by: Professor Samuel Walker
School of Criminal Justice
University of Nebraska at Omaha
This is the first part in a series that was introduced earlier.
The fight for civil liberties during World War I originated with the Civil Liberties Bureau (CLB), formed as a committee of the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) immediately after the United States declared war on April 6, 1917. Led by Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin, the Bureau lobbied Congress and the Wilson administration regarding provisions for conscientious objectors in the Selective Service Act and provided advice to young men facing the draft. Leaders of the parent AUAM, however, soon thought these activities would alienate the administration of President Woodrow Wilson and as a result the Bureau became a separate organization, the National Civil Liberties Bureau in the fall of 1917. In 1918 Military Intelligence began investigating the NCLB for violations of the Espionage Act, and finally on August 30, 1918 the Justice Department raided the NCLB office and seized its records. (See the documents in the topic, The National Civil Liberties Bureau and the Woodrow Wilson Administration.) Prosecution appeared possible, but never occurred. In January 1920 the NCLB was reconstituted as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). (See the documents in the topic, The Founding of the ACLU.)
The AUAM pamphlet, Concerning Conscription, circa May-June 1917, presents its views regarding selective service and conscientious objection to participation in war, while Congress was debating the selective service bill. The principal issues involved the criteria for eligibility as a conscientious objector.
The AUAM handbill, circa May-June 1917, while Congress was still debating the selective service bill. It attacks the idea of a draft and argues for a completely voluntary system for military service.
These three April 1917 letters between the AUAM and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker reflect the close and cordial relations between members of the Wilson administration and the civil libertarians in the early months of the war. These individuals knew each other from their pre-war progressive reform activities. Baker, for example, had been a reform mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. The AUAM memorandum here sets forth its views on what categories of people should be eligible for conscientious objector status. The cordial relations ended in the spring of 1918 when Military Intelligence and some Justice Department officials concluded that the NCLB was violating the Espionage Act.
This May 15-17, 1917 correspondence with Frank Walsh, a Kansas City, Missouri, attorney discusses a possible legal challenge to the constitutionality of the draft. Walsh was a prominent Progressive Era reformer and advocate of the labor movement. Some antiwar and pacifist leaders regarded the draft as a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court eventually rejected this argument.
The AUAM pamphlet, Constitutional Rights in War-Time (May 1917) represents the organization’s first formal statement of the range of civil liberties issues at the outset of the war.