Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

‘War against war’: Americans for peace in World War I

April 6, 2017 by Michael Kazin


Editor’s Note: This post is part of a symposium commemorating the 100thanniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. It is adapted from War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918. Another contribution comes from Will Englund.

This book is about Americans who tried to stop their nation from fighting in what was history’s most destructive war and then endured the wrath of a government that punished them for refusing to change their minds. They came from a variety of backgrounds: wealthy and middle and working class, recent immigrant and “old stock,” urban and rural, white and black, Christian and Jewish and atheist. They lived in every region of the country and belonged to every political party. Most wanted to make big changes in American society, although not always the same changes and not always by expanding the powers of the state. But they shared a profound revulsion toward the conflict that was taking the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians in Europe and the Middle East. In print and in person, they urged President Woodrow Wilson to help stop the carnage rather than joining one side in order to vanquish the other.

As “anti-militarists,” they saw every war as a tragedy, a failure to resolve serious differences of interest and ideology. And the Great War was the most tragic conflict they had ever known. The major protagonists in 1914 were prepared to fight a war, but none wanted or expected to engage in anything like the long and unprecedentedly bloody one that ensued. On the late June day in Sarajevo when a Serbian terrorist murdered the archduke and archduchess of Austria-Hungary, authorities in the German port city of Kiel had just hosted a gala luncheon for a group of visiting officers from the British Royal Navy, whose ships lay peacefully at harbor. The British commander, reported London’s Sunday Times, “thanked the German authorities” for their “splendid reception” and “spoke of his pleasure at renewing his acquaintance with old German naval friends.” That evening, he and his wife dined “as the guests of the Emperor” on one of the Kaiser’s most prized battleships. Six weeks later, all these people had become mortal enemies. They would remain so until November of 1918, after at least 15 million soldiers and civilians had died.

The foes of militarism in the United States tried to prevent such horrors from occurring at all. Until the United States entered the conflict nearly three years later, they organized the largest, most diverse, and most sophisticated peace coalition to that point in U.S. history. 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. There has been none to rival it since. From 1914 to 1917, cosmopolitan Socialists and feminists worked closely with members of Congress from the small-town South and the agrarian Midwest. They mounted street demonstrations and popular exhibitions, founded such new organizations as the Woman’s Peace Party and the American Union Against Militarism, attracted prominent leaders from the labor and suffrage movements, and ran peace candidates for local and federal office. For almost three years, they helped prevent Congress from authorizing a massive increase in the size of the U.S. Army, a step that, under the name of “preparedness,” was advocated by some of the richest and most powerful men in the land—ex-president Theodore Roosevelt foremost among them.

Anti-war leaders met often in the White House with President Woodrow Wilson. Usually he assured them he also wanted the United States to remain neutral, so that he might broker an equitable peace. The relationship between articulate activists dedicated to stopping the Great War and creating a cooperative world order and a president who claimed to share their lofty goals was critical to the strategy the peace coalition followed. By arguing that they only wanted America’s actions to live up to Wilson’s rhetoric, the anti-militarists appealed to progressives in both parties. Until the president changed his mind in the early spring of 1917 and asked Congress to declare war, most members of the peace alliance took him at his word. In the end, their credulousness hindered their ability to oppose him forthrightly when that became necessary.

What the advocates of peace were able to achieve depended on a coalition of four major parts. One individual in each group spoke out most prominently for its grievances and visions. Morris Hillquit, a suave labor lawyer, played that role for the Socialist Party, then at the zenith of its historical influence, as well as for left-wing trade unionists. Crystal Eastman, a professional organizer with charisma and prodigious energy, spearheaded the efforts of feminists and liberal pacifists, many of whom were, like Jane Addams, famous and well connected. In the House of Representatives, the Majority Leader—Claude Kitchin from North Carolina—rallied dozens of his fellow Democrats to arrest the drift toward war and, at times, to oppose the president and leader of their own party. Over in the Senate, Robert La Follette of Wisconsin spoke out, with combative eloquence, for many like-minded Republicans from the Midwest and West who suspected that big businessmen with close ties to Great Britain were pushing the United States to enter the conflict. This combination of movement activists outside government and lawmakers doing their best to back up their efforts inside the halls of federal power gave the anti-war cause a breadth and influence neither contingent could have achieved alone.

These four leaders of the peace coalition did not agree about every key issue that roiled the nation. Kitchin opposed woman suffrage and was a stalwart defender of the Jim Crow laws that kept black people down. Only Hillquit was ready to abolish private enterprise. But all four believed that industrial corporations wielded too much sway over how Americans worked and what they earned, the taxes they had to pay, the officeholders they elected, and the future of the economy on which they depended. And all four were convinced that the men at the helm of American industry and finance (most of whom were Republicans) were eager to use war and preparations for war to augment their profits and power.

This quartet of leaders and their fellow activists had many reasons to fight for peace, but “isolationism” was not among them. That sharply pejorative term, which became popular only in the 1920s, accurately describes neither the thought nor the actions of key participants in the peace coalition. Jane Addams presided over meetings with her sister feminists in Europe. Morris Hillquit sought to keep alive the ties of his Socialist Party to its comrades abroad. Senator Robert La Follette filled many a speech with praise for progressives in other countries who shared his hatred for militarism. Henry Ford chartered an ocean liner to transport himself and dozens of other activists across the Atlantic, where they lobbied neutral governments to embrace a peace plan they would press on the warring powers. These Americans, like most critics of the war elsewhere in the world, wanted to create a new global order based on cooperative relationships between nation states and their gradual disarmament. Militarism, they argued, isolated peoples behind walls of mutual fear and loathing.

Until April 1917, this formidable coalition of idealists—or realists—did much to keep the nation at peace. They may even have had a majority of Americans on their side until just weeks before Congress, at Wilson’s behest, voted to declare war. To prevent that from happening, peace activists pressed for a national referendum on the question, confident that “the people” would recoil from fighting and paying the bills in order to help one group of European powers conquer another.

Once the United States chose to enter the fray, the president, with the aid of the courts, prosecuted opponents of the war with a ferocity neither his defenders nor his adversaries had expected. “The whole terrific force of the State is brought to bear against the heretics,” wrote the critic Randolph Bourne. The persistence of anti-war sentiment was used to justify the creation of a large and pervasive federal apparatus of propaganda and repression, with both civilian and military officials at the controls. From Wilson on down, they resolved that their adversaries had to keep silent or suffer for their dissent.

The U.S. decision to join the Allies was a turning point in world history. It altered the fortunes of the war and, quite likely, the course of the twentieth century. It foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated peace among belligerents exhausted by nearly three years of fighting. The American Expeditionary Force engaged in heavy combat in France for less than six months. But the fear that those millions of fresh U.S. troops would alter the course of the war had led the Kaiser’s generals to launch one last, desperate offensive in the spring of 1918 that pushed to the outskirts of Paris. When that campaign collapsed, Germany’s defeat was inevitable.

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and editor of Dissent magazine. He is also the author of the new book, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918. He will speak at the National Constitution Center on Wednesday, April 12 at 12 p.m. Learn more and get tickets.

Recent Historical Posts on Constitution Daily

Is Aaron Burr really the father of the filibuster?

What really killed the first President to die in office?

How to end a filibuster: World War I and the origin of the cloture rule


Sign up for our email newsletter