Red Scare

From Academic Kids


The term "Red Scare" has been applied to two distinct periods of intense anti-Communism in United States history: first from 1917 to 1920, and second from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. Both periods were characterized by widespread fears of Communist influence on U.S. society and Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. These fears spurred aggressive investigation and (particularly during the first period) jailing of persons associated with communist and socialist ideology or political movements.

Political cartoon of the era depicting an anarchist attempting to destroy the .
Political cartoon of the era depicting an anarchist attempting to destroy the Statue of Liberty.


The roots of the Red Scare lie in the efforts of the U.S. government to suppress dissent and engineer pro-war opinion in the preparation for the American entry into World War I. in 1917, President Wilson established a "Committee on Public Information"[1] ( to disseminate news favorable to the Allied cause and hostile to Germany. To complement the efforts of the Committee, the incipient "Bureau of Investigations" disrupted the work of German-American and leftist organizations through raids, agents provocateurs and legal prosecution. The Socialist Party of America strongly opposed the war on pacifist or revolutionary grounds. Eugene Debs and other party leaders were prosecuted for giving speeches urging resistance to the draft. Postal inspectors refused to distribute materials deemed subversive to the war effort. Many German-language and leftist papers were disrupted or closed as a consequence.

The feelings of the public majority shifted from being strongly isolationist to actively pro-war in a matter of months. The change was made more remarkable by the fact that Wilson had run on an anti-war platform in 1916 with the slogan "He Kept Us Out Of War". The arguments, institutions and laws which were used to support the war did not disappear after the Armistice but remained on the books and were turned against radicals.

After the war, the investigations abated for a few months, but did not cease. They soon resumed in the context of Russian Revolution of 1917, the Russian Civil War and the Red Terror. To many Americans, this was a time of uncertainty and fear over the prospects of a revolution in the United States. Events in 1919, such as the Seattle general strike, the Boston police strike, and the organizing efforts of the Industrial Workers of the World, seemed to demonstrate the rise of radical labor unions. Furthermore, many of the organizations which supported the unions were not only associated with socialism or communism, but had already been persecuted for opposing WWI.

The "Red Summer"

A series of bombings in June of 1919 sparked the FBI to more aggressive actions. The mayor of Seattle received a homemade bomb in the mail on April 28, which was defused. Senator Thomas R. Hardwick received a bomb the next day, which blew off the hands of his servant who had discovered it, severely burning him and his wife. The following morning, a New York City postal worker discovered sixteen similar packages addressed to well-known people of the time, including oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. On June 2, a bomb partially destroyed the front of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's house.

Missing image
Damage done by the bomb on A. Mitchell Palmer's house

In the Wall Street bombing on September 16, 1920, 100 pounds (45 kg) of dynamite with 500 pounds (230 kg) of fragmented steel exploded in front of the offices of the J.P. Morgan Company, killing 40 people and injuring 300 others. Anarchists have long been suspected as initiating the attack, which followed a number of letter bombs that targeted Morgan himself. However, the identity of the bombers has never been determined.


In response to the bombings, the public flared up in a surge of patriotism, often involving violent hatred of communists, radicals, and foreigners. Senator Kenneth D. McKellar proposed sending radicals to a penal colony in Guam; General Leonard Wood called to place them on "ships of stone with sails of lead"; evangelist Billy Sunday clamored to "stand [radicals] up before a firing squad and save space on our ships." In Centralia, Washington, a Wobblie was dragged from a town jail and hanged.

The largest government action of the Red Scare was Palmer Raids against anarchist, socialist, and communist groups. Left-wing activists such as Eugene V. Debs were jailed by government officials using the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. Section Four of the Sedition act empowered Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson to slow or confiscate all Socialist material in the mail, a task that he took on readily. In a spectacle that exposed the paranoia, xenophobia, and fear of anarchism which much of the United States was experiencing, Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists, were executed for murder in a trial seen as unfair and protested by left wing forces around the world.

The second Red Scare

During the late 1920s through the 1930s, anti-communism in the U.S. died down, especially after the Soviet Union became an ally with the U.S. during World War II. As soon as the war ended, however, another Red Scare began in the McCarthy era from 1948 to the mid-1950s.


During the late 1940s, several news events caught the public attention, including the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason (which resulted in their heavily publicized executions); the acquisition of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union, which spelled the end of the United States' monopoly on nuclear weapons technology; and the beginnings of the Korean War. Events such as these had a noticeable effect on the opinions of Americans in general regarding their own security, and gave rise to a subtle feeling of paranoia that centered upon a supposedly inevitable nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Widespread belief that communist spies and sympathisers were constantly working to bring the downfall of the United States added to the paranoia of the era.

In support of their cause, anti-communists used actions by the Soviet Union and China as evidence of the evil of communism, namely the many millions killed in the Soviet gulags, the Stalin era purges, the deportation of over one million Polish to Soviet labor camps in Siberia, and the killing of hundreds of thousands in China. This was in addition to the fact that the Soviet Union had rapidly and forcefully spread its influence into Eastern Europe following the Second World War.


The Red Scare manifested itself in several ways, notably through the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the acceleration of the arms race. Propaganda films like Red Nightmare were commissioned to further incite fears of communism and the Soviet Union.

There were also effects on America's way of life as a result of the Red Scare, which contributed to the popularization of fallout shelters in home construction and regular duck and cover drills at schools. The Red Scare is also cited as one factor that contributed to the rise and popularity of science fiction films during the 1950s and beyond. Many thrillers and science fiction movies of the period used a theme of a sinister, inhuman enemy that was planning to infiltrate society and destroy the American way of life (an example of which being Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

The Cold War and Red Scare in Washington State ( A curriculum project for Washington schools developed by The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest by Michael Reese, University of Washington, Department of History. Retrieved April 13, 2005.

  • * Theodore Kornweibel Research Papers, 1910-1960. Research materials assembled by Theodore Kornweibel, a professor of African American studies at San Diego State University, used in the writing of monographs about federal surveillance of and campaigns against African Americans, 1917-1925, and federal efforts to compel Black loyalty during World War I. The collection consists of copies of FBI and other federal agency records, including case files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, detailed notecards, printed federal documents, and Kornweibel's correspondence with federal agencies. 30 cubic ft. Call Number: Midwest MS Kornweibel. Held at Newberry Library (, Chicago.

Articles and publications

First Red Scare

U.S. government publications

Workers Party and communist publications

Second Red Scare


Further reading

  • Hill, Robert A. Compiler and Editor, The FBI's RACON: Racial Conditions in the United States during World War I. Ithaca, N. Y.: Northeastern University Press. 1995.
  • Kornweibel, Theodore, Jr. "Investigate Everything": Federal Efforts to Compel Black Loyalty During World War I. 416 pages. Indiana University Press (May 1, 2002). ISBN 0253340098.
  • Kornweibel, Theodore, Jr. Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925 Blacks in the Diaspora Series. 248 pages. Indiana University Press (December 1, 1999). ISBN 0253213541.

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