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The Quality of Mercy:
A History of American Antiwar Movements

By Kevin Filan

World War I

U.S. Revolution   |  The Civil War   |  World War I   |  World War II   |  Vietnam

In August 1914, almost everyone believed the war would be over in a few weeks. The German army planned to make a vast encircling movement through neutral Belgium into northern France, then to sweep around Paris and encircle most of the French army. The French were equally enthusiastic about combat; they hoped to regain Alcase and Lorraine from the Germans and to avenge their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. They figured that assistance from Russia and Great Britain would allow them to triumph over the diplomatically isolated Germans. German troops crossed into Belgium on August 4; by the first week of September they were only 20 miles from Paris.

As the weeks dragged on, it became clear that this would be no quick and glorious conflict. The Germans and French became embroiled in an agonizing stalemate. Both sides attempted to break through enemy lines by using masses of soldiers; neither side could make progress against the massed artillery and machine guns. The trenches were filled with swarms of well-fed rats; the reek of rotting bodies was broken only by the sweet sickly smell of chlorine and mustard gas. In 10 months at Verdun, 700,000 men lost their lives over a few miles of terrain. The campaign for the Somme led to over 1 million casualties; at its end the Western Front was as solid as ever.

Not surprisingly, many in the United States were reluctant to become embroiled in this quagmire. A January 1915 founding meeting of the "Women's Peace Party" brought 3,000 people together to call for U.S. neutrality, and for a cessation to hostilities in Europe. There were sporadic calls for greater involvement after a German torpedo sunk the civilian passenger ship Luisitania in May 1915, claiming the lives of 1,100 people including 128 Americans. Still, the American public was largely inclined toward neutrality. While America was becoming more involved in politics in the Caribbean and South America, continuing a trend which had begun before the Spanish-American War, there was still a tendency toward isolationism and a desire to remain above conflicts in the Old World.

As the conflict continued, there was an increasing call for American involvement in the press. Cartoons of evil "Huns" committing every sort of atrocity became standard fare in the Hearst newspapers and other "yellow journals." Despite this, the American public remained skeptical. Much as today, they feared that any war was to be waged only to ensure profit for the makers of munitions and for capitalist barons. Marxist-influenced publications were stridently anti-war, and enjoyed increasing support among those disaffected poor who had been left behind by the "Gilded Age." In 1917, when President Wilson reversed his earlier calls for neutrality and declared war on Germany, there was still considerable doubt about American involvement… and about whose side we should join. The British naval blockade of Germany had led to many confiscations of American cargo, and there was considerable anti-British feeling in the U.S., particularly among the large German-American community.

To unify the country - and quell dissent - Wilson pressed for an "Espionage Act." Under this act, anyone interfering with the recruiting of troops or disclosing information concerning national defense could be subject to a $10,000 fine and twenty years' imprisonment. Additional penalties were allotted for those who refused military service, or who advocated treason. A subsequent amendment, the Sedition Act, made illegal all disloyal language and attacks on the government, the army, the navy, or the cause of the United States in the war. Under this act it became a crime to write a "disloyal" letter, or an anti-war article which might reach a training camp, or express anti-war sentiments to an audience which included men of draft age, or where the expression might be heard by ship-builders or munition-makers.

It quickly became obvious that the government meant business. Newspapers whose editorials criticized the war effort were forbidden to use the postal service; one paper, The Masses, was prosecuted for a cartoon which included Christ's quote "blessed are the peacemakers." Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs received a ten-year prison term for a 1918 speech in which he reaffirmed the Socialist Party's antiwar position: Another Socialist, Kate Richards O'Hare served a year in prison for stating that the women of the United States were "nothing more nor less than brood sows, to raise children to get into the army and be made into fertilizer." The Supreme Court would later uphold these acts, comparing dissent during wartime to "shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre."

Our relatively quick victory in "the War to End All Wars" left the peace movement without a war… but it left the government with new weapons to use against dissenters. The Russian Revolution had only increased the appeal of Marxism and Communism; the laws which were once intended to stop "espionage" and "sedition" could now be used to stop Communists and union organizers. While President Harding commuted many sentences and, in 1920, repealed the Sedition and Espionage Acts, the groundwork had been set. In 1919-20 the "Palmer Raids" targeted immigrants accused of anarchism and communism, deporting many. One of the leading figures in these raids, a young agent named John Edgar Hoover, would later use many of the lessons he learned there as head of the FBI.

 

 


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