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War Against War

The American Fight for Peace 1914-1918

About The Book

A dramatic account of the Americans who tried to stop their nation from fighting in the First World War—and came close to succeeding.

In this “fascinating” (Los Angeles Times) narrative, Michael Kazin brings us into the ranks of one of the largest, most diverse, and most sophisticated peace coalitions in US history. The activists came from a variety of backgrounds: wealthy, middle, and working class; urban and rural; white and black; Christian and Jewish and atheist. They mounted street demonstrations and popular exhibitions, attracted prominent leaders from the labor and suffrage movements, ran peace candidates for local and federal office, met with President Woodrow Wilson to make their case, and founded new organizations that endured beyond the cause. For almost three years, they helped prevent Congress from authorizing a massive increase in the size of the US army—a step advocated by ex-president Theodore Roosevelt. When the Great War’s bitter legacy led to the next world war, the warnings of these peace activists turned into a tragic prophecy—and the beginning of a surveillance state that still endures today.

Peopled with unforgettable characters and written with riveting moral urgency, War Against War is a “fine, sorrowful history” (The New York Times) and “a timely reminder of how easily the will of the majority can be thwarted in even the mightiest of democracies” (The New York Times Book Review).


August 1914 to May 1915

“We must be impartial in thought as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.”

—President Woodrow Wilson, August 19141

“As women, we are called upon to start each generation onward toward a better humanity. We will no longer tolerate without determined opposition that denial of the sovereignty of reason and justice by which war and all that makes for war today render impotent the idealism of the race.”

—Woman’s Peace Party, January 19152

“The nation which stifles its martial spirit breeds a race of vassals. It has always been so. It always will be so.”

—Representative Augustus Gardner (R-Mass.), April 19153

“The people of the United States have arrived at the parting of the ways. They will have to choose between embarking on an adventurous and exhausting policy of militarism or staking their future on a rigid determination to maintain peace and social progress.”

—Morris Hillquit, April 19154
One cloudy afternoon at the end of August 1914, some fifteen hundred women strode two miles down Fifth Avenue in a silent protest against the growing war in Europe. Many dressed in black to symbolize mourning; muffled drums intensified the mood. Ten times as many New Yorkers massed five deep along both sides of the wide boulevard, their own silence reflecting the solemn tone of the occasion. “I was more than surprised at the reverential attitude of the spectators,” remarked Fanny Garrison Villard, the sixty-nine-year-old leader of the Women’s Peace Parade. “It was only a feeble effort really, we have simply cast a pebble into the water. I hope there may be many ever widening circles that perhaps will make men realize what a crime it is to send thousands of husbands and fathers and sons to a useless slaughter.”5

As the eldest daughter of the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Villard embodied the history of several intertwined crusades on the American left. Before 1914, she had agitated for suffrage and black rights, preaching, like her father, the gospel of absolute nonviolence—“a willingness to lose one’s life in a good cause, while refusing to take the life of another.” As the widow of railroad baron Henry Villard, Fanny could also help finance her cherished causes.6

In taking to the streets on August 29, Villard and her fellow activists were employing a tactic the anti-war movement had never used before. A change seemed urgent. The outbreak of war in Europe had exposed the legal paternalism of the existing peace groups—to which few of these women belonged—as an utter failure. Their male officials who had scorned female moralism as “ineffectual” now could only sputter their dismay at the mounting bloodshed with earnest editorials and private letters. The onset of war so shocked Andrew Carnegie that, as his wife, Louise, recalled, the once vigorous philanthropist “became an old man overnight . . . his face became deeply indented”; he lost his “zest for mere existence.” The prime benefactor and entrepreneur of the prewar peace movement withdrew abruptly from what now seemed a pointless struggle. For the duration of the conflict, his Endowment for Peace funded hardly any peace initiatives at all.7

The exclusion of women from the inner, now passive circle of the prewar movement freed them to assemble a new kind of coalition. It drew from the remarkable variety of progressive initiatives then blooming in New York City, where, at least in reform circles, gender equality was more advanced than anywhere else in the country. Notable members of the parade committee included the pioneering social worker Lillian Wald; Frances Perkins, the industrial safety expert (and future secretary of labor); prominent unionists Rose Schneiderman and Leonora O’Reilly; suffrage leaders Carrie Chapman Catt and Harriot Stanton Blatch; and the popular feminist authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gertrude Atherton, and Mary Beard.

Coverage of the women’s protest in the big city’s ardently competitive newspapers was lengthy and positive. The World, jewel in the crown of the Pulitzer empire, noticed everything from the couture of the participants to the sight of Villard, walking by herself, “a gray-haired little lady . . . whose step was as steady for the whole length of the march as that of any younger woman in the line.” Its arch-rival, the Journal, owned by William Randolph Hearst, displayed large photographs of several attractive, and wealthy, young marchers. The Times described the small contingents of African-American, Indian, Chinese, and French women—most of the latter were refugees—walking “not as nations, but as sorrowing women together” and mentioned that the display of any national flag—including the Stars and Stripes—was prohibited. The Socialist Call featured a contingent of “women comrades” who pinned red ribbons to their black dresses and published a poem the German-American feminist Meta Stern had composed for the occasion. The last lines predicted: “For the cannon will be silenced / And the bloody banners furled, / When, to guide the fate of mankind, / Come the women of the world.”8

The internationalism of the prewar movement had been fashioned by men of economic substance and political title—most elected, a few inherited. The ethnic and social diversity of the women’s parade revealed a bond of a more egalitarian kind. Villard’s hastily organized committee dissolved just weeks after the march down Fifth Avenue. But the vision of mothers and daughters as the vanguard of a peaceful world—the antithesis of “isolationism”—continued to gain new converts. The following January it would take larger and more durable form as the Woman’s Peace Party.

The feminist mode of activism developed alongside the more traditional style practiced by male politicians and dissidents on the left. While women like Fanny Villard spun visions of a more harmonious world in which mothers from every land would stop sons from killing other sons, their male counterparts fought over more immediate questions: whether to peddle munitions to belligerents and/or boost the size of the military. They proposed new laws to stop both actions and sought to win the battle for public opinion at home—while downplaying any desire they might have for a radical new order. In contrast, pacifist women, most of whom were still barred from voting, nurtured a community of idealists that spanned the Atlantic.

Not until the middle of 1915 would exponents of the two ways of making war against war unite in a common endeavor, muting while never abandoning their differences. Together they mounted an impressive challenge to Americans—whether ordinary men and women or members of the political and economic elite—who wanted the United States to tilt toward one side or the other in the European conflict. Their words and actions also helped stiffen President Wilson’s resolve not to intervene.
Behind the universal acclaim for the New York women’s parade lay widespread revulsion at the war itself. “This dreadful conflict . . . came to most of us like lightning out of a clear sky,” North Carolina congressman Robert Newton Page wrote that fall to his brother Walter Hines Page, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. “The horror of it all kept me awake for weeks, nor has the awfulness of it all deserted me, but at first it seemed a horrid dream.” By September, French and British forces had stopped the German advance well short of Paris. Meanwhile, Russians battled the armies of Germany and Austria-Hungary for control of the Polish plains. On the Western Front, a bloody, exhausting stalemate set in, as the belligerents built opposing systems of trenches extending 475 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border. The standoff—punctuated by spasmodic shelling and failed offensives that sacrificed tens of thousands of lives for a few kilometers of territory—would continue for nearly four more years.9

On August 19, Woodrow Wilson, who was mourning the death of his wife just two weeks earlier, released a short statement that expressed the sentiments of most of his fellow citizens. Recognizing that “the people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war,” the president urged them to stay “neutral in fact, as well as name.” Otherwise, the “one great nation [still] at peace” would be unable to mediate the conflict—when and if it chose to do so. Two days later, Wilson wrote to Fanny Villard that he was “very glad” to support her parade, since it upheld the principle of impartiality. In New York City, most immigrants from the belligerent countries obeyed Mayor John Mitchel’s stern request to halt demonstrations of sympathy with their former homelands.10

Of course, even a plea by the president to “put a curb upon our sentiments” could not stop Americans of different ethnic backgrounds from rooting for one side or the other. The Irish-American nationalists of Clan na Gael hoped a British defeat would hasten the long-awaited freedom of their ancestral isle. Most Jews were convinced that no war fought by the military of Tsar Nicholas II—the world’s most powerful anti-Semite—could ever be a just one. Few Scandinavian-Americans saw any reason to favor either the Allies or the Central Powers.

