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The Odds Against Antiwar Warriors

slog, but not without rewards: that’s what best describes this account of Americans who opposed U.S. participation in the European War of 1914–1918. While Michael Kazin, a historian of progressive bent who teaches at Georgetown University, tells an important story, his book suffers from a want of zip. The narrative meanders. The prose lacks sparkle. Still, for the patient reader, War Against War offers much to reflect upon.

Kazin’s subject is what he calls “the largest, most diverse, and most sophisticated peace coalition” to that point in all U.S. history. Not until the Vietnam War a half-century later would there be an antiwar movement “as large, as influential, and as tactically adroit.”

Perhaps so, but the American peace coalition that flourished a century ago failed abysmally. It succeeded neither in keeping the country out of the war nor in insulating the home front from war’s corrosive effects once the U.S. eventually intervened.

In what was not even remotely a contest of equals, the forces favoring war proved overwhelming. An approach to “neutrality” that mortgaged American prosperity to Anglo-French victory fostered decidedly unneutral attitudes on Wall Street and in Washington. Ultimately, however, arguments for staying out of war fell prey to vast ideological pretensions. As the stalemate on the Western Front dragged on, more and more Americans succumbed to the conviction that Providence was summoning the United States to save Civilization itself. Foremost among those Americans was President Woodrow Wilson.

“I wish the United States had stayed out of the Great War,” Kazin writes. I share the sentiment. From the outset, that conflict was a mindless exercise in mutual self-immolation. The belated U.S. entry into the war did nothing to redeem it. Even if justified by the supposed imperative of destroying German militarism, the eventual Allied victory to which the United States contributed at the cost of 116,000 American dead had the opposite effect. In short order, German militarism came storming back stronger than ever. Meanwhile, other deadly viruses unleashed by the bloodletting of 1914–1918 were wreaking havoc. Even today, the consequences haunt us.

The coalition forged to prevent the United States from being drawn into the European slaughterhouse was nothing if not heterodox. Kazin describes an informal partnership consisting of four distinct elements: progressive Republicans, mostly from the upper Midwest, with Wisconsin Sen. Robert La Follette their standard-bearer; Southern populists, the racist North Carolina Democrat and House Majority Leader Claude Kitchin prominent among them; members of the Socialist Party, largely (but not exclusively) concentrated in New York City, with dapper labor lawyer and perennial office-seeker Morris Hillquit their spokesman; and a mix of political activists ranging from social reformers such as Jane Addams and Emily Balch to uncompromising radicals such as Crystal Eastman and her brother Max.

Breadth did not translate into unity or cohesion. The entities forming the peace movement entertained varied priorities, the avoidance of war not necessarily numbering first among them. Depending on the particular group, preserving white supremacy, resisting Wall Street, pressing for women’s suffrage, helping the downtrodden, promoting temperance, organizing workers, or calling for the overthrow of capitalism ranked right alongside a determination to keep the United States from intervening in Europe.

Unity was imperfect and therefore contingent. The glue holding things together was weak. As the closest thing to an umbrella organization, the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM) was the loosest form of confederation, rather than an actual union.


So while the anti-warriors who rallied against U.S. entry into the Great War achieved a degree of prominence, they wielded little clout. They made noise without actually making a difference, in large part because they proved unable to win over President Wilson.

From 1914 through 1916, Wilson gave peace proponents a respectful hearing and conveyed a sense of sympathy with their cause. They reciprocated and considered the president an ally. Indeed, when Wilson in 1916 won reelection to a second term, having campaigned on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” the AUAM persuaded itself that the president’s hairbreadth victory was “due primarily to the fighting pacifist sentiment in the United States.”

Whether or not Wilson himself shared that assessment, he soon thereafter threw in with those who had come to see Germany as the embodiment of evil. Destroying evil at its source, he now insisted, had become imperative. Although the peace lobby gamely refused to give up the fight, last-ditch efforts to forestall U.S. entry into the war by demanding a nationwide referendum on the issue—let the people decide—went nowhere. In April 1917, by a tally of 82 to 6 in the Senate and 373 to 50 in the House, Congress handed Wilson his war mandate.

