American Protective League

The American Protective League (APL) was the largest vigilante organization that operated in the United States during World War I. Staffed by an all-volunteer force, the league was eventually organized as an official auxiliary of the Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice. It was disbanded in 1919, as concerns about the restriction of civil liberties, due in part to the APL’s surveillance activities and perceived invasion of privacy, mounted after the war. This entry reviews the founding of the APL and then examines its original intent, its evolution and expansion, and its ultimate demise.

Founded in 1917 by Albert Briggs, a wealthy Chicago advertising executive, the original mission of the APL was to provide free automobile transportation for Special Agents of the Bureau of Investigation who otherwise had to rely on railroads to get from place to place. Briggs’s original plan was to provide wealthy business executives who could dedicate all of their free time to drive agents around. As the United States began to enter the war in Europe, however, Bureau of Investigation Chief A. Bruce Bielaski, along with U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, moved to take full advantage of having access to a force of volunteers. The APL soon morphed into a more comprehensive organization that donated motor vehicles to the Bureau and provided volunteer operatives and officers to conduct industrial and commercial surveillance. In time, its activities expanded into conducting background investigations and then into the extralegal enforcement of federal laws related to sedition, conscription, and espionage. Operatives and officers were issued badges and commission cards labeled “Secret Service—American Protective League,” much to the chagrin of the U.S. Secret Service, which until mid-1917 was the primary investigative agency conducting counterespionage operations and enforcement. The Bureau of Investigation usurped this role, largely with the assistance of the APL.

At its founding, the headquarters of the APL was located in Chicago, Illinois, where Briggs coordinated activities with Bureau Special Agent in Charge H. G. Clabaugh. As offices proliferated across the country, however, Briggs, who was appointed general superintendent, and T. B. Crockett, assistant superintendent, moved the headquarters to Washington, D.C. From there, Briggs and Crockett directed field office operations in most major cities on both coasts and in the Midwest. Each field office consisted of a chief, one or more captains, lieutenants, and operatives. Operatives were used to conduct surveillance within the corporations they were employed and to provide information and intelligence regarding threats to their industries. Some operatives were also used to ferret out possible enemy aliens, largely employees of German ancestry, who could be a threat to companies engaged in war work. Officers were engaged to supervise operatives, as well as to perform investigative and surveillance duties.

Agents eventually performed all background investigations of applicants for federal military officer commissions, as well as of applicants for YMCA overseas positions. They were also engaged in investigating violations of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which included conducting surveillance on a number of targets. Agents infiltrated radical labor organizations, such as the International Workers of the World (Wobblies), as well as socialist organizations. Agents attended meetings and rallies, documenting the names of members and statements made against the war and the government, and assisted federal and local law enforcement in raids of organizational offices. Officers also investigated conscription resisters and delinquents, tracking down citizens who refused to sign up for the draft or who failed to appear before draft boards. Agents were also heavily involved in the New York “slacker raids” in which thousands of innocent men who failed to carry their draft cards were rounded up and detained, with assistance from Bureau of Investigation agents, Army Provost Marshal staff, and city police officers. APL officers regularly made arrests and detained individuals under the cover of governmental authority; however, they lacked statutory authority to make arrests or carry firearms, and they were prohibited by the Department of Justice from doing so.

As World War I came to an end, Americans became increasingly concerned about abuses of civil liberties, violations of privacy, and the large number of imprisoned objectors to the war. As public sentiment changed against government intrusion into the lives of individuals and toward increased privacy rights, Attorney General Gregory decided to shut down the league due to its tendency to violate individual rights. The APL was disbanded in February 1919.

Joshua W. Jeffery Sr. and Richard Goode

See also Civil Liberties ; Espionage ; Federal Bureau of Investigation ; Surveillance During World War I and World War II ; U.S. Secret Service

Further Readings

Abrams, Ray Hamilton. Preachers Present Arms: A Study of the War-Time Attitudes and Activities of the Churches and the Clergy in the United States, 1914–1918. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1933.

Etzioni, Amitai. A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations: On Power, Involvement, and Their Correlates. New York, NY: Free Press, 1975.

Hough, Emerson. The Web: The Authorized History of the American Protective League. Chicago, IL: Reilly & Lee, 1919.

Jensen, Joan M. The Price of Vigilance. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally, 1968.

Mills, Bill. The League: The True Story of Average Americans on the Hunt for WWI Spies. New York, NY: Skyhorse, 2013.