Not quite a century ago, during the Great War, Tulsans deemed guilty of “disloyalty” were sent to insane asylums. Unattached women of suspect morals were interned without recourse in a “detention camp” at First and Elgin; men judged insufficiently enthusiastic about their patriotic duty to buy Liberty Bonds were, in the words of an official post-war report, “made to see the light.”
This was not just Tulsa. Under color of patriotism and the war effort, very likely influenced by reaction to an influx of immigrants, the stirring of a civil rights movement, and women’s march to suffrage, the nation launched a broad attack on personal liberty.
It began, if not innocently, at least with good intentions. The National Defense Act of 1916 authorized the creation of state and local Councils of Defense. The state councils were activated shortly after U.S. entry into the war in the spring of 1917; the state councils, in turn, authorized the local councils.
Initially, the councils were to inventory industrial, agricultural and transportation assets and coordinate their utilization for military purposes. Rather quickly, they assumed or were given responsibility for monitoring the activities of regular citizens, ferreting out suspected spies and saboteurs, intimidating suspected enemy sympathizers, tracking down draft resisters and war profiteers, even pressuring clergy to stick to the script.
The Tulsa County Council of Defense was led by prominent and conscientious citizens, and most of what it did was beyond reproach. Some of it, though, fed the worst instincts of human nature.
The council maintained an investigations department that handled more than 300 cases in a little over a year, ranging from disloyalty to fraud. It also worked in cooperation with the American Protective League, a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation bureau — later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and the 1,000-member Home Guard, a force of men ineligible for regular military duty who were supposed to replace the National Guardsmen called to active duty.
Much of their work was relatively routine — background checks, identifying draft dodgers, looking out for the families of service members. But they also interrogated “alien enemies,” put a stop to German-language schools and religious services (even German classes at the local high school) and packed off an unknown number of “disloyal” citizens to the “insane asylum.”
The war ended at the end of 1918. The councils of defense and the Home Guard were disbanded the next year. But the overriding zeal of the times lingered, manifesting itself in the rise of a new Ku Klux Klan, the Palmer Raids, even Prohibition, and an insistence on conformity to a certain definition of what it means to be an American.