In June 1919, anarchist terrorists bombed several buildings in Washington, D.C and seven other cities. These buildings included the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Because the targets included politicians, the bombings were assumed to be acts of terrorism. And sure enough, the bombs turned out to be politically motivated. Followers of an Italian anarchist named Luigi Galleani had placed the bombs across the country and had included with the bombs flyers declaring war in favor of anarchist principles.
Anarchy (a belief in abolishing all governments) had gained popularity in the United States and the world in the years before the bombings, and the government had become increasingly worried about anarchist or socialist revolution. Because of this, American officials had long been monitoring known anarchists and other people who spoke out against the United States. They had done so as part of the effort to win World War I, but the monitoring had not stopped when the war ended in 1918. Instead, Palmer’s Justice Department had kept tabs on known anarchists and had a good idea of where to find the people connected to the bombings.
Palmer created a new department, the Bureau of Investigation, to investigate the bombings. And he put J. Edgar Hoover, a young Justice Department lawyer, in charge of the Bureau.
On November 7, 1919, Hoover and agents of the Bureau stormed the offices and homes of members of the Union of Russian Workers in 12 cities. The goal was to arrest the leftist organization’s members and deport them out of the United States. In January of 1920, additional raids were carried out on other leftist and anarchist groups. The only problem was that the vast majority of the men arrested had not broken any laws. They had not planted bombs, and most had not even called for the overthrow of the government. Hoover and Palmer had arrested men for simply holding opinions.
The public was outraged by what the press was calling the Palmer Raids, and so too were federal judges and other Justice Department officials. Lawyers refused to deport the arrested individuals, and judges threw out the cases. Instead of protecting Americans’ rights, the Justice Department, they argued, had taken away the citizens’ rights. Palmer’s political career was ruined, and the Justice Department itself lost both real and assumed powers.
The Palmer Raids did have two victors, though: the Constitution, which was upheld, and J. Edgar Hoover, who found himself in charge of a brand new enterprise, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI.