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Fri Jul 5, 2019, 11:24 AM

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

Conscientious Objectors

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.

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.

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