The American Struggle for Peace


War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918. By Michael Kazin. New York: Knopf, 2017.

Here is a history book whose subject has remained timely all through the political lifetimes of the writer and this reviewer, a couple of enthusiasts who actually met at the Students for a Democratic Society convention of 1967.Two years later, we sat and suffered together as our organization destroyed itself, by this time no longer peacenik and effective where it counted most (at the local level) but divided and destroyed by howling lunatic sectarians, driven berserk in no small part by the Democratic Party’s inability or unwillingness to oppose the War on Vietnam. Somehow, there’s a lesson here.
The antiwar movement is a great subject for today, of course, partly because liberal hawkishness is on the rise again and partly because a president with a monumental ego (or poorly hidden feeling of insecurity) is at the helm. Kazin has a lot to contribute by way of precedent. The First World War, aka “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars” swept through Europe wiping out the widespread optimism for a democratic socialist future. It came to Americans so unwilling to join the bloodbath that they needed to be brought along by an avowedly liberal president re-elected under the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” A year after that re-election, the winning slogan had been emptied of meaning. Ahead lay massive political repression, racial pogroms – the President himself regarded African Americans as a hopelessly, perhaps dangerously, backward race – and a future that looked grim for socialistic visionaries.
One of the many virtues ofWar Against Waris Kazin’s highlighting of the prominent peaceniks. A handful were old enough to have actively opposed the ravage of the Philippines at the height of the Spanish-American war. Most had grown into a repugnance of war in other ways, emphatically including the woman suffrage and liquor prohibition movements and social reform settlement house style, by the likes of Jane Addams. Public philosophers and moralists argued persuasively that healthy nations of Europe, those very Scandinavian ones admired today, possessed only small armies and planned to conquer…no one. The “Great Commoner,” William Jennings Bryan, unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president several times, railed against the arms trade, and Robert La Follette, Wisconsin’s Progressive champion, still a Republican, joined vigorously in this sentiment.
We can see now that peaceniks were going to be outgunned, financially and ideologically, by hawkish liberals and their business allies. Teddy Roosevelt, eager for a fight, led the bloody brigade, even while denouncing the privileges of the 1% in that day. Congressmen who wanted to vote against war also feared to vote against reform – or so they claimed. But the opponents of war put up a noble fight.I used to play for my history classes a recording of the most popular vaudeville tune of 1915, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier.” The song contained these stirring lines: “I brought him up to be my pride and joy/ Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder?/ To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?” The Women’s Peace Party, founded that year, brought together American women (admittedly, few from the South) from almost every section and class.
Kazin expertly charts the counter-attack by TR and others upon the peace cause, and the enormous difficulties of peaceniks coping with a president who cleverly posed himself as neutral between the warring European nations, while quietly lining up behind the British.Likewise, in rallying labor against war, they faced a formidable Samuel Gompers, American Federation of Labor leader and arch-enemy of labor’s socialists. Gompers fought every rank and file antiwar proposal urged by socialists and joined by German- and Irish-American workers in particular who understandably regarded the conflict as an imperial project of the British Empire.
The 1916 Democratic Party convention might have been superficially regarded by observers, Kazin says, as”an enthusiastic gathering of antiwar activists, albeit one held in a hall decorated entirely in patriotic bunting.” (p.113)The delegates renominated a president who had set himself on creating a navy as large as any in the world. The fix was in. Re-elected, Woodrow Wilson wheedled his way forward, holding out the promise of a postwar settlement of international grievances,i.e.,an end to war. En route: the classic combination of organized gore and war profits. Senator La Follette bravely delivered an eloquent, seven-hour speech and the Senate ultimately voted for ten new battleships with sixty-seven submarines.
No summary can do justice to the details of the back-and-forth of pro- and anti-war popular forces related and analyzed by Kazin for the years 1917-19. By Flag Day, 1917, Wilson “all but equated opposition to the war with treason.” (p.190) On the morrow, he signed the very Espionage Act used to this day against peaceniks. The suppression of socialist newspapers – denying them mailing permits, thus driving them out of business – was matched by the cancellation of public socialist meetings, even in socialist Wisconsin, on such grounds as “health reasons.” The grand movement for women’s right to vote, moving toward victory, saw its leaders jump into the war camp with both feet.
We might look back to the People’s Council of America for Peace and Justice for a model of how to resist war in the twenty-first century. Drawing together socialists, pacifists and a broad spectrum of others, the Council staged great rallies. They were overwhelmed by a government-funded propaganda campaign, including the efforts of erstwhile socialist notables looking for careers in new camps. Chief propagandist, the oily George Creel, set the pace for American administrations across the century to follow. African American opposition to war naturally met racism from the White House to the KKK, climaxing, so to speak, in the East St. Louis riot of 1917, the Houston pogrom of the same year, and the Chicago (white) riots of 1919, the last one directed strategically from a neighborhood Irish club whose ardent members included future mayor Richard Daley.
Peaceniks enjoyed a brief post-war political lift. Socialist Eugene V. Debs, sentenced by the Wilson administration to a ten-year sentence, won a million votes in prison, and emerged in 1921, thanks to Warren Harding (a gesture that libertarian Ron Paul has mentioned in more than one speech over the last several decades, pointing the finger at hawkish liberals). Socialists were also elected locally in many places, even as the witch hunt spread, uplifting the chief of the new Bureau of Investigation (not yet the FBI), J. Edgar Hoover. Kazin describes closely and sympathetically the sometimes-conflicted peace activism of socialist leaders like Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit. Unfairly criticized then and later by Communists for giving in to war – as their European counterparts truly had – these moderateAmerican socialists conducted themselves heroically within the worst circumstances. In the end, the catastrophic split in the Left ended hopes to rebuild the peace-minded Socialist Party, even while the savagery of the War inspired a pacifist-socialist cadre led by Norman Thomas himself.
I wish that Kazin had offered a side glance to the causes of war enthusiasm among the powerful here and abroad: the craving for empire, especially commercial empire. European Socialists, largely agreeing with their own nations’ imperial aims, had capitulated to war. The connection was made by few (Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg among them), but not widely understood. Wilson aimed to rule the world, taking over from the Europeans, and to the world’s sorrow, his war led to the rise of Hitler among other catastrophes. Twentieth century history classes, in my undergraduate years, hailed Wilson as the father of modern American reform, when they should have portrayed him as a destroyer of American virtue.
Never mind. Kazin has provided some valuable final notes from his own (and my own) generation, in the horror of Vietnam, and the irony that in working to elect Obama, we saw him preside over the continuation of wars that most of us viewed as badly mistaken. Where does this lead us? In need, at least, of going back again, to the old story of peaceniks and their efforts to halt the catastrophe that our supposed leaders are bringing on, year by year.
Paul Buhle is a Senior Citizen Peacenik.

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