To their credit, peace-movement leaders still refused to throw in the towel. They opposed Wilson’s demand to enact conscription, albeit to no avail. With equally little success, they mounted protests against administration efforts, endorsed by Congress and enforced by pro-war vigilantes, to criminalize criticism of U.S. war policies. Although U.S. participation in the conflict lasted a mere 19 months, never in American history have basic rights to speak and assemble been more widely and more egregiously violated. Using the crusade “to end all wars” as a pretext, federal authorities ran roughshod over the Constitution until war-induced hysteria finally ran its course following the infamous race riots and Red Scare of 1919–1920.

Once the fever broke, Americans wasted little time in deciding that entry into the World War had been a huge mistake, a view that persisted throughout the 1920s and well into the 1930s. Kazin sees the shift in opinion as vindicating the peace movement ex post facto. Mark me down as unconvinced. Factors other than the arguments advanced by peace activists—for starters, the thoroughly perverse results of the Paris Peace Conference—reshaped American opinion.

Peace advocates had waged a gallant fight. In the face of great adversity—ridicule, harassment, even the prospect of imprisonment—they exhibited admirable courage and tenacity. And they correctly anticipated many of the ill effects that would befall the United States should it abandon its tradition of steering clear of European squabbles. One might quibble with Kazin’s assertion that this was “the last mighty attempt” to prevent the establishment of a national-security apparatus “equipped to fight numerous wars abroad while keeping a close watch on the potentially subversive activities of its citizens at home.” But the militarization of the American consciousness that occurred during World War I certainly served as a precursor for what was to come during World War II and the Cold War, not to mention in the aftermath of 9/11.

[1]The resistance that formed during the period of 1914–1918, Kazin believes, was “by definition, profoundly conservative.” In that opponents of the war sought to preserve something they considered precious—keeping at bay the contagion of great power politics—that judgment is surely correct. Yet the fact is that resistance accomplished next to nothing. Instead, the war and U.S. participation in it opened the floodgates to changes to which, even today, conservatives have not devised an adequate response.

Are there insights that we can draw from that failure? That prospect is what first drew me to War Against War, which I read in the days immediately preceding Donald Trump’s inauguration. As do others, I feel considerable trepidation when contemplating the course that our 45th president is likely to follow. As a corrective to my dour mood, I picked up this book hoping to find inspiration. Instead, it reinforced my sense of pessimism.

Today, long gone is any aversion to war that Americans might once have felt. Principled opposition to war has been consigned to the margins of national politics. In the Senate, there is no heir to Robert La Follette. And contemporary equivalents of Jane Addams don’t get invited to the White House to consult on foreign policy.

Against steep odds, Kazin’s protagonists came up short. Today those odds have become steeper still.

Andrew Bacevich is writer-at-large with The American Conservative.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "The Odds Against Antiwar Warriors"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 30, 2017 @ 2:04 am

At least, antiwar congresswoman and former soldier Tulsi Gabbard garnered an invite to palaver with Trump.

But the overwhelming sense of America is one of appetites to be slaked, with war just being another one of those as well as an enabler – despite the very real economic malaise of so many, attributable to a domestic economy too dependent on making and exporting war.

I think Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke” remains the definitive narrative, a terse but damning expose of how the War to End All Wars put us on the trajectory to whatever horizon will be our sorrow of empire.

Perhaps the end is preordained by the way the political order came to be, through theft, genocide, self-righteous “Manifest Destiny” with violence openly made holy and excused as redemptive through the crucible of bloodletting in the Civil War.

That it should always only be a minority who will not be susceptible to war fever is historically proven likely, if not entirely predictable. The fecklessness of human character, renders us capable of ignorant fervor in courses of action that ought to be self-evidently rejected.