But the German invasion of Belgium on August 3, followed by the sacking and burning of the city of Louvain later that month, led many Americans to view the Kaiser’s government as the war’s sole culprit. Most metropolitan newspapers cheered the French and British efforts to revenge those “crimes,” while also running occasional pieces that claimed Germany had acted in self-defense. The same day the World praised the women’s march, it ran a large editorial cartoon depicting Marianne, the symbol of France, unsheathing her sword to stop German troops from approaching Paris. In London, Ambassador Page openly expressed his wish that “English civilization” would triumph over the “Prussian military autocracy.” He raised no protest when, at the start of hostilities, the British cut the undersea cables linking the United States with Europe, ensuring that any direct dispatches from their enemies could be censored or destroyed before American readers could read them.11

Contrary to his public rhetoric, Woodrow Wilson’s private sympathies were never truly in doubt. Anglophilia ran though the president’s blood and his intellect. His mother hailed from the town of Carlisle in northern England, his first political heroes were the British statesmen Edmund Burke and William Gladstone, his most important scholarly work lauded parliamentary government as practiced in the United Kingdom, and the Lake District was his favorite place on earth. On August 30, he confided to his closest advisor, Colonel Edward House, that “German philosophy was essentially selfish and lacking in spirituality.” Wilson dreaded a German victory that “would change the course of our civilization and make the United States a military nation.”12

But the president had no intention of asking Congress to send U.S. troops to prevent that from happening. He knew few Americans, whatever their views on the countries and the stakes involved, wanted to break with their nation’s tradition of staying out of conflicts between other major powers. “This war is a calamity for Europe,” wrote William Randolph Hearst in late August. The publisher predicted, quite accurately: “At the end of the war this country will be far ahead and Europe far behind. Peace will make this country pre-eminent, and that lesson will never be lost on the world.” In any case, with roughly a hundred thousand troops and just eleven airplanes, the U.S. Army was hardly prepared to fight a major war. Nor were there enough ships in the merchant marine to transport them across the ocean. Far better to call for a speedy end to the bloody mess and, perhaps, help bring that about. Still, as Hearst implied, one could certainly do a good business with one or both sides while the killing lasted.13

Through the remainder of 1914 and the early months of 1915, the question of whether to profit from the Great War and how divided Americans along lines that foreshadowed later, more bitter debates. So did the beginnings of a dispute about whether the nation should build a much larger army and encourage or require young men to undergo military training—as much to school them in unselfish discipline as to protect their homeland from future attack. Members of the emerging anti-war coalition played a prominent role in all these debates.

When huge armies began to mobilize across the ocean, the American economy was in recession; about 12 percent of wage earners had no work at all, and many others scraped by with part-time jobs. The onset of conflict turned the downturn into a crisis. Panicked European investors cabled their Wall Street brokers to sell their securities, the very name of which had suddenly turned ironic. On the last day of July, the governors of the New York Stock Exchange, prodded by the financier J.P. Morgan Jr. and Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo, shut the market down. It would not open again until four months later.

Meanwhile, there was a good deal of money to be made—at least potentially. But first, the Wilson administration had to resolve a critical question: Did the impartiality the president called for mean that banks could not lend money to belligerents and that companies could not make and sell goods to them, particularly the weapons and matériel of war? By 1914, the American economy had become increasingly dependent on foreign trade. “Upon its uninterrupted rhythm,” reflected the historian Arthur Link, “depended the price that the southern planter would receive for his cotton and the western farmer for his wheat, the capacity at which steel mills would operate, indeed, whether the entire economy would prosper or decline.”14

By late summer, it was clear the French and British would be the only realistic partners for American business, if and when commerce resumed. The Royal Navy controlled the sea lanes of the North Atlantic and was imposing an embargo in all but name on the North Sea, the only marine route for exports to Germany. What’s more, nearly all the big American investment firms had close and long-standing ties to their counterparts in London and Paris.

At first, it appeared that Wilson and his top advisors would stay true to the president’s words. They urged the British to abide by rules drafted two years earlier at an international conference in London that would have required its warships to allow Americans to conduct trade in nonmilitary commodities with anyone they wished. Then, on August 15, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan barred J.P. Morgan & Co.—the wealthiest firm on Wall Street—from giving a $100 million loan to France. “Money,” intoned Bryan, “is the worst of contrabands—it commands everything else.” The three-time Democratic candidate for president was an admirer of Leo Tolstoy, a pacifist icon, and had frequently addressed peace groups before the war. In his short time as secretary, Bryan had conceived and signed eighteen bilateral treaties with other nations in which each side agreed to submit any quarrel to an investigative tribunal—and, after doing so, begin no conflict for a “cooling-off period” of a full year. 15

But soon law and economic necessity conspired to weaken both his and the president’s resolve. The government could not legally prevent citizens of a neutral state from selling goods or lending money to a belligerent nation. So businessmen—from the iron and steel barons along the Great Lakes to the cotton planters of Dixie—clamored to ship their goods, usually in British-flag merchant ships, across the Atlantic. In October, Wilson allowed the National City Bank to extend $10 million in credits to France; Bryan did not object, on the grounds that a credit was different from a loan.

Before the year was over, the administration had abandoned even this superficial caveat. In November, Bethlehem Steel magnate Charles M. Schwab (whose grandparents on both sides had emigrated from Germany) signed a contract to deliver $50 million in arms to the Allies. On January 15, 1915, the mighty House of Morgan formally agreed to serve 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; Morgan & Co. collected a tidy 1 percent commission on every sale.16

The Royal Navy’s refusal to allow neutral ships to trade with Germany was a clear violation of international law. But the Wilson administration had neither the capacity nor the will to exert American rights against the largest fleet in the world; the State Department did issue occasional protests, but nothing more. In the journalistic cliché of the day, “Britain rules the waves and waives the rules.” By late 1915, unemployment in the United States was down to 7 percent. “Let ’em shoot! It makes good business for us!” headlined a Nashville paper. Even most wage earners born in Germany and Austria-Hungary were glad to benefit from the manufacturing boom.17

Yet a healthy minority of Americans did reject the logic and morality of this deadly, if profitable, species of commerce. In Congress, several progressives from both parties demanded that all munitions should be produced by the federal government in order to “take the profits out of war.” If that occurred, predicted Representative Clyde H. Tavenner, a Democrat from Illinois, “some of the very millionaire patriots who are now agitating for an ever and ever increased amount of armament” would start complaining about all the tax money being spent to prepare “for war in time of peace.” A Literary Digest poll of newspaper editors from around the country found that nearly 40 percent favored an arms embargo. The strongest support came from small-town papers. In mid-February, thirty-six senators—mostly Republicans from the West and Midwest and Democrats from the South—voted against tabling an amendment to prohibit such exports. At the end of January 1915, advocates of the embargo met in Washington, D.C., to establish a new organization, the American Independence Union. Delegates pledged “to support only such candidates for public office, irrespective of party, who will place American interests above those of any other country.”18

But the Union’s flag-waving rhetoric could not mask the fact that it was essentially the creation of a large and well-organized lobby for the Kaiser’s regime. The previous fall, the 2-million-member National German-American Alliance, funded largely by beer companies and headed by the civil engineer Charles John Hexamer, had launched its own embargo campaign. The idea quickly gained the support of several Teutonic congressmen as well as the governors of Pennsylvania and Texas. Politicians from every party in Wisconsin, where at least one-third of the residents claimed German heritage, signed on as well. Few if any of the campaign’s backers knew that Count Johann von Bernstorff, the Kaiser’s ambassador to Washington, was secretly helping to organize it. The trade in munitions, declared Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette, had “but one purpose, and that is to sacrifice human life for private gain.” The Independence Union aimed to give these sentiments a unified voice.19

The German-language press vigorously promoted the embargo, as did several periodicals edited by militant Irish republicans. During the winter of 1914–1915, this loose coalition drew audiences in the tens of thousands to halls in such midwestern cities as Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis—as well as in New York City, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. Together, Hibernian-Americans and German-Americans numbered more than 10 million inhabitants—about one-ninth of the U.S. population. If their leaders had united in support of the embargo, they could have turned aid to the Allies into a closely fought political issue. The British ambassador to the United States already feared, as he wrote to his superiors in February, that “something like a civil war” could erupt if Wilson openly abandoned his neutral stance.20

But champions of the embargo made no serious attempt to counter the doubts of a public that cheered the return of prosperity or of the majority in Congress that shunned an act that would have greatly boosted the prospect of a German victory. Hexamer certainly made no converts with widely reprinted speeches in which he condemned (in English) the “lick-spittle policy of our country” toward Great Britain and sneered that the stripes on the flag ought to be replaced with dollar signs. No prominent Irish-American—nearly all of whom were pro-Wilson Democrats—endorsed the embargo; neither did more than a handful of Catholic diocesan weeklies, whose combined circulation dwarfed that of papers edited by ardent republicans. So, by the spring of 1915, the only organized resistance to the arms trade with the Allies had all but collapsed.21

