Yielding our freedoms: Meet the State Council of Defense

As noted in the last post, concern about American “preparedness” after the First World War started led to a variety of government action. One was the formation of the Council of National Defense, which was to coordinate industries and resources “for the national security and welfare.”

Although created in August 1916, the Council wasn’t fully organized until March 3, 1917. On April 2, President Wilson went before Congress and asked it to declare war on Germany to “make the world safe for democracy.” A week later, the Secretary of War, acting as chair of the Council of National Defense, asked the states to create their own councils of defense “with broad powers” to cooperate with the national council. As a result, South Dakota Gov. Peter Norbeck appointed a State Council of Defense, which met for the first time on May 7, 1917. Not only did the Council itself get organized, it appointed a chairman for each county and asked them to immediately create county councils of defense.

As the report prepared by the Council a year or two after the war observed, “There was no law creating a Council, neither had this body any vested authority from legislative enactments. It had no funds with which to operate.” The Council spent much of 1917 on items related to food production, fuel conservation, the workforce, organizing a “Home Guard of the State of South Dakota” for military training, and Liberty Loan bond campaigns. The Council funded its activities by borrowing $200 each from 25 banks in the state in September 1917.

Full legal authority and funding didn’t come the Legislature until April 2, 1918, when a bill creating and enabling a State Council of Defense went into effect. In addition to appropriating $20,000 (approximately $310,000 today), the bill gave the Council wide-ranging power:

During the continuance of a state of war existing between the United States and any foreign nation, such Council shall have the power to do all acts and things not inconsistent with the Constitution or laws of the State of South Dakota, or of the United States, which are necessary or proper for the public safety and for the protection of life and public property, or private property of a character as in the judgment of the Council requires protection[.]

The legislation also specifically authorized the Council to take many other steps by majority vote, including:

  • “require a complete registration of the citizens of the state, or of any class of such citizens, at such time or times as it deems expedient.”
  • make “orders and rules necessary” to carry out its function as long as they were published in two newspapers of general circulation at least five days before going into effect. Violating, refusing or failing to obey any orders or rules would subject a person to a county jail term of up to a year and/or a fine of up to $1,000 (equivalent to more than $15,000 today).
  • require any person to appear before it to be examined under oath “as to any information within the knowledge of such person” and to produce “any writings or documents under his control[.]”
  • inquire into the performance of any public official and advise the Governor to remove them from office if the Council believed the public interest requires it.

This is not a comprehensive list of the Council’s authority. And, notably, the act contained nothing requiring the Council’s orders or rules be reviewed or approved at any time by any other entity or official. The only restriction was that its actions be consistent with the federal and state Constitution or laws. I’ll begin exploring what the Council thought was consistent with constitutional rights in the next post.

And in every financial drive many a close-fisted man has opened up his purse strings, owing to the persuasion of the “women folks.”

Foreword, Report of the South Dakota State Council of Defense

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