1917 July 2

Civil Liberties Bureau to Defend Conscientious Objectors, Defend Free Speech


The National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB) announced on this day that it had arranged with a large number of lawyers around the country to provide free legal assistance to young men claiming status as conscientious objectors to participating in the war in Europe, and also to defend freedom of speech, press and assembly. Roger Baldwin, co-leader of the NCLB with Crystal Eastman, said they had agreements with lawyers in almost 40 cities across the country. The New York Times greeted the National Civil Liberties Bureau with an editorial on July 4, 1917, headlined “Jails Are Waiting for Them.” The AUAM had been formed on November 15, 1915 to keep the U.S. out of the European war.

The announcement on this day marked the transformation of the Civil Liberties Bureau into an independent organization to fight for civil liberties in the U.S. It began as a committee, the Civil Liberties Bureau, within the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) in April 1917, when the U.S. declared war on Germany. Because some of the leaders of the AUAM objected to the Bureau’s criticisms of the policies of the Woodrow Wilson’s administration, the Bureau separated and emerged as a separate organization.

After the war, on January 19, 1920, the National Civil Liberties Bureau was reorganized into the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with Roger Baldwin as its Director.

Learn more about the Civil Liberties Bureau: Samuel Walker, In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (1990)

Read about Evan Thomas, CO in WW I, and his brother, Norman Thomas, one of the founders of the NCLB and the ACLU: Louisa Thomas, Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family – A Test of Will and Faith in World War I (2011)

Learn more about the history of COs: Felicity Goodall, We Will Not Go to War: Conscientious Objection During the World Wars (2011)

And go to the ACLU web site: https://www.aclu.org/

Learn about the ACLU during times of national crisis: https://www.aclu.org/aclu-history-defending-liberty-times-national-crisis

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