World War I & Afterward: Upheaval, Repression & Terror

Against the Current, No. 191, November/December 2017

Allen Ruff

FOLLOWING THE APRIL 1917 U.S. entry into World War I, a massive months-long strike wave occurred as workers in those industries, booming with wartime orders demanded improved conditions and better wages that were rapidly being outstripped by war-bred price increases. In that climate of whipped-up nationalist fervor, xenophobia and racism, such worker militancy along with all antiwar  activity was successfully cast by the state, the corporations and a compliant mainstream press as a “pro-German” threat to the war effort and national security.

Then, in the midst of ongoing labor agitations and following Russia’s “October Revolution” (November 7th), wartime propaganda mills advanced the claim, widely held by war’s end in November 1918, that Germany had deliberately fomented, even engineered the Bolshevik seizure of power to undermine allied Russia’s war effort. In that way, an ideological line defining “the enemy within” rapidly shifted from “pro-Kaiser” to the “Bolshevik menace.”

That anti-communist animus, stoked by news of the dispossession of Russia’s old ruling classes, continued to deepen after the Revolution took Russia out of the war by concluding a separate peace with Germany in early March 1918. News of revolutionary upheavals in Germany, Italy, Hungary, Austria and ongoing anti-colonial revolts worldwide deepened ruling circle anxieties, and the founding of the Communist International in March ’19 seemed to substantiate such fears of an expanding “international conspiracy.”

Postwar Strike Wave

Fanned by the administration’s war propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and a reactionary press, mass public sentiment rapidly came to label any and all radical activity — that of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), antiwar  socialists and anarchists, and Black resistance to increasing white supremacist violence throughout the period — as the result of Bolshevik subversion. The reality, of course, was that the revolutionary Left did not create the unrest.

The immediate postwar period witnessed one of the greatest strike waves in the country’s history — a veritable “epidemic of strikes” far greater than that of 1917 with over 3,630 recorded stoppages (an average of nearly ten a day) involving more than 4,000,000 workers, or nearly a fifth of the non-agricultural work force, during 1919 alone.

That insurgency resulted from a number of factors, all related to the rapid but unplanned industrial reconversion to a “peace economy;” most significant among them the decline in real incomes due to continuing cost of living increases. Though workers in manufacturing had doubled their average earnings between 1914 and 1919 and real wages were 19% higher in 1919 than in 1915, industrial workers were only able to keep up with increases in the cost of necessities through full employment supplemented by overtime pay and bonuses. (Food prices, for example, more than doubled between 1915 and 1920, and clothing costs more than tripled.)

But with rapid postwar retrenchment, such alleviating factors were eliminated as employers embarked on a gloves-off militant offensive to roll back workers’ wartime gains. (Montgomery, 1984)

With underemployment and layoffs on the rise and overall living conditions worsening, the rapid demobilization of the military further aggravated the situation as millions of returning veterans found themselves locked in competition in a tightening job market. Those returnees not only forced out working-class women who had moved into various better-paying industrial jobs during the war, but displaced already hard-pressed Black workers, among them hundreds of thousands who had migrated from the rural South to an increasingly ghettoized urban industrial North during the first “Great Migration.” (See: Ruff, “A World Made More Unsafe”)

In response to the 1917 strikes, concessions had been made in war-related industries under the auspices of a host of federal wartime regulatory agencies, among them the War Industries Board (WIB) established that July and charged with coordinating production and labor relations.

The National War Labor Board (NWLB), created in April 1918, encouraged American Federation of Labor union growth as a counter-weight to strikes and antiwar sentiment. While granted no power of enforcement, its joint corporate/AFL leadership drafted a “principles of labor peace” that actually included recognition of workers’ collective bargaining rights, the eight-hour day, equal pay for equal work for women, and the right of workers to a living wage, in exchange for the “open shop.”

Through Board mediation, skilled workers belonging to AFL affiliates abiding by “no-strike” understandings, less than 15% of the industrial work force, won various concessions. With shop committees assisting in resolving disputes over conditions, wages and hours, such new union power stimulated increased union membership in railway, streetcar and maritime unions, and the building trades.

