- Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union
- Enthusiastic proponent of Communism
- Died in 1981
Born in Wellesley, Massachusetts on January 21, 1884, Roger Nash Baldwin was educated at Harvard College, where he earned a BA in 1904 and an MA the following year. Baldwin then moved to St. Louis, where he taught sociology at Washington University from 1906-09; served as chief probation officer of the city’s Juvenile Court (1907–10); and was secretary of the reformist Civic League of St. Louis (1910–17). Also during his time in St. Louis, Baldwin developed a friendship with the anarchist Emma Goldman and became involved in radical political and social movements.
At the approach of World War I, Baldwin co-founded the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, which unwaveringly opposed the use of warfare in the settlement of international disputes. Among Baldwin’s colleagues in this endeavor were the perennial Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas, the pacifist/Marxist A. J. Muste, and The Nation editor Oswald Garrison Villard.
When the U.S. entered the War in 1917, Baldwin helped establish the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), again with the aim of promoting a pacifist, internationalist agenda. Soon thereafter, the AUAM created the Civil Liberties Bureau and appointed Baldwin as its leader. This Bureau subsequently broke away from AUAM, renamed itself the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB), and expanded its scope to include also the defense of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
In 1918-19, Baldwin spent nine months in jail for refusing to register for the military draft. After his release in 1919, he joined the Industrial Workers of the World. And when the NCLB in 1920 was renamed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Baldwin became its executive director and went on to hold that post for the next 30 years.
In the early 1920s Baldwin was an official with the Garland Fund, a major financier of Communist Party enterprises.
Though Baldwin said he was not a communist, he visited the Soviet Union in 1924 and wrote glowingly about Stalin’s government and the great social experiment which was then being undertaken in that country. Embracing the view that Russia had become “a great laboratory of social experimentation of incalculable value to the development of the world,” Baldwin pragmatically viewed “repressions in Soviet Russia” as “weapons of struggle in a transition period to socialism.” That is, he saw such repressions as necessary avenues to a desirable end. “I accepted the fact that civil liberties were not suitable for Russia,” he once averred.
Baldwin visited the Soviet Union again in 1927, and a year later he published a book entitled Liberty Under the Soviets, which contained effusive praise for the USSR.
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.In 1934 Baldwin authored a piece titled “Freedom in the USA and the USSR,” which revisited the theme of political repression as a necessary evil in the noble quest for utopia:
“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.”
In 1935 Baldwin wrote the following in his thirtieth-anniversary edition of the Harvard University classbook:
“My ‘chief aversion’ is the system of greed, private profit, privilege, and violence which makes up the control of the world today, and which has brought it the tragic crisis of unprecedented hunger and unemployment…. I am for Socialism, disarmament, and ultimately the abolishing of the state itself as an instrument of violence and compulsion. I seek social ownership of property, the abolition of the propertied class, and sole control by 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, and the substitution by the most effective non-violence possible of a system of cooperative ownership and use of all wealth.”1
Baldwin altered his stance on the USSR in 1939, when the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was signed. Angry that the Soviets had betrayed their principles by aligning themselves with Hitler, Baldwin in 1940 sought to have all Communists removed from the ACLU board; the Communist labor organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, was among those purged from the organization.
In 1947 General Douglas MacArthur invited Baldwin to Japan to foster the protection of civil liberties in that country, where Baldwin subsequently founded the Japan Civil Liberties Union. In 1948, American General Lucius Clay invited Baldwin to Germany and Austria for similar purposes.
Baldwin retired as executive director of the ACLU in 1950 but remained active in the organization thereafter. Indeed he kept an office in the United Nations, working as a consultant for the ILHR.
Baldwin traveled extensively after his retirement, especially to Asia, where he embraced the Communist dictator Ho Chi Minh as a member of the Vietnamese-American Friendship Association, which gave favorable publicity to the Viet Cong. Baldwin also cultivated the friendship of convicted terrorist Pedro Albizu Campos in Puerto Rico. Moreover, Baldwin joined the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which argued for unilateral nuclear disarmament by the United States.
Reflecting on his early years with the ACLU, Baldwin said: “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 died of heart failure seven months later, on August 26, 1981.
1 “Baldwin, ‘From the Harvard Classbook,'” (June 1935, vol. 763). From Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union [New York: Columbia University Press, 2000], pp. 228-229.