Nevertheless, a determined minority can have influence that is outsized, as we can see from the evidence of elite control. We first need to be well equipped with the truth as well as resolve. I don’t think. in the final analysis, that such a struggle to influence for good can be waged outside spiritual consistency, a morality better developed beyond a vague and self-justifying appeal to Providence.

#2 Comment By Johann On March 30, 2017 @ 7:21 am

Don’t forget the British meddling, propaganda, and outright lies to get their former prodigal son, who they then decided was actually their big brother to back them up. Did the book cover any of that?

#3 Comment By James Drouin On March 30, 2017 @ 8:26 am

“The Odds Against Antiwar Warriors”

Interesting review, and very possibly a good book … though unlikely to be a great book as it doesn’t appear to adequately address the fundamental mental diseases of liberal philosophy.

I believe it was George Orwell who stated something to the effect that anyone can live inpeace as long as they’re willing to accept a boot on their throat. And that condition is one of the many, many, many issues liberals are in denial about.

#4 Comment By Jonathan On March 30, 2017 @ 10:25 am

Looking at reactions to the Trump presidency- and perhaps no new president, short of Lincoln, has ever precipitated so much reaction in so little time- it is striking how very little of that reaction has anything to do with ‘foreign policy’ of the violent sort. Sure, Code Pink and some other groups showed up for the big women’s march in DC- but the message, in so far as there was one, was oriented around fears of potential Trump actions unpalatable to the liberal bourgeois (actions mostly theoretical, and many not even likely). Trump’s immigration freeze garnered all manner of protest and indignation; Trump’s escalation of the wars in Yemen, in Iraq, and in Syria, however, has barely registered in public consciousness, much less precipitated protest.

Why is this? Part of it is due to the fact that much of Trump’s military policy is simply a continuation of previous administrations, including Obama’s, and with many ‘protestors’ nothing more than angry Democrats, they can hardly be expected to get up in arms now about policies, or similar policies, that didn’t bother them at all a few months ago. More troubling though is the sense I get that more ‘radical’ political actors and groups have largely lost interest in anti-war actions. Certainly among campus activists there is precious little concern for anti-war activities, beyond some pious virtue-signaling about, say, the Iraq War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But real outrage- and there’s plenty of it- is given to microaggressions and cultural appropriation; starving children in blockaded and bombed Yemen, for instance, do not seem to be outrage-worthy, or even on the activists’ radars. Perhaps there’s a certain conservation of energy principle at work: it’s much easier, and more satisfying, to stop Charles Murray from giving a talk than trying to stop American militarism, the effects of which are pretty much invisible here in America. That, and so much of the ‘left’-wing project in the West has become in recent years not the challenging of structures of state, capital, and warfare, but instead the reshaping of those structures to be superficially progressive and liberal. We need not worry about who we’re dropping cluster bombs on so long as the factory they’re made in is green certified, and some of the pilots and crew of the planes are women, or gay, or members of an ethnic minority- progress achieved!

#5 Comment By bacon On March 30, 2017 @ 12:41 pm

Revisionist history is mostly an exercise in silliness, but I have wondered what the world would have been like in the 20th century and now if the Germans had won WWI. European wars up to that time had been settled between winners and losers in a much less draconian way. WWI was orders of magnitude more brutal and costly and it may have been that none of the major combatants would have accepted less harsh settlements, but in spite of militarism Germany was a more or less conventional 19th century European power and perhaps would approached peace in a more conventional way. Even if not, had they won there would almost certainly been no Hitler chancellorship and no National Socialist government. That alone would have been benefit enough.

#6 Comment By P Tocco On March 30, 2017 @ 1:42 pm

WWI was for sure a tragic turn of events driven by Great Power politics, which the US had traditionally spurned. America crossed that Rubicon nonetheless by entering the war, with George Washington no doubt turning in his grave. However, consider for a moment if America had stuck to its pledge of non-entanglement. What unforseen consequences could have resulted from a victorious Germany? Imagine a German empire based in Berlin with virtually all of Europe as vassal states, including large parts of Russia. This configuration too would have troubled the United States, who don’t forget entered the 20th century as they closed it, the world’s leading industrial power. The WWI chickens were coming home to roost, no matter how you look at it.

