War and the law in Detroit, 1917--1919

Date of Completion

January 1996


American Studies|History, United States|Law




National studies of World War I have criticized America's legal system for its failure to protect the constitutional right of free speech for the opponents of war. This case study explores in depth the performance of the legal system in Detroit, Michigan.^ Before the war, three-quarters of Detroit's population was foreign-born or the American children of immigrants. The local English-speaking community, anxious about economic recession and rising unemployment, doubted the loyalty of the immigrants in a city where almost half of the population could not speak English. Although the community promoted an Americanization program to integrate immigrants into American life, political intolerance intensified as pacifists and advocates of preparedness polarized Detroit. Reports of German espionage filled the press and created fear of German spies. Pressure mounted on Germans to prove their loyalty. The sensational trial of German spy Albert Kaltschmidt confirmed the worst fears.^ This intolerance and fear inspired efforts by the federal legal system to suppress the opponents of war. Federal agents developed an extensive system of surveillance through a network of informants. Aided by local officials, they swiftly arrested, jailed and intimidated dissenters.^ However, courageous lawyers defended the opponents of war. Their vigorous defense swayed independent juries, thereby slowing the federal juggernaut. They also used the petition of habeas corpus to free immigrants conscripted illegally.^ U.S. District Court Judge Arthur J. Tuttle worked quietly behind the scenes to block many prosecutions under the Espionage Act and to persuade the executive branch to moderate some excesses. However, he ultimately failed to show the independence essential to a vigorous protection of the freedom of speech.^ Despite patriotic intolerance, law enforcement excesses, and political expediency, the work of key participants in the legal system kept many dissenters from prison. Because of courageous advocates, independent juries, institutional safeguards, and judicial support of the right of free speech, many cases against the opponents of war were either abandoned or failed, including the most important prosecutions under the Selective Service and Espionage Acts. ^