AUGUST 4, 2017
WORLD WAR I is marked in the American collective memory as a conflict no one wanted, a mistake that in the span of 18 months cost the country over 116,000 lives. From the first shots fired in late July 1914 until April 1917, Americans watched aghast from afar as the new horrors of mechanized warfare unfolded in Europe. While former president Theodore Roosevelt and other prominent warmongers called for swift and immediate intervention, most Americans embraced President Woodrow Wilson’s call for neutrality and peace. Leading the public opposition to Roosevelt and Co. was an unusual mix of people: members of the upper crust, newly arrived Irish and German immigrants, leading Democratic and Republican politicians, and radical socialists and social reformers. These outspoken peace activists were essential in shaping the United States’s involvement in World War I and the peace settlements that followed. From lobbying efforts in Congress to speeches and recruitment among the masses, they strove not only to keep the United States out of the European conflict, but also to create a better world — a world without war. Michael Kazin’s newest book, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918, offers a thrilling account of their efforts to promote an American commitment to peace at home and abroad. Remarkably, these unlikely allies succeeded for the better part of the war, only to have their work be undone by forces greater than themselves. And yet, as Kazin reveals, their words and deeds, though largely forgotten, shaped the course of the 20th century.
Kazin centers his historical narrative on a few key personalities, and especially the tensions between Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s visions for the American future. He discusses how the former president advocated for the “big stick” approach — namely, hard power — while Wilson urged for soft political intervention. Joining Wilson in his quest for neutrality were leading social reformers such as Jane Addams and Crystal Eastman, as well as socialist leaders and government officials such as Eugene Debs and Asa Philip Randolph. Each of these passionate pacifists strove to convince Wilson of the need for peace. Kazin’s portraits of Senator Robert La Follette Sr., a progressive Republican hailing from Wisconsin, and House member Claude Kitchin, a racist Southern Democrat, demonstrate how widespread distrust of wealthy Northeastern industrialists and bankers, who supposedly supported the war, created a bipartisan anti-war movement within Congress, as well as throughout the country. Kazin seamlessly blends together the actions of these various individuals to create a comprehensive and complex picture of the diverse opinions driving and shaping the American pacifist movement.
Of course, with a diverse coalition such as this, there are bound to be disagreements. Kazin highlights how the various social justice and progressive groups involved in the peace movement strove to balance their desires for peace with their other goals, such as suffrage and the advancement of civil rights. He focuses in particular on the various women’s organizations involved in both the peace and suffrage movements. While reformers such as Crystal Eastman promoted peace as the key to achieving social advancement for all at home, other suffragettes followed a different route. Adopting a form of realpolitik, they supported the declaration of war in April 1917, betting that this patriotic demonstration would convince those in government to grant them the right to vote. As Kazin illustrates, it was these tensions that robbed the pacifist movement of many its supporters at a critical moment.
Kazin’s account of the African-American response to the war is a welcome addition to the historiography of the conflict and of the pacifist movement. He explores how some African Americans, not unlike some suffragettes, used their support for the war as leverage for equality at home, while others steadfastly refused to contribute to the war effort of a nation that deprived them of their rights as citizens. The work of noted leaders such as W. E. B Du Bois (pro-war) and socialists Chandler Owen and Asa Philip Randolph (anti-war) is thoroughly discussed, correcting the typically white-centric image of the pacifist movement. Kazin draws attention to the often fatal racial tensions throughout the country at the time, highlighting such moments as the Houston uprising in August 1917 — a mutiny of African-American servicemen that resulted in the deaths of four soldiers and 16 civilians, as well as 19 executions and 41 life sentences for the court-martialed participants. Kazin draws attention to the lasting and often fatal racial tensions throughout the country. Clashing goals, internecine disagreements, and a growing spirit of patriotism among the population undermined the unity of the anti-war coalition. Eventually many pacifists chose loyalty over what was now defined as sedition by the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918.
Kazin also challenges the popular notion that the modern bureaucratic state was born under FDR’s New Deal, arguing that World War I first drove this expansion. The Espionage and Sedition Acts allowed the government to quash dissenting opinions about the war, effectively silencing the anti-war press. This suppression of free speech, something today’s readers might find hauntingly familiar, gave birth to the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the ancestor to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Yet it was the Selective Service Act of 1917 that has had the longest lasting influence on the American public; it transformed the United States from a nation with a tradition of voluntary military service to one that conformed to the European model of compulsory draft registration for all men. Kazin’s detailed discussion of the pacifist protests and fight against the draft illustrates the varied actions Americans took to resist and escape this intrusion into everyday life. Large numbers of men slipped either across the Mexican border or into the wilderness of the rural South to evade service, calling to mind the “flights to Canada” during the Vietnam War. Of course, as Kazin points out, it was much easier to evade the draft in the Wilsonian era of growing state bureaucracy than it was under Johnson.
Kazin concludes that the pacifists were betrayed. They had believed in Wilson’s promises of peace and neutrality, even as he and other members of Congress implemented increased military and naval spending for “preparedness.” Suddenly, the pacifists found themselves out of favor and persecuted. Kazin provides a nuanced look at the events that unfolded in the lead-up to the American entrance into the war. While the German message to Mexico promising support for an invasion of the United States, known as the Zimmermann Telegram, tends to be cited as the tipping point for American involvement in the war, Kazin argues that the point was reached later in the year, with Germany’s reinstatement of unrestricted U-boat missions. While Kazin discusses Wilson’s rhetoric and actions throughout this period, he could have provided a more fine-grained analysis of his shift in position.
Kazin gives us a well-researched and wonderfully written account of the American pacifist movement during World War I and its legacy in American history. While the movement was defeated in 1917, their ideas for a world without war permeated the postwar peace settlements, most notably in Wilson’s now-famous 14 Points. Kazin’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on World War I, as well as on social justice and Civil Rights movements in the United States. In a world beset by increased international hostilities, a divided Congress unwilling to make bipartisan agreements, and heightened tensions between various domestic groups, Kazin’s pacifists illustrate the dos and don’ts of protest and action. Their experiment in crossing political, racial, and social boundaries in order to achieve the common goal of preserving the best version of the “American way of life” is a lesson to us all.