The New Everyman
by Megan English
The office building
is on fire with flames shooting out of its windows. Inside, charred files
blow across the floor. These are the remainders of IWW (Industrial Workers
of the World) documents, member lists, manifestos, ideas and plan -- essentially
the evidence of why the IWW was fighting against constitutional rights suppression.
This fire was started by a group of citizens who had organized themselves
into a government-funded and supported mob, linked in solidarity to fight
against the most vicious of enemies: the foreigner. This fire was started
to "protect" the U.S. from these radicals by the American Protective League.
Because the APL was justified socially by the fear of foreigners, legally
by the Sedition Acts of WWI, and politically by President Wilson and Attorney
General Gregory's support, the group thrived and multiplied.
The American Protective League was an organization made up of "concerned citizens" of the United States. It was a group of common, ordinary patriotic Americans that believed in an ever increasing threat from foreign immigrants and organized in order to protect themselves. The were the everyman and became a government-supported secret service, spying on neighbors, opening mail and keeping their ears peeled for any sign of anything less than 100% Americanism. Members often felt that violence was a necessary tool when investigating in order to get the truth; rights of the citizen were only brought up if the person had something to hide.
But how could a group like this be born in the U.S., the home of prized liberties and freedoms? The APL was created in the midst of the persecution of reformers, pacifists and the foreign born alike; it was the time of World War One. The League was proposed by Chicago advertising executive Albert Briggs and entered into its official relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1917.
Knowing how understaffed the Bureau was, Albert Briggs had a simple request: he wanted to help by contributing volunteers, cars and time to the Bureau's effort to investigate German "intrigues." Because of the U.S. entrance into the war, many citizens felt their way of life was now being threatened by spies pretending to be loyal citizens. Briggs is a good example of an ordinary person who felt this and was prepared to organize against it. He approached the superintendent of the Bureau in Chicago, Hinton D. Clabaugh. This was not the first time this community organized to protect itself from perceived danger; the union based Sons of Liberty essentially did the same thing during the Civil War. But the object then was to protect the Midwest against the conspiracy of confederate soldiers.
Now, the object was to assure loyalty and patriotism in the context of a world conflict. By February 1917, the U.S. had severed diplomatic ties with Germany and had experienced its first attack on U.S. ships. The panic, expectations of disruption, chaos, and attacks created an unstable and volatile environment to which this help seemed like a long awaited answer. The Zimmerman telegram discussing a German proposed joining of forces between itself, Mexico and Japan, had just been made public. When a few weeks later Briggs had returned with a promise of seventy five cars for Bureau investigators, they were eagerly accepted. Federal officials from around the country were demanding investigations into acts of sabotage, invasion and general cases of suspicion, but there were not enough Bureau agents to spare. Briggs proposed to Clabaugh and the Bureau's chief, A. Bruce Bielaski, that the volunteers be formed into an organizational army which would be financed by its members and be at the complete disposal of the Department of Justice.
Briggs was asked to set up his nationwide organization in cities with high "alien" populations. These groups were established in almost every state and in countless cities; from Washington to Georgia and from New Hampshire to New Mexico. The name, the American Protective League, was taken from a secret patriotic organization once established in Maryland. Briggs began recruiting people in order to set up new divisions throughout the country. Old friends, business trips, word of mouth and arranged meetings were all set into place to man these different state orders. Not surprisingly, many of these new heads of the divisions were businessmen, like Briggs himself. Briggs told these men to form hierarchical "Secret Service Divisions", with positions including chiefs, captains, lieutenants, squads of operatives and units. Positions were filled by executive officers nominating or suggesting reliable, loyal, patriotic men whose sworn duty was to "report any disloyalty, industrial disturbance, or other matter likely to injure or embarrass" the Government of the United States.
Senior members of the APL were often prominent businessmen in construction, banks, insurance, records, hotels, railroads, public utilities and mostly every other area you could imagine. This meant that the APL's ideas and agendas infiltrated these institutions as well. Members were prepared to infiltrate, undercover or not, all these areas to keep an eye on things and people. The APL was involved in local and state politics; this meant that the goals, decisions, warrants (if even used by the APL), or other devices needed to convict or detain immigrants could be gotten or would be supported. In 1917 the APL had a membership of about 100, 000.
The APL employers often organized investigations or undercover units within their own firms . They could nominate employees of their different industries to be spies for the APL without their knowledge of what the information was being used for. Employees could report any disloyalties to the company or country without knowingly helping the APL. By the war's end the number of APL members had reached 250,000 nationwide .
