Roger Nash Baldwin, the National Civil Liberties Bureau, and Military Intelligence during World War I

By Cottrell, Robert C. | The Historian, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Roger Nash Baldwin, the National Civil Liberties Bureau, and Military Intelligence during World War I


Cottrell, Robert C., The Historian


During the course of the twentieth century Roger Baldwin's name has become inextricably linked with American civil liberties. For nearly 30 years, beginning with its founding in 1920, Baldwin (1884-1981) directed the American Civil Liberties Union and has remained its spiritual mentor. During the period he spear-headed the ACLU, Baldwin helped to bring civil liberties to the forefront of American politics and law. Along the way, he was a key player in a host of other progressive organizations including the International Committee for Political Prisoners and the American League for Peace and Democracy. As a consequence of his involvement with both united front and popular front groups, Baldwin became something of an icon to many and an enormously controversial figure to others.

Baldwin first became active in civil liberties during World War 1. well-educated, from an upper-class, socially prominent family, Baldwin called upon connections of class and privilege in an attempt to influence high-level government officials regarding civil liberties issues. Instead, he was viewed with increasing suspicion by the Wilson Administration. Baldwin's rejection by members of Wilson's cabinet, coupled with systematic and intense investigation by Military Intelligence, eventually eroded Baldwin's early Progressive optimism and led to an increasingly radical perspective that culminated in the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union.

By 1917, as the possibility of American entrance into the war in Europe loomed, the Progressive mindset of the prewar period had given way to an emerging national security state that curtailed the rights of Wobblies, socialists, conscientious objectors, and other radicals and pacifists. President Woodrow Wilson was disinclined to brook any antiwar opposition, and security agencies mushroomed throughout the period of U.S. involvement in World War 1, particularly in the Justice, Post Office, Treasury, and War departments. Whereas there were but two Military Intelligence officers at the beginning of 1917, by the dose of the following year some 1300 agents and civilians were employed.(1)

Military Intelligence (MI) was among the government agencies most determined to root out any purported "subversive" ideas and activities, and viewed almost any opposition to U.S. involvement in the war as suspect. Antiwar sentiment was potent enough that Wilson had run for reelection in 1916 on the slogan, "He kept us out of war"; now, however, government operatives and private forces alike sought to quash pacifist activity. Those same entities likewise strove to crush the American left, whose leading proponents, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Socialist Party, had adopted antiwar stances. Means of suppression included Americanization drives, patriotic coercion, repressive legislation, criminal syndicalism measures, censorship, the refusal to seat duly elected Socialist Party legislators, and vigilantism. In the midst of such tumult, few decried such developments; nevertheless, a civil liberties movement began to germinate.

The most important figure in the emerging civil liberties crusade was Roger Nash Baldwin. Baldwin was born on 21 January 1884 in the Boston suburb of Wellesley Hills into the comfort and affluence of an old-stock New England family. By the antebellum period, the Baldwins exuded the kind of social conscience not unusual for leading families in the American northeast. Prominent relatives were involved with the founding of the Boston Young Men's Christian Union, a predecessor to the YMCA; the National Child Labor Committee; and the Committee of Fourteen, which spearheaded a campaign against prostitution in New York City. Roger enrolled in Harvard College in 1901 and soon became aware of the great Progressive movement unfolding across the land, thanks in part to the ascendancy to the White House of Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard alumnus. Following graduation, Baldwin accepted a position in St. …

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Roger Nash Baldwin, the National Civil Liberties Bureau, and Military Intelligence during World War I
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