The league was formally created on March 22, 1917, two weeks before the declaration of war and was immediately designated as an auxiliary to the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice. The league grew to around 250,000 men representing every social, commercial, industrial, professional and economic level in American life. Its members carried a membership card and badge provided by the military intelligence division showing that the holder was connected with the Department of Justice. The self-selected APL members were not trained, selected or disciplined by the federal government and had no vehicle with which to discipline over-zealous members.
The scurrilous actions of the APL, ostensibly formed in part to assist in ferreting out German spies, seemed more motivated by a conservative domestic agenda interested in discrediting liberal, radical and progressive elements in American society than in actually exposing spies. Moreover, not a single German spy was ever found by the APL, although they accused thousands of innocent citizens.
Some APL units were comprised of previously formed groups such as the Washington State Minute Men who had already ruthlessly suppressed the Industrial Workers of the World in many areas. Once authorized as investigators, members went after a wide variety of suspects, most innocent, and in the first four months, the Minute Men branch of the APL conducted over two thousand investigations in Seattle alone.
The Minute Men of Seattle began as a militarily structured vigilante group in 1917 with 20 men. Their members were given a number to use in place of their name in communications to maintain secrecy and they set about their job with efficiency and detail. Their goal was to flush out slackers and German spies and “relieve the government” of preliminary investigation and collecting evidence. With the blessing of the US Attorney General they had almost unlimited power, and this trumped state control of their activities. At one point they claimed to hold files on 7,800 “dangerous” Seattle people and over 1,000 union rebels. In May of 1918, the Seattle Minute Men became a division of the American Protective League and at its peak membership may have exceeded 11,000.
The Seattle Minute Men Division of the American Protective League investigated reports of possible German spies and furnished the federal government with reports on union activity. Since no restrictions or limits were put on their methods of gathering evidence by the Bureau of Investigation or the Justice Department, they got as much evidence as possible by any means necessary. In cooperation with Department of the Navy, who in turn cooperated with the United States Post Office, the Minute men assisted in investigating possible espionage via the U.S. mail, and postmasters not only looked for suspicious mail, but watched workers and patrons for “unpatriotic” behavior.
The government put elected power into the hands of private interests in several ways. The War Industries Board was formed in July 1917 with Bernard M. Baruch appointed as chairman by Wilson on March 3, 1918. Wilson enabled the Board the use of all the agencies of the Council of National Defense to mobilize industry and to force adoption of its orders. This board fixed prices, controlled all available resources and manufacturing facilities and raised the volume of munitions produced. In order to effectively participate in the war, the government brought a temporarily halt to free market capitalism as it was once known. Government agencies expanded greatly and forced their way into business and manufacturing, attempting to establish control over the whole economy. The government was following a policy of “War Time Socialism” until January 1, 1919.
Some investigations were based on simple gossip or because an agent didn’t like the subject of an investigation. There were several reports, for example, made on Walter E. Ruloff, a teacher who was of German ancestry and education. Having once taught German at a military base, he also taught at the University of Washington. Ruloff was claimed to have had “a tendency to uphold German Kultur and literature.” Although the president of the university and many others vouched for his loyalty, he remained under suspicion. Another complaint they investigated came from a woman angry that an acquaintance had a German born maid who might be a spy. Another came from an army wife whose child knew of another child with a German sounding name on their base who defended the Kaiser. At least fifty aliens were deported because of the Minute Men’s actions and hundreds of lives were tarnished or ruined. After armistice in 1919, the Minute Men, with the support of Woodrow Wilson, embarked on a crusade to crush any critics of Wilson’s policies which could tarnish his legacy.
In many states the APL worked with Committees of Public Safety (CPS), which directed state war efforts and had broad powers. Such committees were usually packed with men who stood to profit from the war, and sometimes under the control of men with greedy motives or personal vendettas. Judge John McGee, a member of the Minnesota CPS attacked German aliens and tried to oust the Socialist mayor of Minneapolis. He also used his position to opposed the attempts of farmers to organize the non-Partisan League. McGee went before a Senate committee in April of 1918 and argued for formation of state firing squads immediately “in order to make up for lost time.”
