Conscientious Objectors

The ACLU was born out of World War I and the repression that resulted when the U.S. joined the fight.

By Sam Walker
June 28, 2019

Dark Burgundy Line

On the night of April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson made the trip from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol for a special session of Congress that he convened. In one of the most consequential speeches in U.S. history, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war that would take the country into the Great War’s killing fields in Europe. During his address that night, President Wilson called Americans to arms with the memorable pledge that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”
Most Americans today are familiar with the phrase, or misinterpretations of it, such as “a war to end all wars.” Few people, however, are familiar with what Wilson said next: “If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of stern repression.” In New York City, two experienced Progressive-Era activists, Crystal Eastman and Roger Baldwin, were in the office of the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), struggling to forge a plan for how to defend the rights of Americans against the coming threats to their rights.

President Woodrow Wilson declaring war on Germany (1917).
President Woodrow Wilson declaring war on Germany (1917).

That night would be a watershed in American history. In response, Eastman and Baldwin would found the modern movement for civil liberties with their creation of the Civil Liberties Bureau as a committee of the AUAM. For the first time, the term “civil liberties” entered American parlance as the bureau’s efforts put civil liberties on the nation’s public policy agenda. And in less than three years, Eastman and Baldwin’s small committee within the anti-war organization would evolve into the American Civil Liberties Union.

Dark Burgundy Line
A Forceful Pair

Eastman and Baldwin already feared threats to Americans’ rights as war fever swept the country. In the months leading up to the entry into the war, Congress had debated (but not passed) a law authorizing censorship of the press. A draft of men for military service was certain, the first since the Civil War. The details of a draft were still unknown, and, most important for the civil libertarians, it was not clear what protections would be available for young men seeking conscientious objector status.

The enormous and senseless casualties in the European war shattered his deeply ingrained optimism about social progress, and he grew increasingly alarmed as American entry into the conflict grew more likely. A week before President Wilson’s address, he abruptly dropped all of his St. Louis activities and went to New York City to join Eastman at the AUAM.

Dark Burgundy Line
The Attack on Dissent

Events quickly confirmed and even exceeded Eastman and Baldwin’s worst fears.

Fired up with patriotism, mobs of Americans across the country began attacking anti-war meetings and demonstrations. Fights among pro- and anti-war groups broke out in front of Congress even as the president made his case for war. Congress passed the Selective Service Act on May 18, providing conscientious objector status only to members of well-recognized religious groups whose tenets required pacifism, which meant members of the three “historic peace churches” — the Quakers, Mennonites, and the Brethren. Young men of conscience who were members of mainstream faiths — Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews — would be forced to fight and kill in violation of their beliefs.
A month later, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which in very elastic language made it a crime to obstruct the military effort, including the draft. In July, the Post Office began declaring a broad swath of anti-war publications “unmailable” and barring them from the mails. Banned materials included the Socialist Party’s newspaper, foreign language papers (especially German and Russian), and even pamphlets issued by the new Civil Liberties Bureau.

Roger Baldwin, meanwhile, soon established correspondence with the War Department over the issues related to conscientious objectors. Civic leaders had been frequent dinner guests of his parents, and dealing with influential people came naturally for him (and he had used this talent well in his St. Louis activities). His contact was Frederick C. Keppel, who had taken leave as dean at Columbia University to become Third Assistant Secretary of War. Keppel also had a strong progressive reform record and had been active in the leading international peace organization before the war.

Baldwin and Keppel maintained a productive dialogue over the treatment of conscientious objectors — for about 10 months. In early 1918, authorities in the War Department and the Justice Department concluded that the Civil Liberties Bureau’s criticisms of the administration interfered with the war effort and the draft in particular. Keppel wrote Baldwin that corresponding with him had become an “embarrassment” and severed their relationship. Military intelligence began spying on those involved with the Civil Liberties Bureau, and far worse would soon come.

Dark Burgundy Line
The Civil Libertarians vs. Progressive-Era Reformers

In the first months of the war effort, Eastman and Baldwin were not only alarmed by the government’s actions but were truly shocked and dismayed by the actions of their fellow prewar progressive reformers.

“If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a stern hand of repression.”
- President Wilson 

Virtually all of the leading reformers enthusiastically endorsed the war effort as a grand calling and many volunteered in one of the many service organizations that quickly sprang up. President Wilson’s vision of a world made safe for democracy was intoxicating to these social activists. George Creel, a crusading progressive-minded journalist, became director of the government’s propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information. Carrie Chapman Catt, a leader of the National American Suffrage Association, put aside her pacifist principles and joined a national service organization. John Dewey, already America’s most noted philosopher, wrote an article arguing that the war effort created great opportunities for social reform.

