Antiwar Dissent and Peace Activism in World War I America: A Documentary Reader

Antiwar_Dissent_and_Peace_Activism_in_World_War_I_America__A_Documentary_Reader__Scott_H__Bennett__Charles_F__Howlett__9780803240117__Amazon_com__BooksEdited by Scott H. Bennett and Charles F. Howlett. University of Nebraska Press, 2014. 400 pages. $30/paperback.

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I have of told many Friends the story of reading, during the war in Kosovo, a coming-of-age book set in Europe on the eve of World War I. Many people wanted me to refer them to that book, but I think my reaction to that book was an accident of time and place unlikely to happen to anyone but me.

I already opposed U.S. involvement in Kosovo. For some reason I could not find a just war after Vietnam, although I still believed in them. I had not taken my understanding of war to the final step of complete opposition.

Before the author described the declaration of war in England, she described something else. She described ethnic hatreds that were supposedly, in the late twentieth century, a relic of earlier times. As I read the stories of Kosovo in the newspaper and stories in the pages of that book, the time periods began to blur until only one reality remained: war was not just an evil, but a useless evil, a process that merely appeared to work but never really did. If there was change that accompanied war, the change resulted from hard work before, during, and after the war. Otherwise, what remained after war was veiled, but not dead, hatred and desire for revenge.

Now I have a book to which I can refer others. Antiwar Dissent and Peace Activism in World War I America is a volume of primary resources, composed of speeches, letters, and essays from before, during, and after World War I. Some of the sources are well known, such as Dorothy Day and A.J. Muste. Other sources are more surprising, such as William Jennings Bryan, who is remembered more for his passionate speech about the gold standard than his resignation as Secretary of State in an antiwar gesture.

Some of the most compelling language comes from historical figures largely forgotten today, such as Oswald Garrison Villard who wrote in 1915, “Must we arm? . . . There is no more dangerous and insidious force at work in Washington than the army and navy lobby.” The book also contains a handful of editorial cartoons (such as a man in prison stripes with a partial caption: “It is proven and indeed admitted that among his incendiary statements were—THOU shalt not kill and BLESSED are the peacemakers”) and posters, as well as a chapter with antiwar humor of the time.

A critical portion of this book is the introduction written by its editors, Scott H. Bennett and Charles F. Howlett, both college professors. In these scant 30 pages they set the context for the words that follow, noting in particular the beginning of many organizations which we take for granted today: Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR); American Friends Service Committee; and Mennonite Relief Commission for War Sufferers, a precursor to a large part of Mennonite Central Committee. Importantly, this time in the antiwar movement was also the start of the secular peace movement (since antiwar work was viewed as the exclusive province of religious zealots previously). New secular peace organizations included the American Civil Liberties Union (which was founded to protect the rights of conscientious objectors to war—something some of its chapters have forgotten today) and the World Peace Foundation, the United States’ oldest secular peace foundation. This context helps us understand in a more fundamental way both how the country got where it is today and how the peace movement got where it is today. Sadly, the book lacks an index, making it harder to use as a reference work, although it does have a short bibliography to help take the learning a step further.

While some of the language is rooted in its time period, the echoes of these words are found in speeches, tweets, and blogs of today. George W. Norris, a Republican senator from Nebraska, argued on the Senate floor in 1917 that “war brings no prosperity to the great mass of common and patriotic citizens . . . War brings prosperity to the stock gambler on Wall Street.”

These facts are the same today and remind us that, as Sir Isaac Newton in 1676 reflected, we who oppose war are still “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

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