The pseudo-patriotic American Protective League (APL) was a voluntary association with local
branches in cities and counties throughout the country operating under the control of a National
Board of Directors. The concept for such an organization had been conceived by those who stood to
profit from the war economically or politically. Above left: Albert M. Briggs of Chicago, Chairman of
the APL National Board of Directors, Victor Elting and Charles Daniel Frey. Center: The consistent
message that Germany wanted to take over the world; Right: The Minnesota Home Guard
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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".
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.
The Oklahoma Council of Defense was formed on May 16, 1917, and eleven committees, including
munitions, manufacturing, supplies, labor, publicity, and finance were established . In July 1917, the
Governor appointed prominent businessmen to be on the county executive committees. Millions of
patriotic volunteers formed thousands of community councils at the school district level and even
published their own monthly newspaper. The state council provided material to newspapers each
week called "We Must Win the War." They created the Oklahoma Patriotic Speakers' Bureau,
whose members gave speeches using a pamphlet, "The War: Its Justification and Purpose," written
by Dr. Angelo C. Scott, a faculty member of the University of Oklahoma.
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.
|Oklahoma: Where the Hun came Creeping down the Plains
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.
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.