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The Overman Committee was a special subcommittee of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary chaired by North Carolinamarker Democrat Lee Slater Overman. Between September 1918 and June 1919, it investigated German and Bolshevik elements in the United States. It was an early forerunner of the better known House Un-American Activities Committee, and represented the first congressional committee investigation into communism.

The Committee was originally tasked with investigating pro-German sentiments in the American liquor industry. After World War I ended in November 1918 and the German threat lessened, it turned its attention to communist Bolshevism. Bolshevism had appeared as a threat during the First Red Scare after the Russian Revolution in 1917 saw the Bolsheviks take power in Russia. The Committee's hearings into Bolshevik propaganda, conducted from February 11 to March 10, 1919, helped foster an image of communism as a threat to America.

The Committee's final report was released in June 1919. It reported on German propaganda, Bolshevism, and other "un-American activities" in the United States and on likely effects of communism's implementation in the United States. It described German, but not communist, propaganda efforts. The Committee's report and hearings were instrumental in fostering anti-Bolshevik opinion.


A political cartoon from the First Red Scare, warning of the danger of foreigners

World War I, in which the United States and its allies fought the German Empiremarker, raised concern about the German threat to the United States. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were passed in response.

In the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the Russian monarchy and instituted Marxism-Leninism. Many Americans were worried about the revolution's ideas infiltrating the United States, a phenomenon later named the First Red Scare.

The Overman Committee was formally an ad-hoc subcommittee of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, but had no formal name. It was chaired by Senator Lee Slater Overman and also included Senators Knute Nelson of Minnesota, Thomas Sterling of South Dakota, William H. King of Utah, and Josiah O. Wolcott of Delaware.

Initial investigation

Alexander Mitchell Palmer
The Committee was authorized by Senate Resolution 307 to investigate charges against the United States Brewers Association (USBA) and allied interests. The Committee interpreted this mission to mean a general probe into German propaganda and pro-German activities in the United States. Hearings were mandated after future Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer testified in September 1918 that the USBA and the rest of the overwhelmingly German liquor industry harbored pro-German sentiments. He stated that "German brewers of America, in association with the United States Brewers' Association" had attempted "to buy a great newspaper" and "control the government of State and Nation", had generally been "unpatriotic", and had "pro-German sympathies".

Hearings began September 27, 1918, shortly before the end of World War I. Nearly four dozen witnesses testified. Many were agents of the Bureau of Investigations (BOI), the predecessor of the Federal Bureau of Investigationmarker (FBI). The agents, controversially and usually erroneously, implicated high-profile American citizens as pro-German, using the fallacy of guilt by association. For example, the Bureau chief labeled some people pro-German because they had insubstantial and non-ideological acquaintance with German agents. Others were accused because their names were discovered in the notebooks of suspected German agents, of whom they had never heard.

Many attacked the BOI's actions. The Committee heard testimony that it had not conducted basic background checks of the accused and had not read source material it presented to the Committee, and Committee members criticized its testimony as "purely hearsay".

Expansion of investigation

On February 4, 1919, the Senate unanimously passed Senator Thomas J. Walsh's Senate Resolution 439, expanding the Committee's investigations to include "any efforts being made to propagate in this country the principles of any party exercising or claiming to exercise any authority in Russia" and "any effort to incite the overthrow of the Government of this country". This decision followed months of sensational daily press coverage of revolutionary events abroad and Bolshevik meetings and events in the United States, which increased anti-radical public opinion. Reports that some of these meetings were attended by Congressmen caused further outrage. One meeting in particular, held at the Poli Theater in Washington, DCmarker, was widely controversial because of a radical speech given by Albert Rhys Williams, a popular Congregationalist minister, who allegedly said "America sooner or later is going to accept the Soviet Government." Additionally, during the previous month Nebraskamarker, by becoming the 36th state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, established the Constitutionally necessary level of support for it to come into effect, beginning the era of Prohibition in the United States. Prohibition outlawed the brewing industry, removing the original target of the Committee's investigation.

Archibald E. Stevenson testified in late January 1919, warning of a link between post-war turmoil and revolutionary radicalism. Like many of the Committee's other witnesses, Stevenson had been an agent of the BOI. He later served as the director of the Bureau of Propaganda for the Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army. Sometimes called "the only man in the country" whom the radicals really feared, he has been described by historian Regin Schmidt as a "driving force" behind the growth of anti-Bolshevism in the United States. Stevenson claimed that Bolshevism was "the result of German propaganda" and that "German socialism ... is the father of the Bolsheviki movement in Russia, and consequently the radical movement which we have in this country today has its origin in Germany."

