Looking Back — Francis Biddle, Censorship & the “Biddle List”

War threatens all civil rights. Francis Biddle, December 15, 1941

I was reading Sam Walker’s Today in Civil Liberties History (a daily historical calendar — quite good!) when I came upon this entry for today, circa April 14, 1942:

Attorney General Biddle OKs Censoring Father Coughlin’s Social Justice Magazine

“In a letter to Postmaster General Frank Walker on this day, Attorney General Francis Biddle (1886-1968) proposed banning the magazine Social Justice from the mails. Social Justice was the publication of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest in the Detroit area, who in the late 1930s became a public, ultra-conservative critic of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

Unknown“When the U.S. entered World War II, Coughlin became a critic of the war effort, in part because he was anti-Semitic. Coughlin’s criticisms were the reasons for Biddle’s censorship proposal. In the end, the Post Office did bar Social Justice from the mails. It was one of the relatively rare instances of suppression of dissent during World War II . . . .” (See Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 15, 1942 story here.)

Biddle, of course, was the one who had been a secretary to Justice Holmes (1911-1912), assistant to the U.S. Attorney (E-Dist., PA), chairman of the NLRB (1934-35), Third Circuit Judge (1939-1940), U.S. Solicitor General (1940), U.S. Attorney General (1941-45), and later a judge on the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (1945-1946) (Herbert Wechsler served as his main assistant), among other things. Biddle also wrote a biography of Holmes — Mr. Justice Holmes (1942), among other books.

Francis Biddle

Francis Biddle

One more biographical note: he was a half second cousin four times removed of James Madison.

As recounted in a Wikipedia entry, “[d]uring World War II Biddle used the Espionage Act of 1917 to attempt to shut down ‘vermin publications.’ This included Father Coughlin’s publication entitled Social Justice. Biddle has also been ‘credited’ with the creation of what became known later as the ‘Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations.’ In fact, this list was originally known as ‘The Biddle List.'”

“In the Biddle List, eleven front groups originating in the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) were singled out as being ‘subversive’ and under the control of the Soviet Union. Unlike the later, more infamous Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations, which contained both left and right-wing organizations, the Biddle List contained only left-wing organizations as well as civil rights organizations tied to the CPUSA.”

Biddle List (1941): 

Contrast Francis Biddle, Remarks at the Dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Room, Library of Congress, December 15, 1941, on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Here is an excerpt from those remarks:

War threatens all civil rights; and although we have fought wars before, and ourpersonal freedoms have survived, there have been periods of gross abuse, when hysteria and hate and fear ran high, and when minorities were unlawfully and cruelly abused. Every man who cares about freedom, about a government by law — ­and all freedom is based on fair administration of the law — must fight for it for the other man with whom he disagrees, for the right of the minority, for the chance for the underprivileged with the same passion of insistence as he claims for his own rights. If we care about democracy, we must care about it as a reality for others as well as for ourselves; yes, for aliens, for Germans, for Italians, for Japanese, for those who are vdth us as well as those who are against us: For the Bill of Rights protects not only American citizensbut all hunlan beings who live on our American soil, under our American flag. The rights of Anglo-Saxons, of Jews, of Catholics, of negroes, of Slavs, Indians — all are alike before the law. And this we must remember and sustain — ­ that is if we really love justice, and really hate the bayonet and the whip and the gun, and the whole Gestapo method as a way of handling human beings.

As far as I can tell, there has been no book-length biography of Francis Biddle, which strikes me as odd. Such a biography is long overdue and Biddle is certainly deserving of one.

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1 Response

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    For those interested, Biddle did write two memoirs. “In Brief Authority” covers 1934 through 1946, and I assume his earlier one covers his life up to 1934.