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Radical Mainers

The Red Menace: An Anti-Communist Business Offensive Puts Maine Labor on the Ropes

by | Oct 11, 2020

Capt. R. L. Hammons was well prepared when the red flag was raised and the call for revolution sounded through the streets of Belfast, Maine. He immediately sent the men of Company F., Third Maine Infantry, to forcefully put down the Bolshevik insurrection on that cold Saturday afternoon of Nov. 19, 1919.

“Very promptly at the emergency whistle call, squads of uniformed and armed men with the dignity of veterans emerged from the Armory to guard public buildings, factories, banks … to direct traffic, and keep law and order,” a Belfast Republican Journal reporter gushed. “Large crowds, particularly of small boys, gathered to see what martial law meant and many of them found out to their momentary embarrassment.”

Local resident Walter Lyons led the Bolsheviks, shouting, “Come on, don’t let the red flag of freedom drag in the mud!” But he was “a sorry-looking man when he reached the Armory,” the reporter observed. The militia quickly arrested City Marshal M. R. Knowlton and policemen James Hill and Bert Annis for “disorderly acts,” while Herbert H. Stevens was seized for starting street fights and assaulting guards. Fortunately, Dr. O.S. Vickery was caught before he could send a bomb to Capt. Hammons. Even Charles Bradbury and Thomas Lothro were arrested, merely for acting “suspicious.”

Although Belfast’s Communist insurgency was only a drill — a training exercise organized by the mayor, a group of businessmen and the American Legion — the reporter called it “an excellent demonstration of what efficient protection” the city had at its disposal should leftists ever actually rise up.

“The real motive for calling for martial law protection was apparent during it all, that the public might have an object lesson on what Company F. really stands for in the enforcement of law and order,” the Journal’s scribe wrote. “The demonstration made the most heedless and indifferent think soberly.”

As this event shows, paranoid war fever still gripped Maine (and the nation) a year after the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. Americans assumed what the writer Frances Turk described as an “illusory” peacetime normalcy, and were unprepared to respond to the postwar labor unrest and social upheaval.

“In such circumstances, America stood naked before the future,” Robert Murray wrote in Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920. “Psychologically and morally she was ill equipped to meet the simple basic challenge of democratic action, let alone solve successfully the many complex postwar problems which confronted her.”

The country was in an economic crisis caused by the precipitous drop in war-related industrial production. The purchasing power of the dollar shrank to 45 cents, food costs had risen 84 percent, and clothing went up about 115 percent. A temporary truce had been struck between labor and ownership during the war, but in 1919 workers began demanding better wages. A wave of 3,600 strikes, involving 4 million workers, swept across the country.

Nearly all of them failed to win concessions from a capitalist class firmly in control of the levers of power.

Murray notes that “in 1919 the industrialist was spoiling for a fight.” In the early 1900s, progressive muckraking journalists had made it “fashionable to attack organized capital and the holders of great wealth,” he wrote, but “the war brought more respect and prestige for the businessman whose weapons and technology the people depended on in war.”

Critical to capitalists’ success against striking workers was a massive propaganda campaign that conflated unions with radical Bolsheviks aiming to overthrow the government and establish a Communist regime. There were fears that the Russian Revolution, begun in 1917, would be imported to the U.S.A.

An editorial cartoon published by the Kennebec Journal.

As Maine’s Republican Governor, Carl Milliken, said in his 1919 address to the Legislature, “The crisis by no means passed with the overthrow of military despotism. The menace of mob rule and Bolshevism still threatens.”

During World War I, the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the Wobblies, became Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of big business, the mainstream media, and Woodrow Wilson’s administration. The IWW rattled American capitalists by seeking to unite both skilled and unskilled workers, men and women, black and white, immigrant and native-born, into “One Big Union” capable of changing the system.

As a result, Wobblies were spied on, blacklisted, jailed, attacked by far-right mobs and even murdered for their beliefs. From the textile mills of New England, to the western mines and lumber camps, businessmen enlisted the brute power of police and state militias to jail union leaders and attack striking workers with billy clubs, bayonets and bullets.

In Maine, the Wobblies never got much traction, mostly because the state didn’t have a large concentration of unskilled immigrant workers, the class of laborers that swelled the IWW’s ranks out west and in big cities. Also, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) — which only organized skilled workers into craft unions, and which excluded Blacks and women — had a strong presence in Maine.

Fiercely anti-Communist, AFL leaders despised their left-wing rival. During a 1907 Wobbly strike of textile workers in Skowhegan, the AFL even offered to send scabs to replace the thousands of women protesting low wages and bad working conditions. When the Wobblies finally managed to organize several hundred loggers in the Greenville area, in 1924, they were accosted by the local Ku Klux Klan, and their leaders were thrown in Thomaston Prison on conspiracy charges.

The Wobblies’ influence actually peaked during the war, when they led lumber strikes in the Pacific Northwest and strikes in the Western copper mines. In Bisbee, Arizona, a mob organized by a mining company forced nearly 2,000 union copper miners and their supporters (including some bystanders unaffiliated with the cause) to leave town, at gunpoint, on July 12, 1917, driving them into the desert 150 miles away.

