The Good Fight?
Georgetown history professor Michael Kazin wears his biases on his sleeve. As someone who was very active in the 1960s anti-war and radical movements, Kazin has written a highly sympathetic account of the anti-war movement that arose in the U.S. to keep us out of World War I. He organizes his history around the lives of four people who symbolized the broad-based coalition that worked round the clock in their anti-war efforts. They are the Southern segregationist Majority Leader of the House and Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Claude Kitchin; Crystal Eastman a social reformer who founds the Woman’s Peace Party and the American Union Against Militarism; Morris Hilquit the Jewish Socialist labor lawyer and politician form New York City and Senator Robert La Follette, the Wisconsin progressive filibusters President Wilson’s proposal to arm merchant ships. It was that filibuster that caused the Senate to adopt the cloture rules we have today.
Along the way we meet Crystal Eastman’s brother, Max who publishes Masses, future socialist Norman Thomas, auto magnate Henry Ford, social reformer Jane Addams and Roger Baldwin who would found the ACLU. All in all it was quite a broad coalition and in Kazin’s mind they worked a miracle to keep the U.S. out of the war as long as it did in countering a pro-war movement headed up by Theodore Roosevelt. After all the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915 and under the aegis of the German ambassador, Germany was running a vast terror network on the east coast. That network caused the Black Tom explosion in New York Harbor which blew up munitions heading for England.
He argues that were it not for the anti-war movement the U.S. would have entered the war sooner causing countless more American deaths. I would argue to the contrary because, in my opinion, a U.S. entry say in early 1916 would have likely shortened the war and prevented the carnage on the eastern front that was to come.
My criticism of Kazin’s work is that he ignores the broad forces of history that made U.S. entry into the war inevitable. The U.S. as a rising power couldn’t really stay out and a Professor Adam Tooze has taught us that during 1916 economic power was being transferred from England to the U.S. Simply put the U.S. had too much at stake in an Allied victory as the Allies were head over in heels in debt to the U.S. and the war was engendering an economic boom. It was only a matter of time for the “peace candidate” Wilson to tip his hand. That happened in 1917 when Germany renewed unrestricted submarine warfare, the Zimmermann telegram was published indicating German overtures to Mexico and Tsar Nicholas II abdicated making it easy for Wilson to say that the war was about democracy. Put in a geopolitical context, no U.S. president would allow a Europe dominated by a hostile Germany.
Nevertheless Kazin tells a good story about an era in American history that has long been forgotten.
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