A hundred years ago, a vote took place that still shapes the global order—or disorder—as well as the powers wielded by those who govern us: in April, 1917, Congress declared war on Imperial Germany.
The U.S. decision to intervene in the First World War was a turning point in world history. It altered the fortunes of the war and, quite likely, the course of the twentieth century. It probably foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated peace among belligerents exhausted by nearly three years of fighting.
The American Expeditionary Force engaged in heavy combat in France for less than six months. But the fear that those millions of fresh U.S. troops would alter the course of the war led the Kaiser’s generals to launch a series of last, desperate offensives in the spring of 1918 that pushed to the outskirts of Paris. When that campaign collapsed, Germany’s defeat was inevitable.
The way the Great War ended touched off nearly thirty years of genocide, massacres, and armed conflict between and within nations, a period that the historian Eric Hobsbawm aptly termed “the Age of Catastrophe.” The turmoil and bitterness of the war made it possible for the Bolsheviks to seize power in Russia, for Mussolini to wrest control in Italy, for the Japanese military to invade China, and for Hitler to begin his reign of terror in Germany. It also planted the seeds for wars that continue to rage. Witness the fate of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, the secret pact drawn up in 1916 by diplomats from Britain and France that mashed together Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds in a new nation called Iraq.
Following the Armistice, the United States became the most prosperous nation in history, the unofficial capital of the twentieth century. But for the rest of the world, the aftermath of the war was as tragic as the conflict itself. There would be no “peace without victory,” as Woodrow Wilson had grandly, if naïvely, demanded early in 1917. The American soldiers who helped win the war also made possible a peace of conquerors that stirred resentment on which demagogues and tyrants of all ideological stripes would feed.
The debate that ended in the spring of 1917 about whether the United States should have fought the Great War was thus among the most consequential in the nation’s history. Since the summer of 1914, when the conflict broke out in Europe, the foes of militarism in the United States had tried to stop the horror and prevent their nation from aiding and abetting it. They organized the largest, most diverse, and most sophisticated peace coalition at that point in U.S. history. Not until the movement to end the Vietnam War half a century later would there be as large, as influential, and as tactically adroit a campaign against U.S. intervention in another land. There has been none to rival it since.
Cosmopolitan socialists and feminists formed a coalition with members of Congress from the small-town South and the agrarian Midwest. They mounted street demonstrations and popular exhibitions, founded new organizations such as the Woman’s Peace Party and the American Union Against Militarism, attracted prominent leaders from the labor, suffrage, and civil rights movements, and ran peace candidates for local and federal office. They inspired Henry Ford, then the most famous businessman in America, to charter an ocean liner to transport him and dozens of other activists to Europe where they lobbied neutral governments to present a mediation plan they hoped the warring powers would have to accept. In New York City, peace advocates attracted crowds of up to ten thousand people per day with an exhibit, “War Against War,” which featured savagely witty cartoons, captivating speakers, and a life-size, papier-mâché model of a Stegosaurus that symbolized the peril of having “all armor plate and no brains.” For almost three years, they helped prevent Congress from authorizing a massive increase in the size of the U.S. Army, a step that, under the name of “preparedness,” was advocated by some of the richest and most powerful men in the land—ex-president Theodore Roosevelt foremost among them—and endorsed by most big-city newspapers and magazines.
In Washington, peace-minded lawmakers opposed expanding the army and introduced their own bills to bar Americans from traveling on the ships of belligerent nations. Some called for publicly-owned munitions plants, to take the profit out of promoting war. In early March 1917, on the eve of war, a small group of senators led by Robert LaFollette, an eloquent Republican from Wisconsin, filibustered the administration’s request to arm merchant ships against potential assaults by German U-boats. In the aftermath, a majority in the upper house broke with Senate tradition by enacting a provision to cut off debate, the cloture rule, to insure that such defiance by a small minority would never succeed again.
Prominent activists like Jane Addams gathered often at the White House, where they pleaded with Wilson to stick to the neutral principles in which he claimed to believe. Usually he assured them he too wanted the United States to remain neutral so that he might broker an equitable peace—at some indefinite point in the future when he determined the time was right. The relationship between articulate activists dedicated to stopping the Great War and creating a cooperative and democratic world order and a president who claimed to share their lofty goals was critical to the strategy the peace coalition followed. By arguing that they just wanted America’s actions to live up to Wilson’s rhetoric, the anti-militarists appealed to progressives in both parties. Until the president changed his mind in the early spring of 1917 and asked Congress to declare war, most members of the peace alliance took him at his word. In the end, their credulousness hindered their ability to oppose him forthrightly when that became necessary.
The anti-militarists had made the last serious attempt to prevent the establishment of a political order most Americans now take for granted, even if some protest it: a state equipped to fight numerous wars abroad while keeping a close watch on the potentially subversive activities of its citizens at home.
