Rosika Schwimmer, Woman without a Country

After fleeing persecution, a prominent Hungarian anti-war activist sought refuge in the United States, only to be rejected and scorned. The ACLU helped her fight against libel, denial of U.S. citizenship, and Henry Ford.

By Susan N. Herman
November 20, 2020

Dark Burgundy Line

But the Peace Ship, like the Hague International Congress of Women where Rosika had played a key role earlier that year, became an object of ridicule by the mostly male, sensationalist press. Rosika, dubbed an “enemy alien,” became the chief target of American reporters’ scorn as well as their relentless libel. In mainstream as well as super-patriot publications over the next decades, she was alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) falsely accused of being a German spy trying to undermine American preparedness for war, a Bolshevik spy, an adventuress who had duped Henry Ford into an extravagant and foolish venture for her own profit, and the precipitating cause of Ford’s anti-Semitism (on the theory that he became disenchanted with her and therefore her entire ethnicity).   


Scandinavia-America Line passenger steamship Oscar II leaving New York as the "Peace Ship" on December 4, 1915. (Credit: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

The ACLU supported Rosika’s 1928 libel action against reporter Fred Marvin, whose “Searchlight” column in the New York Commercial described her as both a German spy and a Bolshevik — the former because she had been a citizen of Hungary when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was allied with Germany, and the latter on the theory that after the war she had represented a Communist-led Hungarian government, which she had not. Rosika had been appointed Hungary’s ambassador to Switzerland in 1918 (she is said to have been the first woman ever to have served as a foreign ambassador), but she was recalled five months later when the Communist-led Bela Kun government came into power. That regime, regarding her as a bourgeois feminist, would not even allow Rosika to leave the country.

The ACLU’s first general counsel, Arthur Garfield Hays, who also maintained a private practice, represented her in the lawsuit. At trial, Hays conducted a classic cross-examination in which he got Marvin to admit that he had learned subsequent to publication that Rosika had not in fact represented the Communist government, but that he had not taken any steps to retract his false statement. On June 29, 1928, a jury awarded Rosika a $17,000 verdict.

Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy, seen here leading soldiers in August 1931. (Credit: Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany)

Rosika had fled Hungary in 1921, after the Bela Kun government was succeeded by the virulently anti-Semitic regime of Admiral Miklós Horthy. Still not allowed a Hungarian passport, she escaped that government’s persecution by night on a Danube steamer. She always maintained that she did not adhere to any political party — certainly not any party of communists or fascists, whom she regarded as extreme and violent — or to any religion. Soon after, she emigrated from Vienna to the United States, hoping to resume her successful pre-war career as a celebrity lecturer and author.

Fighting for U.S. Citizenship

Once the requisite waiting period ended, Rosika applied for United States citizenship in Chicago. In 1926, after protracted proceedings, her application was rejected.

Rosika had the right to appeal that rejection in court but, exhausted by the constant attacks on her reputation and her poor health, she told friends that she would not have pursued an appeal “if organizations and individuals interested in civil rights in this country had not urged me to make my case a test, which none of them expected to fail.” As co-founder of the ACLU Roger Baldwin later said, in laying to rest a dispute over whether Rosika would reimburse the organization for part of the litigation expenses, “We got her into that suit and backed her in it.”

At the court hearing in Oct. 1927, Judge George Carpenter agreed that in all other respects Rosika was eligible for citizenship, questioning her only about her pacifism — particularly whether or not she was unwilling to bear arms on behalf of the United States. The judge remarked, “The time will never come, I venture to say, when the women of the United States will have to bear arms.” Nonetheless, he invented a contrived hypothetical situation where a woman might be serving the military as a nurse, a nearby U.S. soldier would be threatened by an assailant aiming a gun at the soldier’s back, and a pistol would be available with which the nurse might shoot the assailant.

The court: “[W]ould you kill him?”

Schwimmer: “No, I would not.”

The court: “The application is denied.”

In addition to disdaining conscientious objectors, Judge Carpenter showed a characteristic 1920s lack of tolerance for the dissenting speech of pacifists which was viewed, even after the war, as unpatriotic and dangerous.

“Do you expect to spread this propaganda throughout this country with other women?” Judge Carpenter asked.

Rosika must have felt that she had finally emerged from a very dark rabbit hole. But the Department of Labor, determined to make an example of her, urged appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted certiorari. Rosika’s case was ably presented by volunteer attorney Olive Rabe, one of the first women ever to argue in the Supreme Court, who maintained that the naturalization statute in question was being misapplied.

Roger Baldwin was outraged by the Supreme Court’s decision and its rationale. Defense of conscientious objectors and of pacifist speech had been central to the work of the ACLU’s predecessor organization, the National Civil Liberties Bureau. Baldwin himself had been a conscientious objector. Within weeks, the ACLU issued a call to action entitled “The Case of Rosika Schwimmer: Alien Pacifists Not Wanted!” The 16-page pamphlet was headlined: “Congress can change the naturalization law. A bill has been introduced to overcome the Supreme Court decision. Support it. Read the facts of this case and help!”

