1918 May 19

Wilson Administration Severs Contact with National Civil Liberties Bureau


In a letter from Third Assistance Secretary of War Frederick Keppel to Roger Baldwin, head of the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB), Keppel stated that he and the administration of Woodrow Wilson would no longer have any contact with the NCLB. The action came as others in the administration, including primarily the Military Intelligence Section (MIS) of the War Department, were convinced that the actions of Baldwin and the NCLB were a threat to the war effort and in violation of the Espionage Act and the Selective Service Act. The MIS, in fact, was spying on the civil liberties group, had burglarized its office on March 6, 1918, and had interviewed Baldwin about the group’s support for conscientious objectors and its defense of the free speech rights of anti-war activists.

In the first months of American involvement of U.S. in World War I, Baldwin believed that he could negotiate with the administration over policies related the conscientious objectors and free speech. He completely underestimated the intolerance of the Wilson administration for dissent.

On August 30, 1918, the Justice Department raided the NCLB’s office in New York City and seized all of its records. For nearly two months it appeared that the civil libertarians associated with the NCLB would be prosecuted. For reasons that are not clear, however, they were never indicted, and the war soon ended.

On January 19, 1920, the NCLB was reorganized as the ACLU.

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

And more: Paul Murphy, World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States (1979)

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

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