In words oft quoted and all too true, George Kennan called the outbreak of war in August 1914 “the great seminal catastrophe” of the last century. It led to the deaths in battle of more than 10 million men, the collapse of four great multinational empires, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, years of further violence, a crisis of democratic government, the rise of fascism, Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany, and then a new and more terrible war with scores of millions dead. You might say that Gavrilo Princip, who fired the first shot on June 28, 1914, had much to answer for.
Over the weeks that followed the assassination at Sarajevo, one great European power after another was dragged in: the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary ranged against the Entente of France, Great Britain, and Russia. But one great power stood aside—if such a power it was. No American troops had ever fought in Europe, and the US Army, while adequate for the purposes of extirpating the indigenous inhabitants and beating up the Mexicans, barely existed beside the larger European armies. All the same, in the half-century between Civil War and Great War, the population of the United States had more than doubled, from 38 million to 92 million—more numerous than any European state save Russia—while an explosive industrial revolution saw coal production double in the two decades before 1914 and the production of crude steel increase sevenfold. These were the raw materials of modern war. Whether the American people liked it or not, their country looked like a great military power waiting to be born.
Many did not like it. Apart from a deep traditional aversion to war, and the unforgotten sufferings of the Civil War, half of the country’s industrial workers were European immigrants or the children of those immigrants. As President Woodrow Wilson said, “the people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war.” When the First World War began, well-informed observers reckoned that more Americans, if forced to choose, would rather fight against than for that Entente. German Americans were then nearly a tenth of the population and had no desire to fight against their ancestral homeland; millions of Irish Americans didn’t want to fight for England; and nor did many Russian-born Jews want to fight on the side of the czar, whose persecution they had fled.
For the better part of three years, Wilson “kept us out of the war,” as the slogan for his 1916 re-election campaign claimed. But in early 1917, he decided that entering the conflict was inevitable, and Congress declared war. The vote was not unanimous—373 to 50 in the House, and 82 to six in the Senate—and it came after a bitter debate that stretched over a whole weekend, with the Senate sitting all through Saturday, and ended only with those changes in the upper house’s procedural rules that recently made possible the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee. Yes, history does come around in unlikely ways.
As The Times of London had it the next day: “The size of the pacifist vote and the length of the debate were due to the unexpected revolt of Mr Kitchen [sic], the Democratic floor leader—a provincially minded Southern politician, who before now has plagued the President by his obstinate stupidity. His followers consisted of ignoramuses like himself, Socialists, extreme Radicals, and a few normally innocuous people apparently intimidated by pacifist demonstrations.”
For the British, desperate to see American troops on the Western Front, House majority leader Claude Kitchin and his followers, along with those socialists and radicals, appeared narrow-minded and selfish. For Michael Kazin, they are the heroes of the story he passionately relates in his new book, War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918. At the outset, Kazin says that he believes the United States should not have taken part in the war, and his account of the failed but ardent movement that tried to prevent the country from joining it is impressive and moving, although it also presents difficulties: Kazin can more easily admire radical and feminist opponents than someone like Kitchin, a North Carolina Democrat and intransigent segregationist. Likewise, his account of what went wrong at the end of the war also poses problems: What was meant to be “the war to end wars” was followed, in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond, by five years of bloodletting that was more widespread and more horrible than the Western Front had known—and with still darker consequences.
Both sides of the debate over whether or not to enter the war included highly disparate elements. In the war party were liberals like John Dewey and the writers at The New Republic, Wilson’s favorite publication, who persuaded themselves, and then Wilson, that by entering the war, the United States could help make a better world. But it also included Theodore Roosevelt—the unlikeliest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize there has ever been if it weren’t for Henry Kissinger—who rather horribly saw battle as a form of therapy: “By war alone can we acquire those virile qualities necessary to win in the stern strife of actual life.”
