GAGE, Beverly. "The Wall Street explosion: Capitalism, terrorism, and the 1920 bombing of New York"

New York (NY, USA)Law. Symbolic attacks, explosions, assassination attemptsBibliographyGAGE, Beverly

Ph.D., Columbia University, 2004, 578 p.


Just after noon on September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart exploded at the corner of Wall and Broad streets in New York, the hub of American capitalism. The blast killed 30 people immediately, and by the end of the year a total of 39 lost their lives. In 1920, that death toll made the Wall Street explosion the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

My dissertation, The Wall Street Explosion: Capitalism, Terrorism, and the 1920 Bombing of New York , examines this infamous but little-studied event. Structurally, it is a work of narrative history, a reconstruction of the bombing based on thousands of pages of never-before-analyzed federal reports. Using the explosion as starting point, the dissertation documents the rise of terrorism and radicalism as national concerns in the wake of global upheaval inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution. Erupting at a moment when the relationship between capital and government was a subject of fierce contest, the Wall Street explosion served as a Rorschach test, a series of images and episodes onto which Americans projected a variety of ideological interpretations. Ultimately, the reaction to the explosion helped to solidify a national political identity linking capitalism and Americanism in a world suddenly faced with a socialist alternative.

The dissertation also contests the prevailing view of the postwar Red Scare as a short-lived burst of American "hysteria." The Red Scare was neither hysterical nor uniquely American. It was a logical outgrowth of Progressive-Era trends, including federalization and nativist restriction. It was also part of a conflict over the meaning and structure of capitalism which reached far beyond U.S. borders. The men and women who orchestrated both the repression and terrorism of the postwar years were self-conscious participants in this conflict.

By the mid-1920s, their actions had resulted in the establishment of anticommunism as a defining feature of American politics, laying the groundwork for the later emergence of McCarthyism and the Cold War. It also formed the foundation for many of the debates and institutions-including the FBI and the American Civil Liberties Union-which shape U.S. responses to terrorism today.