The actual practices of APL investigations varied depending on the rank and position members held within the League. As a whole the League's actual practices included investigations into enemy aliens, draft dodgers, food hoarding, disloyal utterances, unions and their leaders, strikes and "radicals."
The APL's investigations into food buying and the "unpatriotic activity" of food hoarding by foreign citizens were a source in which to keep all divisions nationwide busy. Neighbors were encouraged to spy on neighbors; families were pushed to spy on other members all because of the shortage of certain foods. Flour, sugar, beans, potatoes, etc, were scarce; all food was rationed in order to feed soldiers and other allied countries. Many investigations and reports went directly to the U.S. Food Administration; information included, the name of the person under investigation, their address, description of their house, phone number, job, personality, report of the questioned " unpatriotic activity", the source, and anything else considered important. This is an example of such a report.
It has been said
that the investigations into the radicals and anarchists were the APL's most
valuable work. This statement was made by Emerson Hough, the official biographer
of the APL in 1919. Because the IWW and the APL were both based in the same
city, Chicago, and both nationwide organizations, there were fierce run-ins.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) was a union that
fought for "radical ideas"
including justice and fair treatment of laborers
(often immigrants), an eight hour workday, and the ability for workers to
unionize in "one big union." Because the IWW supported strikes and sabotage
of machines, it was often characterized as militant, socialist, and anarchistic.
IWW phones were tapped, their meetings infiltrated by APL spies, and the
"soldiers of darkness," as they were called, openly roughed up and even arrested
speakers at countless meetings and rallies for disturbing the peace. Although
arresting these people was not within their government mandated power, it
was a common occurrence by members. But the APL gained a weapon against the
IWW when the draft and registration laws were passed. Attorney General Gregory
imposed a year-long jail sentence for all those who had not registered; the
thousands that evaded the draft were now considered illegal fugitives. President
Wilson was not concerned who did the hunting for these men, as long as it
was not the military.
On Sept 5 1917, a nation wide raid against the IWW was set in motion. Hundreds of Wobblies were rounded up, sent to jail for an unspecified amount of time, and held illegally without warrants. During the summer and fall of 1917 almost 6,000 draft resisters were rounded up by the APL. One third was allowed to register and remain free until called up by draft boards. The Justice Department prosecuted the other 4,000 for evading the draft. . This is not even including the charges brought up for the seditious literature seized from the IWW by raiders.
By September 1918, the Justice Dept. began to use a new tactic, a mass rounding up of ?slackers?. These notorious "slacker raids" continued for days, occurred all over the country and the APL played a major part in it. A fifty dollar reward was offered by the Justice Department for every slacker caught (a sum equivalent to about 800 dollars today). In New York and New Jersey, armed soldiers and sailors helped police, the APL and others round up men at baseball parks, restaurants and even on the streets. Brute force and cracked heads often helped to bring these men to "justice." Emerson Hough also says in his APL biography:
Surely the aliens, the unnaturalized, the strangers and visitors of other races that our own, caught in this country can offer no complaint regarding the fairness and generosity of the treatment accorded them. These enemies of ours, these spies, propagandists and pro-Germans had better treatment then they deserved and better than they deserve now. We have been too temperate, too fair, too lenient with them
[This] has been a matter of astonishment to all the European nations, who perhaps knew more of the enemy alien type than we did ourselves.
The APL's activities were to support the Justice Department and the Bureau of Investigation. Many in the APL felt as though they saved the country from certain takeover by the use of investigations or bullying immigrants. It was fear that held our enemy population down--fear and nothing else. It was the League's silent and mysterious errand to pile up good reason for that fear.
Hough's opinion was exactly that of the APL members; the enemy aliens should be deported or forcefully interrogated and this was the job the APL was happy to do.
This fear that Hough discusses to keep the foreigners down also infiltrated the minds of U.S. citizens. The APL's duty was to relieve fear of reports of foreign spies, rumors of a German caused explosion on the ship the Eastland, and supposed enemy encouragement of immigrants to sabotage U.S war efforts. Publication of propaganda plots or proposed joining of Mexican, German and Japanese forces against the U.S., (Zimmerman Telegram) led many "normal" Americans, who as a nation were on the brink of war, to feel it was their duty if they could not serve in military service, to at least do something. Due to journalistic sensationalism, many Americans could not determine the difference between actual non-biased news and the production of fear. Mexicans in league with Germany would march north, retake Arizona and New Mexico, and cut off California from the rest of the country. Japanese would then land on the Pacific coast and invade California. In the East, German submarines would shell New York
Spies, of course, were believed to be operating everywhere. This is an example of how most APL members felt and of how 100% Americanism could change into paranoia.