The ACLU campaigned vigorously to amend the law, noting that the court’s decision would deny citizenship even to Quakers like current President Herbert Hoover. But the proposed bill stalled in Congress and Rosika Schwimmer was left a woman without a country. 

Fighting Henry Ford

Due to the widespread smears emanating from the Peace Ship venture and the general effects of blacklisting, Rosika was no longer able to support herself through speaking and writing engagements, to her intense frustration. Her correspondence contains letters from agents confirming her suspicion that she was being boycotted. She believed that if she could clear her name, she could restore her livelihood.

In 1925, even before the Marvin libel action or the citizenship application, the ACLU had become involved in a campaign to help her set the record straight. 

Even some of Rosika’s friends, like fellow suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, assumed that Ford’s silence was damning.

The ACLU released an open letter telling the true story of Henry Ford, Rosika Schwimmer, and the Peace Ship. Prominent signatories included ACLU founder Jane Addams and Clarence Darrow. But Rosika’s reputation remained tattered.

During the 1930s and 40s, Rosika worked feverishly to help refugees, many but not all Jewish, to escape Hungary and other parts of fascistic Europe and build new lives. Albert Einstein called her his “saving angel.” She had no funds to share and as a non-citizen she could not sign sponsorship affidavits. But she used her capacity for voluminous correspondence to enlist friends, acquaintances, and sometimes even complete strangers to help some of the hundreds of desperate people who appealed to her. She wrote to stage star Ethel Barrymore, for example, to beg help for a refugee who was a playwright.

Louis Lochner, her co-leader on the Peace Ship, more sympathetically portrayed Rosika’s tragic flaw as one of style: her old-world European manners and her determination to fight for peace in the way she thought most likely to succeed grated against American democratic sensibilities.

At the other extreme, adoring fans continued to regard her as an inspirational “Joan of Arc” figure and blamed Henry Ford for the venture’s failure: He was the one who had precipitously announced in November that their delegation would end the war and bring the boys home in time for Christmas, leading to a hasty sailing on Dec. 4 which did not allow time for adequate preparation or planning. And he was the one who abandoned the expedition and Rosika. Whatever the truth, being an assertive Hungarian and Jewish-born woman internationalist in that era amounted to so many strikes against her that Rosika undoubtedly would have been a magnet for criticism and ridicule even if her strategies and tact had been impeccable.

Observers reported that the Peace Ship experience transformed Rosika Schwimmer from a woman who was magnetic, fun-loving, smoking, laughing, and confident to a tragic figure: broken, disillusioned, embittered, and ill — she had a heart condition, and the diabetes she developed was linked to stress. But she continued to attract staunch friends and allies, including at the ACLU.


The Supreme Court eventually reversed the Schwimmer decision in 1946, in Girouard v. United States. At the suggestion of Carrie Chapman Catt, Roger Baldwin wrote to Rosika in January of 1947, offering to help her reapply for citizenship and saying the ACLU would be “only too glad to assist you in any way possible.”   

But Rosika responded that she had been exhausted by the earlier citizenship battle and was not willing to try again unless the process would be fairly automatic. (She mistakenly believed and hoped that the Seventh Circuit decision ordering that she be granted citizenship would simply be reinstated.) ACLU staff counsel explored the possibility of a private bill in Congress, an idea eventually abandoned as impractical, or a renewed application. But no one could promise Rosika that a renewed process would be uneventful, and she never again tried to seek citizenship.  

Rosika Schwimmer shown on April 12, 1946 at age 70. (Credit: AP Photo)

In 1948, 33 members of parliament from countries where Rosika Schwimmer was known due to her World War I peace efforts — including Britain, France, Italy, Hungary, and Sweden — nominated Rosika, the woman without a country, for the Nobel Peace Prize. She died on August 3, 1948, before the committee completed its deliberations. Unusually, no Peace Prize was awarded that year.  

It is strangely fitting that Rosika Schwimmer’s life ended without a resounding vindication and even without resolution. Her own version of the story of her life ended with her death. An unfinished manuscript of her autobiography rests in the New York Public Library archives, along with more than 500 boxes of her papers. Brief accounts in later news stories, encyclopedias, articles, and books where Rosika is a minor character sometimes offer positive accounts of her work for women’s suffrage and peace, and sometimes negative accounts of the villain of the Peace Ship venture. But this largely forgotten woman without a country also remains a woman without a biography.     


Susan N. Herman was elected President of the American Civil Liberties Union in October 2008 after having served on the ACLU Board of Directors and as General Counsel. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, she teaches courses in Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure, and seminars on COVID-19 and the Constitution, Law and Literature, and Terrorism and Civil Liberties. Her most recent book, Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy, won the Roy C. Palmer Civil Liberties Prize. 

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