WAR AGAINST WAR
The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918
By Michael Kazin
Illustrated. 378 pp. Simon & Schuster.
“Yet it was our lives that were at stake, and we had been taught even as children that God himself created them and set us humans above all his other creatures,” Alfred Döblin has one German veteran of World War I tell another in his novel about postwar Berlin, “A People Betrayed.” “And here we were flinging them aside, our lives, as though they were dead logs, as though we had never learned anything.”
The Americans who struggled mightily to prevent their own entry into this, the most senseless of wars, must have thought much the same thing about their compatriots. They must also have wondered how it was that they did not prevail.
After all, they seemed to have everything going for them, as Michael Kazin makes clear in his fine, sorrowful history, “War Against War.” Unlike most of Europe, which had sleepwalked into the conflict, Americans had almost three years to watch and absorb just how horrible and futile 20th-century warfare could be. Never had politics made stranger, or more numerous, bedfellows than the movement to keep us out of World War I.
Working actively against American intervention were the country’s growing Socialist Party, which had 1,200 members in elected office; key figures in Congress, including the great progressive Republicans George Norris and Robert La Follette, and the populist Democratic House majority leader (and white supremacist) Claude Kitchin; powerful industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford; revered social reformers such as Jane Addams and the liberal rabbi Stephen Wise; the peace-loving secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan; the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst; Helen Keller, civil rights groups, labor unions, the women’s movement, Irish- and German-American groups, countless clergymen and assorted independent radicals. Even, for a time, the president of the United States himself, Woodrow Wilson. “Not until the movement to end the Vietnam War half a century later would there be as large, as influential and as tactically adroit a campaign against U.S. intervention in another land,” Kazin notes.
And yet we did go to war, and in just a year and a half over 116,000 young Americans — about twice the number of Americans killed over 20 years in Vietnam — would throw their own lives like so many more dead logs into the terrible fire. Kazin’s work is an instructive one, an important book in chronicling a too often neglected chapter in our history. Most of all, it is a timely reminder of how easily the will of the majority can be thwarted in even the mightiest of democracies.
Kazin contends that the antiwar forces were ultimately unable to overcome two main obstacles. One was simply outside events, primarily Germany’s determination to use unrestricted submarine warfare against any ships trying to supply the Allied Powers. The other was that many of the groups and individuals leading the opposition to the war were distracted or restrained by their loyalties to other goals and institutions. They had to decide, for instance, whether their dedication to winning women’s right to vote, or the right of labor to organize or the electoral prospects of Wilson’s new, progressive Democratic Party outweighed their need to keep the country out of war.
A longtime historian of the American left, Kazin establishes early on where his own sympathies lie: “I wish the United States had stayed out of the Great War.” The failure to do so created “the establishment of a political order most Americans now take for granted, even if some protest it: a state equipped to fight numerous wars abroad while keeping a close watch on the potentially subversive activities of its citizens at home.” America’s intervention, Kazin argues, “foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated peace,” and led to the “punitive peace” of the Versailles Treaty, and pretty much everything that came afterward, including the Nazis, World War II, the Holocaust, even the Iraq war.
No matter how familiar one is with the era, it is still shocking to read the breathtaking swiftness with which the country flipped into reaction once war was declared. A national vigilante group, the American Protective League, encouraged by the authorities, took to stopping men on the street to check for “slackers.” The Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-18, passed by a suddenly belligerent Congress, were the most outrageously unconstitutional violations of our civil liberties since the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts. The Supreme Court supinely upheld this legislation, and the Wilson administration ruthlessly exploited it, censoring the mails, shutting down publications and sentencing the likes of Eugene V. Debs, the gentle 63-year-old Socialist leader, to jail for 10 years for making a speech indirectly questioning the draft. The waves of reaction rolled on after the Armistice. Strikes were brutally crushed and labor unions all but annihilated. Black churches and neighborhoods were burned to the ground, and hundreds, maybe thousands of African-Americans murdered in white-on-black pogroms. Civil liberties continued to be curtailed, elected Socialist leaders were thrown out of office and radicals like Emma Goldman were deported.
While our entry into the war proved every bit the disaster for the liberal-left that Kazin claims, it is less clear that it was avoidable — or that it can be blamed for everything bad that has happened since. Before we even entered the war, Germany was caught sending the notorious Zimmermann Telegram to Mexico, urging it to invade the United States. From nearly the start of World War I, German spies and saboteurs in the United States caused numerous explosions, and set off the huge 1916 detonation of the “Black Tom” munitions depot in New Jersey, which killed seven people, blew out windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, caused nearly a half-billion dollars’ worth of damage in current dollars and raked the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel.
Germany’s rationale for such actions was the same as that for its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. American supplies went almost exclusively to the Allies. Even if Americans had wanted to sell food and weaponry to Germany they would not have been able to thanks to the British naval blockade, which was slowly starving the German people. Thus, Germany protested, it had to use its U-boats to try to starve England as well. Many in the American peace movement accepted this argument and wanted to cut off trade to the Allies.
Yet does a nation at war have the right to demand that another, neutral nation end most of its foreign commerce? Wouldn’t any nation consider murderous deeds of sabotage to be acts of war?
America by 1914 had much deeper ties to Britain and France than to the German Empire. This may have been unfair, as the Germans maintained, but World War I was not a tennis match. Germany needed only to move toward peace to escape such unfairness.
For that matter, Kazin seems to sympathize with the antiwar movement’s adamant opposition to the “preparedness” campaign being urged on the nation by more hawkish voices, like that of the almost hysterically bellicose Teddy Roosevelt — calls for the nation to start raising a true modern army and expanding its navy. With reason, peace advocates saw this as just the way Europe fell into war.
Yet might not a larger American Navy have been able to escort ships to Europe in the teeth of the U-boat menace — and thus keep American boys out of the trenches? Might the threat of bringing another well-prepared army into the fight have made the Kaiser and his general staff think again about provoking the United States?
It is, in the end, difficult to believe that the United States could really have stayed as pure and unentangled in foreign affairs as Kazin would have preferred. Not that we didn’t try. Revulsion over the war and the reactionary backlash it loosed caused America to turn its face away from the world once more, leading to the failure to join the League of Nations and to the widespread isolationism that left the country woefully unprepared for World War II. Kazin would trace our existing national security state back to the decision we made to enter the Great War in 1917, but in fact that prototype was almost entirely dismantled. It was the ways of the world, alas, that forced us to rebuild it.