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Authors: Eric Burns

1920 (7 page)

BOOK: 1920
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Palmer was not a vain man. Still, he could not help but agree with claims that his raids “halted the advance of ‘red radicalism' in the United States.”

was right in seeking reprisal for the package bombs, the threat that they posed, the deaths and injuries they caused. But he was far too cruel and indiscriminate in his methods. So believed a man named Louis Freeland Post, and it was Post, as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Labor, whose responsibility it was to rule on the warrants issued against the aliens. It did not take him long. He promptly found two thirds of the warrants to be illegal. He glanced at
them, scoffed at them, dismissed them—that quickly was Palmer's work undone. There are different versions of what happened to the radicals who were not found guilty of criminal activity or thought by Freeland. According to Ellis Island historian Vincent J. Cannato, “only 762 were ordered deported and only 271 were actually deported. … In the year after May 1920, an additional 510 aliens were deported.”

Whatever the correct numbers were, and they will never be known or even closely estimated, Palmer was livid about them, and no less livid about the cavalier attitude with which Post had seemed to act. He took a minimum of solace from the House Rules Committee's decision to begin impeachment hearings against Post in May 1920. He immediately began planning his testimony, intending to make of the hearings a last stand for the Republican presidential nomination, a final showcase for his beliefs that America was a far more imperiled nation than most of its citizens were willing to admit.

But the Fighting Quaker was not to have his day. It was already too late. “By then,” Cannato writes of late April 1920, “the Red Scare had petered out almost as quickly as it had begun. When Palmer's dire warnings of a May Day revolution failed to come true, the public lost interest in the crusade. Congress quietly dropped its proceedings against Post.”

Cannato is right, but the canceled hearings are a puzzling phenomenon despite the lack of May Day fireworks. One possible reason, Robert K. Murray speculates, is that “many domestic radicals had been so scared by the aggressive action of those like Palmer that they had lapsed into a sort of pinkishness which made them less conspicuous to a Red-conscious public.” In other words, despite the excesses and illegalities of the Palmer raids, despite their inability to rid the nation of the prescribed number of aliens, they were successful, to a degree, in discouraging similar behavior in the future.

the Palmer Raids was Palmer himself. In the aftermath of the first raids late in 1919, planning began for the second front, the following January. For the attorney general, however, it proved too much. He is thought to have suffered “a complete collapse,” although his private secretary, Robert Scott, denied that his boss had
been so seriously stricken. “The Attorney-General has been working under heavy pressure during the last three or four years,” Scott told reporters, “and his doctor has advised him that it would be the part of wisdom for Mr. Palmer to lay off for about a week for rest and recuperation.”

It turned out to be mid-December before Palmer could return to work, a month rather than a week; and when he did, it was in an obviously weakened condition. Meanwhile, most of the planning for the second series of raids, those of January 1920, had been carried out by his assistants. Their boss, though, had seen and approved them all.

But despite Post's determination that the raids had been largely illegal, Palmer was not dissuaded. Having returned to the office now and regained at least some of his lost energy, the Attorney General was more certain than ever that some combination of unsavory foreigners had been responsible for the mail bombs and would certainly resort to more deadly devices in the future. As a result, after January 2, he and Hoover made an even further hash of American jurisprudence.

Even before the new assortment of regulations had taken effect, Ellis Island had been one of the most inefficient bureaucracies in all the federal government, made even worse by an East Coast version of the Keystone Kops playing border guards; they were, said the
New York World
, a band of “one-legged, one-armed or decrepit old men,” who were as inept at understanding the rules and procedures of immigration as were the men and women from abroad to whom they were supposed to be providing assistance. Ellis Island, the
continued, was on the verge of becoming “a perpetual joke.”

But if attempts to comprehend the rules of entry to the United States were difficult before Palmer and Hoover intruded themselves, the results afterward were impossible, leading to the most massive traffic jams in the history of the country's grand portal. At times, prospective Americans were backed up so far outside the Immigrant Inspection Station that it appeared that they were forming lines to return to the ships that had brought them. “The passport regulations and the literacy tests have considerably increased the work of inspection at Ellis Island,” the
New York Times
reported. “Nevertheless the number of inspectors remains the same as it was before the war, when the examinations of steerage
passengers were much simpler. There is also congestion in the Courts of Special Inquiry and in the sleeping quarters at Ellis Island. Frederick A. Wallis, Immigration Commissioner, is trying to improve conditions.”

But he couldn't. The Palmer-Hoover legislative mumbo-jumbo wouldn't allow him. The two men, exalted in position though they might have been, were themselves on the verge of becoming a perpetual joke. As for Palmer, he had by this time suffered the first in a series of heart attacks that would have kept him out of the White House even if his reputation had not. And in Hoover's case, although he might eventually turn into a perpetual joke, he would grow ever more mirthless and even vicious, as his power increased beyond the bounds of any elected official in the land.

the lines outside the Immigrant Inspection Station worked their way inside the building and, more important, into the country. For the most part, they stayed in the United States, despite the desire of Palmer and his legislative allies to exile them. In a very real sense, they would have had nowhere to go
they been exiled. Their own nations had been devastated by the Great War, turning those who clamored for entrance to America into the most lost of all generations.