However, the debate about whether the United States should prepare for war was just beginning. Those favoring a larger military had a number of advantages. They could count on the self-interest of most of the nation’s industrial corporations. They had a national organization: the National Security League, founded in December 1914 and financed, in part, by such wealthy Americans as railroad owner Cornelius Vanderbilt, the financier Bernard Baruch, and steel magnate Henry Clay Frick. The NSL packed its board with a variety of renowned figures: two former secretaries of war and a secretary of the navy, seventeen governors, the editors of such respected magazines as the Outlook and Scientific American, and the inventor Thomas Alva Edison. Alton Parker, the 1904 Democratic candidate for president, supplied a veneer of bipartisanship to what was a largely Republican body. By the fall of 1915, the NSL boasted a staff of fifty in its New York City office and a membership of fifty thousand, and it was well on its way to organizing branches in every state.22

Theodore Roosevelt, who remained enormously popular despite his loss in 1912, spoke out for the cause with his customary vigor. In October, the Colonel, as he now liked to be known, told an audience of Princeton students he had “seen plans of at least two empires now involved in the war to capture our great cities and hold them for ransom, because our standing army is too weak to protect them.” Soon TR was promoting universal military training as a splendid means of making America a more democratic society. With a draft, he enthused, “the son of the capitalist and the son of the day laborer” would “eat the same food, go on the same hikes, profit by the same discipline, and learn to honor and take pride in the same flag.” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a prominent GOP voice on foreign policy, zestfully agreed with everything his best friend Colonel Roosevelt proposed.23

Yet in much of America, resistance to “militarism” ran wide and deep. A traditional distaste for standing armies and foreign entanglements mingled with a populist suspicion of the “war trust”—corporations eager to produce munitions for domestic as well as overseas consumption. The ethnic groups that had spurned the Allies at the start of the war recoiled at the campaign by the NSL and its allies—as did every major labor union and, of course, the Socialist Party. In January, the Literary Digest reported that, away from the two coasts, there was nearly as much sentiment against building “a stronger army and navy” as there was in favor of it. Within Wilson’s cabinet, William Jennings Bryan warned against heeding the counsel of the NSL and its supporters.24

  •  •  •  

In Congress, an emerging coalition composed mainly of midwestern Republicans and southern Democrats like Claude Kitchin opposed any sizable increase in military strength. Kitchin, the unrivaled leader of anti-war Democrats in Congress until war was declared, was a true white son of Dixie who mingled together racist fears with a populist resentment against the wealthy barons of the North. He was born in 1869 and raised in the small town of Scotland Neck, a center of cotton plantations in the northeastern corner of North Carolina, where black people composed a majority of the population. Ideologically, Kitchin never really left it, although he would serve in Congress for twenty-two straight years.

Kitchin’s father, Will, raised on a 475-acre plantation, had joined the Confederate Army soon after the attack on Fort Sumter. He rose to the rank of captain and fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before being captured and imprisoned in the North. Because he refused to swear allegiance to the United States. Will Kitchin—or “Cap’n Buck” as he was known—remained in federal custody for six months after Lee had surrendered his sword to Grant. In 1878, running as a Democrat, he won a seat in Congress from the Second District by firing up the white minority with curses against the Republican “blood-suckers and political buzzards” who had “organized the colored man against his former masters” during Reconstruction. The party of the “blood-suckers” rallied to take back the seat two years later.25

At the end of the century, his son Claude regained it by fueling racist sentiments in both word and deed. Aided by the state’s leading newspaper, he whipped up fear of black rapists in a transparent campaign to reestablish white political supremacy by any means necessary. “The Anglo-Saxon will, sooner or later, reassert itself,” the young Kitchin declared to a local party convention in 1898, “and awaken the State to an appreciation of that inexorable law of the universe . . . which declares that the FITTEST SHALL SURVIVE.” That autumn, Kitchin, a tall and muscular figure, helped organize “White Supremacy Clubs” and rode with armed “Red Shirts” to warn black people not to bother exercising their constitutional rights. In 1900, as terror, real and threatened, kept most African Americans from going to the polls, North Carolina enacted an amendment to the state constitution that effectively barred them from voting in the future.26

That fall, the Democrats nominated Kitchin to Congress; he swept the Second District by more than ten thousand votes to become the youngest member of the new House. To protest the disenfranchisment of his people, the black Republican incumbent, George Henry White, had declined to run for reelection and moved his family to Washington, D.C. “I cannot live in North Carolina and . . . be treated as a man,” he explained. It would be another seventy-two years before another African American was elected to Congress from a former Confederate state.27

But Claude Kitchin’s politics were not driven by racism alone. “I have no guarantee that God has so endowed my little boy,” he lamented during the 1900 campaign, “that when he grows up he will be able to make a living with the trusts stifling competition as they do.” With no apparent fear of contradiction, Kitchin also denounced the U.S. war of conquest in the Philippines as an attempt to impose “government without consent of the governed.” In expressing such anti-corporate and anti-imperialist rhetoric, he was siding with the majority of his national party and with William Jennings Bryan—its presidential nominee in 1896, 1900, and again in 1908.28

Bryanite Democrats from every region were determined to block the plans of northern financiers and factory owners—and the politicians who allegedly did their bidding—to accumulate power and riches on the backs of small farmers, little businessmen, and wage earners. During the early twentieth century, southerners were a majority of the Democrats in Congress. Pillars of what one historian has called the party’s “coalition of outsiders,” they were perpetually wary of any move—in domestic or foreign policy—that would further an agenda they despised.

When Kitchin told a reporter, in 1904, that the Democrats should consider nominating a southerner for president, he melded his love for Dixie with his populist convictions: “Democracy, character and ability should be the [only] determining factors in the choice of a standard-bearer. Of course, in this event, the South would have a natural monopoly of candidates, but as we are opposed to monopoly, we would not take advantage of the situation.”29

That ability to quip a controversial opinion suggests one reason why Kitchin gradually rose to leadership in the House. He battled the GOP on nearly every major issue but forced his adversaries to grin while they clashed. “Since my services here,” Kitchin remarked in 1909, “I have met so many good Republicans that I have long since reached the conclusion that a Republican is never a danger to a Democrat except in elections and is never harmful to the public, except in office.” When he turned serious, he could be masterful—blending legal reasoning, historical reflections, and melodramatic phrases in the same speech. Over six feet tall, stout, and with a prominent nose, he physically dominated most of his fellow congressmen too. Kitchin, observed one journalist, had a “shrewd face, salted liberally with conviction as well as sympathy and fun.” That combination would be tested frequently once the Great War began.30

But Kitchin had to balance his principled opposition to preparedness with keeping the Democrats strong. The midterm election of 1914 had been a calamity for his party; it lost sixty seats in the House and emerged with just thirty-three more representatives than the GOP. After licking their wounds, one of the Democrats’ first acts was to elect Kitchin majority leader as well as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, where all tax bills either got nurtured or died. Having just been lifted, at the age of forty-four, to the second highest post in the “people’s chamber,” Kitchin was not about to get branded a party renegade and throw it all away.31

Perched near the summit of power, the North Carolinian had to avoid taking any position that would endanger party unity or weaken the first Democratic president in almost two decades. Kitchin did give a few speeches warning generally about the perils of militarism. In February, he also voted unsuccessfully, with a majority of other Democrats, to build just one battleship a year instead of the two that the Navy Department requested. But he also whipped the members of his decreased majority to support every consequential piece of domestic legislation that Woodrow Wilson desired.

Amid this emerging struggle, the erstwhile academic in the White House sought to tamp down emotions and instill confidence in his leadership. “We are at peace with all the world,” Wilson told the assembled lawmakers in his state of the union address that December. There was no “reason to fear that from any quarter our independence or the integrity of our territory is threatened.” The United States could still rely on “a citizenry trained and accustomed to arms” instead of a standing army in the European style. “We shall not ask our young men to spend the best years of their lives making soldiers of themselves.” Then, nearing the end of his address, in a swipe at Henry Cabot Lodge and other backers of a beefed-up military, the president said, “We shall not alter our attitude . . . because some amongst us are nervous and excited.”32

The animosity was entirely mutual. A few weeks later, Lodge wrote to Roosevelt, “I heartily dislike and despise” Wilson and “live in hopes that he will be found out . . . for what he really is.”33 The senator and the president would never change their minds about one another.

  •  •  •  

On April 2, 1915, the conflict over preparedness landed on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Up for debate was the question: “Resolved, That the Security of the Nation Requires an Increase of the Military Force of the United States.” The antagonists that evening before a full crowd of three thousand in the ornate auditorium named after the retired philanthropist who paid for it were Augustus Peabody Gardner, a Republican congressman from Massachusetts and the son-in-law of Henry Cabot Lodge; and Morris Hillquit, a Jewish immigrant from Riga, Latvia, who had emerged as the Socialist Party’s most influential spokesman about the Great War.