#7 Comment By collin On March 30, 2017 @ 1:50 pm

For this description of the Wilson and the war it does not include the Zimmerman Telegram or the Lustiana? The turn of the US population was incredibly dramatic from 1914 to 1917.

1) Didn’t Germany already begin unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917? And with the Zimmerman telegram you had definite evidence the Germany was plotting against the United State. (OK it was a poor plot as Mexico had no interest.)
2) It was true Wilson was a poor dilplomat but there Americans who tried to bridge peace. (Ford?)
3) Probably the weird aspect that drew the US into the war was the European trade. Simply put WW1 overnight made the US export giant to Europe and there was lots product goods and debt to the US by 1917. Germany main interest in the war was simply to stop this flow that kept the Allies better supplied.

#8 Comment By PAXNOW On March 31, 2017 @ 8:11 am

Germany and England were best trading partners prior to WW1. The Kaiser loved to visit his favorite aunt (Victoria). No! The French wanted Alsace Lorraine back and conned the Brits into a treaty. Warmonger in Chief (WC) mobilized the British navy (Plan 7) and the yellow press did the rest. 25 million dead. Not one allied soldiers on German land in November 1918. This was a crazy and avoidable war. Its main outcome was WW2.

#9 Comment By peanut On March 31, 2017 @ 11:05 am

“Interesting review, and very possibly a good book … though unlikely to be a great book as it doesn’t appear to adequately address the fundamental mental diseases of liberal philosophy.”

The foremost of which is of course the way in which liberals (bad, bad, bad liberals who are both sissies and totalitarian monsters) disdain their opponents.

#10 Comment By peanut On March 31, 2017 @ 11:07 am

“WWI was orders of magnitude more brutal and costly and it may have been that none of the major combatants would have accepted less harsh settlements, but in spite of militarism Germany was a more or less conventional 19th century European power and perhaps would approached peace in a more conventional way. Even if not, had they won there would almost certainly been no Hitler chancellorship and no National Socialist government. That alone would have been benefit enough.”

We do know quite a bit about German war aims, and the peace they signed at Brest-Litovsk, and believe me, what they had in mind makes the Versailles treaty look like a garden party. And it’s true: German victory means there is no Hitler. But what evils would rise if the other 3 great European powers are utterly humiliated, and a Germany drunk on victory becomes the world’s leading power?

#11 Comment By dave On March 31, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

Well I often find it hard not to take a dark view of human nature myself, but – not sure there’s any sort of reprieve or redemption, Sir – but does depend in sometimes upon where I look.

And then I kind of came to the conclusion that rather than the Civil War it was the failure of the anti-imperialist league that signaled the end of the American experiment. Our intervention in some future European War had been cast.

#12 Comment By Jeremy Buxton On April 1, 2017 @ 5:37 am

How significant that the groups who made up the US anti-WWI participation were all enemies of true liberal/conservatism – southern racists, left-wing populists, and socialists. They were the unwitting allies of the German militarists who were not as bad as Hitler, but who would have imposed a corrupt and vicious world order had they prevailed against the democracies of France and Britain.
In a German-dominated post WWI world my country of Australia would have had a problematic future. So eventually would the United States.

#13 Comment By john On April 1, 2017 @ 3:38 pm

Trump is starting to alarm. Either he was lying or he has been drawn into the neoconservative camp. War with Iran would be a disaster, with consequences far worse than those of the invasion of Iraq. And of course there is less aversion to war as there is no longer a draft. With only five percent of the population subject to the extreme sacrifice the anti war sentiment has died. If there were a draft the United States would have been out of the Middle East ten years ago. In fact they may never had attacked Iraq. After all, the sixties was not an antiwar movement; it was an anti draft movement. But, with families able to send their own children to the University they just don’t care if others are being sent off to the barracks.

