In 1917 the United States was faced with a challenge, on 2 April 1917 Woodrow Wilson had asked the United States Congress for a declaration of war, by 6 April 1917 he had it in hand, and the United States faced a war with Germany. At the time the United States had a massive population of first and second generation German-Americans and concerns were raised that these individuals might form a solid source of sabotage and espionage against the United States. Furthermore the U.S. government did not have the federal manpower to investigate the sheer number of individuals suspected, so a new organization was needed to fill this perceived gap in federal enforcement. Fortunately an organization had already been created to handle just such a situation, the American Protective League, organized by an Chicago advertising executive named Albert M. Briggs and informally approved by Wilson on 30 March 1917 in a cabinet meeting to serve as a semi-official extension of the Justice Department. The theory was that citizen volunteers could provide the needed manpower to allow the government to rapidly expand its ability to examine its citizen base for disloyalty and cut the risk of sabotage and espionage.
Claiming a peak membership strength of 250,000 members the American Protective League deployed its volunteers to serve as spies on the entire population of the United States, claiming that over 52 million Americans lived in a city which had an active American Protective League presence. After quickly exhausting any risk of sabotage or espionage the American Protective League instead focused on rooting out domestic “disloyalty” and reported on individuals who shirked on voluntary activities to support the war, who broke food ration regulations, who engaged in “slackerism” or “defeatism” in vital war industries, and those who expressed “defeatism” or who supported “political views” that were in opposition to the goals of the United States in a time of war. To put it more simply – anyone who didn’t have wholehearted support for the United States in World War I was subject to being reported to the Justice Department and pursued by federal agents. Combine that with the broad sweeping powers granted to the government under the respective Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and you had a perfect combination for civilian participation and legal crushing of individual political and social rights throughout the United States. But of course it got so much worse…
In 1917 and 1918 local police agencies used American Protective League members as auxiliaries or deputies, as the local laws permitted, to engage in more “direct action” activities to deal with “disloyalty.” In Chicago the police used League members to beat members of the International Workers of the World (IWW members of “Wobblies”) who attempted to protest or hold meetings. In Arizona members of the League, along with vigilantes, locked 1,200 IWW members and their “collaborators” (families) into box cars, rolled them over the border into New Mexico’s desert, and abandoned them with no food or water and a warning to not return on pain of death. Local Arizona authorities supported, and applauded, the action. In Illinois the army used support from the American Protective League to extract confessions from twenty-one African-American soldiers who were accused of “assaulting white women.” No records exist on the methods used to extract these confessions.
As well throughout the United States members of the American Protective League made a point of hiding their members in key factories and production centers to sniff out any sense of disloyalty in the workforce. They even got into such mundane activities as “helping screen jury members” prior to a trial, as testimony before Congress showed.
The American Protective League was disbanded after the war when the government no longer felt it necessary and the leadership of the Justice Department changed, however the government did maintain the extensive files the League’s members helped it collect.
Sources: Wikipedia entry on the American Protective League, testimony before the House that discussed American Protective League Activities, entry at Sewanee University on the American Protective League, Salon article on the American Protective League, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.