Although the identity of the nation’s enemies has changed often over the past century, the stated purpose of American foreign policy has nearly always remained the same: to make the world “safe for democracy,” as its leaders define it. That was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aim in the Second World War, as well as Truman’s, Eisenhower’s, Kennedy’s, Johnson’s, Nixon’s, and Reagan’s during the Cold War. Trump has abandoned that idealistic rhetoric, only to replace it with an aggressive ethno-nationalism that aims to put “America First” and force every other country to surrender to his whims.
For the United States to achieve global power required an innovation of the Great War: a military-industrial establishment funded, then partly, and now completely, by income taxes. Soon after Congress declared war, it established conscription for the first time since the Civil War. Most eligible men registered as the law required. But a mostly leaderless opposition to the draft did cause problems for the wartime state. As many as three million men never bothered to register at all; about 350,000 registrants either did not report as required or deserted from their training camps. Black Americans who suffered under Jim Crow laws and customs were particularly loath to risk their lives in a “war for democracy” proclaimed by a president who promoted segregation. Many white farmers and wage-earners bridled at taking part in what they condemned as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Taken together, a higher percentage of American men chose to resist conscription during the Great War than during the Vietnam conflict half a century later.
The surveillance state was also launched during the First World War, primarily to spy on and indict U.S. citizens who protested the war and the draft. The Bureau of Investigation (later renamed the FBI) took charge of enforcing the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which, in effect, made it illegal to oppose the war and the draft. Military Intelligence hired undercover agents to report on the “subversive” activities of black and radical organizations.
That apparatus grew in size and power through the hot and cold wars of the past century and during the “War on Terror” in this one. Congress repealed the Sedition Act in 1920. But the Espionage Act, which the government used to send Eugene Debs to prison for giving an antiwar speech, remains in force. In recent years, it has been used to prosecute Americans who have leaked classified information to the media, as well as against actual spies for foreign nations. (If Edward Snowden ever returns to the United States and is not granted a pardon, he would be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.)
Thus, while failing to stop the United States from declaring war in 1917, the peace coalition was enough of a worry for the Wilson administration that it initiated a process that, a century later, led to the federal government intercepting the records of phone calls made by millions of citizens. Perhaps it is fitting that it was anti-militarists who created the organization we now know as the American Civil Liberties Union.
Although the U.S. intervention in the First World War was a watershed in history, few contemporary Americans are aware of it at all. Although combatants in the Second World War and the Vietnam conflict are memorialized in large, popular sites on the National Mall, the men who fought in the Great War—and the fifty-three thousand who died in battle—still have no such honor in stone. Alone among citizens of the former belligerent nations, Americans celebrate a holiday (Veterans Day) on the anniversary of the Armistice that makes no explicit reference to the war itself.
The consequences of the war for the United States help explain why it has dropped from public memory in the nation that played such a decisive role in the victory. The United States won the Great War but lost the peace, and the image of Woodrow Wilson has never recovered. In the absence of either a satisfying moral outcome (as with the Second World War) or an ignoble defeat (as in Vietnam), it does not seem so surprising that Americans are oblivious to the conflict of 1914–1918. It is easy to neglect a story whose only apparent lesson is to be cautious about leaping into murky waters with guns blazing.
But the legacy of the peace activists who fought a war against war a century ago is not simply one of failure. By warning, credibly, about the consequences of intervention, they were transformed from “traitors” into something akin to prophets. By the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson sent over half a million troops to vanquish an army of Vietnamese peasants fighting in their own land, millions of Americans again protested how armed force was being used and the assaults on civil liberties that often accompanied it. Consciously or not, they were echoing the same question posed by dissidents during the First World War: can one preserve a peaceful and democratic society at home while venturing into the world to kill those whom our leaders designate, rationally or not, as our enemies?
One of the changes the U.S. defeat in Vietnam helped bring about was a deep reluctance on the part of most Americans to hurl what remains of the world’s most potent military machine into allegedly world-saving wars. Popular majorities did support the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But most did so to avenge the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and in the hope of preventing new ones, not because President George W. Bush assured U.S. troops that “the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you.” Long before those interventions stretched on into a second decade, the public had grown cynical about the mission, while still honoring the men and women in uniform struggling to carry it out.
Amid persistent economic troubles and a political stalemate at home, most Americans increasingly adopted what Michael Walzer has called the “default position” of the left on interventions abroad: “The best foreign policy is a good domestic policy.” Without being aware of it, they were seconding the critique that the left-wing essayist Randolph Bourne had lodged in the fall of 1917 against pro-war intellectuals like John Dewey:
If America has lost its political isolation, it is all the more obligated to retain its spiritual integrity. This does not mean any smug retreat from the world, with a belief that the truth is in us and can only be contaminated by contact. It means that the promise of American life is not yet achieved, perhaps not even seen, and that, until it is, there is nothing for us but stern and intensive cultivation of our garden.
The national security state that got its start during the First World War will be with us as long as Americans dread that other nations and peoples want to take their lives or threaten their livelihoods. It is up to leftists and liberals to come up with a foreign policy that can address their fears and turn the nation’s power to solving the world’s problems instead of adding to them.
Michael Kazin is editor of Dissent. This article is adapted, in part, from his book War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918 (Simon & Schuster, 2017).