Bombings planned in the suburbs. A city paralyzed by fear and violence. A terrorist campaign inspired by anti-American, anti-government radicals from faraway lands. April 2013 in Boston? Try 1919, all over the United States, as foreign-born anarchists made terrorism a routine part of city life and precipitated what historians call the Red Scare. That April, 36 bombs were mailed to recipients who included a number of judges and businessmen, the mayor of Seattle, and the Bureau of Investigation agent responsible for investigating anarchist activities. In June, eight bombs exploded within 90 minutes of one another in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Paterson, New Jersey. A bomb intended for Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer blew the bomber to bits and destroyed Palmer’s home, though he and his family survived.
Strong circumstantial evidence pointed to the anarchist disciples of Luigi Galleani, who had preached bombing and assassination and sought the violent overthrow of the political order since his arrival in the United States in 1901—the same year that Leon Czolgosz, a 28-year-old madman inspired by Emma Goldman’s incendiary speeches, shot and killed President William McKinley. Like the late American-born jihadi cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who inspired the Tsarnaev brothers, Galleani praised anarchist killers as martyrs for the revolution. His followers made a kill list of leaders around the world—from Austria, Italy, and Russia to Britain and the United States. Law enforcement seemed powerless to stop the killings and bombings. Despite Galleani’s deportation in 1918, his followers continued to self-radicalize by reading the material printed by his anarchist presses, much as budding Islamists learn bomb-making from the English-language magazine Inspire. Among the anarchists were Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who, despite murdering two men in a shoe-factory robbery in 1920, became a leftist cause célèbre by the time they were executed in 1927.
Fortunately, law enforcement adapted. Under a young J. Edgar Hoover, the Bureau of Investigation’s new General Intelligence Division, formed in August 1919, prevented many domestic radicals from carrying out their violent plans. But the bombings continued; the deadliest took place on Wall Street in September 1920, killing 38 people. The attacks stopped only after the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted newcomers from Central and Southern Europe—a troubling history that Congress might ponder as it takes up immigration reform amid calls to exclude or cut back on applicants from Muslim countries.
The strikes and unrest of 1919 also affected Boston, where a police strike prompted mob violence. Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge sent in the state guard to restore law and order around the city. His strong stand against the police walkout—“There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time,” he said—brought him to national prominence as a no-nonsense leader who would not tolerate lawlessness, whether from strikers or terrorists. Coolidge understood the importance of fighting terrorists’ ideas, not just their tactics. While the anarchists called for abolishing private property, Coolidge humanized capitalism by encouraging mass ownership—not through socialism but through stocks and savings accounts. These acts undercut anarchist support by showing that America was capable of progress.
By contrast, the current governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, seems confused about the motivations of terrorist attacks in Boston and throughout America. The Tsarnaev brothers attended a controversial mosque whose radical ties led the FBI and Department of Homeland Security not to partner with it in their counterterrorism efforts. Its leaders hold homophobic, anti-American, and anti-Semitic views. Patrick has embraced them anyway and included them in interfaith dialogue. He has even called 9/11 a “failure of human understanding,” instead of pointing out the obvious truth that it was motivated by Islamist terrorism. Patrick could learn something from Coolidge, who encouraged immigrants of all faiths to assimilate American values and embrace the nation’s ideals of liberty and justice. Coolidge’s example reminds us that we survived violent anarchists, just as we will survive violent jihadists—but only as long as we understand what makes America special and what motivates its opponents.