#14 Comment By Joe Blue On April 2, 2017 @ 2:22 am

US entry into World War One became inevitable in late 1916 when UK foreign secretary Arthur Balfour met with Chaim Weizmann (later to become the first president of Israel)and promised Weizmann that Britain would agree to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine only if Jews in the US were to use their influence to get their country to enter the War on Britain’s side. This meeting ended up resulting in the then secret Balfour Declaration.


After this secret Declaration was signed in early 1917, much of the media in the US, which previously had either apathetic about or strongly opposed to US entry into the conflict, made a strange and sudden about face. More more and more editorials started appearing pushing for war against “the evil Huns.” In order to increase support from a reluctant electorate, these newspapers started printing an increasing number of often fraudulent articles about supposed wartime atrocities committed against civilians by either Germany or its allies.

Wilson campaigned in the 1916 presidential election and specifically declared that he would keep us out of war. Whether this was a cynical move on his part to win the election or whether he really believed at that point that he could keep us out of war is open to debate.

What is well known is that Wison had won office in 1912 only because of a split in the Republican vote which had been engineered by the people who had financed Teddy Roosevelt’s third party Bull Moose campaign. Many of these very same people who had financed Teddy Roosevelt in his spoiler campaign later turned out to be avid Zionists. (Jacob Schiff, one of the most well known of them, was also to be concurrently financing the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.)Wilson, needless to say, was very much under the thumb of these financiers as a result of their help.

Afer the Balfour Declaration was secretly signed in early 1917, the pressure on Wilson from some of his wealthiest supporters to enter the war must have dramatically increased as did pressure from his secret but hyper Zionist advisors like close acquaintance Louis Brandeis.

The weak (and blackmailable) Wilson eventually succumbed to this pressure. Other politicians in Washington must have also felt this increasing pressure and as a result gave up any resistance to joining the war as well.

Wilson’s guilt for caving into the war’s supporters and his fear of being ridiculed for this weakness was probably the reason why he staged a frontal attack on the First Amendment and imprisoned so many of the war’s opponents. Eugene Debs, one of the most principled and consistent of these war resisters remained in jail long after the war had ended was to be freed only after Wilson left office in 1920 by his Republican successor.

#15 Comment By Carlton Meyer On April 2, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

The war was a hopeless stalemate by 1916 and peace talks would have come up with a compromise to end the senseless bloodshed. But it continued because the Brits were sure they could bring in the Americans and win.

#16 Comment By muggles On April 2, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

Contrary to what a few here and conventional mass “wisdom” seems to believe, the sinking of the Lusistania and the Zimmerman telegram were both created by British intelligence.
Research in recent decades has shown than the Zimmerman telegram was an artful product of British agents to fool Wilson into supporting entry into the war.
Archeological wreck survey of the Lusitiana revealed that it was secretly carrying ammunition to the UK in violation of neutrality laws.

#17 Comment By connecticut farmer On April 3, 2017 @ 9:44 am

While we’re speculating as to what would have happened had the Germans won–a tedious exercise at best–why not speculate as to what would have happened if the bumptious Wilhelm II had bothered to listen Chancellor Bismarck’s warning that the act of casting their lot with Austria-Hungary would be Germany’s road to ruin. Indeed, in 1897 (long after he had been summarily dismissed) Bismarck predicted that the house of cards would collapse in twenty years or so. He was only off by three years.

Maybe…just maybe…we wouldn’t even be having this discussion had Kaiser Bill listened to “The Iron Chancellor.”

#18 Comment By Richard McEvoy On May 17, 2017 @ 3:15 am

I don’t think anyone would dispute the need for a war where the enemy is on the doorstep, the threat direct and the war fought with a defensive strategy. Anything else one would suspect to be empire building, even if hidden behind a humanitarian justification.