The final catalyst for the expansion of the investigation was the Seattle General Strike, which began the day before the Senate passed Resolution 439. This confluence of events led members of Congress to believe that the alleged German-Bolshevist link and Bolshevist threat to the United States were real.

Bolshevism hearings

The Overman Committee's hearings on Bolshevism lasted from February 11 to March 10, 1919. More than two dozen witnesses were interviewed. About two-thirds were violently anti-Bolshevik and advocated for military intervention in Russia. Some were refugees of the Russian Diaspora—many former government workers—who left Russia because of Bolshevism. The overriding theme was the chaos the Revolution had brought, but three sub-themes were also frequent: anti-Americanism among American intelligentsia, the relationship between Jews and Communist Russia, and the "nationalization" of women after the Soviet revolution.

Stevenson produced a list of 200—later reduced to 62—alleged communist professors in the United States. Like lists of names provided during the German propaganda hearings, this list provoked an outcry. Stevenson declared universities to be breeding grounds of sedition, and that institutions of higher learning were "festering masses of pure atheism" and "the grossest kind of materialism". Ambassador to Russia David R. Francis stated that the Bolsheviks were killing everybody "who wears a white collar or who is educated and who is not a Bolshevik".

Another recurring theme at the hearings was the relationship between Jews and communists in Russia. One Methodist preacher stated that nineteen out of twenty communists were Jews; others said the Red Army was composed mainly of former East-Side New York Jews. However, after criticism from Jewish organizations, Senator Overman clarified that the Committee was discussing "apostate" Jews only, defined by witness George Simons as "one who has given up the faith of his fathers or forefathers."

A third frequent theme was the "free love" and "nationalization" of women allegedly occurring in Soviet Russia. Witnesses described a vast orgy in which there was no "respect for virtuous women"; others who testified, including those who had been in Russia during the Revolution, denied this. After one witness read a Soviet decree saying that Russian women had the "right to choose from among men", Senator Sterling threw up his hands and declared that this was a negation of "free love". However, another decree was produced stating that "A girl having reached her eighteenth year is to be announced as the property of the state." Stevenson maintained that Bolsheviks had "as many wives as they want", "in rotation".

Final report

The Committee's final report detailed its investigations into German propaganda, Bolshevism, and other "un-American activities" in the United States and predicted effects of communism's implementation in the United States. It was endorsed unanimously. Released in June 1919, it was over 35,000 words long, and was compiled by Major Edwin Lowry Humes.

The Committee did little to demonstrate the extent of communist activity in the United States. Its report did though analyze what might happen if capitalism was overthrown and replaced by communism, warning of widespread misery and hunger, the confiscation of and nationalization of all property, and the beginning of "a program of terror, fear, extermination, and destruction". Anti-Bolshevik public sentiment surged.

German investigation

Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, Karl Boy-Ed, Franz von Papen, Dr. Heinrich Albert, and Franz von Rintelen, among others, were Germans investigated for producing propaganda. All were previously evicted from the United States for being part of a German espionage ring. The United States Brewers Association, the National German-American Alliance, and the Hamburg-American steamship line were organizations investigated. The final report found that these organizations, through financial support, bribes, boycotts, and coercion, sought to control the press, elections, and public opinion.

Bolshevism investigation

The report described the Communist system in Russia as "a reign of terror unparalleled in the history of modern civilization". It concluded that instituting Marxism-Leninism in the United States would result in "the destruction of life and property", the deprivation "of the right to participate in affairs of government", and the "further suppress[ion]" of a "substantial rural portion of the population." Furthermore, there would be an "opening of the doors of all prisons and penitentiaries". It would result in the "seizure and confiscation of the 22,896 newspapers and periodicals in the United States" and "complete control of all banking institutions and their assets". "One of the most appalling and far reaching consequences ... would be found in the confiscation and liquidation of ... life insurance companies." The report also criticized "the atheism that permeates the whole Russian dictatorship"; "they have denounced our religion and our God as 'lies'."

However, the report contained little evidence of communist propaganda in the United States or its effect on American labor.


The report's main recommendations included deporting alien radicals and enacting peacetime sedition laws. Other recommendations included strict regulation of the manufacture, distribution, and possession of high explosives, control and regulation of foreign language publications, and the creation of patriotic propaganda.


The National Association of Manufacturers criticized the Committee's objective as "manufactur[ing] Democratic campaign thunder". Others denounced the Committee as a "propaganda apparatus" to stoke anti-German and anti-Soviet fears, feeding the Red Scare and spreading misinformation about Soviet Russia.

