Discussion Topic

Causes and Events Leading to the 1919–1920 and the Second Red Scares


The 1919–1920 Red Scare was driven by fears of communism following the Russian Revolution and labor unrest in the U.S. The Second Red Scare, during the late 1940s and 1950s, was fueled by Cold War tensions and fears of Soviet espionage. Both periods were marked by widespread suspicion, government investigations, and violations of civil liberties.

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What were the major real and perceived causes of the 1919–1920 Red Scare?

In 1919–1920 it seemed to many in the United States that Communism was very much on the rise. After the Bolshevik insurrection in Russia in October 1917, Communism rapidly spread throughout the still war-ravaged European continent. Communism often thrives in conditions of economic decline and political chaos, and post-war Europe couldn't have been a better breeding ground for the spread of radical ideas.

Although conditions in the United States were completely different from those in Europe, radical ideas were becoming more and more prominent in the land of the free. Radical labor organizations such as the IWW were becoming infiltrated by hard-Left extremists and anarchists, hell-bent on overturning the existing governmental system by force. Though there was never any serious danger of this being achieved, there were nonetheless sufficient numbers of radical agitators to add some substance to the Red Scare.

A number of terrorist incidents by self-proclaimed anarchists added to the sense that the United States was threatened by extremists and needed to counter what was becoming a growing threat.

At the same time, anarchism was wrongly linked in the popular mind with immigrants. Many, but by no means all, anarchists and hard-Left radicals were indeed immigrants, but the vast majority of immigrants were law-abiding Americans who believed in the system of government. Nevertheless, nativists used the Red Scare as an excuse to advocate limiting immigration into the United States, especially from those countries where English wasn't the native language or where Protestantism wasn't the dominant religion.

Radical ideas may well have been a real threat to the United States, albeit nowhere near as great as anti-Communists claimed, but immigrants as a whole were certainly not a threat, and yet, in years to come, they would be made scapegoats for the importation of "alien" ideas.

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What triggered the beginning of the Red Scare?

The Red Scare began as a response to the threat of communist, socialist, and anarchist ideas and actions linked to developments in Russia and the Soviet Union.

The Red Scare has two parts. The First Red Scare began around 1917 when the Russian Revolution dethroned the Romanovs—a dynastic family that ruled Russia for nearly three centuries—and replaced them with a communist government. With its avowed emphasis on public property and sharing resources, communism starkly contrasted with American capitalism and its stress on private property and the individual pursuit of money and ownership. Thus, people in America were scared that the ideology in Russia would spread to America. The fear was reinforced by a fair amount of labor strikes, criticism, and violence directed at large businesses and the American government. There were strikes at Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills, and anarchists launched anti-government bomb attacks in big cities like New York City and Washington, DC.

The First Red Scare led to controversial laws and actions, like the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Palmer raids (named after United States Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer). These policies and practices targeted leftists, labor leaders, and anarchists and threatened those who criticized America with deportation. In 1919, Emma Goldman, who forcefully spoke out against capitalism, the American government, sexism, and several other issues, was deported. “I consider it an honor to be the first political agitator to be deported from the United States,” said Goldman.

The Second Red Scare occurred after World War II. During the war, the United States and the Soviet Union were on the same side, fighting against Nazi Germany. After the war, the two countries became enemies, with the United States viewing the Soviet Union as a threat to its hegemony. Once again, American authorities grew fearful of communist and leftist ideas. For the second time, the government sought to surveil, expose, and silence supposedly subversive actors in the United States. The House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy pressured Hollywood to ban anybody with alleged communist ideals or sympathies. Meanwhile, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover spied on people and groups that he thought were trying to topple America’s way of life, including the famous civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

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What events led up to the Second Red Scare?

The Second Red Scare was shaped by the context of the early Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union emerging as the two dominant superpowers after the end of the Second World War. Espionage was a very real concern in this time period, and it should be remembered that there were spies passing information back to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's successful testing of the atomic bomb in 1949 would have been particularly troubling in this respect, given that it had the effect of shattering what had been (up to that point) an American monopoly on weapons of mass destruction.

