103 years since ‘Palmer Raids’ unleashed FBI against workers

By Vivian Sahner
February 6, 2023
Mass arrests of union, communist militants during 1920 “Palmer Raids” under Democratic President Woodrow Wilson led to arrests of up to 10,000, politically motivated deportations.
Mass arrests of union, communist militants during 1920 “Palmer Raids” under Democratic President Woodrow Wilson led to arrests of up to 10,000, politically motivated deportations.

“This Day in History” on Fox News retold the story about the Jan. 2, 1920, “Palmer Raids,” carried out by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his right-hand man, J. Edgar Hoover. They “unleashed a shocking and often violent unconstitutional nationwide dragnet,” the article said, “detaining as many as 10,000 people.” 

The arrests, deportations and prosecutions targeted unions, the newly formed Communist parties and immigrant workers.

Throughout the next 100 years the rulers’ political police have continued assaulting freedoms that are vital to working people. Last year the FBI attempted to interrogate some 60 members of the Cuba Solidarity Committee in Puerto Rico. It raided the offices of the African People’s Socialist Party and Uhuru Movement, claiming they were “Russian agents.” It orchestrated the entrapment and frame-up of 14 men in Michigan for an alleged “plot” to kidnap the state’s governor in 2020.

The rights of free speech and worship; freedom of the press, association, and assembly; prohibition of “unreasonable search and seizure”; and other constitutional freedoms needed by working people must be unreservedly defended by unions, workers, farmers and organizations of the oppressed and exploited.

In Revolutionary Continuity: Birth of the Communist Movement, 1918-1922, Socialist Workers Party leader Farrell Dobbs explains why the Palmer Raids were organized. He says the impact of the 1917 Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution on workers in the United States was among the factors giving rise to the militancy displayed from Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Seattle in the massive strike wave in 1919. “The proletarian victory sweeping across the former Russian Empire,” Dobbs said, “enabled U.S. workers to perceive more clearly their inherent power as a class, and they wanted to use that power in their expanding fight to wrest concessions from the bosses.”

During World War I, Dobbs wrote, the capitalists “raked in ever-larger profits, while workers’ wages lagged farther and farther behind rapidly climbing prices.” By the time the war ended, workers “began to revolt on a massive scale.”

In February 1919 textile workers in Lawrence and copper miners in Butte, Montana, went on strike. A general strike gripped Seattle. Some 365,000 steelworkers walked off the job in September, in part to prevent U.S. weapons from getting to counterrevolutionaries in Russia. By November a half-million bituminous coal miners were striking to demand more pay, a six-hour day to offset unemployment and safer working conditions.

During the 1919 steel strike, the political police arrested hundreds of members of the Communist parties, mainly in New York. This particular raid was intended to buttress a phony charge that the strike was part of a “Bolshevik plot.”

Then came the Palmer Raids, an all-out offensive, extending from coast to coast. “Federal agents invaded communist meetings, party headquarters, and the workplaces and homes of individuals. They seized literature, party records, and private correspondence,” Dobbs wrote. “By the end of January thousands of political militants were in jail on framed-up charges.”

Foreign-born workers bore the brunt of the attack. Picked up by chance by agents armed with nameless John Doe warrants, almost 3,000 immigrants were arrested and some 750 were deported.

The rulers ordered the FBI into action against labor again as the capitalists prepared to take the U.S. into World War II. In September 1939, Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order centralizing and strengthening the FBI as a federal political police agency acting at the behest of the White House, under both Democratic and Republican parties.

Within weeks, FBI agents descended on the homes of Teamsters’ leaders in Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa, and in Omaha, Nebraska, the center of the fight to strengthen and expand the Teamsters’ union.

In June 1941, FBI agents and U.S. marshals raided offices of the Socialist Workers Party in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and arrested leaders of the party, many of them members of Teamsters Local 544. Using the newly adopted Smith Act, a gag law put in place to silence critics of Washington’s war drive, 18 leaders of the SWP were framed up and jailed for up to 16 months.

In March 1947, as the U.S. rulers stepped up their “Cold War” against the Soviet Union, President Harry Truman ordered that all federal civil service employees be screened for “loyalty.” Attorney General Tom C. Clark issued the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations the following December, a “blacklist” used to assault constitutional rights and to carry out a purge in the labor movement.

In 1956, as the civil rights movement gained momentum, the White House and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover launched the FBI’s spying, disruption and harassment Cointelpro operations. This targeted the Communist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Black organizations leading the fight against Jim Crow segregation, and later those organizing opposition to the U.S. war on Vietnam.

Despite relentless efforts by the ruling class to refurbish the FBI’s reputation, this 100-year record exposes its true role as the capitalists’ main political police — crucial to upholding their rule — and a deadly foe of the working class and our allies.