On the other side, the war was opposed by the radical and progressive left, as well as a very diverse group of politicians. Robert La Follette, the famous progressive senator from Wisconsin, found himself in strange alliance with men like Kitchin, who had once organized “White Supremacy Clubs.” Along with them were the socialist Morris Hillquit, the social activist Jane Addams, and a powerful women’s movement for peace that organized marches in New York. The suffragist Helen Frances Garrison Villard and the formidable radical Crystal Eastman joined the campaign against war; sheet music for the song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” sold 700,000 copies; and the “War Against War” agitprop exhibition in Brooklyn in the spring of 1916 attracted 5,000 to 10,000 visitors a day. Peaceniks traveled to conferences in neutral European countries that attracted like-minded people from the warring nations; they organized across the country, and, even after America entered the war, Hillquit managed to win more than a fifth of the vote in the New York mayoral election in 1917 on an antiwar platform.
Through 1915 and 1916, the crux of the debate wasn’t the war itself but preparations for it. The National Security League was founded in 1914, supported by industrialists and financiers like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Bernard Baruch, and Henry Clay Frick; it agitated for a much larger Army and for a draft. This would remain a source of bitter contention even after the country went to war and a draft was put in place. On the other side, La Follette introduced a Senate resolution in February 1915 proposing a conference to secure “the early cessation of hostilities,” and his wife, Belle La Follette, helped found the Women’s Peace Party, which enjoyed a large following and collaborated with the International Congress of Women. But just as the peace party had feared, calls for increased “security” steadily paved the way for entering the war. Even as 1917 began, and Wilson continued to meet with Belle La Follette’s WPP activists, it was clear that the country was now headed into the conflict.
Why the war began in 1914, and whose responsibility it was, are questions that have been fiercely—and inconclusively—debated in Europe for the past hundred years. So has the question of why the United States did, at last, enter the war—or why the peace movement failed. Then and since, some have discerned a dark plot involving Anglophiles like Edward House, Wilson’s political adviser and traveling representative, conspiring to take the country to war.
On the whole, simpler explanations are to be preferred. For one thing, American sentiment was undeniably and radically changed by German brutality. As a German professor ruefully acknowledged at the time, “the three names Louvain [in Belgium, where a great library had been burned down by German soldiers], Rheims [where the medieval cathedral had been shelled], Lusitania [the ocean liner torpedoed by a U-boat in 1915], in almost equal measure have wiped out sympathy with Germany in America.”
More than that, Wilson could plausibly claim in the spring of 1917 that his hand was forced by unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the grotesque “Zimmermann telegram” that Germany had sent Mexico promising the restoration of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in return for attacking its northern neighbor. Of course, it was the wont of Wilson and many others to persuade themselves that they supported war for the noblest motives, even if the dissenters rightly saw through that. And the dissenters warned also, as Missouri Senator William Stone said, that if the country went to war, “we would never again have the same old Republic.”
His fears proved horribly prescient. Amid an ugly mood of coarse jingoism, nativism, and racism, Wilson used the war to create America’s first national-security state, including passage of the Espionage and Sedition acts and an unsurpassed assault on civil liberties. During the last year of the war and the years immediately following, there were bloody race riots, the Red Scare and the Palmer raids, the recrudescence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the flagrantly racist immigration acts passed by Congress as postwar America withdrew into its shell. The extraordinary Randolph Bourne forewarned much of this but died in 1918, before he could see the frightening accuracy of his prediction: “War is the health of the state,” Bourne had lamented. “It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.”
As he makes clear, Kazin isn’t writing as an unconditional pacifist, nor does he think that all wars are wrong. Instead, his argument contrasts the “bad war” the United States entered in 1917 with the “good war” it entered in 1941. But this is too simple a view of both wars, in moral and political terms. The late John Grigg, a man who saw action in the second war, once made the plausible case that the First World War was the “nobler war”: At least those killed in it were almost all soldiers in uniform, whereas most of those killed during the Second World War were civilians. What’s more, many of the criticisms leveled against the First World War, notably Bourne’s warning of an all-powerful and dehumanizing state, could also be made of the second. And, indeed, they were: A few critics, like Dwight Macdonald, opposed that war not only in principle but because of the way it was being waged, notably the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians by bombing.
