A. Mitchell Palmer


A century ago Americans were relieved that the year 1920 was thus far not as violent as 1919 had been.  That had been a year of major race riots in thirty cities, numerous strikes filled with violence, anarchist bombings and a growing fear of Communism driven by Bolshevik calls for world revolution and the mass atrocities committed by the new Bolshevik successor state of Tsarist Russia.  President Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was at the eye of the hurricane in 1919, and he hoped to ride his notoriety to the White House.

Born in 1872, he was elected to Congress in 1908 as a progressive Democrat.  In 1914 President Wilson persuaded him to give up his House seat and make an ultimately unsuccessful run for the Senate in Pennsylvania.  In 1917 Wilson appointed him Alien Property Custodian to supervise the disposition of assets of enemy powers seized by the US after American entry into World War I.  When a vacancy occurred as Attorney General, Palmer lobbied strongly for the job, and was appointed by Wilson as a recess appointment on March 5, 1919.  Traditionally the Attorney General post was not a cabinet position to make headlines.  This changed abruptly in June of 1919.

On  the evening of June 2, 1919 followers of Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani, who advocated the violent overthrow of capitalist society, set off bombs simultaneously in eight American cities.  The bombs consisted of sticks of dynamite surrounded by lead slugs to act as shrapnel.  The bombs did a lot of property damage but remarkably only two people were killed:  Carlo Valdinochi, the former editor of an anarchist paper who blew himself up as he attempted to blow up the house of Attorney General Palmer in Washington DC, and New York City night watchman William Boehner.

Targets consisted of the homes of politicians and judges, with the odd exception of Our Lady of Victory Church in Philadelphia.

Each of the bombs was accompanied by notes which carried a declaration of war:

War, Class war, and you were the first to wage it under the cover of the powerful institutions you call order, in the darkness of your laws. There will have to be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder: we will kill, because it is necessary; there will have to be destruction; we will destroy to rid the world of your tyrannical institutions

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer responded with the Palmer Raids, an extensive nationwide manhunt with 10,000 arrested and 3500 detained.  Among those detained, 556 aliens were deported.  All the sturm und drang was for naught as the people behind the bombings were never uncovered. Civil libertarians long have decried the Palmer Raids, but the incident fixed in the minds of most Americans a strong antipathy for the use of violence to bring about a domestic revolution.  The anarchists succeeded only in blowing up their own cause with their bombs.

Among other actions during this time, Palmer formed what he called the General Intelligence Unit, and placed a 24 year old J. Edgar Hoover in charge of it.  This was the precursor of the FBI.

In Congress Palmer had a fairly pro-labor voting record, and he attempted to distance himself from the labor turmoil of 1919 and largely succeeded in doing so until a nationwide coal miner strike threatened to make the coming winter a very cold one for the US.  Palmer obtained an injunction against the strike on October 31, 1919.  His stance was widely popular with the public and Palmer noted that the action of the government was not against the general right to strike:

Nothing that the Government has done is intended or designed to have any effect upon the recognized right of labor to organize, to bargain collectively through its unions, or, under ordinary industrial conditions, to walk out by concerted action….The Government faced the alternative of submitting to the demands of a single group, to the irreparable injury of the whole people, or of challenging the assertion by that group of power greater than that of the Government itself.

A final agreement to resolve the strike was entered into on December 10, 1919 and Palmer received positive treatment in the press, although he made mortal enemies among many in the labor movement.

Based upon intelligence from Hoover, Palmer warned about a planned nation-wide insurrection by Leftists on May 1, 1920.  When the day came and went without incident, Palmer received much mockery from the press.

Still, Palmer hoped to take the Democratic nomination for President at the Democratic Convention scheduled to open on June 28, 1920.  He hoped that his platform of Americanism would draw sufficient support to win in a nation sick of division and strife.




Published in: on June 25, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on A. Mitchell Palmer  
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