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'The Bombing of Wall Street' is the Story of an Unsolved Attack and Its Aftermath
February 13, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Eight decades before September 11, another terrorist struck an unnervingly similar blow at what was considered another symbol of America’s evil economic tyranny: Wall Street.

The only mitigating factor about the bomb that detonated outside the Morgan Bank on Sept. 16, 1920, is that the technology for mass killing was less advanced. It was delivered in a horse-drawn carriage and thus was only lethal to the 38 people who had the tragic misfortune of being nearby when it detonated.

Nonetheless, it was as direct an act of terrorism as America could imagine, and The Bombing of Wall Street, a PBS American Experience documentary, dusts it off Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

The bombing itself was never solved. There were suspects, but never any charges, and after the FBI made one final futile pass in 1944, it was consigned to the history books.

As cold cases go, however, this one reveals much about the tone and course of American thought. It would also hold considerable consequences for America’s future course.

Before, during, and in the immediate aftermath of World War I, America was deeply worried about threats to its basic tenets, like democracy and capitalism. The world felt restless, a sense heightened when Bolsheviks overthrew the Czar of Russia.

While America’s domestic radicals and anarchists never seized any actual power, they made people nervous. When someone mailed bombs to government officials and prominent business leaders, fear spiked.

The Bombing of Wall Street uses that rising fear as its launching point, which immediately brings it to A. Mitchell Palmer.

The ambitious Palmer was attorney general under President Woodrow Wilson and he initially positioned himself as a defender of civil liberties. America must permit free speech, he believed, even that which was widely viewed as aggressive and inflammatory.  

In 1919, however, after a bomb went off on his doorstep (right), Palmer reversed course. He created the Radical Division at the Justice Department and began collecting information on tens of thousands of what he considered potential subversives.

In November 1919 he authorized the so-called Palmer Raids, in which 249 Russian immigrants were rounded up and summarily deported.

Positioning himself as the tough guy did not produce the result Palmer wanted, which was the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination.

It did, however, produce a result with arguably greater long-term consequences. The head of the Radical Division, a young J. Edgar Hoover, took the surveillance notion to heart and would later institutionalize it as head of the FBI.

If Palmer went after radicals partly as a political strategy, Hoover genuinely believed America needed to be protected from subversives, particularly communists, without regard for niceties like civil liberties.

In any case, whoever left that horse carriage on Wall Street did not advance his cause. Far from sparking any sort of uprising against heartless capitalism, the bombing led to a swift decline in any appeal radicalism might have held for the American masses.

Part of the reason, it’s probably safe to say, is that like most other terrorists, this bomber didn’t end up killing any real enemies.

The bomb was timed to detonate as workers were coming out into the streets for their lunch hour. But bank president J.P. Morgan Jr. wasn’t nipping out for a burger at the corner bistro. The people who died were mostly secretaries, clerks and others who had far more in common with the proletariat than with capitalist oppressors.

What was intended as a blow against the empire, then, quickly crystallized into a rather more pedestrian act of mass murder.

To the extent the Wall Street bombing is remembered at all today, that’s pretty much how. But the larger story is instructive enough that this American Experience is well worth the resurrection.

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