Alexander Mitchell Palmer was born on 4th May, 1872. Educated at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, he was admitted to the bar in 1893.
A supporter of the Democratic Party, Palmer served in the House of Representatives (1909-15) and worked closely with Woodrow Wilson in his successful presidential campaign in 1912.
In 1919 Wilson appointed Palmer as his Attorney General. Palmer had previously been associated with the progressive wing of the party and had supported women’s suffrage and trade union rights. However, once in power, Palmer’s views on civil rights changed dramatically, in part because of the anarchist bombings and attempted bombings carried out by the followers of Luigi Galleani from April through June 1919. These bombings led to the Red Scare of 1919-20 and to the so-called ‘Palmer Raids’, named after Mitchell Palmer who led them.
Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia in November 1917, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. His view was reinforced by the discovery of thirty-eight bombs that had been intended for leading politicians, justice officials, newspaper and business men, including John D. Rockefeller and Palmer himself. Only two of these bombs were detonated. The rest either failed to detonate or were intercepted before reaching their intended targets. They were intended to reach the homes of those targets on May 1 or the day celebrated since 1890 as the International Day of Communist, Socialist and Anarchist revolutionary solidarity.
Palmer was the intended victim of a further bomb attack in June 1919. However, the perpetrator, an Italian anarchist, Carlo Valdinoci inadvertently blew himself up outside Palmer’s Washington home. (Two near casualties of the same bomb were Franklyn and Eleanor Roosevelt, who were living opposite Palmer at the time and who had passed his house moments earlier. A bomb part landed on their doorstep).
Having himself twice been the intended victim of attempted bombings, Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his assistant they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.
In particular he launched the so-called ‘Palmer raids’ on 7th November 1919 (the 2nd anniversary of the Russian Revolution’). Palmer claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. Over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but 3500 of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but roughly 556 were eventually deported, including Emma Goldman.
In January, 1920, another 6,000 were arrested and held without trial. These raids took place in several cities. Once again Alexander Mitchell Palmer and John Edgar Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects, many of them members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), continued to be held without trial. When Palmer announced that the communist revolution was likely to take place on 1st May, mass panic took place. In New York, five elected Socialists were expelled from the legislature.
When the May revolution failed to materialize, attitudes towards Palmer began to change and he was criticised for disregarding people’s basic civil liberties. Some of his opponents claimed that Palmer had devised this Red Scare to help him become the Democratic presidential candidate in 1920. Palmer failed to win the nomination and although he helped Al Smith (1928) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932) in their campaigns, he was no longer an important force in the Democratic Party. Alexander Mitchell Palmer died on 11th May, 1936.
John Edgar Hoover went on to be appointed Director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924, which later became the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Together with the Bureau of Education and the Bureau of Naturalization, these organisations were responsible for the of naturalisation of legal immigrants or the removal of illegal immigrants, political subversives, such as Marcus Garvey, who was deported in 1927 following a short sentence after being found guilty of mail fraud.
Hoover would survive in that role in until 1972, so he provides a link between the Red Scare of 1919-20, the McCarthy period of the 1950s, and the era of Richard Nixon and Watergate.