World War I - The Most Unpopular War In Our History?

Ira Krakow


I'm writing this the day after Election Day. Yesterday's election saw the voters switch control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats. As I write this, the Democrats have won control of the Senate as well, 51 to 49. Some commentators see the result as a referendum on Iraq. It sounds like President Bush agrees, because he accepted Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's resignation. Certainly the polls show that our present course in Iraq is unpopular, and this is certainly one reason why the election turned out as it did.

Many of us remember the opposition to the Vietnam War and believe that it was the most unpopular war in our history. I will make the case for another war as the most unpopular - World War I. There were no polls in 1917, but we can perhaps speculate. The story has some uneasy parallels to our current situation. One of them is that in both cases the government attempted to, and succeeded in, trampling on the Constitution.

When World War I started in Europe, in August, 1914, the United States government and people both wanted to remain neutral. Before the war's outbreak, the economy was experiencing a downturn. As our munitions plants filled orders for war materiel from the Allies (principally Great Britain), the economic recovery in our country proceeded. There was a lot of popular opposition to the war from German-Americans (who did not want us to go to war against the Fatherland) and Irish-Americans (who did not want us to support Great Britain, the country oppressing their brethren at home). Other groups opposing the war included pacifist organizations such as the Quakers and Socialists, who felt that the workers of the world should unite and not be divided by nationalist fervor.

Officially, the United States was neutral. On August 19, 1914, President Wilson issued the Declaration of Neutrality, which stated, in its last paragraph:

I venture, therefore, my fellow countrymen, to speak a solemn word of warning to you against that deepest, most subtle, most essential breach of neutrality which may spring out of partisanship, out of passionately taking sides. The United States must be neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men's souls. 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.

In spite of our neutrality, United States banks loaned far more money to the Allies than to the Central Powers (Germany, Austria Hungary, Turkey, et al). J. P. Morgan Bank, the largest lender, asked Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan for an opinion on whether these loans violated our neutrality. Bryan believed that it did, as you can read from this letter from Bryan to J P Morgan. United States exports in 1914 to the Allies were $824.8 million, compared to only $169.3 million to the Central Powers. According to the Gilder-Lehman Institute of American History, by 1917, American loans to the Allies had soared to $2.25 billion; loans to Germany stood at a paltry $27 million.
Germany did not want war with the United States. However, Germany was fighting with Great Britain on the Atlantic Ocean. Both Germany and Great Britain declared war zones in the Atlantic and attempted to restrict shipping of neutral nations, such as the United States. According to a speech from Senator George Norris opposing the United States entry into World War I:s

The reason given by the President in asking Congress to declare war against Germany is that the German government has declared certain war zones, within which, by the use of submarines, she sinks, without notice, American ships and destroys American lives. . . . The first war zone was declared by Great Britain. She gave us and the world notice of it on, the 4th day of November, 1914. The zone became effective Nov. 5, 1914. . . . This zone so declared by Great Britain covered the whole of the North Sea. . . . The first German war zone was declared on the 4th day of February, 1915, just three months after the British war zone was declared. Germany gave fifteen days' notice of the establishment of her zone, which became effective on the 18th day of February, 1915. The German war zone covered the English Channel and the high seawaters around the British Isles. . . .

It is unnecessary to cite authority to show that both of these orders declaring military zones were illegal and contrary to international law. It is sufficient to say that our government has officially declared both of them to be illegal and has officially protested against both of them. The only difference is that in the case of Germany we have persisted in our protest, while in the case of England we have submitted.

We went to war because of the banker's loans to the Allied Powers, and our government's support for the bankers, according to the opponents of our entry into the War. Wilson ignored British threats to safe passage of our ships, but he, along with the newspapers and other media, played up the German threats.