Hillquit—born in 1869 as Moishe Hillkowitz—converted to the gospel of a workers’ world as a teenager in New York and never regretted it. He attended NYU Law School and began representing garment unions and their members who were injured on the job. Fluent in four languages, he was a natural choice to lead his party’s delegation to meetings of the Second International, where he became friends with such prominent German leaders of the European Left as Karl Kautsky and August Bebel.34

In the center of the ideological hothouse that was American radicalism, Hillquit kept a cool, if uncharismatic, head. He predicted that socialism would eventually triumph in the United States as the party’s share of the vote increased and workers realized that capitalists would never grant them the full value of their labor. Socialism, he promised, would create “a true democracy . . . in which all babes are born alike, and all human beings enjoy the same rights and opportunities.”35

Some of his comrades thought Hillquit was rather too fond of the opportunities he had made for himself. They derided him as a “parlor socialist” who donned evening clothes to attend dinners given by wealthy progressives. Hillquit’s legal practice was quite profitable, and his investments allowed him to rent, for two thousand dollars a year, an apartment on Riverside Drive where he and his wife, Vera, a first cousin, collected modern art. Hillquit helped to organize a union for actors in the Yiddish theater. But he seldom took in one of their performances.36

Hillquit’s appearance helped advance his career. He bicycled to stay fit and sported a trim mustache and an ever-confident smile. An English leftist who met Hillquit in the mid-1890s remembered him as “a young man cleanly dressed who believed that washing himself was not a monopoly of the Hasidim . . . that a necktie can be tastefully tied and lying as it should, without breaking the principles of proletariat socialism.”37

Hillquit’s respectable image and calm eloquence helped him gain a hearing far outside the ranks of his own party, in venues that seldom featured an immigrant Jew from Eastern Europe. Besides contributing to a wide range of magazines and newspapers, he took part in several well-publicized debates about the merits of socialism with adversaries whose renown was greater than his. They included the president of Cornell University, the attorney general of New York State, one of the nation’s most influential economists, and John Augustine Ryan, a leading Catholic theologian who later developed the concept of a “living wage.” In the spring of 1914, Hillquit clashed with Samuel Gompers before the Commission on Industrial Relations, set up by Congress to look into “the underlying causes of dissatisfaction” in American workplaces. Hillquit articulated his opinions with earnest deliberation and light sarcasm—an attorney making the case for social transformation before a jury of thousands.38

Ever since war had broken out in Europe, Hillquit had persistently maintained that he and his fellow Socialists were the most reliable, most principled advocates of peace and neutrality. In December, he had composed his party’s official statement on the war; as its representative to the Second International, he was in touch with European Socialists on both sides. “My party believes,” he wrote in January, that “the most satisfactory solution of the great sanguinary conflict . . . lies in a draw, a cessation of hostilities from sheer exhaustion without deciding anything.” Only then would it “become apparent to all the world that the heavy rivers of blood have flown for nothing.” Only then would Americans and the people of other nations begin “to revolt against the capitalist system which leads to such paroxysms of human madness.”39

While making his case, the attorney had to rebut some mortifying evidence to the contrary. Just days after hostilities began in Europe, the majority of Socialist deputies in every belligerent nation save Italy had rallied behind their governments, voting to finance the war and urging every citizen to rally to their respective flags. Hillquit argued, along with his fellow comrades, that the war was precipitated by an arms race between imperialist powers. If the “Socialist parties in Europe” had “been in control” instead of just a minority, they would, he claimed, have stopped the bloodshed. Still, he had to acknowledge that untold numbers of Europeans who had voted Red were now huddled in opposing trenches, waiting anxiously for the order to destroy one another. The resolutions made at Stuttgart in 1907 meant nothing as long as most Socialists believed they were fighting to defend their respective nations. Hillquit might still be certain that “the basic cause” of armed conflicts was “capitalism,” aided by “the glorification of militarism . . . and the insidious dissemination of racial and national prejudices.” But that did not explain why the largest Socialist parties in the world had failed to heed their own diagnosis.40

In Gardner, Hillquit was matched against an opponent who regarded self-doubt as nearly an unpatriotic failing. A Harvard graduate and direct descendant of one of the first leaders of the Massachusetts Bay colony, Gardner devoted most of his political career to preparing his country for war—and enlisted to fight in two of them himself. He won a Distinguished Service Medal as a captain in the Spanish-American War and, in 1917, would resign a safe House seat to reenter the army. In 1914, he and his father-in-law had, in joint resolutions, urged Congress to create a special committee to investigate what they believed was the woeful state of national defense. Gardner called for doubling the size of the army to more than two hundred thousand men. Every Democratic leader—from Woodrow Wilson on down—urged him to abandon the effort, which was clearly intended to embarrass the administration. But Gardner persisted, embarking on a cross-country tour to challenge the “preachers of national humility.”41

That evening at Carnegie Hall, his language was as bellicose as his proposals. The debate was sponsored by the Rand School, an unofficial arm of the Socialist Party. So, at the outset, the pugnacious Gardner threw the crowd some raw ideological bait. “I am generally called a crook, somebody hired by the makers of armor plate,” he began. “But I tell you I am here to advocate a few more dogs of war. . . . I don’t much care what it costs.”

For the next hour, Gardner stayed on the attack, vividly personifying his imagined nation of Caucasian warriors who should be ready and eager to take on any potential adversary. He scoffed at talk of arbitration and general disarmament and rejected the idea that Americans were “a peace-loving people.” Our “peppery nation,” Gardner asserted to laughter, “has had a fight every twenty-five years of its existence,” but now “we have got a chip on each shoulder, and both arms in a sling.” He made no apology for breaking treaties with the Indians—“A nation of ninety millions . . . cannot be kept back by a handful of savages”—and wanted to prepare America to fight a racial war against Japan as well as to battle Imperial Germany. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Gardner viewed a world-class military as not merely a practical necessity but one the lessons of history required: “It is the martial spirit which fights oppression in the only way that oppression ever yet was fought, by stout blows from strong arms, inspired by good stout hearts.”42

Hillquit’s rebuttal sounded at first like capitulation. If the United States were “in danger of becoming involved in war with a first-class foreign power,” then it is indeed “woefully unprepared” and needs to build up its defenses. But he quickly added that Gardner’s creed of “modern American militarism” was “based on a colossal fallacy.” Then Hillquit made a set of arguments whose logical tone contrasted sharply with his opponent’s entertaining bombast. If an unprepared nation invites attack, Hillquit asked, why did European nations “in full battle array” not avoid it? “They were ready for war—and they got their war,” he answered soberly. “Their anti-war insurance turned out to be a bad case of over-insurance.” The last remark, the stenographer noted, was met with “hearty applause.”43

Knowing most of the crowd was now on his side (if it were not already), Hillquit drove home his larger arguments with the precision of a skilled and confident attorney. There is no good reason why Americans would want or need to engage in a war against an overseas power. The United States is mostly “self-sufficient,” it has “no national grudges to settle,” and neither Germany nor Japan could transport enough troops across an ocean to conquer it.44

Finally, Hillquit pivoted to a moral position he hoped would put every “militarist” on the defensive. The government, he pointed out, was already spending far more on the army and navy each year than it was to heal the casualties of “the actual daily war waged within the nation, the frightful and inhuman industrial war” that annually maimed or killed more than half a million American workers. It was thus Gardner’s program that would truly put the nation at risk. Instead of lavishing more tax money on the apparatus of death, the state, insisted Hillquit, ought to devote a large share of its budget to building sanatoriums for TB victims, funding pensions for retired wage earners, and constructing factories for jobless toilers. The sponsors of the event left Gardner no time for a rebuttal.

Hillquit had adroitly introduced the two-step argument most anti-war activists would continue to articulate for the next two stressful years. The nation should not prepare to fight a war it had no need or ethical reason to wage. And the cost—in dollars and national priorities—would turn the United States into a militarized society. Yet, as William James might have counseled, to demand that the state spend a good deal more on welfare was not a convincing moral equivalent to war. Would-be peacemakers still lacked a powerful alternative to offer Americans willing to test their stout arms and hearts in future battles.
During the early months of 1915, a new protest song was being played on Victrolas and sung in music halls across the land. The sheet-music version quickly sold a remarkable seven hundred thousand copies. Its lyrics began: “Ten million soldiers to the war have gone, / Who may never return again. / Ten million mothers’ hearts must break / For the ones who have died in vain.” Then, to a recorded accompaniment of bugles, came the chorus:

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy.

Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future conflicts.

It’s time to lay the sword and gun away.

