The Red Scare

Congress passed these new restrictive immigration laws in part because of the growing fear of socialism that was spreading through southern and eastern Europe. After Russia collapsed to communism in the Russian Revolution of 1917, panic swept across the United States. In the Red Scare of 19191920, Americans became suspicious that they might fall victim to a communist plot to take over the country. The two main methods that workers’ unions used to create fair labor agreements—striking and collective bargaining—came to be seen as tools of socialists and anarchists. As a result, labor unions were frowned upon and dwindled in number and size. Several hundred Americans who affiliated with the Communist and Socialist parties were arrested, as were labor organizers and others who criticized the U.S. government.

The Socialist Party’s growing membership in the United States was also perceived as a threat, especially since labor organizer Eugene V. Debs received nearly a million popular votes in the presidential election of 1920. Even though the Red Scare eventually subsided, the fear of socialism and communism in the United States never truly went away. It would eventually resurface in the 1950s and throughout the Cold War.

The Sacco-Vanzetti Trial

Americans’ fears of immigration and socialism coalesced in the sensational Sacco-Vanzetti Trial of 1921, in which Italian-born Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried for murder. The two also happened to be self-proclaimed atheists and anarchists, which did not win them any favor from the conservative segment of the public. Although historians have concluded that both men were most likely guilty of the crime, at the time of the trial itself, the defendants’ ethnicity and communist affiliations weighed far more heavily than any hard evidence. In the end, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of murder and executed.

Fundamentalism vs. Darwinism

Millions of Americans also found a renewed sense of faith during the 1920s, defending traditional interpretations of the Bible against scientific theories that challenged those traditions. Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection were particularly threatening because they suggested that the world had been created over the course of millions of years—rather than seven days as the Bible stated—and that human beings were just one by-product of the evolutionary process. Fundamentalists, those who believed in the literal translation of the Bible, contested Darwin’s theories in an extremely heated debate.

The Scopes Monkey Trial

Nothing encapsulated the battle between fundamentalists and evolutionists better than the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In the trial, Tennessee biology teacher John T. Scopes was accused of presenting Darwin’s theories to high school students, in violation of a state law that forbade the teaching of evolution and natural selection. Some of the nation’s finest lawyers descended on the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, to present their arguments for the case, with numerous journalists in tow. Defense lawyer Clarence Darrow and fundamentalist prosecutor William Jennings Bryan (of late-1800s populism fame) provided the highlight of the trial when Darrow made Bryan look ridiculous on the witness stand. Although Scopes was ultimately found guilty and fined for his transgression, the fact that Bryan and his team came across as silly and unreasonable ended up bolstering the evolutionists’ side of the debate.

The Reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan

The growing Protestant conservatism of the day also manifested itself in the swelling membership of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan. Although the Klan of the 1920s was still ultraconservative and militant, it looked quite different from the Klan of the Reconstruction era and the Gilded Age. Whereas the Klan of the past had formed in the South to suppress blacks’ civil liberties, the new KKK was a national movement against not only blacks but also Catholics, Jews, alcohol, immigration, communism, and even birth control. Membership jumped to several million by the middle of the 1920s.

Popular pages: The Great Depression (1920–1940)