror” and White House ambitions waned simultaneously.

Palmer’s raids were deemed “lawless and subversive of constitutional liberty for citizens and foreigners.”

“On April 30, 1920, Palmer warned of assassination attempts on “more than twenty” government officials the next day. But on May 1, nothing happened, and Palmer lost momentum as as a presidential candidate,” according to the National Constitution Center. .

He left office when Warren G. Harding became president in March 1921.

Palmer’s raids were deemed “lawless and subversive of constitutional liberty for citizens and foreigners” in a February 1921 Senate court hearing.

(Original caption) Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark of Texas, pictured in a 1964 file photo. He released his infamous "blacklist," officially known as the Attorney General's List of Subversive Organizations.

(Original caption) Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark of Texas, shown in a 1964 file photo. He released his infamous ‘blacklist’, officially known as the Prosecutor’s List of Subversive Organizations general.
(Getty Images)

The unconstitutional nature of the Palmer Raids was revived under the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration in 1938 with the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee under President and Texas Democrat Martin Dies.

A new red scare consumed the government after World War II and the start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

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The Truman administration and the HUAC would be accused of many of the same unconstitutional tactics as the Palmer Raids.

“It grew out of President Truman’s Executive Order 9835 of March 21, 1947, which required that all federal public service employees be vetted for their ‘loyalty,'” Robert Justin Goldstein wrote for the National Archives’ Prologue magazine in 2006. .

“All federal public service employees [had to] to be examined for “fidelity”. »

Attorney General Tom C. Clark released his infamous “blacklist” the following December, officially known as the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations.

The highly publicized list, Goldstein notes, “casts a general shadow over freedom of association and speech in the United States.”

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“The Palmer raids were certainly not a beacon of hope for the young office,” according to the FBI Department’s online history.

“But he gained valuable experience in terrorism investigations and intelligence work and learned important lessons about the need to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights.”


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