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The Birth of the Civil Liberties Bureau and The National Civil Liberties Bureau,1917-1919

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.






The article by Norman Thomas, “War’s Heretics,” The World Tomorrow (August 1917) was an early and important statement of the role of freedom of speech in a democracy. Thomas is best known as a long-time leader of the Socialist Party of America and six-time candidate for president of the United States. He was an important leader of the Civil Liberties Bureau and later of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The central argument in “War’s Heretics” represents in layperson’s terms the views embodied in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s important dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States (1919).



This June 1917 handbill by the AUAM, parent of the Civil Liberties Bureau, advises young men who believe they are conscientious objectors on how to use the Selective Service Act which required young men to register for the draft on June 5, 1917.




In this correspondence between Walter Nelles and Roger Baldwin, July 1917, Nelles offers his services as a lawyer to the Civil Liberties Bureau. Nelles became the chief attorney for the Bureau during the war and then for the ACLU beginning in 1920.




This October 6, 1917 letter from Roger Baldwin informs Edmund C. Evans, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, of the creation of the National Civil Liberties Bureau as an independent organization. Evans and his brother Harold Evans were important founders of both the NCLB and later the ACLU. In 1943 the ACLU recruited Harold Evans to argue Hirabayashi v. United States before the U.S. Supreme Court, the first challenge to the evacuation of the Japanese Americans in World War II.


This October 12, 1917 letter from Lillian Wald to Roger Baldwin explains why she had resigned from the American Union Against Militarism, of which she had been co-Chairperson. In fact, Wald resigned because she believed the work of Baldwin and Crystal Eastman with the Civil Liberties Bureau risked alienating the Wilson administration with which she wanted to maintain cordial relations. The split between the Civil Liberties Bureau and the leaders of the AUAM marked the birth of the NCLB as an independent organization.




This handbill announces the formation of the National Civil Liberties Bureau as an independent organization, separate from the American Union Against Militarism. The statement describes the work of the NCLB.



This November 1917 NCLB pamphlet describes the initial program of the organization.




This NCLB pamphlet, The ‘Knights of Liberty’ Mob and the I. W. W. Prisoners at Tulsa, Oklahoma, describes a mob attack on the Industrial Workers of the World. A radical labor union in the pre-war years, the IWW was a primary target for both the government and private vigilantes during the war. The attacks were typical of numerous other such incidents against anti-war activists, pacifists, or suspected “slackers” (young men believed to be avoiding military service) during the war. A list of such incident is contained in the NCLB report (Document # 22), Wartime Violations and Mob Violence.



This January 1918 NCLB handbill announces a mass meeting in New York City to protest the mob attack on Rev. Herbert S. Bigelow in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Bigelow incident was one of the most highly publicized of the many attacks on anti-war activists during World War I. A list of such attacks is found in the report Wartime Violations and Mob Violence (Document # 22).




This NCLB handbill, circa. 1918, lists its publications, which represented a major part of its public education efforts.





In these letters of April 29 and May 1, 1918 Roger Baldwin invites John Nevin Sayre to join the Directing Committee of the NCLB, and Sayre accepts. Sayre’s brother, Francis B. Sayre, was the son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson. As a result, the NCLB had a direct channel to the White House during the war, although it apparently used this connection only rarely.




This letter from Edmund C. Evans, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 5, 1918, congratulates Roger Baldwin on having obtained a policy change by the Wilson administration regarding the treatment of conscientious objectors. On the one hand it reflects the ability of the NCLB on some occasions to successfully lobby the Wilson administration on important policies. On the other hand, however, Frederick Keppel, Third Assistant Secretary of War, had recently severed his ties with the Civil Liberties Bureau because Military Intelligence and the Justice Department suspected it of violating the Espionage Act. For documents on the relations between the NCLB and the Wilson administration go to the Topic, “The Wilson Administration and the Civil Liberties Bureau.”

All from Reel 7/Vol. 69/p.199-225

This March 1919 NCLB report on Wartime Prosecutions and Mob Violence is the best summary of the violations of civil liberties during World War I, as known to the NCLB. The different categories of violations include mob violence, criminal prosecution, violations of the right of assembly, search and seizure issues, the mis-treatment of conscientious objectors, and loss of employment because of political views.


This February 21, 1919 letter to NCLB supporters advises them about the peace time sedition bill pending in Congress. The 1918 Sedition Act had expired with the end of the war; the peace time bill did not pass.

For more of the collection that has been digitized you may browse the Finding Aid.

2 responses to “The Birth of the Civil Liberties Bureau and The National Civil Liberties Bureau,1917-1919”

  1. […] Note: The “Knights of Liberty” Mob and the I. W. W. Prisoners at Tulsa, Okla. (November, 9, 1917) Pamphlet by National Civil Liberties Bureau, Feb 1918 -this is the source for Liberator article, and can be found along with other NCLB publications 1917-1919:… […]

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