In the years immediately after World War One, a Red Scare swept the US. Following the Russian Revolution there were fears that the Bolsheviks would seek to undermine America and democracy, leading to various laws being enacted. Jonathan Hennika (site here) continues his Scared America series below (following articles on strained 19thcentury politics here, Chinese immigration here, and anti-German propaganda during World War One here).

A drawing depicting the Steel Strike of 1919. From New York World, October 11, 1919.

A drawing depicting the Steel Strike of 1919. From New York World, October 11, 1919.

In a Forbes Magazine editorial, political science Professor Donald Brand wrote, “Donald Trump’s nativism is a fundamental corruption of the founding principles of the Republican Party. Nativists champion the purported interests of American citizens over those of immigrants, justifying their hostility to immigrants by the use of derogatory stereotypes: Mexicans are rapists; Muslims are terrorists.” The United States is not the only nation affectedby Nativism. Great Britain faced its nativist fight in the referendum regarding the nation’s involvement in the European Union. “Nativism … is prejudice in favor of natives against strangers, which in present-day terms means a policy that will protect and promote the interests of indigenous or established inhabitants over those of immigrants. This usage has recently found favor among Brexiters anxious to distance themselves from accusations of racism and xenophobia” journalist Ian Jack wrote in The Guardian.[i]

In 2018, voters in both nations facedthe consequences made in 2016. Great Britain struggled with the formalization of an exit from the European Union; theUnited States grappled with a President who calls himself a “nationalist.” In the lead up to the midterm elections,President Trump demonized a caravan of Latin Americans seeking asylum in the United States; proposed ending birthright citizenship; and threatened to shut down the border between the United States and Mexico. President Trump'slast-minute anti-immigrant rhetoric did not yield him noticeable benefit in the mid-terms; his party retaineda precarious hold on the United States Senate and lost the majority in the House of Representatives.  It is possible the American electorate understood the tactic as one of fear; it is possible President Trump pushed the issue toofar and crossed a line. Perhaps President Trump is a man out of time, as he said at a campaign rally in Houston, Texas” "You know, they have a word. It sort ofbecame old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist," he continued. "And I say, 'Really, we’re not supposed to use that word?' You know what I am? I'm a nationalist. ... Use that word."[ii]


America at a Crossroads 

The United States at the end of World War One was a nation in turmoil. After running on a re-election campaign touting, he kept America out of the European war; Wilson became a War President in April 1917. The President postulated that if Americans went towar “they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance.”[iii]American culture changed over-night as war fervor gripped the nation: “Every element of American public opinion was mobilized behind `my country, right or wrong,’ dissent was virtually forbidden, democracy at home was drastically curtailed so that it could be made safe abroad, while impressionable children were `educated’ in Hun atrocities, or their time was employed in liberty loan, Red Cross, war saving stamp or YMCA campaigns.”Soon, this Americanism became codified under the Espionage Act of 1917 and further enforced with the Sedition Act of 1918. Taken together, the Alien-Sedition Act is an early 20thcentury version of the post-September11, 2001,the PatriotAct, in that they curbed criticism of America’s involvement in the First World War. “There was clear implication that people who utilized free speech as a means of gaining improper ends had to be restricted.”[iv]

Once the war ended, those encouragedby the implementation of the Alien-Sedition Act wanted similar peacetime laws. Therefore, a new enemy was required. Political leaders pointed towards the radical revolutions sweeping Eastern Europe and Russia. Their tactic in creating this Red Scareincluded propaganda, which proved politically useful to President Wilson and his public relations man, George Creel. Inciters of the Red Scare painted a picture of Eastern European immigrants as non-conformists and declared they and “their Socialist `cousins’ rejected the premises upon which the American system rested, namely that rights and privileges were open in a free society to anyone who was willing to work up patiently within the system. Or if the individual wereincapable of utilizing this technique, he would eventually be taken care of in a spiritof paternalism by the affluent class, as long as he stood with his hat in his hand and patiently waited.” The fear of the socialist and Bolsheviks was so great that “by 1920 thirty-five states had enacted some form of restrictive, precautionary legislation enabling the rapid crackdown on speech that might by its expression produce unlawful actions geared toward stimulating improper political or economic change.”[v]

These politicians cast themselves as defenders of the United States and all things American. A partial list of these defenders includes Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, former First Army General Leonard Wood, Post Master General Albert Burleson, William J. Flynn, director of the Bureau of Investigation and his head of intelligence, J Edgar Hoover.  Both Palmer and Wood were contenders for the Republican nomination in the 1920 election. Flynn, Hoover, and later Flynn’s successor, William Burns, used the Bolshevik threat to enhance the power and prestige of the Bureau of Investigation, as well as their reputations. 


Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and the Red Scare of 1919

The end of the war, which had been an economic boon for the United States, brought with it a depression due in part to the cancellationof no longer needed war orders. As the economy slumped, retail prices climbed more than doubling by 1920, the worse increases occurring in the spring and summer of 1919. The workers who had prospered during the boom years of the warnow complained about low wages. Over 4,000,000 workers participated in 3,600 strikes in 1919. Veterans, returning to civilian life, resulted in high unemployment. Speaking at a public event, Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson indicated that two significantstrikes in Seattle and Butte, Montana were “instituted by the Bolsheviks…for the sole purpose of bringing about a nationwide revolution in the United States.”[vi]

Americansoldiers arereturning to civilian life, having performed their patriotic duty, found their jobs had been taken over by African-Americans and others who had not served in the war. There was a sharp rise in unemployment which increased nativist sentiment. Soldiers returned to a country where Socialists and other radicals were striking and threatening violence against the government and the democracytheyhad defended in the trench warfare of France. The threats of violence became real in April and June 1919. Bombing campaigns targeted various cities and public officials. Speaking of the June 1919 bombings, William Flynn, Director of the Bureau of Investigation, declared that the “bombers were connected with Russian Bolshevism aided by Hun money,” placing the enemy directly at the feet of the old enemy, Germany, and the new enemy, Russia.[vii]

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was one of the public officials targeted by the April bombings. Palmer began a swift retaliation campaign between 1919 and 1920. Palmer’s Justice Department rounded up and deported over six thousand aliens and arrested thousands more upon suspicion of belonging to subversive or radical groups. At this time President Wilson had taken ill (having suffered a stroke), Palmer went unchecked. Of the thousands arrested, most were taken within a warrant and detained for inexcusably long sentences. Thosearrested were later released.[viii]In a precursorof what was to come in the 1950s, Attorney General Palmer presented a report to Congress in November 1919. In his report, Palmer stated that “the Department of Justice discovered upwards of 60,000 of these organized agitators of the Trotsky doctrine in the US… confidential information upon which the government is now sweeping the nation clean of such alien filth…. The sharp tongues of the Revolution’s head were licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes and seeking to replace marriage with libertine laws.”[ix]

As a result of the Red Scare of 1919-1920, New York State disbarred five Assemblymenas socialist.  Being the nation’s top-crusader against the Red menace, Palmer was unable to turn his campaign of fear and red-baiting into higher political office. Unlike President Trump in 2016, Palmer lost his party’s bid for the nomination. However, as an intended consequence of the Red Scare, in 1921 Congress enacted the Quota law. This was the first of many billspassedduring the Roaring Twenties to sharply curtail an influx of immigration to a country founded by immigrants. These immigration and Naturalization Laws increased the United States’ move towards a return to pre-war isolation and harbored disastrous consequences as the fascists began to seize power in the 1920sand 1930s Europe.


What do you think of the post World War One red Scare in the US? Let us know below.

[i]Donald Brand, “How Donald Trump’s Nativism Ruined the GOP,” Forbes, June 26, 2016.; Ian Jack, “We Called it Racism, Now it’s Nativism,” The Guardian, November 12, 2016.


[ii]Brett Samuels, “Trump: `You Know What I Am? I’m a Nationalist,” The Hill, October 28, 2018.

[iii]Ray Stannard Baer, Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters(New York: Scribners and Son, 1927), 506-07.

[iv]Paul L Murphy, “Sources and Nature of Intolerance in the 1920s,” The Journal of American History, 51 (June, 1964), 63.

[v]Ibid,62,  65

[vi]Stanley Coben, “A Study in Nativism: The American Red Scare of 1919-20,” Political Science Quarterly, 79 (March, 1964,)66-8.

[vii]Ibid, 60.

[viii]Ibid, 72-3.

[ix]Paul Johnson, Modern Times: From the Twenties to the Nineties(New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 205.

Immigration has been a regular theme to date during US President Donald Trump’s administration, but it has played a role throughout American history. Here, we follow on from past articles (on strained 19thcentury politics here and Chinese immigration here) and look at the use of anti-German propaganda in America during World War One.  Jonathan Hennika explains (his site here).

A US Army anti-German propaganda poster during World War One.

A US Army anti-German propaganda poster during World War One.

For political observers, the use of the migrant caravan working its way north to the United States border by President Trump and his supporters as a mid-term election scare tactic came as nosurprise. “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear.” Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump said in an interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on March 31, 2016, at the Old Post Office Pavilion, Trump International Hotel, Washington, D.C.[i] Such words were never spoken by the Chief Executive of the United Statesbeforethe era of President Trump. While addressing the delegates of the United Nationsin September 2018, President Trump proudly declared: “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism. Around the world, responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination.”[ii]

President Trump had been laying the groundwork for his imagined bogeyman for some time.  Reporting on a pre-election speech given by the President, The New York Times concluded, “President Trump’s closing argument is now clear: Build tent cities for migrants. End birthright citizenship. Fear the caravan. Send active-duty troops to the border. Refuse asylum. Immigration has been the animating issue of the Trump Presidency, and now…the president has fully embraced a dark, anti-immigrant message in the hope that stoking fear will motivate voters to reject Democrats.”[iii]

A tactic used in any campaign of fear of the foreigner is the labeling of the other as a threat to the American public or national security. Characterizing the caravan, the President declared at a White House Press conference, that it was made up of “a lot of young men…and a lot of men we maybe don’t want in our country…they have injured; they have killed.”[iv]While this type of scare tactic has been used before in American politics, nonehadachieved the level of an unassuming newspapermanfrom Colorado in 1916.