Both Great Britain and Germany believed that control of the Atlantic sea lanes was the key to victory. In 1915, Germany, believing that its U-boat submarines could knock Great Britain out of the war by destroying its ships, declared unrestricted submarine warfare on Great Britain. Let me emphasize - Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany was not the Third Reich. Germany declared this as a war measure against its primary opponent, not against the neutral United States. Germany even tried to appeal to the United States for support, as this document by the German government from August, 1914, blaming Russia for the war, shows. The famous passenger ship, the Lusitania, which the Germans sunk on May 7, 1915, was a British ship which the Germans considered as a legitimate target. The German government even posted a warning to passengers that the ship was a potential target. Nevertheless, when it sank, with 1,198 casualties, there were 129 Americans among them.

Neutrality sentiment in the United States was so strong that President Wilson campaigned for re-election in 1916, against the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, on the slogan "he kept us out of war." Hughes wanted to build up our military, to be prepared if we had to go to war. Wilson narrowly won a close election. Wilson's platform included a proposal for Germany to stop unrestricted submarine warfare. In fact, Germany did so, for a time, and tried to calm the fears of the United States by issuing the Sussex Pledge. The Pledge was a promise to sink enemy ships only if it was shown that the ships contained contraband.

In 1916, for a time, Germany actually stopped unrestricted submarine warfare. However, On February 1, 1917, it took a calculated risk, and restarted it. This time, Wilson was angry, accusing Germany of a war "against all nations.". On April 2, 1917, in his Declaration of War message to Congress, Wilson wrote:

It is a war against all nations. American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of, but the ships and people of other neutral and friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters in the same way. There has been no discrimination.

The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it. The choice we make for ourselves must be made with a moderation of counsel and a temperateness for judgment befitting our character and our motives as a nation. We must put excited feeling away. Our motive will not be revenge or the victorious assertion of the physical might of the nation, but only the vindication of right, of human right, of which we are only a single champion.

Sound familiar? This is a self-righteous statement claiming that the United States is the only champion of human rights in the world. President Bush would feel very comfortable supporting this.

There was plenty of opposition to the War declaration in Congress, particularly from progressive Senators such as Norris and LaFollette. Senator Norris believed the War was a plot by Wall Street to prop up our economy and support the banker's loans to the Allies. He said, in part:

In showing the position of the bondholder and the stockbroker I desire to read an extract from a letter written by a member of the New York Stock Exchange to his customers. This writer says: Regarding the war as inevitable, Wall Street believes that it would be preferable to this uncertainty about the actual date of its commencement. Canada and Japan are at war, and are more prosperous than ever before. The popular view is that stocks would have a quick, clear, sharp reaction immediately upon outbreak of hostilities, and that then they would enjoy an old-fashioned bull market such as followed the outbreak of war with Spain in 1898.

Sounds like a typical CNBC report about how the war in Iraq will affect the stock market. He did not see that the War would be a benefit to the average person, as he continued:

To whom does the war bring prosperity? Not to the soldier who for the munificent compensation of $16 per month shoulders his musket and goes into the trench. there to shed his blood and to die if necessary; not to the broken-hearted widow who waits for the return of the mangled body of her husband; not to the mother who weeps at the death of her brave boy; not to the little children who shiver with cold; not to the babe who suffers from hunger; nor to the millions of mothers and daughters who carry broken hearts to their graves. War brings no prosperity to the great mass of common and patriotic citizens. It increases the cost of living of those who toil and those who already must strain every effort to keep soul and body together. War brings prosperity to the stock gambler on Wall Street to those who are already in possession of more wealth than can be realized or enjoyed.

Hmm - Wall Street versus Main Street. The media whipped up a frenzy over the Zimmermann Telegram, which was supposed to be a plot by Germany to invade the United States through Mexico. Later on, Zimmermann claimed that this was not Germany's intention. However, the press in the United States whipped up sentiment against Germany based in part on the telegram. In fact, the German government at the time went to great lengths to declare that it did not want war with the United States.
On April 6, 1917, Congress voted to pass the Declaration of War. The vote was 82-6 in the Senate, and 373-50 in the House, so as you can see it was hardly unanimous. There was definitely no rush to sign up to fight.
With our involvement in the War, as Wilson claimed, "to make the world safe for democracy", it became obvious that more troops were needed. To that end, on May 28, 1917, Wilson issued a proclamation establishing conscription for all males between the ages of 21 and 30.

