One hundred years ago, on April 6, 1917, Congress voted to declare war on imperial Germany. The First World War was the pivot of the 20th century: It took the lives of 17 million people and resulted in the collapse of three major empires (the German, the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian). In the aftermath, totalitarian regimes both right and left came to power, leading to a second, far bloodier global conflict. Alas, for most Americans, the “Great War” holds little interest, particularly compared with the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam — all conflicts remembered as titanic moral struggles that transformed the nation. This neglect has given rise to some serious misconceptions about the war in which more than 116,000 Americans died.
America was an “exemplar of peace,” according to the title of the first chapter of Margaret E. Wagner’s forthcoming history of the United States during the war, sponsored by the Library of Congress. The keepers of Woodrow Wilson’s post-presidential home in Washington echo that conventional wisdom: His “primary goal at the outset of the European war . . . was to maintain American neutrality and to help broker peace between the warring parties.” In August 1914, Wilson called upon Americans to be “neutral in fact as well as name,” and in 1916, he ran for reelection on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Wilson hoped, at some point, to mediate an end to the carnage.
But his private sympathies were never in doubt. A German victory, the president told his closest adviser when the war began, “would change the course of our civilization and make the United States a military nation.” So the federal government did little to prevent U.S. businesses from selling goods and lending money to Britain and France. Bethlehem Steel made arms for the Allies, and the investment house of J.P. Morgan and Co. served as the British government’s exclusive purchasing agent in the United States. By war’s end, the total cost to king and country came to $3 billion; J.P. Morgan collected a tidy 1 percent commission on every sale. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy was blockading the North Sea, making it all but impossible for American firms to do business with Germany — a disparity Wilson complained about briefly and only in the mildest terms.
There is no myth more powerful than the notion that most Americans resisted intervention because they wanted to remain aloof from the problems besetting the rest of the world. In 1952, journalist Walter Lippmann recalled that “the isolationists were the party of neutrality and of pacifism.” More recently, Wilson biographer A. Scott Berg reflected that the president was “speaking to an isolationist nation” when he asked Congress to declare war in April 1917.
But both writers ignore the internationalist creed and connections held by the key leaders of the antiwar coalition. Jane Addams presided over a pacifist women’s conference in Europe. Morris Hillquit, a leading socialist, tried to travel to Stockholm to meet with comrades from other nations to formulate a peace plan. In 1915, Sen. Robert La Follette urged the Senate to pass a resolution in support of a conference of neutral nations, and in 1917, in a speech preceding his vote against a declaration of war, he offered praise for Germany’s social and industrial reforms. Industrialist 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 many prominent critics of the war elsewhere in the world, wanted a new global order based on cooperative relationships among nations and gradual disarmament. Militarism, they argued, isolated peoples behind walls of mutual fear and loathing. Of course, not all Americans who tried to stop the rush to war shared this global outlook. But they did fear the growth of a huge standing army that might be used in future conflicts abroad.
Accounts of wartime politics at home usually focus on the stringent Espionage and Sedition acts of 1917 and 1918. Conservative author Wendy McElroy writes that these laws “were used to destroy what was left of the left wing in America.” Berg reports that the nation “entered a period of repression as egregious as any in American history.”
Yet, despite the legal challenges, many peace advocates refused to remain silent and even thrived for a time. Some organized the People’s Council of America for Democracy and Peace to demand free speech and oppose the draft. In late May 1917, the council attracted a crowd of more than 15,000 to Madison Square Garden, despite efforts by New York police to intimidate those who attended. Other antiwar stalwarts established the National Civil Liberties Bureau (renamed the ACLU in 1920) to defend Americans prosecuted for exercising their First Amendment rights. And in the fall of 1917, Hillquit ran for mayor of New York on an antiwar platform; in a four-man race, he won almost a quarter of the vote. In several other big cities — Buffalo; Chicago; Dayton, Ohio; and Rochester, N.Y. — socialist candidates also exceeded totals beyond what the party had achieved in prewar contests.
“Many black American leaders, such as W. E. B. DuBois, supported the war effort and sought a place at the front for black soldiers,” according to a popular online textbook. “Black leaders viewed military service as an opportunity to demonstrate to white society the willingness and ability of black men to assume all duties and responsibilities of citizens.” The historian David Kennedy quotes a black assistant to the secretary of war as a stand-in for the majority of African Americans: “This is not the time to discuss race problems,” asserted Emmett Scott. “Our first duty is to fight. . . . Then we can adjust the problems that remain in the life of the colored man.”
But other black leaders, such as A. Philip Randolph and Ida Wells-Barnett, refused to encourage African Americans to join a segregated army to fight for a democracy abroad that they did not enjoy at home. And quite a few ordinary black people agreed. In July 1917, marchers took to the streets in several cities to protest the killing by a white mob of as many as 100 black residents of East St. Louis, Ill. Some of the demonstrators in New York carried posters demanding that Wilson “Bring Democracy to America Before You Carry It to Europe.”
In the summer of 1917, a group of black infantrymen stationed in Houston who had been attacked by local police protested in a particularly grisly fashion. They marched out of their camp and killed 15 white residents, including several white soldiers. After some of the culprits were executed, Wells-Barnett ordered a batch of buttons describing them as martyrs.
Most black draftees grudgingly joined the rigorously segregated army, but few saw combat; they were, instead, assigned to menial labor done in uniform.
There had been no draft since the Civil War, and most historians are impressed that, as G.J. Meyer puts it in a new book, “more than nine and a half million men registered” on the day in June 1917 when it was initiated; “it all went as smoothly as anyone could have hoped.” The Library of Congress history echoes that view: “Predictions of widespread disorder,” Wagner writes, “proved unfounded” as those men “signed up with Uncle Sam, cheered on by their fellow citizens.” It is easy to assume that young Americans rushed to obey the demand of James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam poster: “I want you.”
But in fact, resistance to conscription was quite strong. By the end of the war, the ranks of noncooperators were stunningly large. Roughly 3 million eligible men never registered, in violation of the law — compared with the 24 million who did. And some 338,000 who did register either failed to obey an induction notice or deserted after they joined the ranks. The Justice Department was able to arrest only a small percentage of these lawbreakers. A large number of Mexican Americans and others slipped across the southern border, where prosecutors could not touch them. Altogether, a higher percentage of American men successfully resisted conscription during World War I than during the Vietnam War half a century later.