George Creel and the Committee on Public Information

On the eve of America’s entry into World War One, President Woodrow Wilson wrote, “It is not an army that we must shape and train for war. It is a nation… The whole nation must be a team.” Tounite the nation into the team needed to fight Nationalism and militarism that was at the heart of the First World War, President Wilson leaned heavily on the former muckraking journalist George Creel. Creel, an ardent supporter of Woodrow Wilson in the election of 1916, wrote a brief that came to the attention of the scholarly Wilson. The author/historian Jon Dos Pasos wrote the Creel brief, “summed up the arguments for and against official wartime censorship and suggested that what was needed was not suppression, but expression; in other words, a publicity campaign to sell the war to the nation.”[v]Early in the creation, Creeland the Committee for Public Information (CPI) decided the United States was fighting to save democracy for the world. If the United States was the hero, a villain was needed. After the sinking of the cruise ship Lusitania, the Kaiser and unrestricted submarine warfare made it easy for Germany to play theroleof the villain. 

By 1910 the Library of Congress estimated the German-bornpopulation in America to be 2.3 million.[vi]As with all ethnic groups that came to America, the German community was close-knit, often reading newspapers or attending church services that were primarily in German. At the onset of the United States entry into the war in 1917, Americanization came to German sounding street or city names by renaming them in honor of the General in charge of the American Expeditionary Force, John J. Pershing or honoringthe innocent victim of German militarism, neutral Belgium.

As Creel and his propagandists poured out an anti-German message soon there appearedsubtle changes in the German influence on the melting pot of American culture.  The German staple sauerkraut was called Liberty Cabbage. The banning of Germanlanguage instruction in public schools and colleges was commonplace. The ban was the central point of discussion in the 1919 case before the Supreme Court Meyer v Nebraska. 

Esteemed German composers and conductors confronted the face of the fear campaign. KarlMuck, the conductor of the Boston SymphonyOrchestra,faced ostracization as a result of anti-German sentiment. After receiving a request by political clubs and civic organizations,out of Providence, Rhode Island Muckwas instructed by the founder and manager of the BSO to not open the October 30, 1916 performance with the star-spangled banner. Later performances had to be canceleddue to the anti-German backlash. Even the music of Wagner did not escape criticism, “the Wagner cult in music has naturally spread, together with the Kaiser cult in politics.”[vii]


Let the Images Speak for Themselves

Some of the most chilling anti-German themes came from the propaganda posters. In images that served as inspiration for the anti-Japanese campaign of World War Two, the German, or Hun, was portrayed as a hulking beast, raping and pillaging across Europe (see the above/below images).

The world recently celebrated the centennial of the Armistice.  Shortly after the war ended, America turned inward, shunning it’s new found place on the world stage. The world was changing; the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia; Germany fellinto a gripping economic depression as a result of the cost of the peace; and the militarism the world had fought against would see a resurgence in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Tojo’s Japan. While the world changed, the United States imposed even harsher immigration controls in the 1920s. The use of fear of the other, so easily demonstrated by George Creel, had a lasting impact and informedUnited States immigration policy into the 21stcentury, as evidencedby President Trump'srhetoric.


What do you think of the use of anti-German propaganda during World War One? Let us know below.

[i]Bob Woodward, Fear: Trump in the White House(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), Kindle Edition.

[ii]UPI, Full text: President Donald Trump's Speech to United Nations, September 25, 2018.

[iii]Michel D. Shear and Julie Hirschefiled Davis, “As Midterm Vote Nears, Trump Reprises a Favorite Message: Fear Immigrants,” New York Times, November 1, 2018.


[v]John Dos Pasos, Mr. Wilson’s War(New York: Knopf Doubleday, 1962), 300.

[vi]The Germans in America, Library of Congress,

[vii]J.E. Vacha, “When Wagner was Verboten: The Campaign against German Music in World War I,” New York History64 (1983): 173-4.

Further American anti-German Propaganda from World War One

A US Navy recruitment poster, showing a bloody German moving through dead bodies.

A US Navy recruitment poster, showing a bloody German moving through dead bodies.

A newspaper image of “The Rape of Belgium”, related to the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.

A newspaper image of “The Rape of Belgium”, related to the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.

Another reference to Belgium to encourage people to buy war bonds.

Another reference to Belgium to encourage people to buy war bonds.