We’ll be marking a couple of centennials this year, but one of them is looking back at how Nevada reacted in 1919 to things that happened in 1917 and 1918. You heard that right.
In 1917 and 1918, World War I prompted a crackdown on anti-war and socialist speakers and writers. The Espionage Act was designed to stop both interference with the military and support of enemies during wartime. This law included amendments that became known as the Sedition Act. These actions ultimately helped prompt a group of people to start the American Civil Liberties Union.
Something else happened during the war that threw the U.S. for a loop. In 1917, Bolsheviks took over Russia. A long civil war followed. Americans were afraid of the spread of communism. The result in the U.S. was the Great Red Scare. Nationally, it included some bombings, including one of the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. That helped inspire the so-called Palmer Raids. The federal government deported about 4,000 suspected communists and anarchists under the direction of Palmer’s aide, a young Justice Department lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover.
Nevada wasn’t exactly in danger of being overrun by the Soviet Union. But the state’s residents were concerned. Governor Emmet Boyle worried that the Industrial Workers of the World would make a comeback. Before World War I, they had tried to unionize miners in Tonopah, Goldfield, and the White Pine copper camps. The IWW was a radical union, so he feared its leaders would be inspired by the growth of socialism and communism in Europe. Also, after the war, demand fell for ore and crops, hurting Nevada’s mining and ranching industries. And with the boys marching home from the war, there were more than enough workers to make it hard to get a pay raise.
The IWW tried. It led a walkout in Tonopah. It lasted for a couple of months until mine owners, led by the powerful George Wingfield, got workers to form a new union and accept an agreement. The IWW was NOT involved in strikes in the copper company towns of Ruth and McGill, but some of the workers had been part of the IWW when it sought to organize there a few years before.
After the Ruth strike, Boyle and the legislature swung into action. They passed the Criminal Syndicalism Act. You could get ten years in prison and/or a five-thousand-dollar fine for supporting any “doctrine which advocates or teaches crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.” So, when the IWW kept striking after the agreement was reached in Tonopah, Boyle got an injunction under the new law to help break the strike.
There would be another red scare or two, and plenty of other strikes, in Las Vegas and elsewhere. Nevada wasn’t the only state to pass a criminal syndicalism law. It’s still on the books, too, but with less prison time if you’re convicted. Boyle went on to leave the governor’s office at the end of his second term and became a newspaper publisher. The mining industry didn’t exactly make a big comeback for a while. And the Espionage Act didn’t go away: it was used in connection with Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden, nearly a century after its passage, and nearly a century after the Great Red Scare.