Importantly, union membership and demands for recognition also increased greatly among a mass of semi- and unskilled, largely immigrant workers in meatpacking, clothing, textiles and the metal trades. (Montgomery, 1984)

But hopes for the continuation of such improvements quickly withered as the Army and Navy Departments and various federal procurement agencies began canceling war orders within 24 hours of the November 11, 1918 Armistice and employers, eager to assert unchallenged control, rapidly began scaling back by ending additional pay for Sunday work and overtime.

Workers in various sectors soon experienced wage reductions of up to 50% despite continued cost of living increases. (Between June 1919 and June 1920, the cost of living index, using a 1913 base of 100, rose from 177 to 216.)

Simultaneously, the Wilson administration began dismantling the various regulatory and oversight bodies. The WIB, for example, largely ceased to function by the end of November, 1918. The NWLB became largely ineffective with the Armistice and was finally dissolved on May 1919. At the same time, federally regulated price controls on food and fuel were relaxed or came to a halt as the Fuel Administration, created in August 1917 and charged with coordinating the allocation and price of fuel and coal, began liquidating its activities four days after Germany’s surrender.

Strikes and job actions in numerous sectors had continued throughout the later war period but had largely diminished by late 1917, after the IWW, the major organizing force outside the labor “war consensus,” was all but smashed by vigilante violence, raids, jailings and costly mass trials. Additionally, a “work or fight” order handed down by the Selective Service in May, 1918 declared unemployed men susceptible to the draft. Seen as a threat to strikers, that edict, along with state intervention and wartime wages, worked to enforce a modicum of “labor peace.” But as the ripple effects of the rapid “reconversion” deepened and a postwar recession set in, worker militancy accelerated.

Labor Upheaval, 1919

The result was the massive strike wave of 1919, not led by the AFL but overwhelmingly propelled by a base of non-unionized, largely immigrant industrial workers demanding not only wages and hours but union recognition, the right to organize and the continuation of federal protections and oversight.

Demands for an industrially-organized “new unionism” as well as “industrial democracy,” a hope for a better world of work deferred or repressed during the war, also informed worker militancy as numbers of exclusivist AFL affiliates joined in demands for progressive reforms, regulation and nationalization of key industries.

In January in New York City alone, some 75,000 garment workers, 15,000 streetcar men, 14,000 painters, 40,000 tobacco workers and 20,000 harbor workers walked out. Between 17,000 and 30,000 immigrant textile mill hands, self-organized among 20 different ethnic groups, walked out at Lawrence, Massachusetts on February 3rd and stayed out until May.

The self-organized Seattle General Strike of February 6-11, involving some 65,000 workers in a coalition that included independent AFL and IWW locals, set a radical tone for what was to come. Though nonviolent, the strike for wage increases to keep pace with soaring inflation and defense of wartime gains set off shock waves of anti-Red hysteria as the national press portrayed it as the work of Bolshevik agents infiltrated from Siberia.

Early April witnessed a national wildcat strike, opposed as much by the existing union leadership as the bosses, of a quarter million railway workers battered by inflation and frozen wages. Starting as a walkout of some 700 switchmen in Chicago’s rail yards on April 2nd, the strike spread across the country from New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles by April 9th as engineers, conductors and firemen joined in.

The yards, vital to the entire economy, were still under control of the Federal Railroad Administration and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, attacking the strike leaders as IWWs and “Reds,” had 38 arrested following nationwide raids as scabs were imported with the assistance of the established railway union “Brotherhoods.”

Kicking off what became a major “fall offensive,” 65 job actions involving 300,000 workers in 20 states took place on Labor Day, August 31. Then, on September 9 80% of Boston’s police force struck for union recognition, a livable wage and improved work conditions.

With the cops labeled as “deserters” and “agents of Lenin” amid exaggerated reports of widespread “lawlessness,” the stoppage created a national furor. The strike was broken as Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge dispatched the state militia to restore “law and order,” and most of the 1,100 strikers were summarily fired and replaced by unemployed war vets.