There’d be no war today

If mothers all would say,

“I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier!”45

For years, women in the peace movement had, in effect, been singing that tune. Leading activists like Fanny Villard and Jane Addams never confined themselves to maternalist rhetoric; like Morris Hillquit, they hated war because it jerked society away from the path of egalitarian change. But they did believe their motherly instincts made women, by nature, the more harmonious and humanitarian sex. As Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote in 1911, “In warfare . . . we find maleness in its absurdist extremes.” Feminists also understood that the wildly popular lyrics, written by the Canadian-born Alfred Bryan, neatly expressed a form of international solidarity whose appeal was more universal than the Socialist variety. The song’s call for arbitration also echoed an idea pacifists of both genders had been promoting since the Gilded Age, now packed with a potent emotional charge.46

On the wings of these sentiments, three thousand American women flocked to the most impressive peace rally to that point in the nation’s history. “War was formally declared on war,” reported the Washington Post about the meeting that established the Woman’s Peace Party on January 9 and 10, 1915, at the New Willard Hotel, two blocks from the White House.47 Many of the participants already belonged to one or more of the female reform or charitable groups that were flourishing in an era when de Tocqueville’s description of America as “a nation of joiners” was more accurate than ever before. They came from suffrage groups, temperance groups, teachers’ groups, alumnae bodies, women’s clubs, settlement houses, the Women’s Trade Union League, the Woman’s Committee of the Socialist Party, existing peace societies—and the Daughters of the American Revolution. They filled the hotel’s cavernous ballroom, and five hundred would-be participants had to be turned away.48

The inspiration for this unprecedented gathering came largely from abroad—further proof that, from its start, the American anti-war movement was “isolationist” in neither word nor deed. The previous fall, Rosika Schwimmer and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence—feminists from opposing belligerent powers—had embarked on a joint speaking tour to show Americans that European women yearned to stop the war and hoped to convince their sisters in the largest neutral nation to join them. Crystal Eastman helped organize Pethick-Lawrence’s lecture in Carnegie Hall and urged her to meet with Jane Addams when she traveled to Chicago, to talk about forming an organization of feminists for peace.

For nearly two decades, Schwimmer, a thirty-seven-year-old Hungarian Jew, had spearheaded the suffrage movement in her country. A talented journalist, passionate speaker, and exponent of female dress reform, she had managed, in September, to arrange a brief visit with Woodrow Wilson in the White House. By her account, the president politely agreed to consider her notion of meeting with the heads of other neutral countries; he left no comment for posterity about his encounter with a woman who wore neither a brassiere nor a corset under her brightly colored dress.

Pethick-Lawrence, a wealthy British citizen of forty-seven, was both a Socialist and a militant advocate of votes for women. She and her husband, Frederick, had merged their surnames when they married and retained separate bank accounts, an act that endeared them to feminists everywhere. On six occasions, Pethick-Lawrence’s suffrage activism had landed her in prison; once she staged a hunger strike and had to endure forced feeding.49

The idea of giving birth to an all-female peace group flowed naturally from the suffrage work of these two dedicated campaigners. The Great War, Pethick-Lawrence argued, was the result of aggressive “male statecraft.” “For this cataclysm,” she asserted, “women bear no responsibility whatever.” Because powerful men had failed to prevent it, they should “stand down” and let women “take the seat of judgment.” Neither activist had children, but that did not prevent them from preaching a maternalist message. “Even women who are not physically mothers,” explained Schwimmer, “feel all as the mothers of the human race.” In December, the duo arrived in Chicago on their lecture tour. After several meetings with a local group headed by Jane Addams, they sent out a call for a national peace convention of American women.50

That Addams agreed to chair the gathering in Washington was probably vital to its success. Any American who read a daily newspaper knew her name; for many, she was “Saint Jane,” a woman who, for decades, had devoted her great energy and subtle intellect to thoroughly altruistic purposes. “She was the most compassionate individual imaginable,” testified Louis Lochner, a young peace activist from Chicago. “With infinite patience she could listen to the underprivileged, the sick and needy, the spiritually dejected. . . . She never lost her temper.” Addams was also a canny organizer who had a keen sense, trained by years of patient activism for a variety of causes, of how to coax her fellow reformers to work together for a higher end.51

Although Addams had been advocating peaceful solutions to war since the 1890s, the slaughter in Europe compelled her to devote more time to halting it than to anything else on her lengthy compassionate agenda. At first, she frowned on the idea of an organization that excluded men; she had always viewed her audience as bridging divides of gender as well as class, ethnicity, and nation. But Addams, like the suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt, was dismayed at the arrogance of the “great pacifists” who headed the prewar peace groups, confident that prosperous, law-abiding European nations would never seek to destroy each other. “When it was found that their conclusions were false and the great war came,” Catt told the throng at the New Willard, “the women of this country . . . heard nothing from them—and they have heard nothing from the men of this country.” So “they decided all too late to get together themselves.”52

The meeting at the New Willard resembled a political convention, without the ritualistic parades and hackneyed oratory. Despite the name they adopted, the delegates neither planned to run nor endorse candidates for office. To call it a “party” wrapped the new group in a cloak of legitimacy; it implied that women should have all the political rights and power enjoyed by war-making men and would use the rights they did possess to stop what such men were doing.

The Reverend Anna Garlin Spencer opened the big meeting by reading the preamble she had written to the party’s platform. A Unitarian who was the first woman of any denomination to be ordained in Rhode Island, the sixty-three-year-old Spencer had led a long career of social activism similar to that of Annis Eastman, Crystal’s mother, who was also a liberal minister. Like Annis, Spencer was married to a minister less energetic than herself, and she lectured frequently about suffrage and the social gospel. In 1909, Spencer had also helped found the NAACP.

On this January afternoon, she took the podium to insist that a peaceful world depended upon the guidance of women. “As women, we are especially the custodian of the life of the ages. We will no longer consent to its reckless destruction.” “As women,” Spencer continued, we also “demand . . . a share in deciding between war and peace in all the courts of high debate—within the home, the school, the church, the industrial order, and the state.” Not everyone who crowded into the New Willard favored woman suffrage. But given Spencer’s logic, it had to be included in the platform of the new organization, and no one publicly objected.53

The prominent speakers who followed Spencer all echoed her arguments, adding urgent details of what one reporter called “the horrors of the present carnage and the resultant grief in many thousands of homes.” Pethick-Lawrence predicted that, if given the chance, Europeans would vote against continuing the war begun by “international gamblers and degenerates.” Schwimmer declared that, in the near future, women voters would “end all wars.” Anna Howard Shaw—who headed the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the nation’s largest suffrage group—said one man had asked her what peace-minded American women would do “if 50,000 German women came to this country to fight.” She responded that the same number of her countrywomen would meet them at the dock, call them “sisters,” and escort them to the Opera House “to reason with them and accomplish much more than man will by slaughter and murder.” The delegates then elected a prominent set of officers to run the new party, including Fanny Villard, Anna Spencer, and Alice Thatcher Post, a well-known tax reformer and the wife of the assistant secretary of labor. Inevitably, Jane Addams was chosen as national “chairman”; she would preside over the national office in Chicago, her hometown.

The impressive size of the party’s initial meeting and the respectability of its leaders did not obscure the audacity of its goals. These women were “far from frivolous in either dress or countenance,” as their first historian put it.54 In photos, few smiled, and their heavy dark clothes and hair wrapped in tight buns and often stuffed under broad-brimmed hats would have been appropriate for church. But they were demanding a radical shift away from the world run by men, a change they hoped would abolish war and the preparations for war forever.

They boldly aimed to transform the culture of belligerence as well as to suggest new ways to undergird a new global order. To nudge humankind toward a glorious, if distant, future, activists called for educating the young “in the ideals of peace,” for the “democratic control of foreign policies,” and for the “removal of the economic causes of war.” They also proposed, as had some prewar pacifists, a “Concert of Nations” to replace the geopolitics of power and the creation of “an international police” to settle disputes between nations. Woodrow Wilson would later make the last two institutions, under different names, the centerpieces of his vision of a postwar world.55

But any hope of ending the current slaughter would require diplomacy at the highest level. To that end, the Woman’s Peace Party advocated “the immediate calling of a convention of neutral nations in the interest of early peace.” Rosika Schwimmer had been talking up this idea since arriving in the United States the previous fall. By the time of the mass meeting at the New Willard, the new party had a detailed proposal in hand, written by a twenty-three-year-old Canadian-born Shakespeare instructor at the University of Wisconsin named Julia Grace Wales.