Nor is it easy to see how, in contrast to the First World War, the second was what Kazin calls “an unavoidable conflict in which Americans were arguably fighting for national survival.” To the contrary, it wasn’t only avoidable but avoided, at least until December 1941, at which point Hitler controlled most of Europe, the Wehrmacht was at the gates of Moscow, the Germans had already murdered a million Jews in the East—and the American embassy in Berlin remained open. Even after Pearl Harbor, it was not certain that Franklin Roosevelt would commit the country to war with Germany, until Hitler solved that dilemma by declaring war on the United States—not the other way round. Again, Kazin wants to distinguish his heroes in 1916 from the America First group in 1940. But just as the opponents of the Great War ranged from radicals to racists, so those who opposed American entry into the next war ranged from sympathizers with the Third Reich like Charles Lindbergh to Macdonald and other Trotskyists.
Kazin also offers a debatable reading of why the combatant nations failed to achieve a lasting peace at the conflict’s end. He argues that “the United States won the Great War but lost the peace,” because Wilson was forced “to agree to a punitive settlement” that sowed the seeds of resentment that led to the Second World War. But an alternate case can be made, and indeed has been by some historians, that Wilson’s real error was not how he made war, but how he made peace. First, he portentously announced his Fourteen Points (the Good Lord only had Ten Commandments, observed a cynical Clémenceau) and demanded that “the relations of the several Balkan states to one another [be] determined by friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality.” Just how difficult those pompous and ignorant words were to put into practice was soon shown, and their legacy besets us still. From today’s vantage point, Lord Robert Cecil, the English statesman and proponent of the League of Nations, seems wiser when he said, “Whether a new Europe with two or three additional Slav states will be more peaceful than the old seems to me, I confess, very doubtful.”
But then, having decided to enter the war, Wilson should have followed that logic by fighting it to its conclusion. Allowing the Germans to believe that they had not been defeated, as they had, opened the way for nationalist demagogues who claimed that the army had been stabbed in the back by the “November criminals,” the politicians in Berlin, and the Jews.
Even then, the United States was the one power that might have prevented another and more terrible war. Adam Tooze showed in The Deluge that the European leaders were desperate for American help after the war ended: “A joint solution…was clearly necessary to escape the impasse of the age of imperialist rivalry,” Tooze writes, and the miseries that ensued for Europe stemmed from “the failure of the United States to cooperate with the efforts of the French, British, Germans and the Japanese to stabilize a viable world economy and to establish new institutions of collective security.”
Those miseries began early: The violence that tore Europe apart in the Second World War started almost as soon as the first one had ended. As Robert Gerwarth relates in his new history, The Vanquished, civil war and ethnic violence had already engulfed much of Europe and beyond by the early 1920s. Reds and Whites fought each other savagely in Russia, Finland, and Hungary, and the rise of a new national Turkish state from the ashes of the -Ottoman Empire was marked by extreme violence against the Greek community of Asia Minor, culminating in a hideous orgy of rape and massacre at Smyrna in 1922. Not content with murdering Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the Freikorps roamed through the Baltic states slaughtering with unimaginable brutality. As one of the Freikorps members observed, “We laughed when they told us that the war was over, because we were the war.”
There may be lessons in all this, although perhaps not the ones that Kazin thinks. Arthur Koestler used to say that you can’t help people being right for the wrong reason, and it’s also possible to be wrong for the right reason. One may share Kazin’s admiration for the noble spirit of these warriors for peace while reluctantly disagreeing with them. War is hell, and whether there is such a thing as a good or just war is debatable, but some are necessary. And yet they too leave disaster in their wake. As Winston Churchill said all too truly of this war to end all wars: “Both sides, victors and vanquished, were ruined.”