Historical Perspectives

A History of Sharing
Special Attaché Boylston Beal, the “Red Scare,” and the Origins of the US-UK Intelligence Relationship, 1919–27

Mary Samantha Barton

In March 1919, Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin created the Third Communist International, or Comintern, to assist communist parties in other countries take power and accelerate the overthrow of world capitalism. In the United States, at a time when union strikes, race riots, and political violence were gripping the nation, Lenin’s call for revolution sparked further unrest and division. In late April, political terrorists mailed parcel bombs to prominent politicians, judges, and state officials. Ultranationalist groups responded by attacking May Day celebrations. State authorities passed sedition laws, banned red flags, and used anti-anarchy laws to arrest writers accused of espousing violence. Two months after the parcel bombs, militants struck again, detonating explosives almost simultaneously in eight different American cities.

In response to the attacks, the US Congress appropriated special funds to bolster the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation—the forerunner to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—and tasked it with catching the bombers. The newly-formed General Intelligence Division (GID), better known as the Radical Division, took charge. Under the direction of a young and ambitious lawyer, J. Edgar Hoover, the division focused on deporting members of foreign left-wing organizations. The Justice Department launched two dragnet raids in November and December 1919, arresting thousands of suspected subversives and deporting hundreds more. America’s first Red Scare, an intense period of antiradicalism that followed on the heels of World War I, resulted in a series of stringent immigration laws intended to protect the homeland from foreign dangers.

The 1919 Red Scare also reinvigorated an Anglo-American intelligence alliance that has endured for a century. The First World War had led to direct collaboration between British intelligence agencies and the US federal government, whereby British intelligence officers worked with members of the US Department of State’s Bureau of Secret Intelligence in the Office of the Counselor to counter German subversion and espionage.

Despite a divergence of interests between political leaders in Washington and London during the postwar years, this information-sharing relationship continued to operate, indeed flourished, among State Department officials and British police and intelligence officers in London after the war. The primary intelligence target, however, had shifted from Imperial Germany to Soviet Bolsheviks and the subversive actions of the Communist International.

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Posted: Jul 10, 2019 04:34 PM
Last Updated: Jul 10, 2019 04:37 PM