08 February 2007

Woodrow Wilson and the American Way of War, Part 9

On the surface, the anti-war movement in the United States in 1914 represented a key part of the coalition that had helped to elect Woodrow Wilson as president two years earlier. However, looking at this group of people in more detail, reveals a more inchoate mass for which the outbreak of the Great War represented a challenge instead of an opportunity.

There were three strands in the movement:

(a) Morally-minded businessmen and lawyers. These people regarded capitalism and liberalism (in the old-fashioned sense of anti-clerical and anti-monarchical) as social systems that would undermine the national boundaries and dynastic rivalries that provoked wars. In a sense, they were the Mirrors of Marxism, regarding the business class as having no nationality, and the progenitors of today's globalization as the End of History. They also supplied the leadership of the anti-war movement in 1914.

(b) Radical social reformers. For them, war was representative of immoral businessmen and social systems. A program of general social reform and some kind of transnational or supranational political authority would remove the need for war as a means of settling social disputes. However, their focus was on reform, not revolution. They found common cause with (a) on many occasions, because they welcomed any steps taken to eradicate war, even little ones.

(c) Revolutionary Socialists. For them, war was inherently a part of a social system that was corrupt and doomed. A simple refusal to fight, a revolutionary act on the part of the masses, would not only halt war, but quite possibly bring the whole corrupt edifice of capitalism crashing down. They had some common ground with (b).

In the event, between the outbreak of war and the resignation of William Jennings Bryan in June 1915, Group (a) were largely conspicuous by their absence in offering any kind of leadership to the anti-war movement, perhaps content with Wilson's management of American diplomacy, which did seem to offer a pragmatic implementation of their views. Group (b) made a few grand gestures, such as the women's Peace Parade down New York's Fifth Avenue on 29 August 1914, and a meeting at Henry Street Settlement House in September that was to have major long-term significance. However, they at first yielded leadership to group (a), in the mistaken anticipation that they would use the war to promote ideas for a kind of World Government that had been current for some years prior to August 1914. Group (c), meanwhile, focused on pressing labor issues that were also going to have important repercussions on the anti-war movement.

By pulling in different directions, the anti-war movement allowed initiative to pass to those who supported some level of involvement in the war, whether in laying the groundwork for eventual American entry, or simply by seizing sound business opportunities that steadily increased the American stake in an Allied victory. After Bryan's resignation as Secretary of State, however, matters began to take a different turn.

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