Syndicated Columnists

America in the grip of terrorism (and the fateful year is 1886)

By the mid-1880s, anarchists began a bombing campaign that left much of Europe on edge. It quickly spread to America.
By the mid-1880s, anarchists began a bombing campaign that left much of Europe on edge. It quickly spread to America. File illustration

The bombing and attempted attacks in New York and New Jersey have further raised legitimate fears that the U.S. may be entering a dangerous era of homegrown terrorism. It’s worth remembering how the country endured similar ordeals in the past.

The most fraught period of bombings and other terrorist tactics occurred during the Gilded Age, when anarchists resorted to violence, aiming to destroy both capitalism and the state.

The movement began in Europe. Thanks to Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1864, a weapon was readily available, and the first generation of anarchists studied bomb-making with the same dedication they read esoteric tracts on political radicalism.

By the mid-1880s, anarchists began a bombing campaign that left much of Europe on edge. A New York Times article from 1883 denounced what it called the “dispensation of dynamite” that had taken hold. “Random and seemingly capricious dynamite plots are contrived in all directions,” it reported.

Most historians trace the opening shot of anarchist terrorism on American soil to May 4, 1886, when someone threw a bomb at police during a labor demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. A riot and gun battle ensued, leaving at least 11 people dead and many more wounded. A brutal crackdown on anarchists led to the conviction of eight people; four eventually went to the gallows.

In the wake of Haymarket, newspapers and politicians seized on the idea that the country could be undermined by an inside enemy consisting almost entirely of foreign-born anarchists.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, anarchists in the U.S. became far more aggressive. In 1901, Leon Czolgosz sent shock waves around the world when he assassinated President William McKinley. In 1908, The New York Times observed that on average, anarchists and others set off a bomb a month in New York.

To make matters more complicated, another, more diffuse group of radicals also adopted bombing as a tactic. The Iron Workers Union, seeking to break the power of U.S. Steel, resorted to dynamite to coerce employers to negotiate with the union. It detonated more than 100 bombs between 1906 and 1911 at industrial plants. The violence peaked in 1910, when two union organizers dynamited the offices of the pro-management Los Angeles Times, killing 21.

A growing number of radicals adopted the terrorist toolkit in succeeding years. Antiwar activists, for example, are thought to have detonated a bomb in San Francisco in 1916 that killed 10. But anarchists remained the most visible proponents of terrorism. In the late 1910s, they tried (but failed) to kill Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer with a bomb; a plot to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral also failed.

As hysteria over homegrown terrorists mounted, Palmer undertook a series of raids that ran roughshod over civil liberties. Palmer, put on the defensive, claimed that labor radicals planned to overthrow the government on May 1, 1920. His fears proved unfounded.

More to the point, the clampdown didn’t put an end to anarchist bombings. On Sept. 2, 1920, a huge bomb went off on Wall Street, killing 38. Police never caught the perpetrators.

It may have been the creation of the Soviet Union that did the most to end anarchist bombings in the 1920s. As the Communists took power, they consolidated control over international radical labor movements. Anarchism became discredited.

While outbreaks of domestic terrorism continued to take place over the course of the 20th century, these never amounted to more than singular episodes: the Weathermen in the 1960s, Timothy McVeigh in the 1990s. But now we’re facing a problem far more reminiscent of what author Beverly Gage has described as America’s “first age of terror.”

We survived that era. And with luck, we’ll survive this one, too.