Timeline of Key Events of the World War I Era Red Scare, 1914-1920
This timeline shows the major events of U.S. involvement in World War I and the anti-radical hysteria, known as the “Red Scare,” that also occurred at this time.
• June-August: Great Britain, France, and Russia (the Allied powers) go to war against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy (the Central powers); U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proclaims American neutrality.
• May: A German U-Boat (submarine) torpedoes and sinks the British passenger ship Lusitania, killing 1,198 men, women, and children, including 128 U.S. citizens
• March: The Russian Revolution overthrows the rule of Czar Nicholas II and replaces it with a liberal-democratic government led by Alexander Karensky
• April 2: President Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to approve American entry into the war against Germany
• May: President Wilson signs the Selective Service Act, requiring registration of all males between the ages of twenty and thirty (later changed to eighteen and forty-five)
• June: the Espionage Act bans the sending of treasonous material through the mail; the Post Office uses the Act to shut down socialist publications and others that were critical of U.S. involvement in the war
• November: a second Russian revolution replaces Karensky with a communist government led by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party, who vow to lead a worldwide anti-capitalist revolution. Lenin pulls Russia out of the war.
• May: Congress passes the Sedition Act, which makes it a crime to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive” language against the government, the Constitution, the flag, and the military uniform. That summer, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs is sentenced to ten years in prison for delivering a speech against the war and in favor of free speech (He was pardoned and released in 1921.)
• November 11: Germany surrenders, ending World War I
• February 6: 60,000 workers walk off the job in a four-day “General Strike” in Seattle. There is little or no violence, but Mayor Ole Hanson calls in federal troops to patrol and maintain order.
• Spring: In Schenck v. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Espionage Act, ruling unanimously that the First Amendment can be restricted in time of war if speech creates a “clear and present danger.” “Free speech,” writes Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing panic.”
• April 28-29: The mayor of Seattle receives a bomb in the mail; he is not hurt. The next day, a mail bomb blows the hands off the maid of a Georgia senator.
• June 2: Bombs go off in eight cities, killing two people. One bomb destroys part of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home in Washington, D.C. Soon after, Palmer strengthens the Justice Department’s “Bureau of Investigation” (forerunner to the F.B.I.) by creating a new “anti-radical” unit called the General Intelligence Division. The new division is headed by a young man named J. Edgar Hoover.
• September: Boston policemen go on strike, leading to rioting and looting. Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge calls out National Guard to restore order and fires the entire police force. Meanwhile, more than 300,000 steel workers go on a nationwide strike. Coal miners also threaten to strike; mine owners claim the strike is being ordered and financed by Soviet Russia.
• October: The U.S. Senate discovers that most of the 54 alien radicals arrested during the Seattle general strike have not been deported. The Senate demands that Attorney General Palmer explain why not.
• December: Attorney General Palmer and the U.S. Justice Department deport 249 illegal aliens to the Soviet Union aboard the Army transport ship Buford, nicknamed the “Soviet Ark.”
• January 2: Directed by Attorney General Palmer and using information gathered by J. Edgar Hoover, federal agents break into the homes and meeting places of thousands of suspected revolutionaries in thirty-three cities. The agents, expecting to find evidence that radicals were arming for revolution, uncover a few pistols and no explosives. Still, they arrest 4,000 people, mostly non-citizens.
• January: The steel strike collapses.
• May: Palmer’s prediction of a May Day radical uprising fails to come true; public approval for his methods declines.
• September: A bomb explodes on Wall Street, killing thirty and injuring over 300; most see it as the work of a lone fanatic rather than a large conspiracy.
Creator | American Social History Project
Item Type | Timeline
Cite This document | American Social History Project, “Timeline of Key Events of the World War I Era Red Scare, 1914-1920,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 24, 2021, https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1906.