With the state’s U.S. Senator, blue blood Henry Cabot Lodge, claiming “If the American Federation of Labor succeeds in getting hold of the police in Boston it will go all over the country, and we shall be in measurable distance of Soviet government by labor unions,” Congress soon allocated $400,000 for increased domestic military surveillance and Coolidge, portrayed as a staunch defender of “law and order,” became Republican Warren Harding’s vice president in 1920 (becoming President when Harding died in 1923).

The Fight in Steel and Coal

With war orders curtailed and government mediation at an end, steel magnates with U.S. Steel’s Elbert Gary in the lead stepped up the rate of exploitation in an industry infamous for its absolute anti-union intransigence. By late summer 1919, 50% of the largely unskilled work force earned well below the poverty level despite 69-hour weeks while working and living in atrocious conditions.

Demanding shorter hours, wage increases, improved conditions, the right to collective bargaining and reinstatement of fired organizers, some 376,000 largely unskilled workers drawn from 50 nationalities went out during the third week in September. The industry responded with repression of monumental proportions involving some 25,000 special police and militiamen in the Pittsburgh region alone, federal troops and intelligence agents and labor spies.

Meetings were banned as workers were clubbed and shot by mounted police and deputies, arrested without cause and held without charges. At Gary, Indiana U.S. Steel cynically imported thousands of Black workers as federal and state troops enforced a “modified martial law,” barred public assemblies and raided homes of alleged “Reds.”

Two thousand troops patrolled Youngstown, Ohio where organizers were arrested under “criminal syndicalist laws” and meetings were outlawed. Meanwhile, the dominant press described the strike as a Bolshevik revolutionary plot and the steel bosses and their public relations hirelings exploited anti-immigrant animus. With hundreds of immigrant strikers detained for possible deportation, some 20 workers killed, and an unknown number injured throughout the fall, the strike petered out by January 1920.

In coal, a wartime wage freeze imposed in September 1917 remained in effect. Workers had assumed that it would come to an end with the Armistice, but company owners contended it still applied since a formal peace treaty had not been signed with Germany.

Pushed by the rank-and file, the United Mine Workers called for a nationwide strike and some 425,000 miners in five states went out on November 1. The bosses, labelling the strike an insurrectionary plot, refused to negotiate and the union was hit with a federal injunction based on the revived wartime Lever Act that criminalized interference with the production and transport of food and fuel.

Facing criminal charges, the UMW leadership called off the strike after 10 days, but strikers in numerous mining districts remained out in defiance of the injunction. With coal supplies running low and the mainstream press parroting the operators’ claim that Lenin and Trotsky were behind the strike, those miners not blacklisted trickled back to the pits after three weeks as winter set in.

In sum, the series of major postwar labor defeats took a heavy toll as the number of monthly strikes dropped to a six-year low by December 1919. Effectively utilized by employers and the state, the constant nationwide red-baiting of the workers’ movement in tandem with the realities of multi-tiered, massive repression had proven formidable.

The “Red Menace”

Undeniably, the 1919 upsurge was inspired in part by the Bolshevik Revolution and successive short-lived revolutionary insurgencies across Europe and elsewhere. And there indeed were consciously radical elements — socialist, early communist and syndicalist — among the strikers as evidenced by calls for the creation of workers’ councils, shop committees, “workers’ control,” “democratization of industry” and demands for the freeing of political prisoners.

Their presence, however, provided the pretext for stepped-up surveillance and repression aimed at the entire workers’ movement as the whipped-up fear of the “Bolsheviki bacillus” allowed capital to combat the strike wave and smash workers’ organizations.

That “Red Menace” fear became increasingly palpable within middle and dominant class circles as a series of events throughout 1919, paralleling the year’s labor upheavals, fueled support for stepped-up multileveled repression. The actions attributed to a small circle of Italian immigrant anarchists furthered such demands by setting off shock waves of fear and anxiety across the country.

