The Strange Partnership of Anti-Warriors

News Abroad

Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is editor of Dissent []. He is writing a book on the Americans who opposed the First World War.

“The American people are sick and tired of more than a decade of war in the Middle East,” thunders the left-wing website Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, could not agree more: “for 10 years we have supplied the Iraqis and they can’t stand up and do anything to defend their country, and it is all up to us?,” he asked rhetorically at a mid-June hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee.1

The current debate over whether to throw U.S. forces, again, into the sectarian cauldron of Iraq has helped revive an odd, if loose, alliance between people who differ fundamentally about nearly everything else the government does or plans to do – from the Affordable Care Act to cutting down emissions from coal-fired power plants. But the influence anti-war progressives and Paulian conservatives can wield will likely depend on whether most Americans no longer wish to be citizens of “the indispensable nation” and to resist whatever actions the President and Congress take to preserve that status.

The first concord between foes of intervention on both left and right was struck a century ago, as President Woodrow Wilson agonized about whether the promotion of U.S. power and ideals required him to lead the country into World War One.

Americans from across the political spectrum were repelled by the start of the Great War. They saw no reason to take part in a devastating conflict between European empires, none of which had either the means or the desire to threaten the United States. In August, 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson urged his countrymen and women to be “neutral in fact, as well as in name, during these days that are to try men's souls,” hardly anyone disagreed.

A slim majority of the public may have continued to feel that way, at least until the President changed his mind early in 1917 and asked Congress to declare war on Germany. In 2014, when many Americans have again grown wary of armed adventures abroad, the motives of those dissenters from the era of the shirtwaist and the Model T sound remarkably familiar.

Leftists of every stripe -- Socialists, radical feminists, and pacifist internationalists – argued that the Great War was destroying the chance to create a world of free, self-governing nations which would never have the will or cause to take up arms again.  As Crystal Eastman, a Greenwich Village radical and leading anti-militarist organizer, put it, “The national genius cannot be directed to war preparation and genuine peace at the same time."

Many Democrats in Congress from southern and border states, the heart and soul of Wilson's partisan majority, allied with Eastman but not for the same reasons. They were anxious to preserve the virtues of an agrarian nation against the malignant growth of a state equipped to fight endless wars.  The Capitol’s peace-minded faction included some of the key figures in the party. Missouri Senator William Stone, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, announced,“I won’t vote for this war because if we go into it, we will never again have the same old Republic." House Majority Leader Claude Kitchin from North Carolina rallied rank-and-file lawmakers, including dozens of sympathetic Republicans, to reject higher taxes for the many to satisfy what they alleged was the desire for world power of the political and economic few.

Without a war to resist, Eastman and Kitchin would have been political antagonists. She organized suffrage parades and promoted racial integration; he opposed granting women the vote and bridled at any talk of weakening Jim Crow laws or restoring the franchise to African-Americans anywhere in the South. Eastman, who dreamed about a brave new secular world of equals, may also have squirmed a bit when she heard how Kitchin justified his vote against declaring war: “This nation is the last hope of peace on earth, good will toward men. I am unwilling for my country to…extinguish during the long night of a world-wide war the only remaining star of hope for Christendom.”

Despite their ideological differences, what brought the two groups together was, at base, a conservative cause. Peace advocates agreed with Morris Hillquit, a leading Socialist, that America was mostly “self-sufficient” and had “no national grudges to settle.” All feared the coming of a militarized state that would spy on its citizens and restrict their First Amendment rights. They seemed like prophets after the U.S. entered the war, when Wilson and his aides unleashed the most severe bout of political repression in the nation’s history. But most Americans rallied behind the President and the “doughboys” he sent to fight in France.

Just as diverse a coalition of anti-warriors emerged two decades later. During the 1930s, both the radical left and the libertarian right, disillusioned that the world was not “made safe for democracy” by the Great War, campaigned to keep the U.S. neutral if Europe again descended into madness. When World War II did begin, The America First Committee quickly signed up 800,000 members who vowed to keep the nation out of it. The Committee’s leaders included both Norman Thomas, the leading Socialist in the land, and Robert E. Wood, the chairman of Sears Roebuck, a passionate foe of labor and the left.  Of course, “America First” took on quite a different meaning after the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, and the Committee was quickly disbanded.

The Cold War made it impossible for ideological adversaries to find common ground. By the 1950s, nearly every conservative was more alarmed about the spread of Communism abroad than by the perils of an overweening state at home. As a result, the mass movement which opposed the war in Vietnam was made up almost entirely of liberals and radicals.

But the implosion of the Soviet Union revived a tradition of opposition to wars of choice that again lept the barrier between right and left.  "Interventionism is the incubator of terrorism," claimed Pat Buchanan in 2001. Two years later, he and fellow conservative pundit George Will were as critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq as were left-wing icons Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. When Edward Snowden first began releasing documents purloined from the NSA, he drew sympathy both from Senator Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, and from Rand Paul, his famously libertarian colleague.

The coalition that tried to stop the United States from fighting in the First World War I thus bequeathed a profound legacy. It sowed an aversion to foreign intervention and, at times, the national security state strong enough to persuade some activists and politicians to temporarily put aside their mistrust of each other’s larger goals.

However, none of those temporary alliances succeeded in preventing the U.S. from going to war, and the current version may fail as well. Polls reveal that Americans are deeply ambivalent about whether and when the mightest military in the world should be used to attack a nation or insurgent force that does not directly threaten the homeland or their fellow citizens. The fact that we “honor the service” of all men and women in uniform while passively opposing the wars they have fought in our name since 2001 reveals a persistent desire for a nation able to employ its might for a virtuous cause. We can never return to the “same old republic,” cherished by Senator Stone and generations of anti-warriors who followed him. Still, that will not stop many Americans from wishing that we could.

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