The glamour of the Jazz Age hides a darker side to life during the 1920s. For many, America was a hostile place during this period. The First Red Scare was fuelled by post-war tensions in American society. These included unease over labour; news of the Bolshevik Revolution; and a push towards isolationism. All of these factors increased the fear of immigrants and communists - ‘The Reds’.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had sparked anxiety over communism. Communists had overthrown the royal family in Russia and murdered them a year later. Additionally, in 1901 an anarchist had shot President McKinley.
These events inflated fears over communists. There was believed to be 150,000 anarchists or communists in the US in 1920, which made up on 0.1 per cent of the American population. The strikes of 1919 instilled even more fear in the American people. During a large steel strike, the steel companies played on these anxieties by pointing out that a large proportion of the striking workers were immigrants. Communists were accused of being behind the strike action.
The First Red Scare reached its climax during the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920. A series of bomb plots and explosions, including an attempt to blow up the home of A. Mitchell Palmer, America’s Attorney-General, led to a campaign against the communists. On 1 January 1920 over 6,000 people were arrested and put in prison. There was very little evidence against the majority of those accused, and many were released in a few weeks. However, paranoia was still rife. Palmer maintained that there were still more than 300,000 dangerous communists inside the United States.
The arrest of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti was another important example of the scapegoating of immigrants. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who admitted to being radicals. The pair were arrested in May 1920 and charged with a robbery in which two guards were killed. Even though 107 people claimed that they had seen the pair elsewhere when the crime was committed, they were found guilty. They spent seven years in prison while their lawyers appealed. Despite many public protests and petitions, both men were executed by electric chair on 24 August 1927.
The 1921 Emergency Quota Act and 1924 Immigration Act limited immigration into America. Supporters of the Acts hoped to prevent ‘undesirable’ immigrants from entering the country, including radicals.
See also: The KKK and Racial Problems
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