Civil libertarian, pacifist, social worker, internationalist, anti-imperialist, and human rights activist: Reflections on the life and times of Roger Nash Baldwin.

While most famed for his 30 years as executive director of the ACLU, Roger Nash Baldwin had a varied and multifaceted life. His many activities, struggles, and accomplishments are vividly recalled by Baldwin himself in a series of interviews he conducted for the renowned Columbia Oral History Project – microfiche copies of which the RIAS are proud to hold. Founded in 1948 by journalist and historian Allan Nevins, the Columbia University Oral History Collection contains an invaluable collection of interviews with actors and witnesses to key American events of the twentieth century. The six parts of the Oral History Collection itself include over 1000 memoirs, and the RIAS owns a selection of about 300 interviews.

In his extensive oral history interview, Roger Baldwin vividly recounts his background of being born on January 21st, 1884, and raised in a wealthy Massachusetts family with a proud reformist lineage. After graduating from Harvard, Baldwin based himself in St. Louis, Missouri. For the following decade, he devoted himself to social work and other Progressive Era reform causes, such as the introduction of the initiative, referendum, and recall, as well as advocating civil service and juvenile court reform. However, throughout these experiences, Baldwin became incredibly disillusioned with much of the mainstream progressive reformism he was involved in due to its often disappointing and counterproductive results.

In the midst of the First World War, Baldwin moved to New York; he joined first the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) and then its successor, the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB). The latter took upon itself the defense of such rights as those of conscientious objectors (C.O.s), free speech, press, and assembly in the face of the vast wave of domestic suppression throughout the United States during the war. Baldwin’s organizational ability made its mark within the NCLB, but he was notified to register for the draft in September 1918. Refusing to do so as a conscientious objector and reading his prepared statement, ‘The Individual and the State,’ Baldwin was sentenced to eleven months in prison, serving nine in total.

Inspired by these wartime experiences, Baldwin joined other NCLB veterans in 1920 to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to champion and defend such liberties as free speech, press, assembly, and petition. By this time, Baldwin had essentially adopted an anti-statist attitude toward reform and a passionately pro-labor commitment. As he later articulated in his oral history interview, ‘[I]t was obvious that labor and the left demanded defense of their rights.’ Hence, he was determined to provide aid to organized labor in their activities through the ACLU’s civil liberties commitments. However (and ironically, given how the ACLU was to evolve), Baldwin and the ACLU also happened to be deeply skeptical of resorting to the courts in the early years.

Throughout Baldwin’s stewardship, the ACLU championed the causes of free speech, the press, assembly and other civil liberties by participating and assisting in rallies, protests, and strikes, most famously in Passaic and Paterson in New Jersey, Pittsburg and other mining areas of Pennsylvania. They also took up and/or lent their support to such famed cases as the Scopes “Monkey” trial (regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools), Gitlow v. New York (a critical Supreme Court decision in making the First Amendment binding upon the states as well as the federal government), United States v. Dennett (regarding the dissemination of a sex education pamphlet), and challenging the importation ban of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The former were just some of the many significant events and cases involving the ACLU in their gradual transformation from being primarily an activist-oriented, pro-labor organization to becoming one of the preeminent practitioners and pioneers of strategic litigation and legal defense aid.

The ACLU’s perspectives, experiences, and approaches to the New Deal under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt are discussed in detail throughout the oral history interview. During the Roosevelt administration, the ACLU acquired greater influence with state actors and institutions and achieved accompanying successes and progress on their civil liberties goals. Examples included the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the Congressional La Follette Civil Liberties Committee (1936-41), and the Justice Department’s Civil Liberties Unit (1939). As Baldwin later summed up in his oral history: ‘I knew we were making hay in the New Deal sun.’ The corollary, however, of these developments was that the ACLU increasingly lost much of its former state skepticism, radicalism, and overtly pro-organized labor leanings. These were instead replaced by a commitment to a more neutral and universalistic conceptualization of free speech and other civil liberties.

While not discussed in as much detail, Baldwin recounts aspects of his final decade as the executive director of the ACLU, which ran through the Second World War, the onset of the Cold War, and Truman’s Fair Deal, as he described it. Throughout this period, Baldwin also lent his services as an independent civil liberties observer of the postwar American military occupations of Japan, Korea, and Germany. Regarding this, not only does Baldwin give the Columbia Oral History Collection Project a very detailed account of these experiences, but he also provides it with valuable primary source material, including personal notes, correspondence, and memoranda.

An irrepressible organizer and coalition builder, the scope of Baldwin’s reformist and activist activity was not limited to the ACLU. Baldwin’s extracurricular activities during his years with the ACLU also included participation in anti-imperialist causes and organizations, such as proactive advocacy for Indian independence and membership in the League Against Imperialism (LAI). Baldwin also headed the International Committee for Political Prisoners, which was concerned with the rights and conditions of deportees and political prisoners outside of the United States. As he described its activities: ‘[For] fifteen years it survived as an emergency lifesaving station and relief agency, protesting to foreign governments, … publishing pamphlets and bulletins of facts little known.’ Nor did his retirement as director of the ACLU signal the end of such additional pursuits since Baldwin continued to act as a consultant on human rights to the United Nations. This was an extension of his work with the International League for the Rights of Man, a non-governmental organization, as Baldwin described it, ‘that had the unique role of the agency devoted solely to human rights on principle’ and was ‘present at every session [of the U.N.] dealing with human rights.’ In these latter years, Baldwin also maintained a less direct but still significant relationship with the ACLU – as demonstrated by the interest he continued to maintain on their behalf in the Caribbean-based US colonies of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Baldwin continued to champion human rights and civil liberties also in the last part of his life, manifesting his deep and long-lasting commitment to equality and justice. More than forty years after his death, his dedication to those causes can still be experienced distinctly in his extensive interview for the Columbia University Oral History Collection Project.


This piece was written using the following primary sources available at the RIAS:
Columbia University Oral History Collection:  Baldwin, Roger Nash: Microfiche Slides 1-3, 5-7.

And the additional aid of this secondary source literature available at the RIAS:
Walker, S., In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (New York, 1990).
Weinrib, L., The Taming of Free Speech: America’s Civil Liberties Compromise (Cambridge, 2016).