In late April some 36 bombs, most of them detected before they exploded, were mailed to anti-radical public figures around the country including Wilson’s Postmaster Albert Burleson; Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, immigration overseer Anthony Caminetti, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. With the perpetrators unknown, Palmer charged that the bombs were part of a discovered “Bolshevik plot” to overthrow the government on May 1st.

That May Day, police and mobs led by patriotic war vets attacked socialist parades, rallies and meetings in Boston, New York, Chicago and elsewhere. In New York, soldiers and sailors raided a gathering at the Russian People’s House where they beat attendees and burned books and papers in the street.

A patriotic mob trashed the socialist New York Call offices and forced a large gathering there to sing the national anthem. In Cleveland, police and soldiers drove trucks and a tank into the assembled crowd. Two were killed, 100 were badly beaten or shot and 125 were arrested, among them not a single anti-radical. The press blamed the “riots” on “the Reds” and “foreign agitators.”

Then, on June 2nd simultaneous anarchist bombings occurred at the homes of public officials and businessmen in eight cities, including the Washington residence of Attorney General Palmer who promptly initiated the planning for a nationally coordinated “anti-red” campaign. He soon announced the discovery of another impending “Red insurrection” to begin on July 4th.

While the day passed without incident, the moment served to heighten the anti-radical mood as thousands of troops, police and civilian auxiliaries placed on “red alert” were visibly deployed in a massive nationwide show of “homeland security.”

That August, the Justice Department announced the creation of a special Bureau of Investigation unit, what became the General Intelligence Division (GID) headed by 26-year-old J. Edgar Hoover. Under the future FBI director and in coordination with other intelligence and police agencies, the new office soon assembled some 200,000 dossiers on organizations and individuals to be used for “future enactments.”

Concerted state-level anti-red campaigns had already been underway as states in the West such as Washington, Oregon, Montana and California utilized newly passed criminal-syndicalist laws and innumerable localities passed additional ordinances banning radical activity targeting remnants of the IWW.

During 1919, 16 additional states passed criminal syndicalist laws and 12 enacted “anarchy” and “sedition” legislation promoted by business and industrial interests, resulting by 1920 in the arrest of some 1400 people, 300 of whom were convicted. In that same year 28 states and two territories outlawed the public display of red flags.

In New York State, the authorities’ primary concern focused on the spread of radicalism among New York City’s recent immigrants. Early in the year, police raided the Chinatown branch of the IWW and offices of the Union of Russian Workers.

In March, the state legislature created the Lusk Committee on “Seditious Activities,” which carried out its own lengthy investigations and numerous raids on socialist institutions and offices while exchanging intelligence with Hoover’s office. Its voluminous reports focused not just on the revolutionary politics in the “enemy alien” press, but evidence of “Red” attempts to organize the city’s African Americans.

Additional Weapons of Repression

Dissent had already been criminalized during the war by a succession of federal measures including the Espionage and Seditions Acts, which in turn fostered the unparalleled expansion of domestic surveillance by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (BI) and the Army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID), augmented by hundreds of thousands of citizen spy auxiliaries organized in such groups as the American Protective League. That repressive apparatus not only remained in place following the Armistice, but actually expanded and evolved further. (See: Ruff, “Dawn of ‘Total War’…”)

Added to the arsenal, the Immigration Act of October 16, 1918, became law just weeks before the Armistice. It authorized the Department of Immigration to administratively and without due process deport any aliens viewed as advocates of a broadly defined “anarchism”; meaning foreign-born antiwar  activists, members of the IWW and subsequently those with Bolshevik sympathies.

It not only criminalized activity but membership in any organization advocating the forceful overthrow of established government. (Since the Bolsheviks had overthrown Russia’s Provisional Government, their supporters were deemed culpable.) The enactment superseded previous law that made those immigrants residing in the country for more than five years exempt from deportation and opened the door to denaturalize those already naturalized. Significantly, it made guilt by association a punishable offense.

The Armistice had only marked a truce between the belligerents and not a formal end of the conflict. Not a signatory of the Versailles Treaty of June 1919, the United States did not conclude a formal end to hostilities with Germany until August, 1921. That meant that the Federal wartime measures used to silence dissent largely remained in effect.