The Committee attracted criticism from the public for its perceived overreach, and especially for publishing the names of those accused of association with communist organizations. One woman from Kentucky wrote to Senator Overman on behalf of her sister, who had been accused by Archibald Stevenson, criticizing the Committee for its "brutal as well as stupid misuse of power" and "gross and cruel injustice to men and women the full peer in intellect, character and patriotism of any member of the United States Senate". The Committee was compared to "a witch hunt" in one exchange with a witness.


Lee Slater Overman, chairman of the Committee
The Overman Committee did not achieve any lasting reforms. However, the panel's sensationalism played a decisive role in increasing America's fears during the First Red Scare. Its investigations served as a blueprint for the Department of Justicemarker's anti-radical Palmer raid campaign the next year, led by Attorney General Palmer whose testimony was the catalyst for the Committee's creation.

The press reveled in the investigation and the final report. Editors often referred to the Russians as "assassins and madmen", "human scum", "crime mad", and "beasts". On the release of the final report, newspapers printed sensational articles with gigantic headlines in all capital letters: "Red Peril Here", "Plan Bloody Revolution", and "Want Washington Government Overturned".

On May 1, 1919, a month after the Committee's hearings ended, a bomb was mailed to Overman, one of a series of letter bombs sent to prominent Americans in the 1919 United States anarchist bombings. It was intercepted before it reached its target.

Successive committees

The Overman Committee was the first of many Congressional committees to investigate communism. The Lusk Committee, which operated from June 1919 to January 1920, was established by the New York State Legislature in the aftermath of the Overman Committee's report. Archibald E. Stevenson was its chief counsel and one of its witnesses. Unlike the Overman Committee, the Lusk Committee was active in raiding suspect organizations. The Overman Committee was an early forerunner of the better known House Un-American Activities Committee, which was authorized 20 years later.


  1. Senate Judiciary Committee Photo Gallery. United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Retrieved June 30, 2009.
  2. United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, p. 2
  3. "Overman Report Accuses Brewers". The New York Times.
  4. Congress, Brewing and Liquor Interests, volume 1, p. 3
  5. Hagedorn, p. 53
  6. Mittelman, p. 83
  7. Congress, Brewing and Liquor Interests, volume 1, pp. 3–4
  8. Congress, Brewing and Liquor Interests, volume 1, p. 1387 and volume 2, p. 1385
  9. Lowenthal, p. 37
  10. Lowenthal, p. 40
  11. Lowenthal, p. 39
  12. Lowenthal, p. 38
  13. Congress, Brewing and Liquor Interests, volume 2, p. 2453
  14. Murray, p. 96
  15. Schmidt, p. 140
  16. United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, p. 6
  17. Clark, p. 16
  18. "Senate Orders Reds Here Investigated". The New York Times.
  19. Schmidt, p. 136
  20. Murray, p. 46
  21. Murray, p. 94
  22. Mittelman, p. 82
  23. Pfannestiel, p. 13
  24. Murray, p. 98
  25. Schmidt, p. 138
  26. Powers, p. 20
  27. Lowenthal, p. 49
  28. Hagedorn, p. 55
  29. Clark, p. 15
  30. Hagedorn, p. 147
  31. Hagedorn, p. 129
  32. McFadden, p. 296
  33. Hagedorn, p. 55
  34. Lowenthal, p. 60
  35. Murray, p. 97
  36. Powers, p. 47
  37. Hagedorn, p. 148
  38. United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, p. 381
  39. United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, p. 116
  40. Nielsen, p. 30
  41. Lowenthal, p. 51
  42. Lowenthal, p. 52
  43. United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, p. 354
  44. United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, p. 475
  45. "Senators Tell What Bolshevism in America Means". The New York Times.
  46. "Drastic Red Bill Ready for Senate". The New York Times.
  47. Murray, p. 95
  48. Schmidt, p. 144
  49. Schmidt, pp. 145–146
  50. Schmidt, p. 145
  51. McCormick, p. 92
  52. "Senators Denounce Lawlessness". Casa Grande Valley Dispatch.
  53. National Association of Manufacturers, p. 12
  54. Sproule, pp. 122–123
  55. United States Congress, Bolshevik Propaganda, p. 893
  56. Pfannestiel, p. 132
  57. "Find More Bombs Sent in the Mails; One to Overman". The New York Times.
  58. Pfannestiel, p. xi
  59. Nielsen, p. 15
  60. Hagedorn, p. 231
  61. Schmidt, p. 139


Primary sources

  • United States Senate, Committee on the Judiciary. Brewing and Liquor Interests and German Propaganda: Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, Second and Third Sessions, Pursuant to S. Res. 307. volume 1, volume 2. Govt. print. off., 1919. Original from the University of Michigan.

Secondary sources

External links

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