Monday, May 27, 2024


In another time of war, Minnesota suspended civil liberties
Larger view
The Minnesota Commission on Public Safety suspended civil liberties from 1917 to the end of World War I and went out of existence in l919. (Photo courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)
It was 88 years ago when this country entered World War I, a conflict far more unpopular than the current war in Iraq. Then, as now, officials worried how the country could protect itself at home, and how many civil liberties should be restricted in the interest of national security. The reaction by Minnesota officials was extreme.

St. Paul, Minn. — In 1917, the state created the Commission on Public Safety. The seven-member commission was appointed by Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist. The commission was all-powerful and reported only to itself. The members suspended civil rights, set up an armed militia and created a network of spies.

Minnesota business leaders supported the move because of their own agenda. They worried about how union organizers and striking workers were affecting their businesses, and they were counting on the commission to keep workers in line.

Retired University of Minnesota history professor Hy Berman says whenever he tells people about the Minnesota Commission on Public Safety, many don't believe it could happen here. He says the commission presided over a reign of terror.

"A reign of terror that wiped out civil liberties, wiped out freedom of expression, wiped out freedom of association -- that created a kind of climate where, in fact, it ruled by force," Berman says.

Minnesota lawmakers created the commission in part because of the state's large immigrant population. Some 70 percent of the state's residents were immigrants or first-generation Americans. German-Americans were the largest ethnic group.

Officials worried the immigrants would violently oppose this country's entry into World War I and a military draft to raise troops. Berman says many German-Americans in Minnesota were upset.

"The German-Americans were particularly incensed that they were being called upon to shoot against their own cousins and uncles and aunts, and things like that," Berman says.

Historians and the archival records recount how the commission created a county-level network of spies, and hired Pinkerton agents to attend meetings and events organized by the state's German-Americans and other ethnic groups.

The agents reported back that the worries about violent protests were baseless.

However, the commission members accused three elected New Ulm officials of lacking patriotism, because they called for reforms to the military draft. They supported the draft, but wanted German-Americans to serve in capacities that would not put them in front-line combat.

Besides the power to censor publications, seize land and raise a militia, the commission also had the power to remove local elected officials who appeared to be less than loyal Americans, and it suspended the New Ulm officials.

Berman says the commission's spies watched another group, the Non Partisan League.

"(The NPL included) farm protesters who wanted better pay for their crop, who wanted a system of taxation where those who benefit from the war pay for the war," Berman says.

The commission's public stance was there could be no tolerance of farm protests that might jeopardize food production while the country was at war.

However the commission's most ardent supporters, the state's business leaders, had another, less public agenda. Berman and other historians say the commission was created to help keep a lid on labor troubles.

By that time there had been strikes by Minnesota iron miners, lumberjacks and others. Minnesota companies that relied on timber, flour milling and iron mining were watching competitors in other parts of the country eat into market share and profits. They worried about the effects of laws favoring workers, including a minimum wage and limits on child labor.

Hy Berman says there were no labor representatives on the seven-member Public Safety Commission. The chairman, Minneapolis attorney John McGee, was popular with business leaders.

"The Public Safety Commission people figured they could use the war in reversing all those gains in the years between 1900 and 1917," Berman says.

Commission agents watched and harassed labor organizers and others they deemed troublemakers. The commission also used its subpoena power to question people considered unpatriotic or disloyal.

The commission's 7,000-member armed militia was used as a threat against strikers.

Other states had created militias or home guards, while some had banned any language but English in schools or in public.

However, few if any had followed Minnesota's example of suspending civil liberties, demanding loyalty oaths, requiring alien registration of people and land, and proposing -- but never forming -- a state firing squad to shoot those considered traitors.

Hy Berman says Minnesota's Commission on Public Safety alarmed federal officials, including President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was elected on a progressive platform and wanted the rest of the world to see the country as a beacon of democracy.

"(The commission) put a lie to their war objectives of making the world safe for democracy. If Minnesota can't be made safe for democracy, how can the world be made safe for democracy?" Berman says.

Creation of Minnesota's Commission on Public Safety did not occur in a vaccum. The nation was deeply divided. Many Americans wanted no part of a war they saw as Europe's making.

Federal officials had also considered suspending constitutional freedoms to counter opposition to the war. Wilson persuaded Congress to enter the war when German U boats sank American ships carrying arms. But selling the war to Americans remained a problem.

Military leaders urged President Wilson to censor the press and block any accounts of wartime problems. But University of Minnesota speech communications professor Donald Browne says Wilson's circle of close friends included muckracking journalist George Creel.

"Creel then contacted the president and said, 'I heard that the military wants you to censor newspapers.' He said, 'This is going to be a horrible mistake. It's much better if we work with the newspapers to put this on as a positive campaign of why we need to be involved, why this is so crucial.' And the president went for it," Brown says.

So instead of suspending press freedom, President Wilson hired his friend George Creel to become, in effect, this country's first propaganda minister.

Creel directed the Committee on Public Information. He hired people from the around the country, including University of Minnesota graduate school dean and history professor Guy Stanton Ford to advise him.

Creel spent millions of taxpayer dollars on a public relations campaign that used pamphlets, posters and news releases to sell the war to the public.

Browne says one of his most effective techniques was the recruitment of 73,000 "four-minute men." These were prominent citizens enlisted to speak before films shown to audiences in movie theaters.

"This was done all across the country. They had at one time thousands of these people trained to do this, and Creel would retrain them, and send out people to monitor what they were doing," Brown says.

The end of World War I ended the Creel Commission, and it brought the demise of Minnesota's Commission on Public Safety. Both efforts left a bitter taste, but also a legacy of sorts.

Critics found the Creel Commission's techniques for manipulating public opinion unsavory and an inappropriate activity for government. Donald Browne says the Creel Commission doesn't have a modern-day counterpart, however its influence can be seen in contemporary efforts by the federal government to influence public opinion.

"People who masquerade as reporters, give the reporters backdrop and all the rest of it, and make it seem as if this is an honest and bona fide news report. That kind of thing is fairly recent," Browne says. "And yet I have to say, if Creel knew about it he'd probably applaud it. Maybe not applaud it for these specific purposes, but applaud it as an approach."

In Minnesota, the creation of the Commission on Public Safety was viewed by many as an embarrassing, even dangerous attack on democratic principles.

One unintended consequence of the commission's harassment of labor and farmers is that those two groups united, and the political effect of their merger lingers to this day.

Some modern-day state agencies carry out a few of the law and order functions of the now defunct commission. However they are accountable to elected officials, unlike the Commission on Public Safety which was accountable only to its seven members.

For a brief period of Minnesota history, its powers had a chilling effect on anyone who stepped forward to question its existence.