Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix II Segment 3/4
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2. The Red Scare 12

Woodrow Wilson's Red Scare was the earliest and most extreme resort to state power in twentieth-century America to suppress labor, political dissidence, and independent thought. It provided a model for later efforts, and left as one crucial institutional residue the national political police, which has cast a long shadow in the years that followed.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover rose to national prominence when he was appointed chief of the General Intelligence division of the Justice Department in August 1919. This was just before the "Palmer raids" of January 1920, when thousands of alleged radicals were rounded up in many parts of the country (hundreds of aliens were subsequently deported). Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorialized that "there is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty" in the face of the Bolshevik menace, and a New York Times editorial declared that "If some or any of us, impatient for the swift confusion of the Reds, have ever questioned the alacrity, resolute will and fruitful, intelligent vigor of the Department of Justice in hunting down these enemies of the United States, the questioners have now cause to approve and applaud... This raid is only the beginning... [The Department's] further activities should be far-reaching and beneficial." "These Communists," the Times noted the same day, "are a pernicious gang" who "in many languages...are denouncing the blockade of Russia" as well as calling for better wages and working conditions. The Times report of the raids was headlined "Reds Plotted Country-Wide Strike."

The Washington Post lauded the House of Representatives for its expulsion of socialist congressman Victor Berger, observing that it could not have given a "finer or more impressive demonstration of Americanism." Reporting the deportation of Emma Goldman, the Post praised Hoover's "most painstaking" brief against Goldman, with its proof that she was "instrumental in helping to form the unnatural ideas" of the assassin of President McKinley in 1901. The Times described the expulsion of socialist assemblymen as "an American vote altogether, a patriotic and conservative vote" which "an immense majority of the American people will approve and sanction," whatever the benighted electorate may believe. The editors went on to say that the expulsion "was as clearly and demonstrably a measure of national defense as the declaration of war against Germany," invoking the familiar concept of "defense" in an editorial of January 7, 1920, long after the war had ended. A month earlier the Times had endorsed the sedition bill proposed by Attorney General Palmer and his aide Hoover, which called for prosecution of those guilty of aiding or abetting "the making, displaying, writing, printing, or circulating, of any sign, word, speech, picture, design, argument, or teaching, which advises, advocates, teaches, or justifies any act of sedition," "or any act which tends to indicate sedition." Also subject to prosecution were those affiliated in any way with any organization, "whether the same be formally organized or not, which has for its object, in whole or in part, the advising, advocating, teaching or justifying any act of sedition," the latter term defined so broadly as to satisfy many a totalitarian.13 These ideas have precedents, among them the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 by which "the Federalists sought to suppress political opposition and to stamp out lingering sympathy for the principles of the French Revolution," and the judicial murder of four anarchists for having advocated doctrines that allegedly lay behind the explosion of a bomb in Chicago's Haymarket Square after a striker had been killed by police in May 1886. For the authorities, the "seditious utterances" of the Haymarket anarchists sufficed to attribute "moral responsibility" for the bombing in which they had no part and to justify their prosecution and hanging.14

During Wilson's Red Scare, Attorney General Palmer proceeded, as he explained, "to clean up the country almost unaided by any virile legislation." He justified repressive actions on grounds of the failure of Congress "to stamp out these seditious societies in their open defiance of law by various forms of propaganda." He explained that "Upon these two basic certainties, first that the `Reds' were criminal aliens, and secondly that the American Government must prevent crime, it was decided that there could be no nice distinctions drawn between the theoretical ideals of the radicals and their actual violations of our national laws." Palmer went on to say that his "information showed that communism in this country was an organization of thousands of aliens, who were direct allies of [Trotsky]." Thus, "the Government is now sweeping the nation clean of such alien filth." All of this had the overwhelming support of the press, until they perceived that their own interests might be threatened.15

To suppress these criminals was surely just, for reasons that Palmer outlined in congressional testimony prepared by Hoover. The leaders of these pernicious movements, he explained, included "idealists with distorted minds, many even insane; many are professional agitators who are plainly self-seekers and a large number are potential or actual criminals whose baseness of character leads them to espouse the unrestrained and gross theories and tactics of these organizations." Any doubt of their criminality will quickly be dispelled by "an examination of their photographs": "Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type." And they are dangerous. "Like a prairie fire the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every American institution of law and order," Palmer wrote, subverting workers, the churches and schools, even "crawling into the sacred corners of American homes seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundations of society."16

Just think what fun the Office of Public Diplomacy and a host of apparatchiks in government, journalism, and the larger intellectual community could have if only the Sandinistas would oblige with statements remotely similar to those of the U.S. Justice Department and the press at a time of expansive U.S. power, 140 years after the American revolution, and a century after the last credible security threat.

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12 Addendum to p. 29.

13 See Murray B. Levin, Political Hysteria in America (Basic Books, 1972); Richard G. Powers, Secrecy and Power (Free Press, 1987); Aronson, The Press and the Cold War.

14 David Brion Davis, ed., The Fear of Conspiracy (Cornell University Press, 1971). A fifth anarchist committed suicide before the sentence of death could be executed. Three others were sentenced to hanging as well, but were not executed. No proof was offered that any of the eight had been involved in the bomb-throwing. On "moral responsibility," see the excerpt from Michael J. Schaack, Anarchy and Anarchists (Chicago, 1889), in Davis's collection. A Chicago police captain, Schaack "was widely credited with having uncovered the anarchist conspiracy" (Davis).

15 See excerpts from Palmer in Davis, op. cit. On the role of the press, see Levin, op. cit.

16 Powers, Aronson, op. cit.