The Importance of America's First Antiwar Movement

This week, on the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I in April 1917, historian Michael Kazin wrote in the New York Times, "America’s decision to join the Allies was a turning point in world history. It altered the fortunes of the war and the course of the 20th century — and not necessarily for the better. Its entry most likely foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated peace among belligerent powers that were exhausted from years mired in trench warfare."

April 1917 was a turning point for the nation, the moment in which the United States became a global power, a role it has never yielded since. (By my calculation, America has been deeply engaged in foreign wars for half of the century since.) Yet Americans were hardly unanimous or enthusiastic about joining what was then known as the Great War.

In his latest book, War Against War, Kazin tells the largely unknown story of America's first antiwar movement in all of its dimensions. From small-government conservatives to immigrant socialists, millions of American resisted the call for the United States to join the Great War that began in Europe in August 1914.  Until President Woodrow Wilson persuaded Congress to issue a declaration of war, this diverse and sometimes fractious movement helped keep the United States out of the war that would prove formative to its militarized future. 

With President Trump now contemplating military action in Syria, the question of when and why America goes to war is back on the front pages.

In an email interview with AlterNet, Kazin talked about what the antiwar movement of 100 years ago means for us today. 

Jefferson Morley: In War Against Waryou write about the radical and socialist resistance to U.S. entry in the Great War. You also talk about the conservative resistance, especially in Congress. Who did what? And who had more influence in stalling the march to war?

Michael Kazin: Actually, the two groups reinforced one another. The pacifists, feminists and socialists organized in a variety of ways: mass rallies, antiwar exhibitions, trips to meet with fellow activists abroad, meetings with Wilson, a popular referendum before Congress could declare war, and more, while their allies in Congress fought to defeat an increase in the size of the military and to stop Americans from traveling on British ships that might be attacked by U-boats. Neither group would have had as much clout on its own.

Of course, once war was declared, it proved itself to be an unstable coalition. Figures like Rep. Claude Kitchin (D-NC), the House majority leader during the entire war, voted against going to war. But then he wanted to make sure his party (and he) stayed in power and so he focused on raising the income tax on richer Americans and passing an excess profits tax. Meanwhile, the activists were under assault by the Wilson administration and the courts. So the coalition essentially devolved into a left-wing movement, struggling to keep itself alive.

JM: You cite many opponents of war who claimed that the rich wanted war because it would be profitable. Were they right?

MK: I’m not a big fan of economic determinist explanations, particularly when it comes to something as momentous as a world war. Contrary to the claims of such opponents of the war as Robert La Follette and Eugene Debs, greedy corporations did not compel the U.S. to send troops into the battlefields of France. Metal and munitions manufacturers and J.P. Morgan and Co. were doing quite well supplying the Allies with goods and loans from 1915 on; they didn’t need the U.S. to be a belligerent to make big profits.

Also nearly all these industrialists and financiers were pro-British and usually pro-French for familial and ideological reasons. They never would have helped Germany and the other Central Powers win the war. In 1934, a special Senate committee, chaired by Gerald Nye (R-ND) sought to indict "merchants of death" for pushing the United States into the war. But its evidence was quite thin.

JM: Yet in the end Wilson prevailed and the country went to war. Why? Did his repressive measures hobble the antiwar movement? Or did Wilson win the argument for intervention in public opinion?

MK: Wilson managed to persuade most members of Congress and most Americans to intervene for two major reasons: first, he had spoken eloquently since the war began about the need for a mediated settlement. In 1916, he ran for re-election with the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.”

And as late as Jan. 22, 1917, he called for a “peace without victory.” So when the Germans, in early February, went back on their earlier pledge not to target neutral ships and other ships with neutral passengers aboard, he could accuse them of bad faith and bring a lot of people, especially in his own party, along with him.

However, antiwar feeling remained strong, and the new conscription law was not popular among a lot of working-class men of all races either. So the government’s repressive measures were intended to stop the antiwar movement from getting much traction. It succeeded, but in the 1917 elections, antiwar socialists did quite well in many cities, which demonstrated how many people were still unpersuaded. Of course, there were no opinion polls yet!

JM: America has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for 15 years with few signs of an antiwar movement of the 1910s or the 1960s or even the anti-intervention/nuclear freeze movements of the 1980s. Why do you think that is?

MK: I wrote a piece about this a couple of years ago for Dissent, which I edit. The answer, I think, boils down to a combination of Americans’ abhorrence of the enemies U.S. troops have been fighting (Saddam Hussein, the Taliban and now ISIS) [and] the fact that comparatively few Americans have died, and the lack of a left for whom foreign policy is a major concern. The absence of a draft has some impact too, but not as much as some people think.

JM: Wilson’s credo of taking U.S. military action to make the world 'safe for democracy' proved influential. Doesn’t every U.S. president from Wilson to Barack Obama qualify as a Wilsonian? And is Trump our first anti- (or non-) Wilsonian president in the century?

MK: Yes, I think that’s probably correct, although William Howard Taft focused on economic affairs abroad (“dollar diplomacy”) and promoted bilateral arbitration treaties between nations to forestall armed conflict and supported even an international court to resolve all international disputes. Trump may discover his democratic idealism if he decides to send in more troops somewhere. Most Americans want to think that our troops are killing people for a moral cause, even if Trump doesn’t seem to care about that.


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