Image Courtesy Library of Congress
With anti-German sentiment spreading alarmingly fast, the Bureau of Investigation (later, FBI) quickly ran short of staff to follow up on each lead it received. Albert M. Briggs’ offer to help establish a volunteer surveillance force to aid the Bureau’s work came at just the right time. Briggs was an advertising executive in Chicago, and his exact motives for offering his help were suspicious at best and have never been fully understood. At a Cabinet meeting on March 30, 1917, President Wilson approved the establishment of a volunteer counterintelligence organization, which came to be known as the American Protective League (APL). Bruce Bielski, the head of the Bureau, gave his approval but was wary of placing too much power into civilian hands. Together with Wilson and Attorney General Thomas Gregory, Bielski warned Briggs against the prosecution of innocent civilians, “the protection of peaceful aliens” being “an important patriotic duty.” As soon as the approval of the Bureau came, Briggs, who became the General Superintendent of the APL, started avidly recruiting nationwide.
Organizationally, the APL belonged under the Bureau of Investigation, which in turn was the investigative branch of the Department of Justice. The APL was a quasi-military organization of chiefs, captains, lieutenants, and squads of operatives. At its height, the APL enlisted about 250,000 citizens, mostly middle-aged, middle-class businessmen. The APL was intended to utilize white men only, but some branches employed a few black porters and women as well. Most operatives joined out of patriotism and a sense of duty, to feel important to their communities, or just for something to do.
The mission of the APL was to “secure information on the activities of agents of foreign governments, or persons unfriendly to this government for the protection of public property, etc.” According to official instructions, the agents were to keep watch on hotels, restaurants, railroad stations, industrial plants, telegraph and telephone lines, steel mills, and the chemical trade. APL agents had an ambiguous legal status. Officially, they were “authorized and auxiliary to the Department of Justice”; however, they had no legal right to detain anyone. Nonetheless, they detained more than 40,000 people. The APL conducted unwarranted searches and seizures, intimidated allegedly disloyal Americans, broke up strikes, staged raids on factories, union halls, and private homes, and opened people’s private mail. As Attorney General Gregory boasted in 1918, “It is safe to say that never in its history has this nation been so thoroughly policed as at the present time.”
On the whole, the APL offered a great deal of help to the Bureau. However, in the absence of any significant German sabotage and espionage activity, most of the APL’s attention was soon redirected toward rooting out dissent among American citizens. In fact, the APL was most successful in helping with the war mobilization effort and coercing loyalty and patriotism in fellow citizens. The fact that a group of self-important people were allowed to spy on their fellow citizens speaks to the spirit of a time in which Wilson preferred his men “to go too far, rather than not far enough” in the war against dissent.