A hundred years ago this week the USS Buford picked up 249 very reluctant travellers from Ellis Island in New York and headed east.
The most prominent among them was Emma Goldman, a 50-year-old political activist and writer who had been born in Kovno (now Kaunas) in the Russian Empire to Lithuanian Jewish parents who emigrated to the US when she was a child.
Goldman found the anarchist magazine Mother Earth and was a persistent thorn in the side of the authorities in New York, where she fomented discontent among workers, pushed for birth control and discouraged men from being drafted in the First World War.
After the war ended anti-German hysteria in the United States was rapidly replaced by a fear of Bolshevism and other anti-capitalist revolutionaries.
A failed uprising by the left-wing Spartacists in Germany in January 1919 terrified the ruling classes and when Vladimir Lenin wrote his “Letter to American Working Men” in which he declared the “international revolution” as inevitable, Republicans and Democrats in the US closed ranks and whipped up an anti-red mania.
US President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, faced an election in 1920 and one of the leading Republican contenders, Major General Leonard Wood, rode the tide of xenophobia and told a crowd in Kansas City: “We should deport these so-called Americans who preach treason.”
So in the fall of 1919 Wilson approved the deportation of Goldman and 248 fellow “travellers” despite most of them being US citizens.
At her deportation hearing J. Edgar Hoover, later to be the head of the FBI, told the court: “Emma Goldman and (her lover) Alexander Berkman are, beyond doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and return to the community will result in undue harm."
Goldman, a US citizen, refused to answer questions about her political beliefs, pointing out the Anarchist Exclusion Act only referred to foreign nationals.
The court ruled against her and she decided not to appeal.
At the time thousands of immigrants from Europe were arriving at Ellis Island before finding a corner of the United States to call home.
“I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”— Emma Goldman Papers (@EmmaGPapers) September 19, 2019
-Emma Goldman pic.twitter.com/bd7JkXPOf1
But Goldman and the other were heading the other way.
At 4am they were roused from their beds and marched onto the ship, which was nicknamed the “Soviet Ark”.
Goldman wrote: “Deep snow lay on the ground. The air was cut by a biting wind. A row of armed civilians and soldiers stood along the road. One by one the deportees marched, flanked on each side by the uniformed men, curses and threats accompanying the thud of their feet on the frozen ground.”
The USS Buford deposited them in Finland, from where they were marched to the border with the Soviet Union in the depths of the Russian winter.
#OtD 16 Dec 1913 Emma Goldman addressed members of the @iww on anarchism despite police warnings. Audience members ended up fighting police to release her #herstory https://t.co/9ESqIIAcFi pic.twitter.com/TMseX5y9jS— Working Class History (@wrkclasshistory) December 16, 2019
Goldman and Berkman were initially hopeful about the Soviet Union but they became disillusioned by the lack of free speech and Lenin’s authoritarian instincts.
After the Kronshtadt Mutiny was brutally crushed in 1921, the pair turned their backs on the Bolsheviks and travelled to Berlin and then London.
She released her memoirs, Living My Life, which was critically acclaimed but did not sell well.
In 1934 she was allowed to return to the US to give a series of lectures and two years later she got a new lease of life when the Spanish Civil War broke out and she became one of the loudest supporters of the anarchist CNT-FAI, who fought on the Republican side against Francisco Franco’s Nationalists.
But Franco won and Goldman, her heart broken, returned to her home in Toronto, Canada, where she died in 1940, aged 70.
A decade later another Red Scare would hit the United States as Senator Joe McCarthy began a witch-hunt against suspected communists in the media and the entertainment industry.