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The American Civil Liberties Union: Uncomfortable Truths About The Origins

Roderick T. Beaman | September 16 2004

Probably like most other libertarians, I have come to this philosophy from the Right end of the political spectrum. Over the years, I have been very critical and, I must admit hostile, to The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). That said, our movement must welcome all to our cause. We have been receiving interest also, for quite a while, from the Left end of the spectrum.

Many libertarians have found reason to work with ACLU on certain issues and there is no doubt that there is firm common ground on which we stand. In those matters, we can join them. I have been having some exchanges with members of two libertarian e-groups and decided to do some more intense study of ACLU. I wish I could say that this mollified my feelings but it made it worse. What I found out about its origins horrified me. It was the political goal of many of the founders of ACLU to destroy this country and everything it stood for.

ACLU was founded on January 19, 1920. It grew out of a predecessor group, The National Civil Liberties Bureau which in turn had grown out of the American Union Against Militarism, and a soiree that was held in New York City and attended by just about every radical from the thriving New York scene of the time. The founders numbered over 60 but the bulk of the work was assumed by the following core:

Roger Nash Baldwin - the founding, long time, director of ACLU. Born to wealth, at the time of the founding, he was deeply involved in the communist movement. As late as 1935, he gave a speech stating that his political vision was communist. During the 1940s, Baldwin would participate in the purging of communists from ACLU, against a lot of opposition, and, in the 1950s, endorsed the work of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Norman Thomas - a Presbyterian minister and radical socialist who advocated the total abolition of capitalism. He was also a eugenicist who warned against the excessive reproduction of undesirables. Thomas was a six time Socialist Party presidential candidate. Also a committed pacifist, he joined Charles Lindbergh's American First Committee to keep us out of World War II. Then as now, politics made very strange bedfellows. He joined Baldwin in the 1940s purge of communists from ACLU.

John Haynes Holmes - a Unitarian minister, a pacifist, socialist and also a founder of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

L. Hollingsworth Wood - a Quaker, pacifist and a co-founder of the Urban League.. I could find nothing that indicated his politics.

John Nevin Sayre - an ordained Episcopal minister, Sayre was a pacifist and believed that Jesus Christ was also. I could discern no other political agenda. Sayre was likely the most sincere of ACLU's founders.

The following is a random selection of others who were among the founders:

Crystal Eastman - pacifist, socialist and feminist. She had been active as a supporter of the radical International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), a radical group with very strong ties to communism. She would have been in the core group but for an illness at the time of ACLU's inception.

Helen Keller - a communist. This astonished me. Libertarians have long maintained that you can't believe what you learn from government sponsored schools and Hollywood. Never was that better illustrated than in the case of Helen Keller. 'The Miracle Worker' told us that she was a great teacher and struggled after being left blind and deaf from a childhood fever. For that, she must be admired.

But during the early 1920s, she wrote and spoke flatteringly about the two competing and emerging German variations of socialism, the national socialism of Adolf Hitler and international revolutionary socialism, or communism.

Radicalized at Radcliffe, she addressed others, as she was often addressed, as 'Comrade'. Ironically, under the eugenics of German National Socialism, Keller would likely have been judged as flawed and exterminated for having been so vulnerable to have been left damaged by her illness.

Elizabeth Flynn Gurley - a communist, she later became chairman of CPUSA.

Felix Frankfurter - a social reformer, became interested in ACLU when pacifists and socialists were being harassed by the government. Frankfurter would later be appointed to the Supreme Court by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was known for judicial restraint and deference to the legislative and executive branches, which may have endeared him to FDR who had already steamrollered congress into obeisance. Later, this attitude would irritate liberals who looked to the courts for the furtherance of their causes.

John Dewey - radical socialist educator who believed that the function of the educational system was to train future agents for the goals of the state. His educational theories dominate our system today.

Clarence Darrow - lionized by Hollywood in 'Inherit The Wind' and the Left for defending teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution. I could find nothing about his politics other than that he was a social reformer. He was an agnostic.

Jane Addams - social activist, feminist, and pacifist. She was also a founder of the NAACP.

Upton Sinclair - socialist and author of many novels. He began his career by writing ethnic jokes and mini-novels. 'The Jungle' , a full novel, was an expose of disgusting conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry. It led to the Pure Food and Drug Act which established the FDA. Not even his supporters maintain that he produced anything of literary value. His stories were long on sensationalism and short on character and plot.

A. J. Muste - at the time, a communist who was committed to revolutionary politics. He later later became a Christian pacifist after a trip to the Soviet Union and a meeting with Leon Trotsky. Many associates maintained though that he never completely abandoned his attachment to Marxism.

Harry F. Ward - a lifetime communist, he authored "Soviet Democracy" and "Soviet Spirit," two pro-Communist books.

Albert DeSilver - radical socialist attorney who had worked with the I.W.W. He willed his entire fortune to ACLU.

This is the cast of characters; in a steering committee of five, one communist, two socialists and three pacifists. In a random selection of eleven additional members, four communists, five radical socialists, two pacifists, two feminists and two social reformers. It's not difficult to discern an ideologic tilt to the organization.

And it got worse afterwards. By the 1940s, so many ACLU members were communists and members of other radical and communist organizations that Roger Baldwin grew alarmed at the attention that American security agencies were focusing on it. Aided by others, such as Norman Thomas, he led a purge of communists from the top leadership.

It was indeed unfortunate that pacifists had to make common cause with communists and others at the time because their movement was forever tainted by it. Many communists agitated for pacifism to facilitate communist insurgencies across the world. For them it was a means to the end of accomplishing their Nirvana, the total subjugation of humanity to the communist jackboot.

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