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War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918, by Michael Kazin

August 6, 2016

I was provided a free advance reading copy of this book for review.

The United States, during the Wilson administration, was isolationist and neutral when the Great War began.  Wilson himself promised the US would remain neutral.  But beginning with the sinking of the Lusitania, US relations with Germany became strained.

Kazin pulls together the story of many peace activists who pressured Wilson to stay out of the war.  They sued for peace, maintaining a declaration of war would result in tragic loss, and that reason and compromise would better serve our country.  War is murder; it is immoral, and who wants to send a son to a foreign country to die?  This seems a perfectly reasonable posture.  Nobody wants war, unless they seek to gain from it, and that, too, is immoral.

But as Kazin points out, Wilson faced another side of morality.  The Germans kept attacking civilian ships with submarines.  The US was not at war with Germany, yet civilian casualties were mounting.  And there were some who said our country could not stay out of the Great War, lest the casualties continue or Germany attacked an unprepared United States.

We know, of course, Wilson eventually declared war on Germany.  That did not stop the peace activists from spreading their message, for a while, at least.  America, not for the first time, was divided.  And what happened to the peace movement is the meat of the story.

Some activists backed off somewhat, some altogether, and some not at all.  What I can only call a suppression movement began.  Postmasters stopped delivering some literature and magazines published by the pacifists, during a time when Americans got their news from the written word.  Some of the pacifists even wound up in jail.  The peace activists wound up walking a fine line, not entirely silenced, but muted.

It is not entirely clear to this reader if some who were imprisoned did or did not disseminate sensitive information.

I am, perhaps, an unlikely candidate to read this book at all.  To know me is to understand I fiercely defend our war fighters.  Consider this conversation I recently witnessed:  A fellow worker, who is a Reservist, told another fellow worker, thoroughly civilian, he was preparing for a drill.  He will jump from a plane with full body armor, and admitted he feared doing this.  The civilian repeatedly asked why the Reservist was going to do a jump practically against his will.  The Reservist repeatedly answered he must, and finally simply stated, “I will do it because it’s my duty”.  Listening to this conversation, and seeing their faces, I felt it was akin to someone explaining religious faith to a non-believer who never considered faith.  It was a friendly conversation, but not a conversation of understanding.  I am not a veteran, and I understand the civilian’s point of view because I am a civilian.  But I also understand the veteran, because I know and work with so many.  I “get” duty.

I found this book thought-provoking because of the suppression of the First Amendment rights of the peace activists.  There are always war mongers, and there are always peace activists.  What prickled my antennae is the fact that the US government stifled the First Amendment rights of many of the peace activists.

These people, for better or worse, delivered news and information, and the government manipulated the news with its interventions.  We must ask ourselves, is this happening now?  It’s so easy to get news with the internet, but are we really getting all the news?

Read it yourself and wake up a little.  You will learn a lot from this book, whether or not you agree with the author’s left-leaning views.

This book is currently slated for publication in January, 2017.

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