Lively account of the government’s heavy-handed response to the Red Menace.
In the unsettled wake of World War I, when fears of sabotage and espionage had already shaken the country, American communists instigated a series of protests, strikes, riots and bombings. Admirers of Warren Beatty’s film Reds, which told this story from the radicals’ point of view, will remember some of the major players: anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, journalist John Reed, Communist Party founder Louis Fraina. Lawyer/author Ackerman (Boss Tweed, 2005, etc.) recounts the maneuvers of various government officials on the opposite side. His fast-paced narrative opens with the 1919 firebombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s private residence, an event that spurred Palmer to create within the Justice Department’s fledgling Bureau of Investigation a Radical Division headed by 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover. Using techniques developed as a cataloguer for the Library of Congress, Hoover created a vast index-card system identifying and linking troublemakers. Relying on this information, Palmer rounded up thousands of aliens and citizens, intending to deport the first and prosecute the second. The only “crime” of the vast majority caught up in this dragnet was their affiliation with unpopular political opinion. At first cheered by Congress and the public, the Palmer Raids gradually acquired a bad odor, thanks to abuses revealed by Clarence Darrow, Felix Frankfurter, Oliver Wendell Holmes and especially Labor Department assistant secretary Louis Post. His presidential hopes dashed, Palmer retired, but Hoover was just far enough down the food chain to disclaim any significant role in the civil-liberties abuses. He survived to be named director of what would become the FBI during the Coolidge administration. From that perch, this indefatigable record-keeper would bedevil nine more presidents, becoming the most feared and powerful bureaucrat in the federal government.
A slice of history with an always relevant underlying subject: how a democratic government balances civil liberties against the need for public safety.