The most reliable figures available tell us that Belgium lost between 1.34% and 1.95% of its total population; Italy as much as three and a half percent; France more than four percent; Romania about eight percent; Serbia somewhere between eleven and eighteen percent; and the nations of our foes, the Central Powers, consisting of Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire, a combined percentage of between 4.89 and 5.82.

Most of the fighting on the Western Front occurred on French soil, where the landscape became unrecognizable in its ruin; homes and factories, shops and entire towns were leveled, becoming piles of rubble that would not stop smoking on the parched soil. Millions of acres of farmland were destroyed throughout Europe, with megatons of artillery shells having been dropped on them and measureless amounts of lethal gases having seeped into the soil. As a result, hunger and even starvation became as much a result of the fighting as death and injury. In Belgium, as well as northern France and various other nations, the terrain itself
became victim to a kind of “friendly fire,” as the soldiers defending the terrain dug into it themselves, creating hundreds of miles of unruly, unhealthful, and often useless troughs for the horrors of trench warfare.

The destruction of government buildings was the creation of chaos, at least in the short term. Without men to occupy those buildings, who was in charge? Who would sanction their leadership? What would be the basis of their rule? So many records were destroyed that boundaries of political units became a matter of guesswork, and titles to individual property simply no longer existed.

But the United States had suffered no such damage. There had been no fighting on U.S. soil. It had already been thought of as a land of plenty, rich where Europe was poor, new where Europe was old, bustling where Europe was stagnant, democratic where Europe was sometimes authoritarian. Now America became thought of even more favorably. The entranceways to Ellis Island became the mortal equivalent of the Pearly Gates.

In 1919, 141,132 citizens of other nations who passed through those gates achieved legal permanent-resident status. In 1920, the figure climbed to 430,001. In 1921, it almost doubled, reaching 805,228. Unfortunately for the Ku Klux Klan, between June 1920 and June 1921 more than half of the new Americans, about 520,000 of them, had previously been residents of southeastern Europe.

Many of the newcomers found employment in factories and as day laborers, adding even more brawn to the American workforce and the country's surging economy. But more often than not, the only jobs that welcomed them were so arduous that they seemed beyond the abilities of mere human beings, and left the men at the end of the day with aching muscles, bruised joints, and mouths so dry they could not produce saliva.

If only they could have stopped at a tavern after work for commiseration with their mates over a few cheap beers. But they couldn't. Alcoholic beverages were no longer legal behind the Pearly Gates.


The Long, Black Night of the Spirits

the law because their boss, the attorney general, commanded them to do so in the name of national security. At the same time, millions of other Americans were breaking the law because they were thirsty. At midnight on January 16, 1920, a week after the Boston Red Sox sold the best player in baseball to the New York Yankees for $125,000, an event that was easily the worst investment any American would make until far later in the decade, and one that, known as the Curse of the Bambino, would have repercussions until early in the twenty-first century—at that appointed moment, eight months to the day before Wall Street exploded, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, having slipped through a back door of the state ratification process, took effect. The Volstead Act, named after a congressman from Minnesota, was the so-called enforcement arm, enumerating and occasionally even enforcing the penalties for breaking the law. America was now officially “dry.” The sale, manufacture, and transportation, although, oddly enough, not the consumption, of alcoholic beverages, was henceforth forbidden.

The timing could not have been worse.

The groundwork for Prohibition had been laid forty years before the Great War, with the prim, pious, but ultimately untiring membership of the so-called Women's Crusade, whose tactic, ingenious in its way, was to pray saloons shut. A cleric from Boston who found himself in the small southeastern Ohio town of Hillsboro as the Crusade was getting started in late December 1873 could not believe what he saw.

I came unexpectedly upon some fifty women kneeling on the pavement and stone steps before a [saloon]. … There were gathered here representatives from every household of the town. The day was … cold; a cutting north wind swept the streets, piercing us all to the bones. The plaintive, tender, earnest tones of that wife and mother who was pleading in prayer, arose on the blast, and were carried to every heart within reach. Passers-by uncovered their heads, for the place whereon they trod was “holy ground.” The eyes of hardened men filled with tears, and many turned away, saying that they could not bear to look upon such a sight. Then the voice of prayer was hushed; the women began to sing, softly, a sweet hymn with some old familiar words and tunes, such as our mothers sang to us in childhood days. We thought, Can mortal man resist such efforts?

The answer, in the short term, was no. As men approached their favorite saloon and saw the women, among them their wives and daughters, kneeling not only on planked sidewalks but often in the dust that paved the streets, praying for abstinence, they were too embarrassed to enter the beverage emporium. They turned, feeling ashamed of themselves for what they had been about to do. They skulked away, hoping that loved ones had not seen them.

BOOK: 1920
11.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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