Palmer raids and black militancy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri May 26 14:33:00 MDT 2000

Published by H-Pol at (May, 2000)

Theodore Kornweibel, Jr.  _"Seeing Red": Federal Campaigns Against
Black Militancy, 1919-1925_.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1998.  xv + 225 pp.  Notes and index.  $12.95 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed for H-Pol by Kenneth O'Reilly <afko at>,
Department of History, University of Alaska Anchorage

"Red and Black All Over"

This fine book makes the case that former Attorney General A.
Mitchell Palmer should be remembered for something more than those
raids which bear his name.  "The Negro is 'seeing red,'"  Palmer
announced in 1919, addressing his warning to what another former
Justice Department official, J. Edgar Hoover, liked to call "the
real America" (hard working, tax paying, Christian, white).  It was
taken to heart by the bureaucrats who ran the State Department,
Military Intelligence Division, Office of Naval Intelligence, Post
Office Department, and most of all the Justice Department's General
Intelligence Division (GID) and Bureau of Investigation (the word
"Federal" was added in 1935). Hoover himself worked off a GID desk
before moving up in 1924 to take over the Bureau. Collectively, this
nascent World War I-era intelligence empire shared a common and
eminently simple assumption.  Namely, that "second-class"  citizens
would have second-class loyalties and thus were fair game for
informants, bugs, taps, mail openings, dirty tricks, bogus
prosecutions, and other imperial habits.

Theodore Kornweibel has been plowing this field for some time.  In
1980 he began work on _"Seeing Red"_ and six years later edited for
microfilm publication some twenty-five reels of federal records
housed in the National Archives.  (The Archives has 955 reels of old
Bureau of Investigation files alone.) Kornweibel also has another
book in the works on more or less the same subject.  He knows as
much or more than any other scholar about how the American
intelligence community from the get go used what W. E. B. Du Bois
called "the color line" to grow an empire long before the Cold War
dawned.  History, of course, can be a strange thing, and thus it
should be remembered that Du Bois himself unsuccessfully sought a
commission in military intelligence.

Sometimes, when one knows so much, it is difficult to tell the
proverbial forest from the trees.  What this means here is that
Kornweibel's theme, such as it is, comes across as rather limp. The
author argues that federal surveillance played an important role in
rolling back civil rights militancy and further that all those
intelligence agents had no right to do what they did because their
targets broke no laws.  It was not a crime to espouse black pride
under the rubric of Pan Africanism.  Nor was it a crime to condemn
"the burning of Negroes" (lynching).  Or to ask President Woodrow
Wilson, as William Monroe Trotter did, to make America safe for
blacks while he was busy making the world safe for democracy.  Had
Kornweibel gotten further across the color line we would have had a
more interesting book.  Race, unfortunately, seems always to locate
at or near the center of everything -- most notably, economics and
electoral politics. _"Seeing Red"_ clearly demonstrates that race
locates dead center on the question of why America developed an
intelligence empire. Yet a more direct approach here would have made
a more interesting and perhaps arresting theme for the book as a

Still, this is a minor criticism and Kornweibel no doubt will make a
major interpretive contribution with the manuscript that remains in
progress. With this book, one settles happily for a wealth of detail
about what actually happened.  From a chapter outlining a general
fear of Bolshevism on the march among blacks, Kornweibel moves on to
tell a series of eye-popping stores.  A good portion of intelligence
community energy was directed towards newspapers and other
publications, including the Chicago _Defender_, the _Messenger_, the
_Crusader_, and the more complex case of the NAACP's _Crisis_.
There is also a separate chapter on the pursuit of Marcus Garvey,
the "black Moses" who ran the Universal Negro Improvement
Association. Surveillance of the African Blood Brotherhood attracts
the author's attention as well, along with the Justice Department's
habit of spying on any black member of the Industrial Workers of the

Finally, Kornweibel focuses throughout on the strange tale of black
agents hired by the old Bureau of Investigation to infiltrate black
groups and otherwise go places where white agents could not.  Before
signing up and being told to take care of Garvey, one of those
agents, James Amos, had served as President Theodore Roosevelt's
valet.  If history is sometimes a strange thing, the stories well
told in this book are usually just that.

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Louis Proyect
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