Jingo Unchained: What World War I Wrought

By Zach DorfmanApril 14, 2014

Jingo Unchained: What World War I Wrought

ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago, the world stumbled into “The War To End All Wars.” With the liberation of France 70 years ago, the same world watched as the “Good War” stumbled towards its end. These anniversaries serve as bookends to the same bloody event: our own age’s Thirty Years War. These events, unprecedented in the ways they marshaled new technologies and ideologies to mobilize vast armies, galvanize entire populations, and work toward exterminating yet others, has generated an equally unprecedented literature. The monographs and memoirs, prose and poetry, reflections and treatises that have issued from the Thirty-Year War would overwhelm a library of even Borgesian dimensions. LARB is looking at some of the most original and provocative books that these anniversaries have given readers — works of history, of course, but also works of fiction and film, all reviewed with the goal of casting new light on a long war not yet as old as we imagine. This essay is the second in the series. 

— Robert Zaretsky, History Editor


THERE IS A venerable tradition in American politics — in many ways, it is one of our oldest inheritances, and an essential part of a real American conservative republicanism — that rejects foreign interventionism. The reasons for this rejection are both pragmatic and moral. Pragmatic, because a steadfastly neutral country can trade with all foreign states without fear of the consequences of an ultimately ruinous alliance system. Moral, because interventionism and the “foreign entanglements” George Washington warned about in his Farewell Address (which he devoted to the dangers of such imbroglios), corrupt the democratic process at home, hollow out a republic’s institutions, decimate its coffers, and empower factional interests. Interventionism abroad is the surest path to the dissolution and destruction of what was once known as our “common wealth,” the Res publica, the thing that holds us together as citizens in the public sphere. John Quincy Adams was merely restating long-standing principle when he said that, “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

This tradition went underground in the 20th century, with America’s entry into World War I. One hundred years ago, in 1914, the United States began a radical transformation, the effects of which can still be felt today. World War I is still largely viewed through a European lens, and rightly so, since it forever altered the trajectory of the Continent. It is impossible to overstate the horror of the war in Europe, which led to the pointless deaths of at least 16 million human beings. But even though the United States only formally entered the war in April 1917 — and was engaged in combat for less than six months — the war, although far removed from American soil, had a decisive effect on our democracy. It changed the presidency, forever; it changed the American military, forever; it changed our views on propaganda, freedom of speech, and surveillance, forever. Most of all, it changed our sense of ourselves.

How little we’ve registered these seismic shifts is a measure of our intellectual poverty, a sign of a casual disregard for our inheritance as American citizens. “Foreign Policy” — or international politics (“policy” makes it sound scientific, anodyne, abstracted) — dominates the affairs of federal lawmakers and bureaucrats, very often to the detriment of critical domestic matters. The influence and pull of international politics feeds back into these matters in many ways. International politics carries with it a certain unavoidable tone, since it is the one domain where the state presents itself as impregnable unity, forcing its unified will upon other states. The implicit threat in this interaction is always the possibility of war. Thus, as the dissenting journalist Randolph Bourne wrote in 1918, “International politics is a ‘power politics’ because it is a relation of states and that is what states infallibly and calamitously are, huge aggregations of human and industrial force that may be hurled against each other in war.” The truth of this proposition was tested and verified in World War I, and in the many modern conflicts that followed. Judge the 20th century according to the number of people it victimized, and you’ll see a protracted bloodbath. Intermittent gasps of decency aside, it was, for the great majority of humankind, an utter disaster.

We tend to forget this in the United States, since even our most gruesome and costly wars brought us minimal casualties by world standards. Soviet casualties in World War II alone are far greater than the cumulative war-related deaths in the entirety of American history. America suffered “only” 116,516  war deaths in World War I. (And, in fact, combat only accounts for 53,402 of  those — more  American soldiers died because of the great flu of 1918 than on the battlefield.) Our most violent and destructive conflict to this day is the Civil War, which was fought over 150 years ago and is remembered as a kind of fratricidal conflict. Still, although our national politics continue to be shaped to a surprising degree by a discredited idea — the inalienable right to own another human being — we have lost our visceral connection with the human cost of the Civil War as an armed conflict, as opposed to an ideological one. Now, we prosecute wars large and small but do not feel them as real events, since we have constructed a cordon sanitare around our business of war-making. This is not a luxury the rest of the world can often claim for itself; it is a kind of unjust tax we impose on other states and peoples, compounding whatever injustices are caused by our initial decision to go to war.

