The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) began its existence in November 1915, when a group of social workers, reform advocates, and academics organized a group called the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) in response to the slide of the United States towards the European war.

In April of 1917, the National Committee of the AUAM was joined by a young sociologist from Massachusetts named Roger Baldwin. Baldwin organized a civil liberties bureau of the organization to defend the rights of socialists, pacifists, and other wartime dissidents who were coming under legal fire from the increasingly reactionary and authoritarian administration of Woodrow Wilson, fronted by his Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer.

The National Civil LIberties Bureau became a separate organization from the AUAM on October 1, 1917.

On January 20, 1920, the National Civil Liberties Bureau changed its name to the American Civil Liberties Bureau, the change intended to signal an expanded mission beyond the support of conscientious and political objectors to American military intervention in Europe.


[fn. Edward R. Kantowicz, "American Civil Liberties Union" in Historical Dictionary of the Progressive Era, 1890-1920. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988), pp. 13-14.]



“Report of Treatment of Conscientious Objectors at the Camp Funston [Kansas] Guard House,” by David Eichel, et al. [events of Sept. 5 to Oct. 21, 1918] There are some in the Washington political elite who claim that the abuses and crimes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were “aberations” by “rogue” members of the military. This ahistorical perspective is belied by this first-hand collective diary of the systematic tortures and abuses suffered by 16 conscientious objectors held in a military stockade in Kansas during the waning days of the “war to make the world safe for democracy.” The litany of inhumanity and violence is straight out of Sollzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago: verbal abuse, beatings, incitement of guards and favored prisoners to violence against the political detainees, threats, dietary manipulation, enforced physical exertion to the point of exhaustion, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, ritual humiliation of nude prisoners... The only features seeming to have been missing the ironically named Camp Funston from a thoroughly 21st Century approach to American political torture would be the use of sensory deprivation, psychoactive drugs, and amplified music. Camp Funston does get bonus points for what seems to have been attempted mass murder by pneumonia (given the state of medical knowledge of the day)— the enforced administration of repeated cold water showers followed by enforced outdoor exertion. As in Solzhenitsyn, the hapless prisoners employed their only available means to end the most onerous of these abuses— an organized hunger strike. This material was published in pamphlet form by the National Civil Liberties Bureau, forerunner of the American Civil Liberties Union. It remains timely and would make an excellent assigned reading for undergraduate students of 20th Century American history.




"Seeing Red: Civil Liberty and the Law in the Period Following the War," by Walter Nelles [August 1920] Full text of a pamphlet published in the summer of 1920 by the Counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union chronicling the gross abuses of American civil rights that were being practiced by the Wilson regime and the governments of the various states. To Nelles, civil liberty means "every one may think for himself upon every public question; that he may say what he thinks; and that he may do his utmost, and get his friends to do theirs, to bring what he thinks home to the minds and hearts of others." There were 877 convictions under the so-called Espionage Act, Nelles notes, adding that in not one case had it been proved that the military recruiting service had suffered any measurable damage whatsoever, the nominal object of the law. "In general the evidence of so-called guilt consisted, and consisted solely, in proof that the person indicted had said, in good faith, something that he honestly believed." Nelles sees close parallel in post-war America to the various Anti-Anarchy, Anti-Criminal Syndicalism, and Red Flag laws -- in which convictions are obtained not on the basis of overt acts, but rather on the basis of wild speculation and popular prejudice. Under the current environment, mails were opened or withheld, publications distributed subject to political tests, the right of unions to organize and picket curtailed, a blind eye turned to "patriotic" mob violence, unaccountable secret police apparati and agents provocateur were being established, arbitrary courts were running roughshod over political expression, and the right of citizens to democratically elect representatives to government of their own choosing was being curtailed. "The world is rising upon one of the periodic waves which carry it onward towards civilized adjustment for human welfare. The propulsive force is the awakened working class. That class is organizing its power. It is formulating its purposes. It matters greatly to civilization that its purposes should be intelligent and its power sanely guided -- that aspiration rather than resentment should be its motive -- that its struggle should be towards a goal rather than against an enemy," Nelles declares.



Raids, Deportations, and Palmerism, by Swinburne Hale [written circa October 1921] This article provides a useful short summary of the abuses of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer during 1920. Hale, a civil libertarian lawyer from New York City, dates the repression from an August 12, 1919, directive of the head of the Department of Justice's Bureau of Investigation to its field agents to begin vigorously investigating "anarchistic and similar classes, Bolshevism and kindred agitations." Then in November 1919 came the first systematic wave of persecution, targeting the Federation of Unions of Russian Workers of the United States and Canada. On December 27, 1919, came the order for the mass dragnet of January 2/3, 1920, targeting the Communist and Communist Labor Parties and the IWW, among other radical groups. Hale indicates that approximately 10,000 persons were arrested in this campaign. On January 24, 1920, Sec. of Labor Wilson declared membership in the Communist Party of America to be a deportable offense. The tide had begun to turn, however, on Jan. 22 and 23, when hearings concerning a peacetime sedition act proposed by Right Wingers in Congress met with organized liberal and labor opposition, which stopped it. Another landmark came on April 10, 1920, when Assistant Sec. of Labor Post handed down an important decision that raised the bar for the prosecution in deportation hearings and began releasing prisoners held from the Palmer raids for whom there was no sufficient evidence of guilt. The Right Wing in Congress responded by beginning impeachment hearings of Assistant Sec. Post. Another major turning point came on May 5, 1920, when it was held that mere membership in the Communist Labor Party was insufficient grounds for deportation. " It is a matter of opinion that the distinction between the two parties rested on pretty thin reasoning, and that the principal difference between them lay in the fact that the Communist Party case was argued at the height of the "Red" hysteria in January [1920] and the Communist Labor Party case 3 months later," Hale notes. Then on May 28, 1920 came the "Twelve Lawyers' Report" published as a pamphlet by the National Popular Government League, which further turned the tide against the illegality and "white terror" of the Palmerites and their allies. Congress adjourned on June 5, 1920, without taking action on the Post impeachment and Mitchell Palmer was defeated in his bid to win the Democratic Presidential nomination that summer, Hale noted, effectively terminating the Red Scare of 1919-20.

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