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American Resistance to World War I

Bennett Muraskin
May 23, 2017

by Bennett Muraskin

Discussed in this essay: War against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918, by Michael Kazin. Simon and Schuster, 2017, 400 pages.

THE UNITED STATES did not enter World War I until April 1917, over two and a half years after the war began. If the militaristic Theodore Roosevelt had won the presidency in 1912 (he came in second), and had the Republicans attained a majority in Congress, the U.S. would likely have declared war a lot sooner. But the Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected and then re-elected in 1916 as a peace candidate. From inside the Democratic Party, he faced pressure from prominent anti-war figures, including the ever-popular William Jennings Bryan, and House Majority Leader Claude Kitchin (D-NC). From the other side of the aisle, progressive Republican Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and a few others also insisted that the U.S. stay out of the war. And from the streets, socialists, pacifists, and feminists vigorously organized against U.S. intervention. However, the best known anti-war warriors may have been the industrialist Henry Ford and the newspaper mogul William Randolph Heart. Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows.

The crooked road to war, and the movement to resist it, is the subject of Michael Kazin’s latest book. As he shows, U.S. involvement was not inevitable. Big business and banks may have pushed for war with Germany due to their economic ties to England, but Wilson was not their tool. In fact, there is no evidence that J.P. Morgan or the arms manufacturers had any influence on Wilson’s decision-making. The strongest advocates for war in the political arena, former President Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, openly despised him.

Wilson maintained excellent relations with anti-war leaders, and his 1916 presidential campaign even won over segments of the Socialist Party. His offer to mediate an end to the war that would include an international body to keep the peace and a promise of self-determination for the oppressed nationalities of Europe was very appealing to many on the left.

The event that changed Wilson’s mind was Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, in February 1917, against merchant ships carrying military and non-military supplies to England and France -- a tactic that Germany had suspended in response to the outcry over its sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. The Zimmerman telegram, decoded in March 1917, which disclosed Germany’s attempt to induce Mexico to attack the U.S. in case it declared war on Germany, was icing on the cake. At around the same time, the tsar was overthrown in Russia, which meant that U.S. entry into the war could not be seen as assisting a notorious tyrant. The U.S. declaration of war followed in April. There were only six dissenters in the Senate and fifty in the House (13 percent). Among them was the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, Jeanette Rankin, a Republican from Montana.

Was there an alternative? Kazin believes so. Had the U.S. stayed out of the war, could diplomacy have ended the conflict? Henry Ford tried and failed with his “peace ship” endeavor in 1915-16. Could Wilson have served as a more credible and effective mediator? We will never know.

KAZIN ARGUES that had U.S. intervention not tipped the military scales in favor of the West, Germany would not have surrendered. The fighting may have continued longer, but eventually sheer exhaustion would have brought the warring parties to the negotiating table, where a compromise settlement could have been reached. Instead, the victorious powers imposed a punitive peace on Germany, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust.

His heroes are the anti-war forces of the left, first and foremost Crystal Eastman (sister of Max Eastman, the editor of The Masses), Socialist Party leader Morris Hillquit, and Senator La Follette. Eastman, supported by social reformers Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, led the Women’s Peace Party and was a key figure in the American Union Against Militarism. These were the two major organizations opposing U.S. entry into the war. Morris Hillquit, the Jewish socialist from New York, was the architect of the Socialist Party’s position on the war and its foremost public advocate. He ran strong campaigns for Congress and mayor in 1916 and 1917 on anti-war platforms.

Working in a broad coalition, the anti-war forces held public meetings and mass demonstrations, lobbied and petitioned Congress, and conducted a vigorous publicity campaign in the press and the mails. Within Congress, La Follette was the most steadfast opponent of the war, both before and during the American participation, withstanding fierce accusations of treason and a concerted attempt to expel him from the Senate.

As Kazin reveals, the anti-war forces were so confident that the majority of Americans were behind them that they demanded a popular referendum on the U.S. entrance into the war. Indeed, there were many Americans who saw no reason for the U.S. to get involved in foreign wars on the basic premise that it was none of our business. Large ethnic groups had better-defined reasons: Irish immigrants were unconditionally opposed to any support for England; Jews and Poles felt the same way about tsarist Russia; many German immigrants had a lingering attachment to their homeland.

WITH THE DECLARATION of war and the introduction of a military draft, Wilson became a super-patriot. The government unleashed a massive propaganda campaign to glorify the war effort and stigmatize its opponents as traitors. Congress passed the Alien Act and the Sedition Act, which virtually criminalized anti-war activity. Anti-war literature was banned from the mails, anti-war activists arrested and the Bureau of Investigation, aided by vigilantes, hunted down draft dodgers. The Industrial Workers of the World was decimated by raids and vigilante attacks. Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs and others less famous socialists were sent to prison. Anarchists Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and other non-citizen radicals were detained pending deportation. German Americans were routinely harassed.

Both out of conviction that citizens must rally around the flag during wartime, and out of fear of repression, the anti-war movement splintered. Democratic Party leaders Kitchin and Bryan fell into line. Social activists and intellectuals John Dewey, W.E.B Du Bois, Lillian Wald and Rabbi Stephen Wise declared support for the war. But new organizations and leaders emerged to continue the struggle. The National Civil Liberties Bureau (the precursor to the ACLU), led by Roger Baldwin, fought the Alien and Sedition Acts and defended draft resisters in court. A new umbrella organization, the People’s Council for Democracy and Policy, came into existence in May 1917, a month after the declaration of war. It was led by Socialists, but also attracted pacifists, labor leaders and clergy, including a young Presbyterian minister named Norman Thomas and a young rabbi, Judah Magnes. Black socialists and civil rights advocates A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen lent their support, promoting the anti-war cause in their Harlem newspaper The Messenger.

Kazin believes that American participation in World War I paved the way for the national security state. In this, he is only half right. The U.S. Congress refused to join the League of Nations in 1919 and the military shrank during the 1920s and ’30s. Yet the war certainly launched the career of J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director, whose vendetta against the civil liberties of radicals and dissenters lasted for decades. The Red Scare of 1918 to 1920 was a fiercer, albeit briefer, precursor to the McCarthy era.

Kazin also believes that the anti-war movement was vindicated, because in retrospect World War I was ultimately considered a mistake. Here he is on shaky ground: It is true that there were grave misgivings about the war in the 1920s and ’30s, reflected in Congressional hearings, the passage of Neutrality Acts, and the overall growth of isolationist sentiment -- but where did it lead? Yes, Norman Thomas, who became the foremost socialist in America, and Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin carried over their principled opposition to World War I to World War II, while on the far left, leaders of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party went to prison for their anti-war stance, and the Communist Party opposed the war from its outbreak in September 1939 -- until Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Most opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II, however, was led by antisemitic Charles Lindbergh, leader of the America First Committee. If World War II was a righteous cause, as Kazin believes, the legacy of the movement against World War I cannot be considered as admirable as he makes it out to be.

As for the righteousness of World War II, two of the most notorious blots on American history -- the detention of 110,00 Japanese Americans and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- were byproducts of U.S. participation. War or peace is rarely a black and white matter, and Kazin does not fully grapple with this dilemma.

Kazin is a distinguished Jewish historian who has written about social movements and the left in America. He has a mastery of his material and a readable style. The publication date of this book may have been timed for the centennial of America’s entrance into World War I. It richly deserves our attention.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.