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 socialism.
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 just society.
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.