Wales gave her ambitious plan the prosaic title “Continuous Mediation Without Armistice.” It was designed to encourage neutral governments to do what belligerent ones would not do for themselves: propose “principles favorable to the establishment of a permanent peace.” Wales imagined the creation of something resembling an ongoing college seminar—but with the fate of the entire world at stake. The thirty-five existing neutral nations, or some portion of them, would send expert delegates to an international commission. As long as the war continued, that body would formulate ideas for a peace settlement and share them with the warring powers. After gathering responses, the commission would adjust its proposals and send them out again. Wales refrained from stipulating the terms of a just and lasting peace; the machinery of mediation would have to work that out. But the method itself, she argued, could be profoundly beneficial:

The minimum gain would be the lifting of the programme of pacifism into the realm of serious political consideration. . . . It would focus the thought of the world at least momentarily on international righteousness. It would give a concrete expression to the inarticulate passion of all idealists both in the peaceful and the troubled lands. And if ever in the world’s history there was dire need of such a common expression, it is now.56

Wales knew her plan would be criticized as naïve, depending as it did on the goodwill of savagely self-interested politicians. But with the optimism of like-minded peace activists whose numbers seemed to be growing, she claimed it was a practical way out of a stalemate that, every day, was killing and maiming thousands of men. Every warring nation “says that it is not to blame” and “was forced to fight in self-defence immediate or anticipatory.” So why not let neutrals work diligently with these savage innocents to rescue them from mutual destruction? The Wisconsin legislature officially backed her plan and urged Congress to follow its lead. “The campaign of those individuals and groups who desire to ally themselves with our movement is already organized,” Wales announced. “All they have to do is to importune their government to say yes.”57

In the immediate aftermath of its founding, the Woman’s Peace Party seemed to validate that confidence. Local branches were quickly organized in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and several small midwestern cities—as well as in New York City, where Crystal Eastman became its executive secretary. The national office printed and distributed tens of thousands of pieces of literature to grass-roots groups and foreign embassies. As international secretary, Rosika Schwimmer made contact with like-minded women in seventeen different countries, which soon led to the publication of a “Group of Letters from Women of the Warring Nations.” In Britain, the new Union of Democratic Control, an anti-war group that included such luminaries as Norman Angell and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, was particularly sympathetic.

The Woman’s Peace Party also devised a number of more innovative protests. That spring it sponsored—and the Carnegie Endowment financed—a lavish production of The Trojan Women, the classic anti-war play by Euripides, which toured big cities around the nation. In late February, female activists presented a two-mile-long peace petition signed by 350,000 children in forty-four states to Secretary of State Bryan, who was delighted to receive it. The young petitioners pledged “to work for schools instead of for battleships.” On Mother’s Day, the party sponsored a “Peace Day” in urban classrooms around the nation that featured songs and poems with anti-war lyrics and parades in which some children carried small flags of foreign nations, while others held banners adorned with doves and palms.58

“In the early months of 1915,” Jane Addams remembered, “it was still comparatively easy to get people together in the name of Peace.” From the nation’s capital, Belle La Follette, wife of the anti-war senator, wrote to her best friend (and fellow suffragist), Elizabeth Glendower Evans, that the Woman’s Peace Party was “taking like a prairie fire and I am like an imprisoned spirit set fire!!!”59

However, Belle La Follette, Jane Addams, and their fellow pacifists soon had to confront some disappointing realities. The movement Wales evoked so confidently was still in the budding stage. Neither Hillquit and his fellow Socialists nor congressional populists like Kitchin were ready to embrace her grand experiment in mediation. The former thought it evaded the imperial rivalries that had caused the war, while the latter trained their fire on the plutocrats of preparedness at home.

On February 8, Belle La Follette’s equally passionate husband introduced a Senate resolution that authorized the president to organize a conference of neutrals that would promote “the early cessation of hostilities.” “We can no longer avoid our responsibility,” he told his colleagues. “The balance of the world at peace waits on this Government. Neutral rights demand a clearer definition. Delay is filled with menace.” But, despite some friendly comments in the press and supportive words from Secretary Bryan, the resolution failed to gain a hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee.60

The initiators of the Woman’s Peace Party believed, or at least hoped, that determined women could rally American and world opinion to demand an end to this war—and perhaps to future wars. Powerful men had brought the cataclysm about and were doing nothing to stop it. But for the “Continuous Mediation Without Armistice” to become more than a well-meaning proposal, male politicians and diplomats would have to make the risky decision to endorse it. And that would take a good deal more pressure, continuously applied, than Addams’s fledgling group could bring to bear.

Perhaps inevitably, the expansive turnout of individuals and groups at the party’s debut in Washington soon dwindled into a smaller corps of dedicated activists. Carrie Chapman Catt and other suffrage leaders went back to campaigning for their preeminent issue. Most labor and temperance women returned to commitments they held more dearly and where partial victories could be won. During the Progressive Era, female reformers routinely supported one another’s causes; they knew it would take more than a victory on an issue like suffrage or decent housing for the poor to create “a kingdom of human kindness.” Yet few were willing to transfer most of their energies to this new movement that faced particularly daunting odds. A year after its founding, the Woman’s Peace Party reported a membership, on paper, of forty thousand. But peace was the priority of no more than a tenth of that number.61

At least Theodore Roosevelt considered the organization influential enough to try to blow it up with words. In April, the former president wrote a public letter damning the party as “absolutely futile” as well as “silly and base,” “influenced by physical cowardice,” and “vague and hysterical.” What’s more, he growled, it “subjects our people to measureless contempt.” The Colonel compared the women’s “peace at any price” attitude to that of the Copperheads during the Civil War.

Several well-known peace activists rebutted his charges. Most did so rather gracefully. Fanny Villard said his taunts insulted the only movement in both neutral and belligerent nations “which seeks to conserve human life”; while Belle La Follette declared that the party’s program of “constructive statesmanship” was inspired by the example of Christ and was “based on the enlightened thought and experience of the world.” But Catharine McCulloch, an attorney and suffrage leader in Illinois, snapped that Roosevelt’s letter was “the cry of a barbarian out of his element.” No one seems to have asked the Colonel why he bothered to attack a group he claimed was sure to fail.62

In contrast, Woodrow Wilson met frequently with leaders of the Woman’s Peace Party and other peace groups until he decided to take the nation into war two years later. He always took care to praise their motives while turning aside their appeals that he volunteer to mediate a peace settlement. Still, the empathy Wilson voiced to these “progressive internationalists” was undoubtedly sincere. “I have unlimited faith in President Wilson,” Addams told a reporter in the summer of 1915, and she was no fool. In fact, all the leading belligerents feared that Wilson’s and Bryan’s “do-good tendencies,” as the German chancellor put it, would make it impossible to fight on to a decisive victory—if American statesmen ever decided the time for mediation was at hand.

Yet the president insisted that any effort he might make to end the Great War would occur only when he thought it had a chance to succeed. Only to Colonel Edward House, his sycophantic advisor and personal negotiator with European governments, did Wilson reveal his true thoughts about the matter. So the president and American peace advocates engaged in an extended, if wary, courtship. It would end badly, with accusations of bad faith on both sides.63

In mid-March, the president wrote to Addams that he would “welcome . . . with all my heart” any peace-minded messages she might send and would give the Wales pamphlet a careful reading. But he also doused any hope that he would take the plan seriously: “I think I do not exaggerate when I say that requests of a similar sort come from different quarters at least every week and I should have to draw distinctions which would become invidious before I got through with them, unless I granted interviews to all who applied for them in this matter. You will understand the delicacy this situation places me in.”64
Perhaps a mass protest by distinguished women from nations at war as well as from ones that remained at peace would change his mind. As Wilson was brushing off Addams’s plea, she and forty-six other Woman’s Peace Party activists were preparing to cross the ocean to attend an International Congress of Women at The Hague. They would be returning the favor Rosika Schwimmer and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence had done for the American peace movement the previous fall. They would also be assisting in a goal similar to but grander than feminists in one neutral, if large, nation could achieve on their own.

Delegates from twelve countries met at the end of April in the Dierentium, the largest hall in that symbolic capital of peaceful intentions. They wanted to demonstrate that women could “retain our solidarity” and “maintain a mutual friendship” across the same frontiers that men were slaughtering each other, in unprecedented numbers, to maintain. On the strength of that bond, the women at The Hague hoped to compel politicians to begin negotiations for a lasting peace, secured by the “democratic control of foreign policy” and “universal disarmament.”65

As with the Woman’s Peace Party, the impetus for this brave, if quixotic, undertaking came from European suffragists, whose numbers and confidence had been growing on the eve of war. Although only Finland and Norway had enacted universal suffrage laws by 1914, the movement was gaining strength among urban women from all classes and had the backing of Socialists and cosmopolitan liberals everywhere.

The mass bloodletting did drive a gash through their ranks. Most feminists in France, Britain, and Germany stood by their governments, hoping their support would earn them the vote. But for a sizable minority, the war only confirmed the evils of male power unrestrained by the pacific instincts of the opposite sex. The German feminist Lida Gustava Heymann cried out in February 1915: “The flesh and blood of men will fertilise the soil of the waving cornfields of the future. . . . Shall this war of extermination go on? Women of Europe, where is your voice? . . . Can these things not rouse you to blazing protest?”66

The conference at The Hague was planned jointly by American and European women who had long been partners in suffrage work and who shared an ideological affinity as strong as that of any group of transatlantic reformers. Dr. Aletta Jacobs, head of the Dutch suffrage society and a pioneering advocate of birth control, took the lead. With aid from Chrystal Macmillan, a Scottish lawyer, she invited pro-peace feminists from all over Europe and North America and asked Jane Addams to preside over the meeting itself.