But these wars are very real, and have a very real effect on our political life and institutions. Never before or since has this been felt more strongly or viscerally than in the period leading up to World War I. For the first time, against the better judgment of most of the American people, a domestic oligarchy sought to embroil the country in a war between major powers overseas. Their eventual success in doing so marked a major failure for our democratic institutions, and foreshadowed a bloody century for the United States abroad. The debate about World War I in the United States was a domestic class war, with the American political elite casting it as an ideological war for freedom, democracy, and the self-determination of subordinate peoples. The irony of us fighting for these goals alongside the French and British, the world’s imperial powers par excellence, was lost on those who were ordered to kill men they had never met, who had done them no harm, and to die for men and governments that cared little for their well-being.

Once American entry into the war was rendered inevitable, the pursuit of other social and political goals became impossible, because the state’s resources were dominated by the political project of war making, which included the fomenting of mass anti-German sentiment in the populace. War is a feverish, hateful thing, and in its modern manifestation requires the energy and productive capacity of the entire adult populace. Those who cannot fight directly, produce. Those who cannot produce help enforce the boundaries of respectable opinion. A horizontal or truly popular-democratic political structure cannot survive such a war, because it demands the centralization of economic resources and political and organizational hierarchy. It requires a strong state to prosecute it. The relationship in this case is what political scientists like to call mutually constitutive: the state has an interest in war, since it will lead to the enlargement of the state’s power, both at home and abroad. States make war; and war makes the state. War, then, is not some ancillary activity, existing outside core features of government. In hindsight, we can see that the debates about military “preparedness” in the run-up to World War I were just as much about the limits and proper delegation of political authority as they were about the wisdom of entering the war itself. The failure of the anti-militarists to prevent the build-up of combat forces, and to stop eventual U.S. entry into the conflict, was a victory of one political vision over another. The stakes were far higher than the war itself. We should know, as we are living with the consequences.

No one was more central to this process than Woodrow Wilson, a figure whose current reputation is totally inconsonant with his actual behavior. Wilson was the primary driver of America’s headlong collision with Germany, and the force behind the country’s descent into an ugly, frenzied, and repressive state of affairs at home. It is hard, in essence, not to view this period as a sustained indictment of Wilson and his closest administration allies. The man who campaigned for reelection in 1916 on the slogan “he kept us out of war” was not an honest advocate of peace. The evidence for this is plain; unlike our current predicament, where our government seeks to hide as much as legally and politically possible from us in the name of “security,” the facts about the Wilson administration are a transparent part of the public record.

The idea of “preparedness” seemed harmless enough, for as advocates said, was it not better to be prepared for German aggression, just in case? Although many resisted the institution of a large standing military in peacetime, feeling it contradicted traditional American values, in 1916, at the urging of President Wilson, and under the aegis of preparedness, Congress passed The National Defense Act. This watermark military legislation greatly increased the potential size of a wartime army to 300,000, and quadruple the size of the National Guard to over 400,000. It required the Guard to respond directly to the president, in essence circumventing the authority of individual American states[*]; and founded the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, which is still in existence today. Most brazenly, the legislation also granted the president the authority for the first time to force private businesses to produce goods for war-making specified by the federal government. This precedent would be used, with much more justification, during the next world war, when the United States abandoned its supposed free-market principles and instituted a centrally planned command economy.

