At the height of World War One, the radical writer Randolph Bourne wrote, “War is the health of the state.” Throughout the war, while millions died and entire cities were destroyed, the governments of the Western world “flourished,” and “class struggle was stilled.”
In 1914, the U.S. was not yet at war. Socialism was an ongoing threat to the power elite. James Wadsworth, a Senator from New York, proposed that war could prevent young people from being “divided into classes.” For the duration of World War One, socialist leaders criticized the war for being “imperialist”—an opinion as uncontroversial now as it was controversial at the time.
Zinn cites James Wadsworth as proof that the American government deliberately tried to distract and weaken the American people. Furthermore, he praises the Socialist movement for denouncing the war for what, in retrospect, it clearly was: a fight between greedy, imperialist nations.
European governments convinced their people to fight in the war, in part by celebrating patriotism, but also by lying about the number of casualties in the war. The U.S. entered the war in 1917, despite the fact that President Woodrow Wilson had promised that the U.S. would stay neutral. Wilson claimed that he’d reversed his policy because German submarines had attacked American merchant vessels; however, historians have argued that this was a “flimsy” rationalization. It would have been incredibly naïve of Wilson to imagine that German forces would allow American merchant vessels to proceed, since they were selling war supplies to Germany’s enemies.
Zinn suggests that President Wilson, much like James Polk and William McKinley before him and Lyndon Johnson after him, waited for a small, unclear “provocation” from a foreign power, and then used this incident as an excuse to declare a war he clearly wanted to fight.
The real reason for Wilson’s decision to send his country to war, it’s been suggested, was “economic necessity.” In 1914, the U.S. was in the midst of a serious recession, since the conflict in Europe was threatening its foreign markets. Between 1914 and 1917, American capitalists traded with England, to the point where England became “a market for American goods and for loans at interest”—for example, J. P. Morgan loaned huge sums of money to England, knowing that he stood to make a huge profit if England prospered. Well before 1917, then, America’s economic health was tied to the victory of England in World War I.
As with America’s involvements in Cuba and Philippines, America’s role in World War One was determined by its business ties to foreign lands. Bankers and capitalists had invested large amounts of their own money in the English economy, and they had every reason to want England to win the war. Therefore, Zinn implies, they pressured Wilson to start a war. (However, once again, Zinn doesn’t say how, precisely, they pressured Wilson.)
In 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a prophetic article arguing that the war was motivated by a desire to control the immense natural wealth of Africa. Du Bois went on to argue that war was a necessary part of modern capitalist society: only through period conflict could the government unite the interests of the “rich man and the poor man” and trick the poor into forgetting about their own conflict with the upper class.
Du Bois’s perspective on World War One was that it was waged in order to ensure the Western nations’ external control over the resources of Africa and their internal control over their own people. Much like the fictional governments in George Orwell’s 1984, Western nations use war as a way of organizing their people and protecting their own economic interests.
When America declared war, Americans didn’t rush to enlist. The Socialist party held a meeting in St. Louis, where it called the war an injustice. Later in 1917, Socialists held anti-war protests, some with as many as twenty thousand people. Later in the year, Socialist politicians did surprisingly well in elections: in New York and Chicago, Socialist party candidates got more than 20 percent of the vote.
Zinn takes it as a sign of the popular resistance to war that many Socialist leaders opposed America’s involvement in World War One. However, he doesn’t address the fact that most American people, including, perhaps, the majority of the working class, continued to support America’s involvement overseas.
In response to the opposition to the war, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which introduced a twenty-year sentence for anyone inciting insubordination or interfering with the war effort. The Espionage Act was designed to gag anyone criticizing the war. It was in this atmosphere that Oliver Wendell Holmes, the “great liberal” of the Supreme Court, introduced the famous “clear and present danger” standard and argued that the government could limit free speech if that speech could be shown to cause harm. Holmes’s famous analogy—that free speech could be dangerous in the same sense that crying “fire” in a crowded theater was dangerous—was misleading. Almost nobody who criticized World War One was causing “clear and present danger” to other Americans—if anything, the war was a clear and present danger. Eugene Debs was imprisoned for criticizing the war, and he spent more than two years in jail.
The behavior of the Supreme Court during World War One illustrates the power of the Establishment. As Zinn sees it, Holmes’s “clear and present danger” standard went hand-in-hand with the government’s desire to suppress any widespread opposition to the war in Europe. Many legal scholars have agreed with Zinn that Holmes’s legal standard was improperly applied to the protesters and dissidents of the era. They weren’t causing any danger by voicing their disagreement with the war.
During World War One, the American government tightened its control over its own people, not only by limiting free speech but also by prosecuting draft dodgers. In 1918, the government arrested more than one hundred I.W.W. members, including Big Bill Haywood, who’d allegedly conspired to oppose the draft. In the end, Haywood was sentenced to twenty years in prison, and I.W.W. members were fined a total of 2.5 million dollars. (Haywood fled to Soviet Russia, where he lived for the rest of his life.)
The government, Zinn implies, used World War One as an excuse to persecute citizens with a long history of opposing the Establishment’s power. Thus, Haywood, who’d previously organized many strikes against capitalists, was forced to flee the country.
In 1918, the war ended, and a mood of disillusion spread across America. Great novelists like John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway wrote bleak novels about the conflict in Europe. The American government continued to fear socialism. In 1919, the government prosecuted or deported thousands of immigrants suspected of socialist or anarchist ties. Two of the most famous such immigrants were Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti were prosecuted for murder—the legal record strongly suggests that they were found guilty and executed largely because they were foreigners and anarchists.
Intellectuals, philosophers, and writers voiced their opposition to the war in various ways: for instance, Hemingway and other authors found ways of expressing their outrage through fiction (perhaps circumventing the “clear and present danger” standard). Many scholars have argued that Sacco and Vanzetti were unjustly convicted of a crime. Indeed, the jury at their trial was told that “anarchism was on trial,” and that they needed to “make an example” of Sacco and Vanzetti.
The elite in the U.S. continued to fear their own people. During World War One, they used a mixture of patriotism and prosecution to send a message to the working classes: “certain kinds of resistance could not be tolerated.” Even so, the working classes continued to fight injustice.
As with his treatment of the Mexican American War and the Spanish American War, Zinn focuses on the popular resistance to World War One, implying that the large numbers of people who did, in fact, support the war had only been fooled into supporting it by government propaganda.