Saint Jane immediately accepted the invitation and began trying to persuade her Woman’s Peace Party sisters to sail with her. She admitted the “moral adventure” was terrifically ambitious; it could “easily fail—even do harm” to their larger mission. But how could American feminists turn down an opportunity to declare to all the world what they had already committed to working for at home?67

The women who did make the trip were taking a break from pursuing a variety of other good causes. Taken together, their politics veered more to the left than did those who had filled the hotel ballroom in Washington three months before. The American delegation to The Hague included such fellow Chicago reformers with national reputations as Dr. Alice Hamilton, an expert in industrial diseases; and Sophonisba Breckinridge, dean of the School of Civics and Philanthropy in that industrial metropolis. From New York City came Leonora O’Reilly, a working-class Socialist and the lead organizer of the Women’s Trade Union League; and the journalist Angela Morgan, whose pacifist poem “The Battle Cry of Mothers” had, thanks to a handsome subsidy from Louise Carnegie, been distributed all over the United States. Julia Wales insured that “continuous mediation” would gain overseas renown, if not acceptance.

But Addams’s failure to persuade the two major suffrage leaders in the United States to join her portended a split that would eventually weaken the peace movement’s claim to speak for the majority of American feminists. Carrie Chapman Catt, who had been so keen on organizing the Woman’s Peace Party, now backed away when she learned that most of her counterparts in Europe favored peace only after their nations’ armies had destroyed their enemies. Anna Howard Shaw, who had looked forward to making a pact with her German “sisters,” now wrote to Aletta Jacobs, “I feel that my first duty is here . . . the best thing I can do for peace and a thousand other things is to get votes for women.”68 So Addams and her pacifist comrades embarked on their voyage fearing that the grand alliance of women forged in January was already beginning to unravel.

Their two-week-long journey was fraught with a different sort of peril. Although the women booked passage on a neutral ship transporting wheat—the Noordam, under Dutch registry—they were crossing an active war zone. Allied ships with stores of munitions as well as food scanned the waters for U-boats seeking to destroy them. When the Noordam neared the English coast, a Royal Navy vessel aimed a machine gun at it, and sailors arrested two German stowaways. One yelled “Hoch der Kaiser, Deutschland über Alles” as he was taken away. When the ship entered the Channel, British authorities confined it there for four frustrating days. Local newspapers accused the “Peacettes” of undermining the morale of the troops. Finally, with no help from U.S. ambassador Page, the Americans were finally allowed to sail to their destination. They arrived at the congress on April 28, just minutes before it began. “This was no invitation to a clubwomen’s pink tea,” one historian remarked about the ordeal.69

What was most impressive about the gathering of some two thousand women at The Hague was that it occurred at all. As expected, most of the participants came from the Netherlands; the modest American delegation composed the second largest one. But what Jane Addams called the “sobriety and friendliness” of women from belligerent nations made headlines in major newspapers on two continents. Twenty-eight Germans, nine Hungarians, and six Austrians spoke and listened alongside three delegates from the United Kingdom, two from Canada, and five from Belgium. Another 180 British women wanted to come as well, but the government of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith forbade them to cross the North Sea. Whether from loyalty to their nations or pressure from their governments, not a single French or Russian woman appeared.70

Notwithstanding its international character, the three-day congress looked and sounded much like the inaugural gathering of the Woman’s Peace Party. Most of those who attended, reported the American journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, were “well-to-do women of the middle class. . . . It was an everyday audience, plain people, just folks, the kind you see walking out to church any Sunday morning.” But although their discourse and demeanor were utterly respectable, nearly every speech—carefully translated into one of the three official languages (English, French, and German)—brimmed with a quiet passion for both suffrage and peace. Helene Lecher, an Austrian delegate who had been working in military hospitals, asked “what was the use of healing wounds if they were to be torn open again.” Resolutions, circulated in advance, called for an end to the manufacture of munitions for profit, against the transfer of disputed territories unless their inhabitants agreed, for democratic control of foreign policies, and for a league of nations. Delegates also endorsed the Wales plan for a conference of neutrals, signaling both the influence of the Americans who presented it and the lack of any other “practical” way to end this war without putting aside their hopes for a better world.71

The only moment of real discord occurred on the second day of the meeting. A German delegate, Anita Augspurg, invited her Belgian counterparts to join her on stage. Just two of the women from that occupied nation accepted, and they refused to shake hands with their sister pacifist. One of the Belgians, Eugénie Hamer, then asked to speak. “I am a Belgian before everything,” she asserted, “and I cannot think as you do. There can be no peace without justice. The war must continue until the Belgians’ wrongs have been righted.” The audience applauded, and an American delegate quickly drew up a motion to insert the word “justice” into the resolution describing the lasting peace the delegates pledged themselves to attain. Most participants seemed to think that was a fitting, if temporary, way to resolve a bitter conflict they had done nothing to start. Jane Addams, tactful as ever, sat Augsburg on one side of her and Hamer on the other.72

On May 1, as the meeting was drawing to a close, Rosika Schwimmer brought up a novel idea for action. With characteristic boldness, she argued that only direct diplomacy by women could challenge male rulers to appreciate what the congress had done. The women should, she insisted, appoint delegates to visit the capitals of Europe and thrust their fine resolutions into their rulers’ hands. Alice Hamilton and her American compatriots considered the idea “hopelessly melodramatic and absurd.” They were certain Jane Addams “would never consent to go from court to court” in this manner. But Schwimmer had skillfully lobbied the delegates from other neutral countries, and they strongly favored it.73

In the end, the Hungarian’s arresting oratory carried the day. Schwimmer questioned the power of rational persuasion alone and dared her pacifist sisters to take a leap of faith for the sake of their sons: “If brains have brought us to what we are in now, I think it is time to allow also our hearts to speak. When our sons are killed by millions, let us, mothers, only try to do good by going to kings and emperors, without any other danger than a refusal!” Once the proposal passed, Addams agreed to appoint envoys for this daunting enterprise, one of whom, inevitably, would be herself. Despite her misgivings, Hamilton signed on too. To refuse Saint Jane was out of the question.74

Back in the United States, journalistic reaction to the International Congress of Women illustrated how quickly initial applause for the ardent neutrality of mothers had changed into a fierce debate about the motives and utility of their actions. Several newspapers in the urban East and Midwest echoed Theodore Roosevelt’s attack. The Detroit Free Press jibed that the Americans had indulged in an “excursion of the innocents,” while the Washington Star and Pittsburgh Gazette-Times agreed the women had wasted their time in a futile gesture. Most papers highlighted the statement by the Belgian Eugénie Hamer as proof that “the racial sympathies of the various delegations” could not be held in check, as the New York Times put it. Yet others were more sanguine about what the congress had achieved, at least rhetorically. “As a historic incident,” observed the Springfield Republican, “it promises to be memorable because it boldly proclaims a pioneering principle with a future, to wit, the inherent antagonism to war of an entire sex.”75

That feminist principle had brought two thousand women together, some through an embattled ocean and others across borders contested with blood. Emily Balch, a Wellesley professor of economics and sociology who, along with Addams, often spoke for the American delegation, responded to both the defenders and critics of the congress with praise for the simple power of words: “Futile as talk seems, the way it is dreaded shows that it does have its effect. Ideas seem so unreal, so powerless, before the vast physical force of the military masses to-day; it is easy to forget that it is only ideas that created that force and that keep it in action. Let war once be disbelieved in, and that force melts into nothing.” For Balch, the decision to travel to The Hague was “a turning point in my life.” She devoted the rest of it to trying to stop and prevent war, as a leader of the Woman’s Peace Party and its successor groups. In 1946, Balch was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, just after the most destructive conflict in history had ended.76

But the failure of her work, as heroic as it was, underlines a weakness of the approach she and her sister pacifists adopted. Evoking the sentiments of all women could not persuade many female workers or housewives inside or outside the Socialist parties of Europe and North America to feel comfortable in a movement dominated by the well educated and the well spoken. One radical American delegate complained that, in contrast to the gatherings of working people she attended back home, the Hague congress seemed sentimental and, at times, rather cold. “Why I’ve heard a little East Side striker rouse a meeting to a pitch of enthusiasm that was never touched by those clubwomen and suffrage leaders.”77

A month earlier, the German Socialist Clara Zetkin—creator of International Women’s Day—had convened a smaller gathering in Bern, Switzerland, of female radicals from several European nations, Rosa Luxemburg among them. Like Morris Hillquit, they declared that to prevent war one had to squarely condemn the imperial greed and conquest that caused it—and do the hard and dangerous work of releasing the grip of these evil forces on the world. Spinning grand designs for a mediated peace, they claimed, was a colossal waste of time.

