Michael Kazin's hugely informative lecture on the antiwar movement in World War One was not a part of ASCA's own WWI lecture series but complemented nicely the excellent series that Anne-Marie Daris and Carl Lankowski launched two years ago. Professor Kazin's focus on the political leaders and social activists who tried to keep the United States out of the war shed new light on the impassioned debate about the legitimacy and wisdom of America's participation in Great War. It continues to resonate 100 years later.
Mr. Kazin began his talk by profiling four individuals, famous in their day but mostly forgotten now except by historia
ns. These included progressive senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin (the most famous of the quartet); Crystal Eastman, a feminist lawyer, socialist, and cofounder of what became the American Civil Liberties Union; Morris Hillquit, a labor lawyer who founded the Socialist Party of America; and representative Claude Kitchen of North Carolina, one of only 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives who voted against the declaration of war.
It is a common misconception that opponents of U.S. participation in World War One were isolationists, Mr. Kazin said. Rather, they wanted the United States to be actively engaged in building progressive democracies around the world. Another misconception, he said, was that there was no "pro-war camp." In fact, Theodore Roosevelt, a popular ex-president at the time, was an active supporter of the war and even wanted to go to France to lead his former regiment in battle - something that president Woodrow Wilson worked to prevent.
Although Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on the campaign slogan, "he kept us out of war," Mr. Kazin asserted that the president was never truly neutral before the U.S. declaration of war in April 1917. Wilson had an emotional fondness for Britain, where his mother had been born. He admired British writers and political leaders. He appreciated the extensive commercial ties between the United States and Great Britain. And he did not want Germany to win. But not until German U-boat attacks on commercial and passenger ships in the North Atlantic led U.S. public opinion to swing decisively toward a declaration of war did Wilson feel compelled to act.
War as a Disaster
The antiwar movement was a big-tent coalition that did not agree on many domestic issues but did agree that the war would be a disaster for the common man even as it made huge profits for big businesses. Many labor unions opposed the war, as did pacifist churches and women's groups. The most popular song in America in 1915, as measured by sheet-music sales, was entitled "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Solder." Immigrant groups like the Irish, Jews, and Russians opposed the war for differing reasons related to political events in their home countries.
History textbooks often note that 10 million men registered for the draft, Mr. Kazin said, but many do not also record that 3 million other men did not register. Large antiwar rallies took place in many U.S. cities, and a number of legal challenges to the Selective Service Act of 1917 made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court - where they were rejected.
Elite opponents of the war included industrialist Henry Ford, who chartered a ship to send scores of pacifists to Europe to plead for peace. Idealist intellectuals believed that political leaders simply needed to discuss their differences rationally to reach peaceable solutions. As late as January 1917 president Wilson was still calling for a "peace without victory," in which nations that had been killing each other for three years would just stop fighting without anyone actually winning.
In the end, of course, the United States did enter the war, and U.S. participation proved a critical contribution to the Allied victory. The United States became the most prosperous nation in the world, but president Wilson did not get the peace he wanted.
Professor Kazin left his Arlington audience with two provocative questions: Did World War Two turn out so tragically bloody because of U.S. intervention in World War One? And if Germany had won World War One, would Adolf Hitler ever have risen to power?
Thomas W. Skladony is chairman of the Arlington Sister City Association.
Save the date: April 28, 2018
Please join us on Saturday, April 28, 2018 at 3:00 p.m. for the next event in ASCA's World War One lecture series. Mark D. Van Ells, professor of history, Queensborough Community College, City University of New York, will deliver a lecture entitled, "Doughboy Battlefields: A Visit to the Places Americans Fought during the First World War." The event is free and open to the public.