The multileveled repressive apparatus, barely altered, now turned its full attention to the suppression of those “enemy aliens” and “Bolshies” cast as the sole cause of postwar unrest. (In May 1920, Woodrow Wilson vetoed a bill which would have terminated the measures.)

Supplementing the work of the various Federal policing agencies, a number of voluntary civilian organizations, acting basically as auxiliaries of the BI and the MID, played a significant role not only as spies and provocateurs but on occasion as anti-radical shock troops. During the summer and fall of 1919, for instance, war vets in the newly formed American Legion carried out armed attacks on Wobbly halls. Most infamous among these, a July 4th assault on the IWW at Centralia, Washington resulted in the castration and lynching of Wob militant Wesley Everest.

Unknown at the time, the Legion contained numbers of MID agents, some of whom sought to model the organization after elements of the Freikorps, the counterrevolutionary paramilitaries set against the period’s German Revolution. With the American Protection League officially disbanded shortly after the Armistice, numbers of its volunteers went into various formations, which assisted the BI and MID by providing ground troops during the 1919-20 anti-red raids. Anti-communist, xenophobic and racist, such patriots provided cadres for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. (Jensen, 1991)

Race, “Red Summer” and Palmer Raids

The postwar deterioration of conditions and heightened tensions, when combined with the constant combustible of racism, led to a “Red Summer” of 26 “race riots” that began in June and extended into the fall. Racist white mob activity had increased during 1917 and spiked once again postwar as competition for already crowded and contested urban living space and jobs intensified.

In Charleston, Washington, Chicago, Omaha and elsewhere, white mobs often containing active servicemen and veterans intent on enforcing the era’s supremacist order carried out unimaginable atrocities, among them the gunning down and lynching of recently returned Black vets still in uniform.

In response, in numerous instances Black returnees and others mounted armed self-defense. That in turn fueled racist imaginings that framed such “fight backs” as the beginnings of a Red-inspired insurrection, the result of covert Bolshevik use of Blacks to foment revolution.

As mainstream newspapers ran headlines claiming “Reds Incite Negro Rioters,” Woodrow Wilson expressed the belief that Black veterans returning from Europe posed a threat as the “greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.” (Ruff, “A World Made More Unsafe”)

One result of the “Red Summer” was that the BI and the MID received additional Congressional allocations. The MID’s special section on “Negro Subversion” ramped up its ongoing surveillance, initiated during the war, of a long list of civil rights leaders and perceived radicals. BI weekly field office reports on “Negro Activities,” the “Negro Press” and the “Negro agitation movement” funneled to the GID’s Hoover were exchanged with those from Military Intelligence, the State Department, the Post Office, and state and local “red squads.”

At Chicago in early September 1919, two separate communist parties, both vying for recognition from the Comintern, split off of the Socialist Party. A reflection of the moment’s revolutionary hope and the increasing strength of labor militancy and forming just prior to that fall’s immigrant-led mass strikes in steel and coal, the Communist Labor Party with roughly 10,000 mainly English speakers and the Communist Party with a predominantly immigrant base approaching 60,000 immediately became the main targets of state surveillance and repression.

With the fall’s strike wave as backdrop and the broader “Red Scare” well underway, on November 7th federal agents assisted by local police in some 18 cities raided gatherings commemorating the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In New York, they roughed up and arrested 650, including 180 at the Union of Russian Workers hall, of whom 43 deemed “enemy aliens” were held for deportation.

The following night, Lusk Committee deputies raided 21 additional left-wing socialist and anarchist gathering places and arrested hundreds more. The arrest of domestic radicals aside, the ongoing nationwide dragnet sent 249 “illegals” to “administrative detention” on Ellis Island. Arrested without warrants, denied due process and with some held for months, the detainees, among them 51 anarchists including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, were placed aboard the passenger freighter Buford, dubbed the “Red Ark,” and deported to then Soviet Russia on December 21, 1919.

