Wartime Domestic Surveillance and Civil Rights Abuses

No reasonable person can deny that there have been civil rights abuses during the present war on terrorism (or whatever we are calling it).  In fact, all wars lead to over-reactions and abuses of some kind or another.  That said, it is not at all clear to me that the recent domestic abuses—as bad as they are—stack up unfavorably against other similar incidents in American history.  I am furthermore skeptical that there is a predisposition in the United State polity or in its government to stick it to Muslims, per se.  Rather, I think that Muslims today are simply the latest “hyphenated Americans.”  Sadly, other hyphenated Americans have gone through similar travails during previous periods of national security stress.

The encouraging side of this story is that after and despite past abuses, the United States survived recognizably intact as the United States.  In fact, arguably, it grew stronger and developed to be actually more in consonance with its expressed values.  While continued vigilance is necessary in our age to keep the Government in check, I think that historical experience suggests that we shouldn’t rush to predict the end of the American way of life.

In the course of my research on American intelligence during World War I, I have had occasion to take a look at some of the domestic surveillance efforts undertaken in 1917 and 1918.  The similarities are striking.  So, too, are the ways in which the surveillance efforts of the time went beyond what the U.S. Government has done in recent years.  Finally, I note that even during that nightmare period for domestic surveillance and the trampling of civil rights, there was a healthy debate underway within the governmental agencies about the propriety and limits of such activities.  Herewith, a small portion of what I’ve been working on….

During 1917 and 1918, religious denominations and clergymen often came under suspicion if their utterances seemed too pacifistic.  Sometimes these groups saw which way the wind was blowing and bent with it.  The Seventh Day Adventists, for instance, agreed to withdraw from sale some 135,000 copies of ‘objectionable books’ and the publishers ‘volunteered to revise these books to meet the approval of the [War Department’s Military Intelligence Division (MID)] and to change them from anti-war to pro-war documents’.


Lutherans, however, were a particular target, because their Church had many German followers and purportedly ‘contained many elements of disloyalty and activity in behalf of the enemy’.  Ironically, widespread Lutheran pacifism stood in sharp contrast to the ‘Prussian will to power and…spirit of unscrupulous warfare’.  Nevertheless, this did not spare the Church from close scrutiny.  Not surprisingly, the military’s concern was greatest with regard to pastors preaching to servicemen at military camps, but clergymen in purely civilian life also were investigated.  In one of many such cases, private citizens of Chambersburg Pennsylvania reported their pastor, the Reverend J. C. Nicholas, to the MID on the grounds that he refused to include prayers for the success of the American Expeditionary Force in his Sunday service because he thought this would be dictating to God.  It did not help that Nicholas had denounced Selective Service, had opposed contribution to the Belgian Relief Fund, and had only contributed one dollar to the Red Cross.  The National Lutheran Commission subsequently appointed him as a camp pastor at the Newport News point of embarkation and the MID kept him under close observation, but could find no excuse to have him removed.

With regard to actual espionage, the MID was greatly concerned by the fact that the Lutheran church collected detailed information on a routine basis from its camp pastors about how many Lutheran soldiers were at their camp, how many were coming and going and where they were going to.  This information could be used to develop a detailed order of battle of the Army and to discern when units were embarking for France.  The question was whether this information was making its way to Germany.  Ultimately, apparently after the war, MID concluded that though the church had gathered data ‘that they did not need to possess’ and which should have been held within the US Government, ‘no satisfactory evidence’ existed that the church’s gathering of information was done at the behest of Germany or exploited by Germany, rather that the church had done this for its own pastoral purposes.  This did not mean that no Lutheran pastors had violated the law.  In fact, at least eight were interned or convicted under the Espionage Act.

In late July, 1918, MID’s domestic security section, MI-4, which had been following Lutheran matters for some time, did a review of what it knew about the subject.  It brought to bear three officers to investigate clergymen and camp-pastors.  Another officer weighed  evidence gathered through censorship and still another studied the ‘general motives of the church and its propaganda’.  These officers ‘set in order a mass of data that amply demonstrated the potential danger from German sympathizers in the Lutheran denomination and even cast some doubt upon the good faith of the church as an organization’.  Word of this soon made its way to Congress and the Church itself.  Neither was pleased and the impression grew that ‘Military Intelligence was seeking to discredit the entire church’.  In fact, however, the views of the investigating officers were not shared by all of their superiors and the classified 1919 MID official history recorded that the views of the investigating officers were not even fully shared even by their immediate superiors, and the ‘MID had no united opinion that could warrant any drastic policy in an exceedingly delicate matter’.

In fact, when in August 1918 the MID took a comprehensive look at the problem of Lutheran pastors it found that of some 9800 pastors, only about 200 should be considered suspects and even that number was ‘in need of further reduction’.   Furthermore, some of the evidence against even the 200 was ‘exactly of the kind that has been exploded in previous instances’.  In fact, the MID history concluded that while the ‘full extent’ of the ‘pernicious influence’ of Lutheran ministers on the population could not be computed, but it was now clear that ‘the Lutheran clergy on the whole were not a fertile source of pro-German agitation’.

After the war MID admitted in its official history that the German-speaking communities were by-and-large a ‘happy disappointment’ to the ‘prophets of evil who had feared wholesale insurrections or insidious intrigues’.  Indeed, some of the most German areas, such as Milwaukee, ‘made themselves almost amusingly conspicuous by an Americanism which, whether genuine or not in spirit, was satisfactory in its outward manifestations’.

Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 5:53 AM  Leave a Comment  
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