The Seattle General Strike and the "Great Red Scare"

Red Scare political cartoonThese assignments come from the beginning of my "HIS 261: 20th-Century U.S." course. It is an intermediate-level course, commonly taken by history majors and minors and also by students with an interest in recent American history. Over the course of the semester each student, working in teams of three, makes a series of four oral reports on topics they choose from an assigned list. The first of these is on the Seattle General Strike of 1919. We begin with an archive of editorial cartoons at CUNY and two representative statements from public figures. The first is from Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, one of the chief architects of the Scare, who orchestrated a spectacular series of raids over New Year's 1920 that resulted in the arrest of thousands of foreign-born "radicals." The second is from Jane Addams, a fierce critic of Palmer, whose own patriotism was questioned during the Scare. Students choose two questions to answer. I ask them to choose during the previous class as a way of guaranteeing that all six will receive some attention. In class we look at the specific images students discuss. They point to the stereotypical features they find. Locating images to illustrate Palmer's article is, it turns out, only too easy. And students find it equally easy to imagine how most cartoonists would portray Addams.

The report on the Seattle General Strike, in contrast, is very labor intensive, a fact I emphasize will hold for all of the oral reports. One student, now a high school teacher, told me that he worked harder on this report than on anything else he did in college. However onerous it proved, he was quick to add, he learned a lot. And he uses some of the materials with his own students along with the cartoons.

The questions I provide are intended to steer the students in their reading AND to hold their feet to the fire AND to sensitize them to the contested meaning of terms like "radical."

The Red Scare ArchiveAugust 29: Go to the Red Scare Archive and browse among the images associated with strikes and with reds, anarchists, and Bolsheviks. The images all come from the Literary Digest, a popular magazine of the day that reprinted news stories and editorials from around the country. Next read Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s “The Case Against the ‘Reds.’” Then read Jane Addams’ response to the “Red Scare.” E-mail your responses to two of the following:

  • What physical characteristics do the images of strikers share in these cartoons? Be specific.

  • Who or what is responsible for the strikes, according to these cartoons?

  • What are the links made in the cartoons between strikes and “reds,” “anarchists,” and “Bolsheviks”? Again, be specific.

  • What are the links made in the cartoons between “reds,” “anarchists,” and “Bolsheviks,” on the one hand, and immigrants on the other?

  • How might you use several of the cartoons to illustrate Palmer’s essay?

  • How might the cartoonists have reacted to Addams’s claim that the strikers and radicals were in some ways “more American” than those seeking to arrest and deport them?

 A. Mitchell Palmer,  The Case Against the “Reds,” Forum (1920), 63:173–185.

In this brief review of the work which the Department of Justice has undertaken, to tear out the radical seeds that have entangled American ideas in their poisonous theories, I desire not merely to explain what the real menace of communism is, but also to tell how we have been compelled to clean up the country almost unaided by any virile legislation. Though I have not been embarrassed by political opposition, I have been materially delayed because the present sweeping processes of arrests and deportation of seditious aliens should have been vigorously pushed by Congress last spring. The failure of this is a matter of record in the Congressional files...

The Seattle General StrikeAugust 31: Report on the Seattle General Strike;  Anna Louise Strong, Seattle journalist and school committee member who supported the strike, was one of the authors of the History Committee’s account of the strike. The Tacoma Public Library has put together an array of accounts of the strike.  Those reporting on the General Strike should consider:

  • What were the short- and long-term sources of the strike?

  • How “radical” were the strikers? What did “radical” mean in this context?

  • What was the role of Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson in ending the strike?

  • How fair were the cartoon versions of the strike?

This is the first in a series of student-led discussions. Students will e-mail outlines of their presentations—notes which I will then post to the course web site. Students should include specific references and, where appropriate, links to the materials they have used. Students should highlight questions the materials raised for them. Teams may not exceed three members. As we proceed, I will ask students who have already done a report to comment, where appropriate, on others’ topics.