Fear can be a powerful tool in making people behave irrationally or illegally. Although some German plots to spread propaganda were uncovered, there had been no evidence of an attack on the United States, or any kind of racial based takeover. The fear of harm coming to one's family or country helped the everyman become a vigilante agent. "Who should watch the two million tight-mouthed men whose homes were here but whose hearts were still in Germany? Who could cope with 300,000 spies
many of whom were sent over long before Germany declared war?" The obvious answer to many men was to become part of the APL and do this duty for their country. It was often not difficult to report the neighbors if there was suspicion, this was doing your patriotic duty and it was better safe than sorry. The APL believed that if Wilson deemed the laws in the Sedition and Espionage Acts necessary, it was because they were.
There are many groups that have historically decided to organize themselves for what they feel is the betterment of society, upholding the rights of the citizen at all costs, or to maintain liberty and freedom, but only for who they are representing. Two examples of these groups are the American Legion during the First World War and the White Citizens Councils of the 1950's. They both did this by fighting "radicals" and reformers and by using and threatening violence against the downtrodden. The Ku Klux Klan is also an example that has many similarities to the APL. As one of the oldest vigilante organizations it was once considered a haven of security for white citizens but is now practically considered a terrorist group. The APL and the Ku Klux Klan are alike in many ways; even at first glance the similarities are there. Both were organized by white male citizens and both promoted extreme racism and a climate of hate. The APL and the Ku Klux Klan were veiled in secrecy to spread their brand of xenophobia often through intimidation and force. Each group was created to defend the constitution, (often declared so in a loyalty oath) to protect U.S. citizens from anarchy or chaos by usually breaking the same laws they are sworn to defend. Both organizations have traditionally held right wing philosophies but mostly upheld vigilante justice.
During the time of the APL, there was a revival of KKK activity and, although the organization was still extremely racist towards African Americans, it was aimed mostly at controlling enemy foreigners, Catholic, Irish, Italians, and Slavs. The Klan revival began shortly after the film Birth of a Nation was released in 1915 and members pledged "an uncompromising standard of pure Americanism untrammeled by alien influence and free from the entanglements of foreign alliances." Their purpose and what these Klansmen pledged to do was to "forever maintain white supremacy, to protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless from the indignities, wrongs and outrages of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal; to relieve the injured and oppressed; to succor the suffering and unfortunate, especially widows and orphans."
Both the KKK and the APL had an elaborate system of responsibilities, titles and hierarchy that their agencies were based off of and both groups, in turn, were used to harass radical labor unions such as the IWW. For instance, in South Dakota the APL, who watched the IWW with such paranoid interest, obtained the names of local members and purged these laborers from working at, or near the wheat fields of Aberdeen. This was justified by charging that the IWW planned to burn the crops. For this act of zealousness the APL was dubbed "the Ku Klux Klan of the prairies" by a Department of Justice officer. The two groups even worked together sometimes, both participating in the various "slacker raids." The creations and practices of both of these organizations were also imposed through fear. Whether it was the dilution of a race, or the lack of power felt by veterans or citizens over their changing environments and communities; fear is at the basis of these insecurities. The APL and the KKK both used any means necessary to tighten the grip of control over a world they felt was out of control.
President Wilson and Attorney General Gregory both had parts to play in the acts of legitimizing the APL status within the government. Wilson's speeches telling of a multitude of German spies fueled the fire of purpose for APL members. Their organizing was a way to get the control back from the spies and into the hands of "honest citizens." While Wilson did not support vigilante or mob justice, he made his opinions and fears about the APL public. He continued their status as a government-supported auxiliary tied to the Justice Department, and he was silent on the issue of "free discussion versus suppression of dissent." Wilson proposed the Espionage Acts and its amendments to include disloyal utterances, this was precisely the main argument the APL would use in its investigations and arrests. On hearing of the APL, Wilson said that he felt that an organization like this would be dangerous, but wondered if there was a way to stop it from happening. He failed to push Gregory into severing ties with the organization; therefore he in turn supported them under the protection of the U.S. government. Many in his cabinet warned him that injustices done to some innocent people were worth the risk for the stopping of enemy spies.
Attorney General Gregory had been a supporter of the APL from the beginning. As the head of the Justice Department he asked Wilson to strengthen the Department's hand when dealing with the requirements he deemed were necessary when investigating enemy spies and conversations. He was already familiar with the APL and its actions. In April 1917, "Gregory requested that Wilson make a supplemental budget allotment of $275,000 from the Presidents $100 million war emergency fund, apparently to finance the citizens? auxiliary." Gregory got the APL its federally funded budget and assured Wilson of its well-managed agents. Only after the slacker raids had become so violent and during one of many investigations the APL had infringed upon the territory of the Bureau of Investigation, did Wilson decide to reign in the APL. Members were reminded of their status as citizen volunteers with no power to arrest, or detain a possible deserter or spy but instead inform the correct agency of suspicion. But their badges were not taken; their secret service stationary was not removed, neither was their power.
There was no federal law that protected the entirety of the country, not just military bases, from the acts of espionage by foreign spies. Before WWI, there were laws protecting U.S. citizens and the government from treason and sabotage. But due to the intense fear of other countries secret actions involved in this war, Wilson had proposed an increase in the protection and preparedness for the country. Commonly called the Sedition Act, the Espionage Act penalized the speaker of disloyal utterances or public opposition of the war, of selling of liberty bonds or of the Selective Service Act. It prohibited any "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, [or] abusive language about the U.S.", its flags or its uniforms. Congress was hesitant to make the changes in the Espionage Act that Wilson, and his cabinet, had pushed for. Many in the APL, and probably other citizens listening to the hype of media produced fear, felt the current statutes covering treason and sedition were not adequate. Many in Congress felt these laws would push the limits of the freedom of speech and press rights and would lead to arrests for criticism of the president or of his actions. They were reassured that this would not be the case. These acts, in application, helped suppress the freedom of press and public opinion and any questioning of motive, finance or results of the war. They were pursued using the mindset that the crushing out any possible differing opinion about keeping the country and its citizens safe led to public order. The APL was supported by honest people because they believed that procedures, due process or other strict accordance or attention to rights too often favored the guilty. These laws were extremely important to the League due to the fact that they determined what people could be investigated, arrested, or interned for. President Wilson seemed to have no concern about the effects of war or sedition laws might have on civil liberties or democracy at home. War was the issue, not freedom of speech.
Every citizen has a right [in] belief that the war is not a war for democracy; belief that our participation in it was forced or induced by powers with selfish interests to be served thereby; belief that our participation was against the will of the majority of citizens or voters of the country belief that the Allies' war aims were or are selfish and undemocratic.
This excerpt comes from Justice Augustus N. Hand in the court decision of The United Sates V. Max Eastman. Mr. Eastman was a publisher of the magazine The Masses, which had been banned from mail distribution from the Postmaster and was on trial for "conspiracy to obstruct the recruiting and enlistment service." This statement reminds me all too much of our current war. If the U.S. is still considered "the allies," then the fact that our war aims are selfish and undemocratic seems only too true. Many feel that our current war is not the war for democracy that it is publicized as, that we as citizens were tricked or jumped the gun in our participation. It is a strange coincidence that spreading democracy to people who are "evil, murderous and malicious" is happening now just as it was happening then.
The American Protective League has its place in history; it sheds light on how the country was felling culturally about the influx of immigrants during this period of time. The APL was justified as an acceptable means of control by the government, its citizens and members, and by the laws it upheld. Looking at the League now, it gives an ability to see this momentous time of repression and how we as a country felt about the world in which we lived. It also gives us a demonstration on how we have changed. The climate after 9/11 is comparable to the climate after the Lusitania was sunk or after an injustice was done to the U.S. Yet, no organization like the APL has been started or at least officially supported. Understanding and reasoning as well hatred and fear (unfortunately) are all evident in our country. I believe that this shows a better judgment and a greater capability to recognize ones self in someone else shoes rather than to attack, or persecute someone based on the country they come from. By far our country is not perfect, but looking at the APL is a good way in which to see how far we have come.
American Protective League. University of North Carolina at Asheville.10/28/06
American Protective League File. University of Maryland. 10/28/06.
Hough, Emerson. The Web. Chicago: Reilly & Lee Company, 1919.
Jensen, Joan M.
The Price of Vigilance. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company,
Kennedy, David M. Over Here: the First World War and American Society. Oxford
University Press, 1980.
Nelles, Walter. Espionage Act Cases; with Certain Others on Related Points. New York:National Civil Liberties Bureau, 1918.
FBI and the KKK: A Critical History. North Carolina: McFarland &
Company Incorporated, 2005.