History's Headlines: The big Red Scare of 1919-1920 sweeps into the Lehigh Valley

Author: , Historian
Published: May 10 2013 05:31:57 PM EDT   Updated On: May 20 2013 04:58:48 PM EDT
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

In 1919 the police force of Bethlehem probably had enough to do, just keeping track of run-of-the-mill lawbreakers. And the 18th amendment that would establish Prohibition hadn’t even gone into effect yet.

So it is hard to know what the average patrolman thought when, according to the police ledger item #9521, he heard that Bolsheviks were infiltrating the town. But it is probably a safe bet that he was not too happy about it.

Bethlehem Steel’s Charlie Schwab and Eugene Grace were not terribly fond of “radicals” who wanted to unionize their steel workers, much less those who proclaimed they wanted to overthrow capitalism entirely. And in 1919 they pretty much called the tune in Bethlehem.

“Information was received by Supt. Davies that a dance was being held in a hall at 704 William St. and they had no permit to hold same,” the statement begins. “This hall is known as a meeting place and school run for Bolsheviks. Nick Walasuch, who is now awaiting deportation as a Bolshevik, is president of this society.”

Supt. Davies, Capt. Halteman, Detective Frankenfield, a squad of patrolmen and a “patrolman from the (Northampton) Heights” headed over to 704 William St. What they found was indeed a dance. But it was the other things they saw among the participants that bothered them enough to include it in their report.

“They were wearing Bolshevik buttons which read ‘Bred in Freedom’ in Russian,” they wrote. “There were pictures of Bolshevik leaders on the walls. They also were wearing black bands on their button holes.”

As is often the case with documents that are not intended for anything other than official purposes, the police report produces more questions than answers.

Who was Nick Walasuch, and was he sent back to Russia? Did he even come from Russia? In December of 1919, 249 alien radicals- mostly anarchists-were put aboard a ship, the S.S. Buford, dubbed by the press the “Soviet Ark,” and deported to the USSR. Was Walasuch among them?

And the “Bred in Freedom” slogan on the buttons does not sound right. Did those buttons actually translate into “Bread and Freedom?” “Peace Land Bread” was the slogan used by the Bolsheviks in their 1917 Russian Revolution- was it adopted from that? Since black was the generally accepted color for anarchists, why were the officers so sure the men were Bolsheviks? Shouldn’t they have been wearing red bands in their button holes?

According to the source that provided the information the raid on the dance took place in the month of November. Could it be that the Bethlehem Bolsheviks were celebrating the second anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power on November 7, 1917?

And who exactly were those Russian Bolshevik leaders whose portraits graced the walls of 704 William St? Was there one autographed “Yours for the Coming World Revolution: V.I. Lenin?” Was Comrade Trotsky present in the line-up? And how many were among those who 20 years later would be swallowed up by the revolution they created in the form of Joseph Stalin’s purge trials and a bullet in the back of the neck in Lubyanka Prison or a much worse fate in the Gulag?

On these things the police report of 1919 is silent. It says only that all these articles were confiscated under the supervision of Davies and the Bolsheviks were taken to the court of an Alderman Devlin. Here the radicals were found guilty of conducting a dance without a permit, fined $10 and $2.50 in court costs. Apparently with that, the Bethlehem Bolsheviks walked out the door and out of history, at least as far as the Bethlehem police were concerned.

There is no problem in placing it right in the middle of what historians have come to call the Big Red Scare of 1919-1920.

With the entry of the U.S. into World War I in 1917, the country was swept by a strong nationalistic fervor. This was at first directed against all things German, with sauerkraut being renamed Liberty Cabbage and banning the teaching of German in high schools.

Even in the Pennsylvania German speaking Lehigh Valley, the subject, a required course in Allentown High School (now William Allen High School) before 1917, was almost dropped from the curriculum entirely. After a stormy session of the school board, a compromise was reached by making German an elective course.

The end of the war and the Kaiser’s defeat in 1918 brought a new terror in the form of Red Russia. Most Americans had been thrilled when the Czar was overthrown and a democracy established in Russia. But the Bolshevik takeover and the resulting calls for worldwide revolution and tales of revolutionary terror sent shockwaves across the country.

A rising feeling among industrial workers in support of unions, a wave of strikes for better wages and working conditions, and a scattering of mail bombings directed at prominent Americans, including Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, a former congressman from Northampton County, led to a rising tide of concern about a possible revolution in America that seemed to border on hysteria.

When a national steel workers strike broke out in 1919, Bethlehem Steel was in the middle of it. This may have been what made the Bethlehem Police particularly concerned about the Bolshevik dance party. But no less a conservative figure than former Republican President William Howard Taft could not get Grace and Schwab to even discuss the possibility of a union.

At the same time across the country fear ran rampant. Branding someone a radical or Bolshevik was an easy way to dismiss their views, however moderate they might be. In Indiana when one man killed another for saying “damn the United States,” it took a jury five minutes to acquit him. It also led to the rise of anti-Jewish, anti-black and anti-Roman Catholic hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan both north and south.

By 1922 the Red Scare had begun to die down. But those who lived through it never forgot.