CIP Executive Director Schwartz on 1919-20 terrorism in U.S.
Note: While the Center for Islamic Pluralism would not typically address issues of American radical leftist history, this article draws a parallel between terrorism in the U.S. after the first world war, which was more devastating than any comparable phenomenon before 2001, and the 9-11 Al-Qaida assault. It may therefore be of cautionary interest to CIP correspondents.
This volume by an emeritus history professor at Fairmont State University in West Virginia presents a retelling, expanded through access to Federal investigative archives, of a remarkable, even shocking story originally revealed by the late American historian of the anarchist labor movement, Paul Avrich (1931-2006). In the chronicle presented by Prof. McCormick disjointedly and arbitrarily the central element is a 1919-20 series of terrorist explosions across the USA . One such strike was directed at the Washington , DC , home of US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on June 2, 1919.
The June 1919 bombings came after a sequence of similar blasts across the country during the 'teens, which increased in frequency following American entry into World War I, and intensified further with the international social-revolutionary wave at the end of the general conflict. Prof. McCormick counts as 36 the number of explosive devices intercepted by authorities or otherwise prevented from going off in spring 1919, but does not inventory the targets. Prof. Avrich's book listed the objects of the attempts, a surprisingly considerable number of which were located in southern states.
But the culminating incident in the terror campaign was the September 16, 1920 bombing at the J.P. Morgan and Co. office on Wall Street in Manhattan , in which 40 people were killed or died of their wounds, and hundreds more were injured. The most remarkable aspect of these terrible episodes is that no suspects were ever publicly identified, much less tried and convicted, for any of the bombings.
The failure of the law enforcement establishment to solve the 1919-20 bombings led to conspiracy theories, claims of government provocation, and, according to Prof. McCormick, embarrassment in the ranks of the Bureau of Investigation (BI) of the Justice Department, predecessor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Prof. McCormick observes that the FBI delayed declassifying the file on the Wall Street bombing until 1983.
Aside from its infelicitous style and inclusion of too much peripheral and undeveloped information, the chief flaw of Prof. McCormick's book is that it attempts to satisfy too many reader constituencies. It appears more a smug account of bumbling by the Keystone Kops of the BI, led by William J. Burns and the young J. Edgar Hoover, than of the much more significant and impressive reality of escape from arrest or indictment by the perpetrators.
In his 1991 book Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background, Prof. Avrich described the broad ethnic milieu from which Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti emerged, and especially the ultra-revolutionary anarcho-communist tendency led by Luigi Galleani (1861-1931) to which the pair belonged. Galleani was a legendary extremist theoretician and intransigent militant whose entire being was directed to the overthrow of capitalism. Prof. McCormick notes that Prof. Avrich first revealed the probability that followers of Galleani, or Galleanisti, were responsible for the bombings.
The exploits of Galleani, who had come to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, were, if nothing else, bold. He launched the legendary weekly Italian-language anarchist periodical Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle), with the financial support of Italian marble workers in Barre, VT. Cronaca Sovversiva was suppressed by the federal authorities but was succeeded by the newspaper L'Adunata dei Refrattari (The Call of the Refractories), published until 1971 by Galleani's disciple Raffaele Schiavina, alias Max Sartin.
Because Prof. Avrich was more concerned with reconstructing the history of the Italian anarchists in America he did not confuse this rather amazing drama with a compulsion to ridicule the US authorities. According to Prof. McCormick, BI Director William J. Flynn, although treated in this work as a buffoon, was convinced that Italian anarchists had committed the Wall Street atrocity. But the USA could never accumulate sufficient evidence to charge any of the Galleanisti. That their mentor's preaching was carried out in the Italian-American community contributed to the failure of the government to assemble a case. Prof. Avrich summarized the U.S. deficiency in suppression of the Galleanisti by stating simply that the anarchists went "unmolested" by the powers of the state. The clarity of Prof. McCormick's work seems obstructed by the ideological categories imposed on history in the later transformation of the post-1918 social convulsion in America into the narrative of the Red Scare, concerned only with the Communists. There is an inherent contradiction between the exaggerated rhetoric of repression often employed to describe the period and the incapacity of the BI or any other agency of the Federal power in the 1919-20 bombings.
This dissonance cannot be resolved by claiming that incompetent government agents merely operated frame-ups against political dissidents whose innocence is presumed proven. In the 1919-20 bombing spree, the guilty evaded the law. Prof. Avrich, perhaps more out of intellectual breadth than because of his sympathy for the anarchists, seemed to understand that this exploit is the real story. The sociological implications of the success of the Galleanisti would require a lengthy study of Italian-American isolation and assimilation, as well as a realization that assumptions about the Federal scrutiny applied in the 1940s and 1950s to Soviet agents cannot be retrospectively applied to the investigations of the Red Scare period.
The Wall Street bombing anticipated the events of September 11, 2001, and some may read this book in the context of that latter tragedy. The only relevant question that might link the two would be whether such a conspiracy, based in an ethnic community not yet fully assimilated, could elude discovery today. But that too would require a separate book.