Scant notice of the radical meeting appeared in the oft-censored European press, and the women at The Hague, who hosted dozens of reporters, did not mention it. Even if they had made an overture, an alliance probably would have been difficult to forge. Zetkin, who refused to call herself a “feminist,” preferred to mobilize “proletarian” women to claim an equal place in the ranks of anti-war radicals of both genders than to join a movement of “bourgeois” suffragists whom she believed would never stay the course.78

Both at home and on their sojourn overseas, the leaders of the Woman’s Peace Party tried to pursue two aims simultaneously. They yearned to stay above the battle, spiritually as well as literally, while exerting pressure on politicians who were ordering men into the fray or, like Roosevelt and Gardner, hoping to do so soon. But it was exceedingly difficult to combine the propagation of a womanly utopia with the polite, but firm, promotion of a mediation plan that would offend nobody.

On occasion, the spirit of nonresistance gave way to a cry of righteous fury. The words of Angela Morgan’s popular poem clashed with the gentle, pleading tones of Fanny Villard, Jane Addams, and Emily Balch. Morgan opposed the militant toughness of the war-makers with a verbal militarism of her own:

Warriors! Counsellors! Men at arms!

You who have gloried in war’s alarms,

When the great rebellion comes

You shall hear the beat

Of our marching feet

And the sound of our million drums.

You shall hear that the world is at last awake—

You shall hear the cry that the mothers make—

You shall yield—for the mothers’ sake!79

When Morgan read her poem to the women gathered at the Dierentium, they applauded with gusto.

For all its good and rational intentions, the conference at The Hague revealed that an effective peace movement would not be built by a motherly alternative alone. Women had been cajoling, fretting, arguing, and organizing against the idiocy and destructiveness of man-made war since ancient times—even, perhaps, since the dawn of the species. But they could not, by themselves, convince leaders to make peace, and their attempts to do so appeared increasingly quixotic. Male politicians were not about to listen to women—however articulate, reasonable, and well informed—who asked them to relinquish their absolute control over the arms and machinery of state. A plea premised on the injustice of women deprived of the vote was not going to change the minds of men who either supported that deprivation or felt no urgency to end it.

Woodrow Wilson did tell reporters he “sympathized” with what Addams and her fellow delegates had accomplished at The Hague. When she returned home, he invited her to the White House, where he politely listened to her advocate for the Wales plan. The president even praised the conference resolutions as “by far the best formulation which up to the moment has been put out by any body.” Meanwhile, he was drawing up his own plan to expand the military and sending Colonel House back to Europe to hold secret negotiations with the prime minister of Great Britain. The mutual wooing of pacifists and president would continue, never to be consummated.80

The International Congress of Women adjourned on May 1, exactly nine months after Imperial Germany had declared war on the Russian empire. In that short span of time, at least 2.5 million men had been killed or maimed on the Western Front alone. Poison gas was deployed on a massive scale for the first time in history. U-boats sank dozens of merchant ships on the Atlantic, some sailing under neutral flags, including that of the United States.

The Kaiser’s admirals knew the risk of angering Americans was great, but they saw no other strategy besides submarine attacks that might effectively counter the British blockade of their homeland, which was beginning to cause widespread malnutrition and death. Ambassador von Bernstorff did take the trouble of sending a notice to Americans who might be planning a trip across the ocean: “Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage,” it read, “are reminded that a state of war exists” between Germany and Great Britain. “The zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles,” and thus “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters.” The notice added, superfluously, that “travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.” Several newspapers in New York and other cities published the text on May 1. When the warning was read to Charles P. Sumner, the local agent for the British-owned Cunard Line, he thought it might be a hoax. At any rate, he assured a reporter, his ships were under the protection of the mighty Royal Navy. And, “as for submarines, I have no fear of them whatever.”81

At ten o’clock that same morning, the Lusitania, a Cunard liner that was the fastest and most luxurious ship in the world, left New York harbor for Liverpool. It carried nearly two thousand crew and passengers, 197 of whom were Americans, and a hold stuffed with a variety of cargo including food, machinery, dry goods—and 4.2 million rounds of ammunition.82

About The Author

Phil Humnickey/Georgetown University

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and editor of Dissent. He is the award-winning author of War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918; American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation; A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan; America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (with Maurice Isserman); The Populist Persuasion: An American History; and Barons of Labor. In addition, he is editor-in-chief of The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, co-editor of the anthology Americanism, and editor of In Search of Progressive America. Kazin has contributed to The Washington Post, The Nation, Democracy, The New York Times Book Review, Foreign Affairs, and many other publications and websites. He lives in Washington, DC, and is married to Beth Horowitz. They have two grown children.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 16, 2018)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476705910

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Raves and Reviews

** New York Times Editors' Choice **

“With his customary clarity and insight, Kazin draws our attention to the remarkable group of individuals who argued—eloquently and with great moral urgency—against intervention in World War I. They lost the debate, but a singular achievement of this deeply incisive book is to show the lasting resonance of their analysis and their fears, down to our present day.”

– Fredrik Logevall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Embers of War

“Michael Kazin's important history of American pacifism is a compelling cautionary tale. It not only provides an arresting history of a major American movement, it also reminds us of the false hopes that drew us into World War I, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The book should be required reading for aspiring military officers and every politician pronouncing on U.S. leadership around the globe.”

– Robert Dallek, bestselling author of An Unfinished Life

“Well-written, carefully researched, and compelling scholarship. A dramatic read.”

– New York Journal of Books

“At a time when people tell veterans, ‘Thank you for your service,’ Michael Kazin reminds us of some largely forgotten people who deserve our thanks far more: those who tried to keep us out of the most terrible war the world had yet seen. The dissenters against American participation in the First World War are still a model for us, and Kazin evokes them with care and grace.”

– Adam Hochschild, bestselling author of To End All Wars

“[A] fine, sorrowful history.... A timely reminder of how easily the will of the majority can be thwarted in even the mightiest of democracies.”

– New York Times Book Review

“Once again, Michael Kazin has written a book about the past that forces us to take another look at our present. War Against War, the story of the activists who opposed American entry into World War I, is a gem of historical analysis. Eloquently written, powerfully argued, fully documented, it introduces us to a remarkable and remarkably diverse cast of American characters and compels us to re-examine the most fundamental of questions: when is a war worth fighting?”

– David Nasaw, bestselling author of The Patriarch

“In this penetrating account of the women and men of a century ago, whom he calls the ‘anti-warriors,’ Michael Kazin brings off a skillful double play. First, he resurrects the memory of this varied and not so little band of sisters and brothers with both sympathy and critical detachment. Second, he illuminates attitudes and arguments that persist in underpinning and resisting America's ‘great power’ outreach. Anyone who cares about this country's role in the world should read this book.”

– John Milton Cooper, Jr., author of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography

“Kazin...brings a fascinating perspective.”

– Los Angeles Times

War Against War is a magnificent book that gives opponents of American involvement in World War I, one of the most profoundly destructive conflicts in human history, their due. In elegant and engaging prose, Michael Kazin tells a story about politics, morality, social forces and a fascinating cast of personalities with power and clarity. This is a very important book, at once sobering and inspiring.”

– E. J. Dionne, Jr., bestselling author of Why the Right Went Wrong

“Kazin ends War Against War with a salute to those who search for peace. He deserves praise for portraying that quest with clear-eyed honesty and rigor. Maybe that kind of clarity could help keep us out of wars to come.”

– Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“An astute account of the United States’ futile struggle to stay out of WWI.... Kazin’s War Against War confirms his stature as one of the most astute historians of American 19th- and 20th-century social movements.”

– Washington Independent Review of Books

“An important story.... War Against War offers much to reflect upon.”

– American Conservative

“Tightly written.”

– Dallas Morning News

War against War’s great strength is in laying out the pitfalls and fractures the pacifist movement confronted... while showing how it created a strong enough base, and a powerful enough critique, to push back against U.S. entry for three years.”

– In These Times

“Illuminating.... [Kazin] presents all parties fairly in this well-researched, carefully written work.”

– Kirkus Reviews

“[Kazin] expertly conveys the complex and electric prewar political landscape, and the constellation of reasons that many Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, farmers, feminists, left-wing trade unionists, segregationists and liberal immigrants had for banding together in this common cause, and then for breaking apart again.”

– Shelf Awareness

“Passionate.... [Kazin] pays eloquent tribute to a diverse coalition of peace activists.”

– Booklist

"Smoothly written and solidly researched... Kazin's book fills in gaps of knowledge surrounding the peace movement that took place prior to the Vietnam War, offering an excellent introduction to domestic politics during World War I."

– Library Journal

“[Kazin] brings a fascinating perspective to the war that is still known as the Great War [and] convincingly argues that the U.S. decision to join the Allies was a turning point in history, and one that still reverberates today.”

– National Book Review

“Richly deserves our attention.”

– Jewish Currents

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