However, historian Landon R. Y. Storrs has argued that the Second Red Scare holds much deeper roots, far preceding the Cold War itself, with anti-communist movements and sentiments exerting force across the 1920s and 1930s. There was a powerful political dynamic to this as well, given that these anti-communist movements were often anti–civil rights and anti-labor, and were in opposition to the New Deal.

At the same time, there is also the history of the American Communist Party. Originally founded in 1919, the party gained significant political clout during the Great Depression, even as it aligned with other left-leaning organizations in defense of broader programs of social progress and in opposition to Fascism. However, the Soviet-Nazi nonaggression pact of 1939 heralded an abrupt shift in the party's political leanings, which suddenly became non-interventionalist where Europe was concerned. This about-face, Storr writes, had the effect of disillusioning many party members, as well as former allies, while revealing the degree to which the American Communist Party (as an organization) ultimately answered to direction from the Soviet Union.

In fact, claims of communist subversion was nothing new during the Red Scare: quite on the contrary, Storr points out, such charges had been leveled against New Deal Democrats dating back to the 1930s and were even still being asserted during World War II. But the transformations of post-war politics proved critical in empowering those voices, shifting the balance of power in the US government in the 1946 elections.

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What events led up to the Second Red Scare?

The Second Red Scare occurred in the United States between 1947 and 1957, and it arose in response to the increase in power of the Soviet Union and other communist countries as well as the fear that communists were infiltrating the US government and other institutions. Let’s look at some of the specific events that led, at least in part, to this scare.

After World War II, the so called “Iron Curtain” came down between Western and Eastern Europe. It marked a sharp boundary between the democratic West and the communist East, and as Winston Churchill noted, this curtain seemed to be “impenetrable.” No one could know exactly what went on behind it, and no one could get through it. This was enough to make anyone nervous, especially since the Soviets were developing nuclear weapons.

Further, the communists seemed to have their ways of penetrating the West. Communist spies could be anywhere. No one could know. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for instance, were both American citizens, and they were tried and convicted for selling US secrets to the Soviets (although they maintained their innocence). In 1947, Harry Truman issued the Loyalty Order, which required all federal employees to be investigated for loyalty to the US and to swear a loyalty oath. The FBI got involved, too, investigating all kinds of activities and many people alongside the new House Un-American Activities Committee that focused its attention on the government. Senator Joseph McCarthy joined the hunt as well, calling out all kinds of celebrities, officials, and scholars and labeling them as potential communists (which, to many people, meant “actual communists”). It was a recipe for hysteria, and that’s exactly what arose.

What’s more, the communists won the Chinese Civil War and were fighting aggressively against South Korea (which was aided by the US). Many people looked at these conflicts as evidence that communism was spreading far and fast and wide. They were terrified, and the Second Red Scare swept through the country, increasing panic and ruining lives.

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What were the domestic or international events leading to the Second Red Scare?

The Second Red Scare refers to the period after World War II in which there was a high level of anxiety over the influence of communism in the United States. As your question suggests, this had both domestic and international roots.

At home, this fear of communism was ratcheted to an all-time high by Senator Joseph McCarthy when he made the unsubstantiated claim on February 9, 1950 that there were communists working in the State Department. This kicked off a slew of witch hunts for real and imagined communists lurking in all parts of American society. Politicians began attacking their political opponents by accusing them of being communists. Numerous filmmakers and writers were blacklisted for having possible communist sympathies. In 1951, the Rosenburg Trial, in which two Americans were tried and sentenced to death for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets, further fueled paranoia that anyone could be a communist working to undermine American democracy and capitalism.

Overseas events also contributed to the Second Red Scare. When the Soviets conducted their first atomic test on August 29, 1949, many feared that the struggle between communism and democracy could lead to total nuclear annihilation. Meanwhile, more countries were experiencing communist takeovers and revolutions. As communism took hold in new countries, many Americans wondered if it could happen at home, too. Nowhere was this clearer than in Korea, where the United States and its allies went to war against North Korea and its Soviet and Chinese allies in a bloody contest over their respective ideologies.

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