Directions and Narrative


The purpose of this blog is to explore the First Red Scare in America through interpreting various forms of primary documents.  Within this exercise you will find pictures, propaganda, legal documents, political cartoons, and other forms of first hand accounts of this volatile time in American History.  Each page on the right contains a link to a primary source and it’s corresponding document based questions (DBQ’s).  Your responsibility as the student will be to read the summary narrative following these instructions and answer each of the DBQ’s for the primary sources.  It is important that you go in order from top to bottom while you are exploring the primary sources.  Feel free to refer back to the narrative to help answer the questions.  However, this assignment is challenging you to become an historian and to critically analyze each of the sources based on your interpretation.  Once you are finished answering all of the DBQ’s you will write a brief summary of the First Red Scare based on the primary sources you have investigated.

Summary Narrative

The First Red Scare took place in America primarily in the years 1917 to 1920.  The majority of this era took place during the First World War, and this context played an incredibly important role in understanding the historical events of the time.  Another important event that helped spur the Red Scare was the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia during 1917.  Both the nationalism of World War I and the progressive ideas of the Bolshevik Revolution created a serious schism in ideology.  This disagreement in ideas would lead to one of the most controversial laws ever passed that not only created an immense amount of controversy back then, but also has been used to support suppression of civil liberties even today.

In order to completely understand the First Red Scare, one has to study the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia.  The Bolshevik Revolution was a grassroots effort by the poor and working class people of Russia to overthrow their government.  The Bolsheviks replaced the traditional Russian Tsarist autocracy with a communist government that was supposedly more friendly towards the interests of the poor.  Vladimir Lenin led the workers (poor and working class) in the coup, and this movement ultimately paved the way for the USSR.

Equally as important is to look at this event within the context of World War I.  Many people in the United States were experiencing the ultra-patriotism that comes with fighting a war.  This heightened sense of nationalism could  breed paranoia among the patriotic majority.  The United States was in the midst of a very close and bloody war, and fear of communists and anti-war activists was at an all-time high.

Inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution and the prickly context of the First World War, many working class people in the United States (many were recent immigrants) began to organize and protest working conditions, pay, and America’s presence in the war.  In an effort to curb this type of enthusiasm, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Sedition Act of 1918.  This law was aimed at limiting the freedom of speech and assembly of these supposed anarchists.  President Wilson drew much criticism because many argued that this law violated the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The First Red Scare reached a climax on June 2, 1919.  On this day eight bombs went off within the same hour, with one of them being at the house of the U.S. Attorney General Alexander Palmer.  The only victim of the bomb was the bomber who turned out to be an Italian-American radical associated with the anarchist movement.  In response to these bombs Palmer ordered the “Palmer Raids” which gave the FBI almost free reign to raid private residences, hold suspects without legal representation or formal charges, and to set bail at abnormally high rates to keep suspects imprisoned.  As a result of the Palmer Raids and the Sedition Act of 1918 on January 3, 1920 249 Russian “Reds” were deported.  Among those deported were the “Red King and Queen” Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.  Goldman and Berkman were very active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the American Communist Party.

The Sedition Act of 1918, the obtuse nature of the Palmer Raids, and victory in the First World War effectively put down the anarchist, communist movement for the time.  The effects of the First Red Scare have had a lasting effect on American history.  One could argue that this time in history affected the Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War, and the Patriot Act of 2001.