World War I was the first conflict where the popular arts were enlisted to manufacture a popular war. Through the use of widespread propaganda, members of the political and financial elite succeeded in making the citizenry believe that its interests were synonymous with their own. This effort was led by some very prominent industrialists, such as J.P. Morgan Jr., who helped finance Great Britain’s war efforts and wanted to be certain he’d recoup his investments. Popular cultural products extolled American jingoism and militarism, and demonized Germany. As Walter Karp details in his masterful The Politics of War, popular book-length works released for mass consumption in 1915 alone included Are We Americans Cowards or Fools?, America Fallen: A Sequel to the German War, and America and the German Peril. A 1915 movie, The Battle Cry of Peace, depicted New York City under siege by German forces. Wilson established a government-funded propaganda organization, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which planted pro-war newspaper editorials, published jingoistic literature, and intended to foment mass anti-German sentiment by producing movies such as The Kaiser: Beast of Berlin. The CPI also sought to turn Americans against each other, warning patriotic citizens of seditious elements in their midst. Even one’s neighbors could no longer be trusted. This widespread fear-mongering was to have serious and occasionally deadly consequences for many individuals, accused of disloyalty or of forestalling the war effort — pacifists, socialists, anarchists, religious dissenters, and union members, in particular.

Despite this major propaganda campaign, the masses proved strangely uncooperative. The fact that the United States at the time had a standing army of only 175,000 men was considered very problematic for large-scale war-making abroad. This lead to the first major draft in modern American history, instituted via the Selective Service Act of May 1917. (To offer a contrast: in the United Kingdom, three quarters of a million men enlisted freely within two months of the declaration of hostilities against Germany; the UK did not even feel the need to institute a draft until nearly a year and a half into the war.) Americans did not take the abrogation of their freedom lightly; this was a war of choice, and many knew it. Over the course of the war, some 300,000 American men refused conscription, a massive and unheralded act of civil disobedience.

The legality of mass conscription was also challenged in court on a variety of grounds. One line of argument was that while Congress possessed an enumerated right to “raise and support armies,” it lacked the power to force men into military service; in other words, while the state could create and sustain a volunteer army, it could not conscript men en masse against their will. Opponents of the draft also argued that conscription was tantamount to involuntary servitude, and was therefore in direct contravention of the Thirteenth Amendment. Moreover, they argued that the law was unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, since it permitted religious exemptions to the draft, and therefore violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on the government’s establishment of religion. In 1918, in the Selective Draft Law Cases, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected all of these arguments, and instead opted to provide legal and constitutional justification for all future possible conscriptions. The Selective Service Act has since served as the legal and political precedent for every other draft in the United States, including for the major mobilizations that took place during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The social upheavals caused by Vietnam led to the end of forced conscription in 1973, but the Selective Service System endures. Should a draft be reinstated, there are currently almost 15 million eligible registrants. Whatever the politics of conscription may be, after World War I, the constitutionality of such a system is unlikely to be challenged.

The most revolutionary aspect of the war, however, and the one that has had the most pernicious and long-lasting consequences for our domestic politics, was the Wilson administration’s criminalization of dissent — a stain upon the history of the Republic. A central irony of World War I was that, after attempting to justify the war on grounds related to American shipping rights and failing, Wilson claimed that our entry into the war was based on high principle. It was to be a war “to make the world safe for democracy.” But spreading democracy abroad required subverting it at home.  As early as 1915, the Wilson administration began lobbying Congress to pass anti-sedition laws.

We were still at peace then, and Congress refused to comply. But it did not take long after the declaration of war against Germany on April 6th, 1917, for Wilson to get his anti-sedition laws. Congress passed the Espionage Act two months later (June 17th, 1917), the first piece of federal legislation explicitly dedicated to criminalizing speech and restricting press and assembly rights since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The 1798 Acts, among the most controversial in American history, made criticism of the president or the government a crime punishable by imprisonment, and permitted the president to arrest or deport non-citizens at will. Under intense political pressure, the laws were repealed in 1800 or were allowed to expire soon thereafter. Compared to the broad attack the Wilson administration was soon to launch on dissenters, this earlier foray into authoritarianism seemed rather quaint.

