The goal was to counter German spies and saboteurs during the Great War, but the American Protective League appeared to be more successful at helping criminalize speech and neutralize dissidents, including leftists and labor activists.
The league functioned as a “voluntary auxiliary” under the U.S. Department of Justice, a network of amateur secret agents of 200,000 or more “loyal” Americans. Its work in St. Louis was highlighted in a lengthy feature, “Fighting German Spies in St. Louis,” published in the Post-Dispatch on Aug. 18, 1918.
Among the revelations in the report: the chief of the St. Louis division, which was said to number some 3,000 agents, was none other than George Herbert Walker, described as “a wealthy broker.”
Walker was a power in the local Democratic Party who became an influential investment banker with W. Averill Harriman’s New York firm after the war. Today, he’s best known as the maternal grandfather and great-grandfather of former presidents
George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush.
What made the American Protective League so insidious is that it seemed to excel at instilling fear and conformity among people who arguably presented no real threat to the nation. Take this example from the Post-Dispatch feature:
“It came to the hearing of a member of the league that a cook, a German woman, employed in a West End home, had been detected in the act of pouring sugar into the garbage pail, regardless of the fact that it is unlawful to destroy foodstuffs. When the mistress remonstrated, the cook replied: ‘I haf my vay of being patriotic the same as you.’ An operative was sent to the house, whereupon the German appeared suddenly to become insane. She was placed under observation to determine whether she was feigning.”
The American Protective League was disbanded in 1919, after the war, but its local organizations continued in a number of cities.
The league’s bad reputation lingered for decades. In 1948, syndicated columnist Victor Riesel wrote about a plan hatched in the Pentagon to create a new civilian defense organization, a sort of home guard that would fight sabotage, espionage and guard strategic factories. Bad idea, he wrote, in his column, “Gigantic Vigilante System Proposed“:
“Critics of the secret project point to the untrained and volatile American Protective League of World War I. The league had 200,000 members hunting for Germans. League members, on their owns, smeared reputations, smashed windows and terrorized some communities.”
[The American Protective League doesn’t make an appearance, but “The Great Silent Majority: Missouri’s Resistance to World War I” (Christopher C. Gibbs, 1988) offers invaluable insight about this period in U.S. history, making the case that the war effort was widely opposed in the state.]