This series has focused on how actions by the South Dakota Council of Defense during World War I flouted both freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Yet it’s easy to have nearly 100 years of hindsight. I’m not denouncing everything the Council and its members did. They undoubtedly were doing what they thought best for the nation and the state at the time. The Council also took a variety of helpful actions.
For example, its first order regulated the price of seed corn. Ensuing ones regulated grain grading and testing and set a maximum wage for harvesting and threshing work. In addition, in light of “unjust, unreasonable and excess prices,” the Council issued an order setting the maximum net profit in producing and distributing ice, of all thing.
Other orders created a registration system for men between the ages of 16 and 21 and 31 and 65 who were unemployed or not employed in “necessary or useful” occupations so they could assist with food production. (“Capitalists,” insurance salesmen, stockbrokers and “fortune tellers, clairvoyants and palmists” were among the occupations specifically deemed as not necessary, useful. essential or productive.) Concern about idlers also led to the adoption of the “Pool Hall Resolution.” It urged local government to “take immediate steps to more stringently regulate, control, or, if need be, closed all places of loitering and loafing, whether the same be pool halls, places of card playing, or places of vice detrimental to public safety.”
The Council also thought it crucial to support Liberty Bond campaigns and volunteerism. Yet that also led to again intruding on civil liberties. For example, it issued a July 8, 1918, order made it a criminal offense to oppose, discourage, obstruct or interfere with Liberty Bond sales or other fundraising and volunteer requests related to the war. Moreover, including county councils, more than 2,200 “cases” were heard dealing with personal opinion. “The major portion of these hearings related to those abundantly able to take their apportionment of Liberty Bonds, but who refused to do so,” the Council reported. “Surprising discoveries were made. Men heretofore considered reputable citizens attempted to shirk their duty in helping their Country in its financing of a great war.” Except for a few “black spots,” the Council said “delinquents became better citizens” because of the hearings. As for the black spots, the identities of “those who remained obdurate in their position of indifference or opposition are a part of the records of this State, an heritage their children and neighbors will not soon forget, but will refer to with shame and regret.”
On December 19, 1918, the Council essentially ended. Gov. Peter Norbeck, also chair of the Council, issued a proclamation vacating its orders and regulations, terminating county councils of defense, and directing the Council to wrap up its activities and prepare a final report. According to the report, between May 8, 1917, and October 31, 1919, the Council spent $19,769.96 of the $20,000 appropriated it by the Legislature. Yet the book wasn’t entirely closed until the end of 1922, when the South Dakota Supreme Court issued its decision in the court proceedings against the Hutterite colonies.
Plainly, some of what the Council did was of benefit. Yet this series shows the lack of universal truth in the adage that all evil needs to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Sometimes it’s good men’s best-intentioned actions that violate our liberties. The Council of Defense just happens to be an example. And what’s sad isn’t that it occurred but that it was far from the first time and, as people like Edward Snowden have shown, we have infinite capacity to sacrifice our freedom for expedience.
Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis,
dissenting in Olmstead v. United States (1928)