The Espionage Act did not target domestic dissenters explicitly, and was written to allow for a variety of interpretations. In fact, against the pleading of Wilson’s Attorney General Thomas Gregory, Congress softened the bill somewhat in order to protect speech rights. This legislative check on executive overreach was to prove utterly ineffectual. The Espionage Act was used almost exclusively to persecute Americans whose only real crime was opposing the war and the draft; in fact, not one prosecution during the war dealt with espionage — that is, the work of actual German agents seeking to undermine the U.S. war effort. This was a war against the American people themselves. Over 2,000 Americans were prosecuted under the Espionage Act during the war, and many were given 10- or 20-year prison sentences for the most paltry utterances or actions. A woman was given a 10-year sentence merely for saying, “I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers,” at a public gathering. A pacifist minister was given a 15-year sentence for passing out a pamphlet questioning whether Christians were allowed to fight in the war. An Iowa man was given a one-year prison sentence for attending a meeting where “disloyal utterances were made,” clapping in response to these utterances, and donating 25 cents. A Socialist Congressman — an elected representative of the federal government — was sentenced to 20 years in prison for editorials he published in the Milwaukee Leader, the newspaper he ran before his election to the House of Representatives. A filmmaker was sentenced to 10 years in prison for making a movie, The Spirit of ’76, which, in retelling the story of the American Revolution, was accused of defaming the British, who were now our allies in the Great War. Eugene V. Debs, the leader of America’s socialist movement — who had received over 900,000 votes in the 1912 presidential election — was tried and convicted under the Espionage Act for a speech he gave in Canton, Ohio, attributing the war to the desire of rapacious capitalists. He was given a 10-year prison term, and would run for president in 1920, again receiving over 900,000 votes — but this time from a prison cell, courtesy of Woodrow Wilson.

These prosecutions were merely one component of a larger strategy by the Wilson administration to contain dissension. Under the watchful eye of Postmaster General Albert Burleson, the U.S mailing service was heavily censored, thanks to the “non-mailability” provision of the Espionage Act. All anti-war (and especially socialist) literature was snuffed out of circulation. Much material was never published, and some published and never mailed, part of the Act’s chilling effect on free speech. Administration-sanctioned groups like the American Protective League (which at the height of its influence had over 250,000 members), the Knights of Liberty, the Boy Spies of America, and Sedition Slammers became unofficial shock troops in the administration’s war on dissent and disloyalty. They helped report thousands of suspicious individuals to the Justice Department; indeed, as Geoffrey Stone writes in his book Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, “with implicit immunity, they engaged in wiretaps, breaking and entering, bugging offices, and examining bank accounts and medical records” in order to ferret out the enemy within. Most brazenly, they took the streets en masse in order to intimidate men suspected of draft dodging; one such “slacker raid” in early September 1918 led to an estimated 30,000 men being dragged off the street in New York City, thrown in jail, and conscripted. Members of the American Protective League swarmed all over the city, demanding draft registration cards at Grand Central terminal, restaurants, the entrance to subway stations, in theaters, office towers, and clothing shops.

Still, the Espionage Act was not enough for the Wilson administration, and so in the spring of 1918, Attorney General Gregory went back to Congress to ask for a series of amendments to the Espionage Act. These amendments, which became known as the Sedition Act of 1918, were necessary, said Gregory, in order to allow the government to prosecute a wider number of seditious individuals, in order to protect them from their fellow citizens. Yes: the recent mob violence against dissenters, socialists, German-Americans and anarchists had demonstrated that disloyal Americans needed the protection of their government, which required a law that permitted that very government to charge these individuals with felonies for freely stating their beliefs. The Sedition Act was approved rapidly in the House by a margin of 293 to 1 (the only nay vote coming from Meyer London, a socialist Congressman from New York). It was subsequently used to great effect to prosecute — and, in concert with the Immigration Act of 1918, sometimes deport — socialists and anarchists in the Red Scare of 1919-1920. According to the Sedition Act, it was illegal during the war “to willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States,” the constitution, the military, or the flag; or to “use any language” intended to bring “contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute” to any of these institutions or symbols.