Civil liberties, freedom of expression and freedom of association were the first victims of the Minnesoto CPS who thumbed its nose at the US Constitution and suspended civil liberties for the duration of the war. They hired Pinkerton detectives to attend German-American meetings and events, and even though the agents reported back that the worries about treason were exaggerated, they used their subpoena power to question people.
The commission deputized militia such as the Home Guard to do their dirty work. They spied on farmers so they “couldn’t jeopardize food production,” and they kept abreast of any troubles with labor: their 7,000 member armed militia was used as a threat against strikers. Minnesota not only followed the lead in other states of banning any language but English, demanding loyalty oaths, requiring alien registration of people and land, but it even proposed a state firing squad to shoot those it considered traitors.
But, despite its inherent dangers and obvious abuses, the Justice Department expanded the APL, called the “web,” even further. The APL claimed at least 250,000 members by the end of 1918. As it ballooned and spread, it ran out of aliens and dissenters to victimize so it turned its attention to a growing number of ordinary citizens, and by 1918 the APL was actively collecting domestic intelligence for the War Department.
Typical of their victims was Chicago’s German-American Alliance who sponsored an anti-war rally in August of 1916 that drew over 10,000 people. The German-American Friends of Peace held their national meeting there in 1915, and the Teutonic Sons of America had over two million members by September of 1915. Germans comprised a quarter of Chicago’s population. By the time the Illinois State Council of Defense (SDC) was created in 1917, these groups were savagely attacked for being traitors. The SDC regulated war activities, managed the state’s food production, directed Liberty Bond sales and oversaw the state’s propaganda campaign. In this capacity, they distributed over 200,000 pieces of “patriotic” literature in Illinois. The CPI and the SCD were assisted by the 13,000 Illinois members of the American Protective League who was responsible for leading 75% of the Illinois wartime investigations for espionage, including the raids on offices of the German workers’ newspapers, Arbeiterzeitung, Sozial Demokraten, and the Sonne. But Illinois was not alone.
It provided information justifying America’s entrance into the war, laden with graphic accounts of German crimes and atrocities. More than 3,000 Oklahoma volunteer speakers served as “Four Minute Men.” National and international speakers, such as Secretary of Interior Franklin D. Lane and French Lt. Paul Perigord, spoke to stirred up Oklahoma crowds. Some Councils of Defense turned to carnival type traveling tent shows to spew hatred and suspicion. They organized an Oklahoma Loyalty Bureau and cooperated with the American Protective League to sniff out and jail dissenters.
Oklahomans had to declare their loyalty to the government and agree to report any disloyal statement on a pledge card, which half of Oklahoma’s population signed. The Loyalty Bureau asked cities and towns to pass anti-sedition ordinances even before the Federal Act of 1918 was passed. Secret service agents were hired by to infiltrate and spy on areas of the state suspected of sedition, or largely German settled parts of Oklahoma.
Soon, German Americans were being beaten with leather straps, tarred and feathered and had their homes and businesses doused with yellow paint. The Tulsa County Council of Defense hired its own detective to seek out dissenters. Then, Oklahoma banned the speaking and teaching of the German language and German-language newspapers were violently forced to cease publication. Place names were changed: Kiel, Oklahoma became Loyal, Bismark became Wright, and Korn became Corn.
In 1919, after Armistice, the Oklahoma Legislature passed the English-Language Law, requiring that only English be taught through the eighth grade in schools. When the APL was ordered disbanded in early 1919 after breeding an atmosphere of hate and violence, APL veterans in Chicago formed the “Patriotic American League,” while those in Cleveland formed the “Loyalty League,” those in Cincinnati integrated into the “Home Guard” and those in Minneapolis transformed themselves into the “Committee of Thirteen.”