Red Scare: FBI & The Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States

Regin Schmidt Red Scare: FBI & The Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States (University of Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000).

The young lack a sense of history-of the Cold War, of anti-communism, of the vibrancy of progressive movements in the United States. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, older activists discoursing on their history at first engaged in long needed self-criticism. The self-criticism then shifted, however, to blanket rejection of our progressive pasts-our victories as well as our defeats, our brave and honorable moments, and particularly a recollection of the hegemonic power of the U.S. state as a primary cause of our defeats. Plainly, the horrific record of state repression in America is being forgotten by the older radicals and is unfamiliar to the younger ones.

Regin Schmidt’s book can help enormously in revisiting and reconstructing the role of state repression in manipulating, subverting, jailing, deporting, and killing leftists in the twentieth century. Schmidt has provided us with a data-rich account of how the Federal Bureau of Investigation took on its special role in crushing the left in America. His book is about the origins of the FBI in the old Bureau of Investigation in 1908 and its transformation into a state weapon in the struggle against perceived Bolshevism, anarchism, and communism in the aftermath of World War I. It is also about the continuity of state repression from the era of the Palmer Raids to Cold War America.

Schmidt argues that recently declassified information points to new explanations for the FBI’s rise to prominence. Some researchers view the agency’s rise as a response to mass hysteria, placing the root cause of anti-communism in the public at large. Schmidt, however, shows how popular attitudes about the Bolshevik/communist/anarchist threat emerge only after Attorney General Palmer and the FBI launched their campaigns of harassment, arrest, and deportation. In short, anti-communism as a public ideology was the creation of state institutions.

Another body of scholarly and journalistic literature places primary, indeed sole, responsibility for FBI misdeeds on the shoulders of its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover. While Schmidt sees Hoover as the major protagonist in the FBI drama, he grounds Hoover’s conduct in the context of state policy and bureaucratic interest.

Further, most studies of the FBI emphasize its role in shaping anti-communism after World War II. Schmidt, however, takes the reader back to the first Red Scare and the Palmer Raids for the origins of anti-communism. And, he claims, the campaign was constant from then through the Cold War period. The FBI and anti-communism are less visible from the mid-1920s until the depths of the Great Depression only because of the diminution of radical activities.

Schmidt clearly states his central thesis early in the book and demonstrates its accuracy through historical examination.

Just as the mushrooming federal agencies, bureaus, and commissions were employed to regulate the economy and ameliorate the most severe social consequences of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, [so also] the state during the first decades of the century increasingly used its resources to control, contain, and, in times of crisis, to repress social unrest and political opposition. Thus, the institutionalization of the FBI’s political activities from 1919 was at bottom a part of the federalization of social control in the form of political surveillance.

This book provides an engaging, rich, detailed history of how the FBI served the social control functions of the state: harassing the left, supporting federal, state, and local politicians in their anti-communist campaigns, and responding with sympathy to corporate requests for assistance. It covers the campaign against the IWW, the 1919 strike wave, the Palmer Raids, the Seattle General Strike, and the deportation of radicals.

Red Scare is an important book. It should be read by older progressives to refresh their memories of real state repression in the United States. The book should be passed along to young activists, most of whom were not old enough to remember FBI harassment of Central American solidarity activists in the 1980s. And this book should be included as supplementary reading in university classes on U.S. history, American politics, and social movements.

Finally, the book makes crystal clear an important reality of struggles for social change. Social movements do not fall apart solely because of ideological rigidity or factionalism or egotism. The errors that come from our ranks have to be understood in the context of a continuous pattern of state repression. The sorry record of the FBI in the United States must not be forgotten. Red Scare will help us remember.

Reviewed by Harry Targ
Department of Political Science
Purdue University

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