Roger Nash Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), leftist, anarchist, and Communist, was born in Wellesley, Massachusetts to comfortably situated parents, in 1884. He was educated at Harvard College, where he earned an M.A. degree, and then moved to St. Louis, where he taught Social Work at Washington University.
At the approach of World War I, Baldwin, a pacifist, co-founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which opposed the use of warfare in the settlement of international disputes. Among his colleagues in this endeavor were Norman Thomas, perennial Socialist candidate for President; the pacifist/Marxist A. J. Muste; and radical journalist Oswarld Garrison Villard, Editor of The Nation.
As World War I progressed, Baldwin co-founded the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), again with the aim of promoting a pacifist, internationalist agenda. In 1920 he joined with several of his colleagues in the American Left to establish the ACLU. Baldwin was named the organization's first Executive Director, a position he would hold until 1950.
The ACLU soon became enmeshed in a variety of high-profile causes; the Scopes Trial; the Sacco and Vanzetti case, which has long been a cause celebre of the Left; and the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses.
Baldwin showed much sympathy to the Soviet economic system in his statement in his Harvard classbook, and in the foreword he wrote to Letters from Russian Prisons (1924). He embraced the view that the Russia of his day was "a great laboratory of social experimentation of incalculable value to the development of the world.”
In the 1930s Baldwin and the ACLU became linked to the Popular Front movement, which was engendered by Stalin to strengthen the Communist Party by allowing it to make common cause with socialists and other leftist groups. Baldwin himself made two trips to the Soviet Union, and in 1928 published a book entitled Liberty Under the Soviets, which contained effusive praise for the USSR.
In 1934 Baldwin authored a piece titled "Freedom in the USA and the USSR." He wrote: "The class struggle is the central conflict of the world; all others are incidental. When that power of the working class is once achieved, as it has been only in the Soviet Union, I am for maintaining it by any means whatever. Dictatorship is the obvious means in a world of enemies at home and abroad. I dislike it in principle as dangerous to its own objects. But the Soviet Union has already created liberties far greater than exist elsewhere in the world. … [There] I saw ... fresh, vigorous expressions of free living by workers and peasants all over the land. And further, no champion of a socialist society could fail to see that some suppression was necessary to achieve it. It could not all be done by persuasion. … [I]f American champions of civil liberty could all think in terms of economic freedom as the goal of their labors, they too would accept 'workers' democracy' as far superior to what the capitalist world offers to any but a small minority. Yes, and they would accept — regretfully, of course — the necessity of dictatorship while the job of reorganizing society on a socialist basis is being done."
Baldwin altered his stance on the Soviet Union in 1939, when the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed. Angry that the Soviets had betrayed all principles by signing an accord with Hitler, Baldwin promptly sought to have all Communists removed from the ACLU board; the Communist labor organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, was among those purged from the organization.
After the War, Baldwin was sent to Japan by General Douglas MacArthur, who wanted him to assist the Japanese in developing a concept of egalitarian government and civil liberties. Also in the postwar period, Baldwin was a co-founder of the International League for the Rights of Man (later the International League for Human Rights.)
Baldwin retired as Executive Director of the ACLU in 1950 but remained active in the organization. He traveled extensively after his retirement, especially to Asia, where he condemned the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, even as he embraced the Communist dictator Ho Chi Minh as a member of the Vietnamese-American Friendship Association. He cultivated the friendship of convicted terrorist Pedro Albizu Campos in Puerto Rico. He also joined SANE (the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy), which argued for unilateral nuclear disarmament by the United States.
Reflecting on his early years as the ACLU's Executive Director, Baldwin candidly revealed his original motives and objectives: "I am for socialism, disarmament, and ultimately, for abolishing the state itself as an instrument of violence and compulsion. I seek social ownership of property, the abolition of the properties class, and sole control of those who produce wealth. Communism is the goal. It all sums up into one single purpose -- the abolition of dog-eat-dog under which we live. I don't regret being part of the communist tactic. I knew what I was doing. I was not an innocent liberal. I wanted what the communists wanted and I traveled the United Front road to get it."
Baldwin maintained an office in the United Nations after his retirement from the ACLU, working as a consultant for the International League for Human Rights. He died in 1981.