The government feared a popular outcry against the war and the draft - enough fear that Congress passed, on June 15, 1917, the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to aid and comfort the enemy. "Aid and comfort" at that time meant writing a pamphlet that simply stated one's constitutional rights. I discussed this in my episode on Schenck v. United States, in which a person who distributed an anti-draft leaflet, without advocating any particular action, was convicted under the Espionage Act. Under the act, the Postmaster General could, and did, deny use of the mail to any organization he deemed was using the mails to spread unpatriotic ideas.

Even more restrictive to freedom of speech was the Sedition Act of 1918, which forbade Americans to use "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the United States government, flag, or armed forces during war. The penalty was a fine of not more than $10,000 (a fortune in those days) or imprisonment for not more than 20 years.

You might think that the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act were laws held in reserve, to be used just in case of emergency. In fact, the government, fearing class warfare and believing that any speech against the draft or the war was a national security threat, wielded these legal swords with a vengeance. Here's an example, from the wikipedia article:

After two anarchist radicals, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman continued to advocate against conscription, Goldman's offices at Mother Earth were thoroughly searched, and volumes of files and detailed subscription lists from Mother Earth, along with Berkman's journal The Blast, were seized. As a Justice Department news release reported:

A wagon load of anarchist records and propaganda material was seized, and included in the lot is what is believed to be a complete registry of anarchy's friends in the United States. A splendidly kept card index was found, which the Federal agents believe will greatly simplify their task of identifying persons mentioned in the various record books and papers. The subscription lists of Mother Earth and The Blast, which contain 10,000 names, were also seized.

Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, conducted raids, called the Palmer Raids, on at least 10,000 people. The government was especially threatened by the Socialist and the Anarchist parties. The Socialist Party in those days had quite a bit of support, having elected a number of members of Congress and mayors of large cities such as Milwaukee. Carrying out these investigations was one of the first projects of J Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Yesterday's election produced our country's first Socialist Senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The media calls him independent but he has called himself a socialist from the beginning of his career.

The most important Espionage Act conviction was of Eugene V Debs, the Socialist who ran for President a number of times. On June 16, 1918, Debs, a native of Terre Haute, Indiana, made an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, and was arrested under the Espionage Act of 1917. He was convicted, sentenced to 10 years in prison, and disenfranchised for life. Here's a famous excerpt from his speech:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Debs appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. saw Deb's conviction as similar to Schenck's and sided with the majority. Debs ran for president in the 1920 election while in prison in Atlanta, Georgia at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He received 913,664 votes (3.4%), the most ever for a Socialist Party presidential candidate in the U.S. and slightly more than he had won in 1912, when he obtained six percent of the vote. This stint in prison also inspired Debs to write a series of columns deeply critical of the prison system, which appeared in sanitized form in the Bell Syndicate and was collected into his only book, Walls and Bars, with several added chapters (published posthumously).

For more information about the life and times of Eugene Debs, go to the Web site of the Eugene Debs Foundation, in Terre Haute.

Thus ends my argument that World War I was the most unpopular war in our history. Were our casualties from the war - 126,000 dead, 234,000 wounded - worth the benefit? Certainly World War I was not the "war to end all wars." In fact, the Treaty of Versailles and the aftermath of the war so humiliated Germany that it provided a basis for Hitler's ascent to power. Did it make the world safe for democracy, as Wilson tried to persuade the American people? I don't believe so. Many of the new nations carved out in the aftermath of World War I - Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Palestine, the Soviet Union, and (soon to join the list) Iraq - proved to be temporary and split along ethnic lines.

It's always dangerous to draw analogies from history to current events. What might our experience in World War I teach us about the war in Iraq? We hear from some Democrats that there aren't enough troops there to do the job. If that's true, where are the additional troops to come from? If we institute a draft, I believe we will have the same types of resistance and protest, possibly more, than in World War I. After the most recent election, there doesn't appear to be the political will to re-institute a draft. The more likely outcome will be to withdraw, on some sort of timetable, and declare that, by removing Saddam and establishing some sort of a "democratic" government there, our mission has been accomplished.

 Go to WWI: An Interdisciplinary Perspective