Michael Kazin. War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918. Simon and Schuster, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and co-edits the publication Dissent. War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918
is about the American anti-war movement during World War I. The book
talks about who was involved in the anti-war movement and why,
chronicles the events that led up to American intervention into the war,
and discusses the attempts by the U.S. government to suppress anti-war
dissent through such measures as the Espionage Act.
A book that was continually on my mind as I read Kazin’s book was William P. Hoar’s Architects of Conspiracy,
which I read back when I was in the sixth grade. Hoar’s book was
published by Western Islands, which was the publishing arm of the
ultra-conservative John Birch Society, and my understanding is that some
of the chapters of Hoar’s book also appeared in the Bircher periodical American Opinion.
Why was Hoar’s book on my mind as I was reading Kazin’s book? In a
sense, much of what I knew about World War I and the players involved
came from Hoar’s book, and I have not read much about World War I since
then. The school that I attended as a child covered the high points of
World War I, such as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the
sinking of the Lusitania, and the Zimmermann telegram. But it did not
talk much about the prominent personalities who had an opinion about the
war: Woodrow Wilson, Charles Lindbergh, William Jennings Bryan, Andrew
Carnegie, Henry Ford, Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, Henry Cabot Lodge, and
the list goes on. Hoar’s book covered a lot of those personalities.
But, in significant areas, the narrative in Hoar’s book was different
from the narrative in Kazin’s book. Both clearly overlapped in that
both were highly critical of American entry into World War I. But Hoar
talks about World War I within the context of his sweeping narrative
about how the rich Insiders were trying to create a one world
government. In the course of Hoar’s narrative, there are heroes and
villains. Woodrow Wilson was a villain because he broke his promise not
to get America into war, and because he promoted the League of Nations
after World War I. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was a hero
because he valiantly opposed American entry into the war. Charles
Lindbergh, Sr. (father of the famous pilot) was likewise a hero because
he opposed American entry into the war (and also the Federal Reserve,
which is another story). Henry Cabot Lodge was a hero because he stood
against American entry into the League of Nations. Henry Ford was a
heroic anti-Internationalist. Andrew Carnegie was a villain because he
supported a one-world government. Jane Addams was a villain because of
her left-leaning stances. The progressives were bad because they wanted
Kazin’s book presents a picture that is more complicated. Woodrow
Wilson emerges as a figure who was trying to keep America out of war as
long as he felt he could, and he had reservations even after the U.S.
got into the war. William Jennings Bryan was largely critical of
American intervention, yet, at the same time, like many in the anti-war
movement, he supported a globalist system to keep the peace, the sort of
system that many Birchers would find abhorrent! Charles Lindbergh was
critical of American entry into the war, but he was one of the few
Republicans to oppose it: in Kazin’s telling, many Republicans wanted a
stronger military and supported the war because that would benefit their
wealthy corporate backers. Henry Cabot Lodge supported American entry
into the war. Henry Ford was against the war and sided with leftists
who wanted a one-world government, or something like that. Andrew
Carnegie and Jane Addams opposed American entry into the war, as did the
progressive Robert La Follette. Hoar’s heroes were not entirely
heroic, by Bircher standards, and his villains were not entirely
villainous. At the same time, while Kazin talks a lot about the leftist
opposition to American involvement in World War I, Kazin also tells the
story of Southern conservative Democrats who were against the war.
(This is not to suggest that I had a Bircher view about World War I
until I read Kazin’s book, but rather that Hoar’s book was on my mind
when I was reading Kazin.)
Kazin is a compelling narrator and storyteller. He gives the
background of many of the people who opposed World War I, and their
reasons for opposing American entry. Among the criticisms of American
entry was a sense that it would benefit wealthy capitalists rather than
workers, a belief that negotiation could alleviate the international
tension, a utopian desire for a globalist sort of system to maintain the
peace, a recognition of the horrors of war, and a sense that America
need not worry about foreign conflict because America was invulnerable
to outside attack, since two oceans protected it. Moreover, for a
while, President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to create a standing army
or to boost U.S. military spending because he preferred the Jeffersonian
Democratic aversion to a strong military.
Kazin also talks about the rationale of Americans who supported the
war. There was a sense that war brought out the best in people, giving
them the opportunity to think beyond themselves and to exercise such
virtues as courage. There was some fear that Germans could attack
America’s cities, and the Zimmermann telegram confirmed in some minds
that the Germans had hostile intentions towards the United States and
could attack from Mexico. Germans were interfering with U.S. and
British trade by sinking ships. Some American labor representatives
thought the the war could boost the economy and help workers. There was
a desire for the U.S. to be strong: Theodore Roosevelt especially
articulated this, as he portrayed Wilson as a weakling. Among certain
leftists, there was concern that Germany could threaten the newly
emerging Soviet Union, which they saw as the beginnings of a model and
In reading Kazin’s narrative, I had difficulty identifying a clear
event that got America into the war. Even after the Germans sank the
Lusitania, Wilson was still dragging his feet. There were anti-war
people who considered the Zimmermann telegram a fake. But, as Germans
continued being aggressive and rejected peace overtures, more and more
Americans got tired and thought that the U.S. should enter the war.
Wilson later targeted the anti-war activists whom he once embraced
because he thought that they were undermining morale.
Kazin explores interesting historical topics: how women conducted the
anti-war movement in a different manner from men; the different
attitudes toward the war within the African-American community, as some
championed the war as an opportunity for African-Americans to support
freedom and demonstrate their valor, whereas others contended that it
was hypocritical for America to fight for freedom abroad while
neglecting it at home; and how anti-war legislators sought to modify
American entry into the war, by attempting to impose a heavy tax on
wealthy industrialists to pay for it! Kazin also discusses the role of
Helen Keller in opposing the war, and Henry Ford’s unsuccessful and
derided attempt to negotiate a peace settlement.
In addition, Kazin provides a helpful timeline and list of books at the end.
In terms of critiques, Kazin perhaps could have been clearer about
what specifically precipitated American intervention. Moreover,
although Kazin effectively described the motivations of so many people,
he also should have gone into more detail about German motivations: why
were the Germans doing what they were doing?
Overall, though, this is an informative, interesting, and engaging book.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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