A week later, in the second “Palmer Raid” of January 2, 1920, Federal agents under the direction of J.Edgar Hoover and assisted by local police carried out coordinated raids, largely without warrant, in 33 cities and 23 states. Descending on radical offices, left-wing meeting halls, hang-outs and innumerable private homes, they scooped up virtually every local or national leader and more than 10,000 alleged members of the CP and CLP.

The mass roundups in various localities overwhelmed detention facilities. In Detroit, for example, some 800 detainees were crammed into a windowless corridor for five days. Many in custody were threatened and beaten as those coming to post bail or searching for friends or family were also arrested, as were innocent onlookers at various sites.

While citizens were released or handed over to local or state agencies, non-citizens were held without charges to await possible deportation. For many, that came to involve lengthy detention without bail, warrants filed after the fact, denial of counsel until late in the process, and an administrative hearing rather than a day in court.

Of some 3,500 held in that fashion, 556 were deported under the October 1918 Immigration Act. Many more would have been expelled, but their cases were dismissed on technical grounds by the acting Secretary of Labor charged with oversight over deportation proceedings, the progressive Louis F. Post.

The “Red Scare” soon ebbed as Palmer became increasingly discredited as a politically aspiring opportunist. The general anti-radical and anti-immigrant animus continued, however, and spiked once again with the September 16 bombing on Wall Street that killed 38 and injured hundreds.
Now attributed to members of the same Italian anarchists circle that had carried out the round of bomb attacks the year before, it seemingly came as a reprisal for the arrests of group members Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, then being held for robbery and murder in a Massachusetts jail and destined for a 1927 execution.

1920s: The “Normalcy” of Roaring Reaction

The defeat of the 1919 strike wave and the Left was compounded by an early 1920s deep recession. In retreat, the entire labor movement declined sharply as private company surveillance and enforced industrial discipline and control dramatically increased. Though isolated militant strikes continued in textiles, coal and elsewhere, they too met with severe repression and “red baiting” onslaughts.

Additionally, the revolutionary upsurge abroad had long ebbed and the organizations capable of providing any potential leadership to the U.S. movement — the IWW, the Socialist Party, and the two fledgling CPs — were left devastated. With the Communist leadership underground for two years and with others deported, in jail or indicted and facing costly trials, its membership declined to perhaps 5,000.

The often idealized “Roaring Twenties” marked a decade of uneven development and social regression for the working classes — a reactionary era of anti-union and anti-communist repression; heightened racism, immigrant exclusion and “100% Americanism”; and a pro-business “prosperity decade” of conservative Republican rule and Ku Klux Klan national influence.

It became the decade of the “American Plan” — an increasingly mechanized system of “open shop” mass production that disciplined and deskilled the work force while offering cultural escapism, diversion and new patterns of consumption for those with the disposable incomes or access to “installment buying” and credit.

Despite all that, the deeply planted seeds of war-era resistance and rebellion and organizing experience survived. The lessons were not lost, and would come to inform the resurgence of radical organizing and revived labor insurgency in the following decade.

Suggested Readings:

Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton: Princeton, 1991).

Melvyn Dubofsky, “We Shall Be All” — A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (1969), Part IV.

Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 8: Postwar Struggles 1918-1920.

Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007).

Joan Jensen, Army, Surveillance in America, 1775-1980, (New Haven: Yale, 1991) Part III: Legacy of World War I.

David M. Kennedy, Over Here —The First World War and American Society (2004/1980).

Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., “Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925 (Bloomington: Indiana, 1998).

Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: Wisconsin, 2009) Chapter 9: “President Wilson’s Surveillance State.”

David Montgomery, “Immigrants, Industrial Unions, and Social Reconstruction in the United States. 1916-1923,” Labour/Le Travail. 13 (Spring 1984), 101-113.

William Preston, Jr., Aliens and Dissenters — Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933 (1995/1963).

Allen Ruff, “A World Made More Unsafe: African Americans, World War I & the Shaping of the 20th Century”

Allen Ruff, “Dawn of ‘Total War’ and the Surveillance State”

William H. Thomas Jr., Unsafe for Democracy: World War I and the U.S. Justice Department’s Covert Campaign to Suppress Dissent (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008).

November-December 2017, ATC 191