Blogs > HNN > Michael True: Review of Jeanette Keith's Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South During the First World War (North Carolina, 2004)

Dec 6, 2004 10:15 pm


Michael True: Review of Jeanette Keith's Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South During the First World War (North Carolina, 2004)



Michael True, author of An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (Syracuse University Press, 1995) is emeritus professor, Assumption College and a member of the International Peace Research Association Foundation.

Occasionally, a history provides new information about and perspective on a significant period, with important implications for understanding the present. In her eminently readable and carefully researched study of draft and war resistance in the rural South during the First World War, Jeannette Keith has done just that, at a time when the implications of Woodrow Wilson’s propaganda campaign for war and repressive legislation have special resonance for our own time.

“Get together boys and don’t go. Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight. If you don’t go J. P. Morgan is lost. Speculation is the only cause of the war. Rebel now.” So argued the posters supporting the Green Corn Rebellion in Oklahoma in 1917. Although that Rebellion remains perhaps the best known anti-conscription movement during the First World War, its populist sentiments were familiar in other regions of the country, in the well-known voices of Wisconsin’s Senator Robert La Follette, the Socialist Party’s Eugene Victor Debs, Anti-Conscription League’s Emma Goldman, and Industrial Workers of the World’s Big Bill Haywood. Until now, the contributions of less public voices in the rural South have gone practically unnoticed.

The Farmers and Laborers Protective Association (FLPA), also originating in Oklahoma, for example, had 197 chapters throughout Texas by 1917, numbering about ten thousand members. A tri-racial agrarian worker’s union, it spread throughout the South, among people willing to take up arms in their own defense, but unwilling to fight for the nation-state.

Relying on Selective Service records, files of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, small-town newspapers, and similar documents, Professor Keith provides a thoughtful, discerning account of the distinctive character of an anti-war movement in the rural South, which was radical in its economics, but sometimes racist in its orientation. James Vardaman was elected to the U.S. Senate from Mississippi, for example, on a platform of white supremacy and progressive reforms supporting child labor laws, farm credit associations, and women’s suffrage.

Keith, professor of history at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, describes the formidable resistance of farmers and other rural Southerners to the war propaganda, legislation, and surveillance that accompanied the rise of the modern managerial state under Wilson. Some men resisted conscription; many others, particularly black men, simply “deserted.” But since much of the resistance took place in isolated areas, in areas seldom accounted for in the press, it has failed to evoke the response it deserves. Informed by the language of southern anti-militarists, populists, and socialists, a substantial number of citizens openly resisted or quietly disappeared, frustrating draft boards and others responsible for imposing laws that discriminated against poor whites and blacks.

Following the initiation of the draft on June 5, 1917, they resorted to evading conscription or, under the leadership of Tom Watson of Georgia, to openly fighting it. In Tennessee, resisters and deserters hid in the hills, sometimes supporting themselves by making whiskey or extorting food from local residents, who then shielded them from authorities. Such practices continued despite passage of the Espionage Act and Trading with the Enemy Act in1917, and the Sedition Act the following year. Under these repressive laws, it became illegal to say practically anything that conflicted with the Wilson administration’s rush toward war. They made criticism of the draft a crime, and sent three thousand dissenters, particularly Wobblies and Green Corn rebels, to prison.

On the basis of her research and historical reconstruction, Professor Keith indicates what draft resistance in the region tells us about southern society in 1917, and as well as about the construction of the history of the First World War itself. She argues convincingly that class differences explain the conflicting attitudes between the educated, urban population supporting the war and rural southern whites resisting it. Furthermore, the latter’s “witness for peace belies the notion of southern Protestant political and cultural homogeneity.”

Truths emerging from this focus on grassroots responses to the draft also contribute to our understanding of the development of American culture since the First World War, even during the present war on Iraq. The description of the extent of Wilson’s propaganda and legislative march to war has, in other words, a familiar ring. “The Bureau of Investigation, the Military Intelligence Division, and the American Protective League were not just spying on leftists, feminists, pacifists, and immigrants—the usual suspects in the history of state suppression of the American left—they were spying on just about everybody, with the gleeful compliance of everybody’s neighbors.” Now, in the Age of the Patriot Act, “the intensity and breadth of surveillance that heralded the birth of the American surveillance state,” rides again.

Pledging that he would keep the U.S. out of the war in his 1916 re-election campaign, Woodrow Wilson then “oversold” the war, historians generally agree, unleashing a jingoist hysteria that led to mistreatment and vigilantism against progressives, immigrants and German Americans. The novelist Theodore Dreiser was a victim of it; Randolph Bourne, a social and literary critic known for his statement, “War is the Health of the State,” was another.

Often dismissed as ignorant or naive, citizens of the rural South have been ignored, though their critique of the draft and the war were based on arguments every bit as sophisticated as those of the well-educated young socialists from universities and urban centers. The evidence supporting this claim is a welcome addition to the history of the period, suggesting a need for more research on the relationship between race and class, as Professor Keith maintains, as well as on “the evolution of the modern American state during the Great War.”



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Mike Perry - 12/9/2004

Although not noted in the reviewer's remarks, those who are described as resisting fighting in WWI in parts of the rural South seem remarkably similar to my NW Alabama ancestors during the Civil War.

They refused to fight in what they called a "rich man's war, poor man's fight" to defend slavery. My great-great-great-grandfather is even said to have hid out in the woods to avoid forced conscription much like these men.

Of course, the pressure to support the slave-owning class was far greater than that to fight in WWI. Both his father and his sister were murdered during the war by the proto-Klan "Home Guard." And he was apparently murdered in 1874 during the 'ballots or bullet' drive to put the Democratic party back in power. Never forget that:

1. Legalized segregation was the product of violence against whites as well as blacks.

2. The Democrat party provided virtually all the organization and leadership for maintaining white supremacy for almost a century. When I was a child, the logo of the Alabama Democratic party was a rooster crowing "White Supremacy for the Right." (Perhaps that's why today's party is such a zealous proponent of legalized abortion. It's a lot like lynching.)

But my ancestor's stand against the war was hardly pacifist. A farmer with five children to feed, he was in no position to march away and fight for anyone. But three of his brothers enlisted in the Union army and two of them fought with the 1st Alabama Calvary, U.S., providing the calvary screen for Sherman's famous March to the Sea. If they'd be captured by Confederates, they'd have been hung as traitors.

I'd ascribe their attitude to the difficult conditions under which they lived, which left little room for abstract causes, as well as a fierce independence like that described in James Webb's "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. They weren't against war and often made fabulous soldiers. But they insisted on agreeing to a war's necessity. It had to make sense to them.

Based on my own family history and this review, it might be helpful to have a bit of skepticism about this book's main thesis. We should not interpret the rural southerners of a century ago through fashionable, present-day urban views about class struggle and pacifism.

--Mike Perry, Seattle


John Reed Tarver - 12/8/2004

Polner's description of Keith's book, Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight, ignores some exceptions to the draft dodger. My father, for example, lived in rural Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. He had joined the IWW in 1911. In the spring of 1917 when the US entered the war, he joined the U.S. Army (as a sub-teenager he had served a brief hitch in the U.S. Navy as a cabin-boy). Assigned to the notoriously unhealthy Camp Beauregard, he spent most of his time guarding the hospitals there. In the summer of 1917, he was transferred to the Yankee Division in Boston where he served in the 101st Engineers, a berth he owed to his experience as an IWW locomotive mechanic. In the summer of 1919 he returned to the States. After his death in 1970 we found in his effects only two items of note - the medals he won for his service in the Great War and his IWW union card.