Against the express wishes of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the Sedition Act was repealed in December 1920. Palmer, who gave J. Edgar Hoover his start compiling enemy lists, then lobbied Congress to pass a new, even more restrictive sedition law that would empower him to prosecute individuals during peace time. Congress refused. By 1924, all prisoners convicted under the Espionage Act and Sedition Act had been pardoned. This was a welcome gesture, but likely cold comfort to those who had spent half a decade as political prisoners.

While Congress repealed the Sedition Act, the Espionage Act (though amended) remains the law of the land. For many years it lay dormant, used sparingly for most of the time since Woodrow Wilson left office. The Nixon administration tried to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, the leakers of the Pentagon Papers, under the Act (the case was thrown out on a technicality), and Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both used it to convict a few leakers on similarly dubious grounds. But the Obama administration has used the Act on an utterly unprecedented scale. Before the current administration, the act was used to prosecute leakers a total of three times. The Obama administration has already used it to prosecute seven different individuals for leaks of classified or sensitive information. As none of these leakers have been charged with working for a foreign government or passing on secrets to another state, it is clear that this is simply an effort to silence whistleblowers, to prevent embarrassing or disturbing information about the government’s activities from being reported in the American media. Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden have both been charged with violating the Espionage Act. To my mind, this is tantamount to criminalizing an act of public service.

Indeed, for all the authoritarianism of the Wilson era, very few people in 1918 would have been able to fathom a world such as ours, where our own government has compiled a massive electronic terrorist watch list of over 875,000 names, conducts warrantless wiretaps, collects the call data of tens of millions of Americans, and spies on our online communications. There are now roughly 1,270 government organizations and 1,930 private companies working on counterterrorism, intelligence, and homeland security domestically. This work is performed in over 10,000 offices nationwide, in every state in the country. Roughly 850,000 people hold top-secret security clearances. Torture, which was widely employed by the George W. Bush administration to inconclusive effect and conclusive ignominy, was considered by polite society during the turn of the last century to be barbaric, a vestige of a less enlightened era. Clearly, not all moral progress is linear.

We live today in a world of unprecedented American global military hegemony and a world of unprecedented paranoia. The United States faces no sustained military threat from any other major power. In fact, our defense budget is roughly six times that of China, the second biggest military spender. In 2012, the United States budgeted $645 billion for defense-related expenditures — 41 percent of the entire world’s military spending that year. (If one includes the cost of interest for our debt from past wars, veterans’ pensions, and the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, and other related expenses, the U.S. defense budget easily tops $1 trillion.) The idea of prosecuting a “drone” war thousands of miles from American soil would have struck Randolph Bourne’s contemporaries as a dystopian fantasy, childish and belligerent; now it’s official policy. A world of overwhelming American military superiority, coupled with a domestic political discourse of extreme insecurity: that is our contemporary situation, a strange and unsettling state of affairs.

War has become a constant background presence in our political and social life, a persistent hum that transcends individual administrations or wars. Large-scale, systematic war-preparedness has become a deeply embedded component of American life. The effects of militarization have been profound, and the bitter experience of World War I is the foundation on which was built the repeated use of compulsory military conscription, the command economy during World War II, the passage of the National Security Act in 1947 (which brought about the modern national security state), the continued build-up of military resources during the cold war (and the exponential growth of the “military-industrial complex”), and the NSA madness and perpetual war of our day. It was in many ways the originary moment of the short American 20th, and now the 21st century.

When we think about the centenary of the war in 2014, we should consider first and foremost what it has meant for the life of our republic, and how the corrosive actions of a few can have enormously outsized consequences for the rest of us. One hundred years later, we are still arguing over the Espionage Act. One hundred years later, we are still bankrupting our commonwealth in the name of “preparedness.” One hundred years later, we are still fighting for or against Woodrow Wilson’s war.


[*] Federalizing the National Guard was a decidedly mixed blessing. In the 1950s and 1960s it was used to help overcome great injustices by forcing Southern schools to desegregate — over and against the wishes of racist governors such as George Wallace.


Zach Dorfman in a regular contributor to LARB.

LARB Contributor

Zach Dorfman is senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of Carnegie Council. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, The Awl, Dissent, The American Interest, and elsewhere.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!