Michael Kazin. War against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. xix + 378 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4767-0590-3; $17.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4767-0591-0.
Reviewed by Alex Ryan
Published on H-FedHist (August, 2018)
Commissioned by Kate Brown (Western Kentucky University)
The fight to keep the United States out of the First World War was, for Michael Kazin, one of history's great near misses. If the United States had not entered the conflict, he argues, the course of the twentieth century could have been fundamentally altered. Though this claim is somewhat inflated, War against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914 1918 is a deeply researched, impassioned, and considered examination of the diverse coalition that sought, for one reason or another, to prevent their country from going to war.
Kazin traces his subjects' fortunes chronologically, recounting the antiwar movement's development from a broad, optimistic alliance for peace to a "beleaguered citadel" (p. 242). In the 1900s and 1910s pacifism was a general, abstract tendency, visible but not dominant across many groups and classes, from socialists to feminists to businessmen putting their faiths in "empires of commerce" (p. 5). The outbreak of war in 1914 granted the movement a new urgency, inaugurating a period of bitter conflict between those opposed to intervention and those in favor. In the years 1914-17, antiwar activists courted President Woodrow Wilson, who expressed an equivocal, vacillating sympathy. Figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, meanwhile, excoriated Wilson for his unwillingness to join the fight.
These battles came to a head in the November 1916 presidential election, when the antiwar movement saw Wilson's triumph over Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes as crucial to keeping the United States at peace. The president, recognizing the strength of the Republican challenge, positioned himself as the peace candidate "more out of necessity than desire," winning reelection (p. 124). Of course, there is an irony here: within months of his victory, in spite of calls for a popular vote and doubts in Congress, Wilson took the United States into the conflict, declaring war on Germany on April 2, 1917.
The decision shattered the antiwar coalition. Antiwar Democrats such as Claude Kitchin rallied to the president, endeavoring to limit the war's negative effects on society through measures such as a progressive "excess profits" tax (these efforts came to naught). Moderates within the movement either let loyalty to the country outweigh their ideals, or calculated that potential benefits of further agitation were far outweighed by risks. The Wilson administration did much to encourage such calculations, quickly passing laws curtailing free speech. While the Espionage and Sedition acts will likely be familiar to many readers, Kazin presents shocking details on the treatment of dissenters during wartime. Evan Thomas, for instance, was forced to stand chained to bars for nine hours a day, in conditions resembling "torture" (p. 207). The antiwar Left was thus alienated from the president, and their lack of support for his party at the 1918 midterms saw the Democrats lose both the House and the Senate.
This narrative is compelling, with Kazin's extensive use of personal and organizational papers shining through in his vivid sketches of figures such as Morris Hillquit and Crystal Eastman. Moreover, his writing is never less than clear, and is frequently gripping, reflecting sympathy for his subjects as well as scholarly acumen. But narrative is far from all War against War has to offer. Kazin advances a strong analysis of antiwar movements more generally. Such movements are unique, he writes, because they lack the guaranteed support of any "natural constituency" (p. 275). This leaves them readily swayed by their constituents' other commitments. Many opposed to the First World War couched their opposition in terms of transnational class or gender solidarity. Others had less admirable concerns, for example worries over training, arming, and mobilizing individuals disfranchised by their race or class. Kazin makes much of this diversity, marveling at Southern white supremacists in accord with Jewish New York socialists. We may question, however, how surprising this is: such "ambiguous, shifting loyalties" may be readily explained by a shared distrust of centralized government power among both revolutionaries and states' rights reactionaries (p. 290).
If the text has one overarching flaw, it is that, perhaps inevitably, it fails to live up to its loftiest claims. In his desire to tell the story of the near miss, Kazin overstates both the magnitude of what could have been avoided and the likelihood of its having been avoided. US involvement in the First World War, Kazin argues, was crucial to the "nearly thirty years" of violence that tore European society apart in the early twentieth century (p. xv). If the United States had not gone to war, he asserts, it could have ensured a disinterested, impartial peace, avoiding the resentments that grew out of the Versailles settlement. Yet it is not clear that the United States could have avoided involvement. Kazin himselfdoes good work elaborating longer term, structural reasons for US entry into the war on the Allied side. President Wilson, along with many others in government, had long sympathized with British values and against "Prussian militarism." Business ties to London and Paris, moreover, helped ensure that wartime commerce, if allowed at all, would draw the United States closer to Britain and France and against Germany. Some more radical antiwarriors made attempts to embargo all trade with belligerent parties, it is true,but such restrictions would have required unprecedented extensions of state power over trade.
It is thus curious that Kazin should claim that similar factors would not have dragged the United States into conflict in Europe sooner or later, even if it had not entered the war in 1917. The claim advanced here may be the stronger one, that no further major conflict in Europe would have occurred if not for US involvement in the First World War, but Kazin does not muster the kind of exceptional evidence that would be required to substantiate such an exceptional claim. Thankfully, these claims are not central enough to the work to do it significant damage.
These issues notwithstanding, War against War engages fruitfully with a large body of historiography. Kazin is most explicit about setting his work alongside scholarship on Wilson and era. He cites Arthur S. Link's Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality, 1914-1915 (1960) extensively, and Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper Jr. is thanked as a reader (p. 294). War against War also contributes to histories of dissent and debate over US foreign policy. The insights presented here would fit especially well alongside recent work on US anti-imperialism around the 1898 war. In both cases, a broad coalition opposed to boisterous, assertive overseas policy engaged in fierce public debate over the United States' role on the world stage.
War against War, then, comes recommended to both academics familiar with the field and general readers. As can be inferred from such touches as a list of "good reading" in place of a formal bibliography, War against War is intended to reach a general audience. On the strength of Kazin's research, writing, and academic rigor, it deserves to. The text highlights important and often forgotten debates, opening productive avenues for further research and encouraging consideration of the paths not taken in US history. That the antiwar movement was perhaps less likely to succeed than Kazin suggests does not diminish the significance of this book. Just as a lost cause can still be worth fighting for, a history of those doomed to failure can be worth telling.
. For examples of recent work setting debates over US imperialism in a longer-term context, see Ian Tyrell and Jay Sexton, eds., Empire's Twin: U.S. Anti-Imperialism from the Founding Era to the Age of Terrorism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).
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