The Progressive Attorney General Who Raided Immigrants—And Paid the Price
A. Mitchell Palmer had reached the peak of American politics, but his indiscriminate pursuit of terrorists backfired.
The immigration raids were unexpected, unnerving, unjust. In one devastating American-dream-shattering, day, federal agents arrested more than four thousand aspiring Americans for supposedly threatening America.
This overreaction, the Big Red Scare of 1919, triggered a Red, White, and Blue Repair. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer became a laughingstock for initiating these immigrant-rousting “Palmer Raids.” And his nemesis, a lowly Assistant Secretary of Labor, Louis F. Post, became a hero.
Before this immigration crackdown Palmer was known as a progressive Democrat, a Woodrow Wilson man and a man of conscience – while Post was considered a kook. Born in Moosehead, Pennsylvania, in 1872, a Quaker and Swarthmore graduate, trained as a lawyer, Palmer served in Congress from 1909 to 1915. He opposed child labor and endorsed lower tariffs, defying many constituents who feared free trade.
During the Great War, Wilson, himself a partisan moralist, appointed Palmer the Alien Property Custodian. A good patriot, Palmer blocked German control of strategic American industries with judicious seizures. A shrewd partisan, he hired key Democrats to administer this billion dollar operation.
These Democrats reciprocated in 1919, demanding Palmer’s appointment as Attorney General, his dream job. Palmer initially lived up to his reputation as being "young, militant, progress, and fearless," in the words of Wilson’s adviser Joseph Tumulty. Palmer undermined the American Protective League, vigilantes fighting Germans – and German immigrants. Palmer also freed ten thousand German-born aliens detained during the War.
By 1919, however, Germans were no longer threatening. Their war was over. But the demobilization was destabilizing and disappointing – the war to end all wars ended without ending wars. The Demagogue’s Law of Bundling and Scapegoating kicked in. Fear mongers whipped up the strikes, the inflation, race riots in thirty cities, with millions of new immigrants and worries about the Bolshevik conquest of Russia into a panic about these aliens subverting America. Meanwhile, President Wilson’s physical and political infirmity triggered a scramble for the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination.
Then, one fine June day, the political became very personal. A terrorist blew up Palmer’s front porch, tripping and killing himself instead of his targets. Two months earlier, the post office had intercepted a mail-bomb sent to the Palmers (among others). Palmer decided to crack down. Communism was “eating its way into the homes of the American workman,” he warned, then targeted the radical immigrant not the workingman. That summer he hired a young former librarian, J. Edgar Hoover, to organize a General Intelligence Division against radicals.
There was a threat. The Palmer bombing – committed by an immigrant anarchist – came after 36 mail bombs in April alone and 3500 strikes in one year, amid calls from overconfident radicals to conquer America. However, most immigrants just wanted to improve their lives not change the world.
Fear fouled the air, masquerading as patriotism. That November, the Attorney General launched the first “Palmer Raids,” detaining 200 immigrants. In December, the government deported 248 aliens, including the anarchist Emma Goldman on the S.S. Buford, rechristened the “Soviet Ark.”
On January 2, 1920, crackdowns in 33 cities netted more than 4000 alleged radicals. Circumventing the legal system, Palmer designated these administrative detentions for non-citizens, not formal arrests.
Initially, most reporters cheered. “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty,” the Washington Post editorialized.
But Palmer overstepped. Like many a demagogue then and now, had he intended to make the fears of his foes seem absurd he could not have done a better job. His predictions of an armed insurrection on May 1, 1920, proved groundless. The people he deported appeared harmless, looking like the confused wispy, foreign-born intellectuals many were, not the foot soldiers of a vast Communist conspiracy.
Meanwhile, a man of conscience determined to save America from itself and Americanism from its zealots exploited Palmer’s legalistic loophole to help stop the mass deportations.
The acting Secretary of Labor – and longtime Assistant Secretary -- Louis Freeland Post was not a bourgeois town burgher like Palmer. A wacky reformer, Post covered Ku Klux Klan trials in South Carolina as a government stenographer and worshiped the single-tax crusader Henry George. Noting that the raids uncovered only three functioning pistols, Post saw most of the aliens as “wage workers, useful in industry, good natured in their dispositions, unconscious of having given offense.” Asserting his authority over immigration to rule on deportations--because at the time the Bureau of Immigration fell under the Department of Labor -- Post freed most of Palmer’s prisoners, er, detainees.
With only 556 people left for deportation, Palmer was furious. Palmer-friendly newspapers including the New York Times accused Post of “coddling the Reds,” and being a “moon-struck parlor radical himself.” He looked the part, with wire rim, granny glasses, wavy hair, a full white beard, and the visage of a tortured European intellectual. Palmer-friendly Senators started impeachment proceedings against Post.
The momentum, however, had shifted. At a Cabinet meeting that April, President Wilson warned Palmer “not to let the country see red,” and defended Post. When Palmer predicted armed insurrection on May 1, and nothing happened, he was mocked as “Little Red Riding Hood with a cry of Wolf.” Six days later in Congress, Post defended himself, his department’s turf, and his expansive notion of what America is. Post’s eloquent patriotism helped Post keep his post.
Not getting the hint, Palmer reached for the 1920 Democratic nomination – and fumbled again. Palmer declared: “I am myself an American and I love to preach my doctrine before undiluted one hundred percent Americans, because my platform is, in a word, undiluted Americanism and undying loyalty to the republic.” The liberal columnist Heywood Broun – anticipating Edward R. Murrow’s takedown of Joe McCarthy -- pounced.
“We assumed, of course, from the tone of Mr. Palmer's manifesto that his opponents for the nomination were Rumanians, Greeks and Icelanders, and weak-kneed ones at that,” Broun reported sarcastically after visiting Palmer’s leading opponent James Cox. “We happened into Cox's headquarters wholly by accident and were astounded to discover that he, too, is an American.” In fact, “the candidates are all Americans.”
In a polity so obsessed with the presidency, in a cowboy culture so obsessed with the lone superhero, it’s easy to impute to one seemingly dominant individual too much power. But America is a collective. America is an idea. And America has a government the Framers fragmented on purpose. Blockading bureaucrats like Louis Post are not anomalies; they are natural products of a system that cherishes liberty, equality, dignity, and independence, creating pockets of power and empowered idealists to avoid concentrations of power and the resulting abuses.
Stanley Coben, A. Mitchell Palmer: Politician (1963, 1972): An old but still useful biography.
Robert Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920 (1955): Even older but even more useful in capturing the post-World War I chaos.
John Milton Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
(2009): An authoritative biography of Wilson that helps contextualize Palmer and the Big Red Scare.