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.]






"Roger Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union: Excerpt of a Report by a Former Special Agent of the Bureau of Investigation, US Dept. of Justice." by Edgar B. Speer [May 3, 1920] Section of a report by a former Bureau of Investigation agent which was circulated internally by the Department of Justice. Roger Nash Baldwin is characterized as a skilled organizer of "strong pacifist tendencies" who was a particularly dangerous radical. Baldwin had taken over the work organizing a protest in Washington, DC by the American Union Against Militarism early in 1917. This organization had changed its name to the National Civil Liberties Bureau and sponsored the establishment of a New York office which provided legal advice to conscientious objectors to militarism called the Bureau of Legal Advice -- figuring prominently in which was Joseph Hillquit, the brother of Socialist Party leader Morris Hillquit. Baldwin had also associated closely with such prominent radicals as Max and Crystal Eastman of The Masses and The Liberator. The report notes that Baldwin was a proud member of both the Waiters' Union and the IWW and that he had been "largely instrumental in the formation of the Workers' Defense Union, of which Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is the head with her common law husband, Carl Tresca, both of IWW fame." Baldwin had gone to Pennsylvania dressed as a workman to assist William Z. Foster as a "confidential informant," writing a widely-reprinted article on factory conditions, and had also gone to the Midwestern coal fields during the recent coal strike, the report indicates. Fuller also ominously notes that Baldwin "has shown great interest in the Negro situation. He was very active in St. Louis at the time of the East St. Louis riots which resulted in the death of so many Negroes." This race-mixing and rabble-rousing seems to have run in the family, Speer implies, noting that "his aunt Elizabeth Walton of New York is one of the leaders in that city among the white people who encourage the social development of the Negro." Speer additionally notes that "While in the Newark County Jail, Negro agitators frequently called on Baldwin. He has been friendly with A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, editors of the Negro Messenger, which has urged its Negro readers to join the IWW." Speer regards Baldwin as perhaps the most dangerous radical in New York, declaring that "The weakness of the radical movement up to this time has been their lack of competent leadership. The radicals are human and have human weaknesses and selfishness. This keeps them frequently from getting together but at the same time they are opportunists of the highest order. Any movement offering more than fair prospects of success would cause them to quickly drop their minor differences. In such an event, Baldwin is easily head and shoulders over any other radical in New York City in ability to handle a large situation in a large way."



"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.



"Roger Baldwin Raps Haywood's 'Desertion.'" [Milwaukee Leader] [April 29, 1921] Roger Baldwin, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, issued a sharp critique of Bill Haywood's decision to jump bail and flee to Soviet Russia rather than return to Leavenworth Penitentiary in the Spring of 1921, following loss of his appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. Baldwin criticizes the "ordinary Communist propaganda, intended to justify Haywood's desertion of the IWW defense organization and of his bondsmen, by stressing his new allegiance to the Communist Party, whose members are under a discipline which admits no personal judgment or other loyalties." Baldwin continues that "We do not question Haywood's motives. We do question the spirit and methods of a movement which has so little concern with loyalty to the elementary obligations of good faith to one's fellows."



"Gale to Squeal Way to Liberty, Inquiry Shows: Renegade Radical to Give State's Evidence to Escape Penalty for Evading the Draft." [Sept. 17, 1921] This article from the New York Call notes the transformation of draft resister and radical publisher Linn Gale from "a rabid Communist to a prisoner willing to incriminate other radicals, betraying their confidences." In view of Gale's decision to collaborate with Federal authorities after his deportation from Mexico, the American Civil Liberties Union had declined to come to the aid of Gale's legal defense. An Aug. 26 letter of ACLU head Roger Baldwin is cited: "The Civil Liberties Union has no interest whatever in the case of Linn A.E. Gale. He is not and never was a 'conscientious objector.' His activities as a radical in Mexico are open to grave charges of unscrupulous conduct, to put it mildly. His attitude since his arrest and the character of his efforts to secure support for his defense make it clear that he is unworthy of the confidence of those interested in civil liberty. We advise our friends not to contribute to his defense fund." In response to a communication from Baldwin, Gale's lawyer issued a statement declaring "my client has authorized me to make public the information that he has renounced his former political beliefs and convictions, that he has completely severed his connections with the radical movement, and consequently would not be justified in receiving any further aid or support from them. My client, Linn Gale, desires to state that he is absolutely sincere in the repudiation of his former radical opinions, as expressed through Gale's Magazine, and that at no time in the future will he engage in radical activities."



"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.