When the U.S. Government Rounded Up Thousands of Russians

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Why you should care

Because nativism was all the rage a century ago. 

A special agent from the Department of Justice entered Semeon Nakhwat’s cell looking for the address of a suspect he wanted to apprehend. Nakhwat, who had been detained solely for questioning, had never met or even heard of the perp. That was the wrong answer.

The agent struck him twice with his fist, and Nakhwat fell hard from a blow to the jaw. The agent then kicked Nakhwat until he fell unconscious. The 33-year-old machinist was a Russian immigrant, but he was no anarchist, socialist or Bolshevik — in 1919, those labels would have made him fit for deportation. Yet it was five months before he was released, and after that, he was unable to secure employment.

The government sacrifices the liberties of foreigners for the security of citizens.

David Cole, Georgetown University

Nakhwat was not alone: In 1919, the U.S. government rounded up somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Russians in more than 30 cities. “Today the number of arrests,” declared Utah’s Ogden Standard, has “risen to the highest figure of any similar raid in the history of the country.” All of those arrested were “aliens,” according to the New-York Tribune, and all were suspected of supporting communism, charged with advocating the “overthrow of the United States government.” Many were taken in without a warrant and interrogated without counsel. If they admitted political ties, they were sent back to Mother Russia.

The man behind the raids, which launched on November 7 — a day after a law change made it easier to hold detainees without a lawyer — was also their namesake: A. Mitchell Palmer. The architect of the Palmer Raids was a Democrat — and a Quaker — who had been appointed attorney general under President Woodrow Wilson. Alongside J. Edgar Hoover, Palmer’s primary mission became a crusade against the “Reds.”

The raids, says David Cole, author of The New McCarthyism: Repeating History in the War on Terrorism and a Georgetown law professor, were “illustrative of a very common pattern in American responses to security crises. The government sacrifices the liberties of foreigners for the security of citizens.” Certainly, there were threats in 1919 to national security, and fear was a great motivator. Palmer, similar to other officials, like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and business magnate John D. Rockefeller, found himself the target of a bombing. While he emerged intact, others were not so lucky: A Georgia senator was sent a bomb that blew his housekeeper’s hands off and injured his wife.

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The first port of call for millions of immigrants to the United States.

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Palmer and his colleagues cast a wider net, rounding up members of the Communist Party, the Communist Labor Party and the Union of Russian Workers. Tensions were running high after the 1917 Russian Revolution, which fed excitement about communism both in Russia and abroad. It was thought that ideologies like anarchism and communism threatened American capitalism and democracy. In the name of national security, the freedoms of speech, press and assembly were curtailed, especially in scenarios where there was “a clear and present danger,” according to the Supreme Court.

Initially, there was very little pushback. One Washington Post reporter, in fact, wrote that the U.S. government was “entitled” to apprehend the Reds, and Palmer’s popularity was such that it looked like he might run for president in 1920. But within the Cabinet there was one critic who spoke up. Acting Secretary of Labor Louis Post decried Palmer’s actions, referring to “the force of the delirium turned in the direction of a deportations crusade with the spontaneity of water flowing along the course of least resistance” and calling Palmer out in a Cabinet meeting. Then came an ACLU report detailing the experiences of Semeon Nakhwat and others.

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A. Mitchell Palmer

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In the end, Palmer was able to deport more than 500 people. Most of the detainees, though, just sat in jail — sometimes for months — until their release. In Connecticut, Nakhwat and a dozen others were packed like sardines into tiny rooms. Heat radiated through the concrete floors from the boiler room directly below. A day and a half to three days would pass and then the detainees would be released back into solitary cells that they were allowed to leave for a few minutes each day to wash their faces and bodies.

When it came time for the 1920 presidential election, Palmer lost the Democratic nomination; in 1921, the Senate launched a probe into his raids. Palmer was never punished, and the law remained on his side: He claimed to have had the public’s best interests at heart. But public and expert opinion worsened: “The danger from anarchistic doctrines seems remote and almost visionary,” a law school professor at the time testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which might have become the prevailing wisdom … until the second Red Scare three decades later.

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