By May 1917, Eastman and Baldwin found that they were members of a small and very isolated group of Americans who were willing to challenge the administration over issues of free speech and press as well as freedom of conscience for young men opposed to participating in war. But an even greater shock awaited them in June.

Dark Burgundy Line
A Defining Moment

Lillian Wald, the highly respected reformer and co-chair of the AUAM, informed Baldwin in June that, “We cannot plan continuance of our program which entails friendly government relations, and at the same time drift into a party of opposition to the government.”

Baldwin was stunned.

Wald, a committed pacifist who had opposed the U.S. entering the war, was now telling him the AUAM could not tolerate the Civil Liberties Bureau’s criticism of the government. He and Eastman would have to cease their criticisms of the violations of free speech and press, along with their defense of conscientious objectors. It was nothing less than a betrayal of fundamental principles.

Eastman and Baldwin took a stand on a principle that became the guiding star of the ACLU:

The principled defense of civil liberties without compromise based on political considerations.

Over the next 100 years, the principle guided the ACLU through a continuing series of difficult policy decisions: defending the right of the Ku Klux Klan to march in Boston in 1923, despite criticisms from liberals and civil rights advocates; the defense of free speech for domestic Nazi groups in 1935, despite opposition from some ACLU board members and liberals around the country; opposing the evacuation and internment of the Japanese-Americans in World War II, in the face of near total public support for the government’s action. And the list continues to grow today.

Dark Burgundy Line
The NCLB Carries On — and Becomes an Outlaw

The NCLB carried on the fight for civil liberties through the rest of 1917 and into 1918. Eastman largely withdrew because of health problems, leaving Baldwin as the driving force. The group denounced mob attacks on war opponents; criticized the prosecution of anti-war leaders under the Espionage Act like Debs; and published a report on the virtual destruction of the radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (“The Truth About the IWW”), by a combination of vigilante attacks and federal prosecution.

Baldwin was completely unhinged, moving around the office telling federal agents they could “lock him up, shoot him, hang him, or anything else,” according to an agent’s report. Prosecution of NCLB leaders now seemed certain. For reasons that are not clear, however, no one was prosecuted and the war in Europe ended two months later.

Dark Burgundy Line
'The Individual and the State'

Baldwin, meanwhile, had a new and very personal problem. Needing more troops, the government raised the draft age to 35, covering the 34-year-old civil libertarian. When he received his draft notice, Baldwin thought deeply about his situation and finally decided that as a principled conscientious objector he would not cooperate in any way with the draft. (Other young men who chose this course of action were known as “absolutists.”) Consequently, he by-passed his draft board and presented himself directly to the prosecutor. He was duly convicted on October 30, 1918, and sentenced to a year in jail.

Baldwin’s day in court became a singular and highly publicized event. With the court room filled with his friends and colleagues, he delivered to the judge a speech explaining his motives and declaring his “uncompromising opposition to the principle of conscription of life by the State for any purpose whatever, in time of war or peace.”

Prisoner #254 in the Essex County, New Jersey, jail (where short-term federal prisoners were held) turned his sentence into what he called his “vacation on the government.” He used his time to read and think about his personal future and the future of the country, particularly about the problem of individual rights in a modern urban-industrial society.


Dark Burgundy Line
The Creation of the ACLU

Baldwin was released from jail in mid-July 1919. He probably already had a plan for his future, but first he wanted to take care of some personal business. Feeling he needed some personal experience as an industrial worker, he embarked on a trip that took him to Pittsburgh and St. Louis, working for a brief period in a steel mill. With that taken care of, he returned to New York and set about creating a permanent organization to defend civil liberties. In addition to most of the core group from the NCLB, he enlisted a broader range of people from labor and radical or left political circles.

Those who joined the proposed new group had no illusions about the challenge they faced. All the agencies of the “machinery of justice,” as they called it, were controlled by powerful business interests. The general public had been cowed into silence by vigilante violence and government prosecutions. Not a single court decision anywhere afforded protection for freedom of speech, press, or assembly. A series of race riots in 1919 in Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and Omaha, Nebraska (among other cities) indicated that racism was thoroughly entrenched, even outside of the segregated South. In the South, moreover, lynching of African Americans averaged slightly more than 60 a year. The prospects for civil liberties, in short, could not have been bleaker.

And so, in this seemingly hopeless situation, on Jan. 19, 1920, the executive committee of the new American Civil Liberties Union held its first official meeting. The fight for civil liberties was on.

Stay Informed