Senator Lee Overman and the Red Scare of 1919

Three of the Overman Committee’s five members. North Carolina Senator Lee Overman is seated in the center. Image from the U.S. Senate Historical Office.

On February 11, 1919, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee opened hearings on the influence of Bolshevism in America. Chaired by North Carolina senator Lee Overman, originally from Salisbury, the hearings are regarded as a forerunner of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s.

Overman’s committee was formed in 1918, as World War I drew to a close, to investigate the influence of German propaganda. Many Americans were uneasy about the repercussions of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, so in February 1919, a resolution to expand the focus of Overman’s committee was passed unanimously by the Senate.

Hearings began shortly thereafter and lasted until March 19. Much of the committee’s questioning involved the upheavals caused by the revolution and subsequent civil war, and the potential threat of the revolution to American capitalism.

Anti-Semitic paranoia surfaced regarding the purported prevalence of Jews in the Bolshevik ranks. Accusations also circulated of pro-Bolshevism among American university professors and of promiscuity among Bolshevik women.

The committee’s final report was released in June 1919.While it provided little concrete evidence of Bolshevik activities in America, it coincided with and inflamed the emerging “Red Scare” panic that swept the nation.

The report is available online from Google Books in a first and second volume.

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts, nature and culture, visit DNCR online. To receive these updates automatically each day, make sure you subscribe by email using the box on the right, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.