A few weeks later, in Butte, Montana, masked vigilantes hauled IWW leader and fierce war critic Frank Little out of a boarding house, dragged him down the road from the back of a car, and lynched him from a railroad trestle. No one was prosecuted for the murder, which Portland’s Eastern Argus newspaper applauded a year later. “The crimes of the I.W.W.’s are gross,” the Argus blustered, “and deportation by citizens, and the putting to death of one of their leaders, will show them that the country is in no mood to stand their outrageous pro-enemy activities.”

An editorial cartoon published by the Kennebec Journal.

Sensationalist wartime stories in local newspapers also stoked anti-leftist hysteria, like a rumor repeated in the Kennebec Journal, in 1917, that IWW members were plotting to kill the state’s livestock by poisoning cattle and hog food.

In 1919, a series of mail bombings further inflamed fears of leftist revolution. In late April, followers of the Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani mailed 36 package-bombs to politicians, government officials, newspaper editors and prominent businessmen like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, in hopes they’d be opened on May 1st, International Workers’ Day. None of the bombs reached their intended targets, but one blew the hands off a housekeeper and wounded the wife of a Georgia senator. The group launched additional attacks in June, to similar effect — one anarchist accidentally blew himself up on the doorstep of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.

“Bolshevism and the IWW are trying to run rampant here as it has run rampant in Russia while the idealists are playing their fiddles in Paris,” Rockland’s Courier-Gazette thundered in a May 1, 1919, editorial, “and Germany, defeated in war, is chuckling to find herself so close to winning in peace.”

That fall, Attorney General Palmer launched a major offensive against suspected radicals, labor activists, left-wing organizations and immigrants. The Palmer Raids resulted in as many as 10,000 arrests and over 556 deportations (the writers Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were among those kicked out of the country). Federal authorities used the Espionage Act as justification to raid IWW union halls and Communist organizations in cities across the country, including Portland and Lewiston. Cops in Lewiston even busted up a fledgling Communist local and burned its charter. Arrests on trumped-up charges continued into the 1920s, such as the 1922 detainment of a Wobbly passing out literature on the Portland waterfront, and the imprisonment of the Greenville IWW leaders in 1924.

The Maine State Federation of Labor (MSFL), part of the AFL, very actively promoted the war and fanned fears of leftist insurgency. In 1919, MSFL President C.P. Smith told rank-and-file union members, “There is a spirit of Bolshevism seeking to gain a foothold in America which is being stamped out by the American Federation of Labor as quickly as possible. It is my advice that a careful watch be kept on all persons or societies that can in any possible way spread this propaganda, and in no instance should we allow it to enter into our discussion in any of our local meetings or elsewhere.

“We have gained the respect and the approval of nearly all of the American people by our loyalty in which we stood behind the Government during the war,” Smith continued. “Let us go slow lest we forfeit the good work that we have done and cause a pulling apart of the two mighty factors in the welfare of America today — Labor and Capital.”

Not all AFL members shared Smith’s view. A union cigar-maker from Bangor wrote, “Why has the censored, subsidized, capitalist press of the world circulated tons of falsehoods and hurled all the vile epithets at their command at this Bolshevik party of Russia? Because they have formed an Industrial Republic, the first Government of the working class in the world, owned by the workers and for the workers. … [W]e depreciate any attitude, by any part of the American Labor Movement, to hinder or discourage the advancement of the working class in any part of the world, and will not willingly lend our assistance.”

Regardless, it was no secret that Maine AFL leaders had a close relationship with the Department of Justice’s office in Portland, and they didn’t hesitate to report radicals in their ranks to the Feds. Maine’s AFL branch also developed strong ties with right-wing groups like the American Legion, which sought to weed out free-thinkers and promote “100 percent Americanism.”

Founded as a patriotic veterans’ organization in the spring of 1919, the American Legion was rabidly anti-leftist and occasionally engaged in mob violence. On the first anniversary of the Armistice, an armed gang of Legionnaires attacked an IWW headquarters in Centralia, Washington, and lynched a Wobbly war veteran named Wesley Everest from a bridge.

The Legion’s leaders weren’t shy about their affinity for fascism. In a 1923 interview, National Commander Alvin Owlsley said, “If ever needed, the American Legion stands ready to protect our country’s institutions as the Fascisti dealt with the destructionists who menaced Italy. … The American Legion is fighting every element that threatens our democratic government – Soviets, anarchists, IWW, revolutionary socialists and every other red. Do not forget that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.”

Still, no matter how patriotic and pro-capitalist Maine’s labor leaders were, or how many “reds” they purged from the AFL, the business elites had no intention of making peace with the craft unions. The capitalists’ efforts to conflate all labor unions with violence, disorder and Communism were effective. Union membership sharply declined in the 1920s, due in part to the Red Scare. By 1925, the MSFL reported that membership in Maine had declined from about 14,000 in 1923 to just 5,524 two years later.

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