Dissent in World War I and World War II

views updated


There was significant American opposition to World Wars I and II. While American antiwar dissent was broader and sharper during World War I, dissent also existed during World War II. Even though antiwar dissent did not alter the conduct or duration of the conflicts, both world wars had a major impact on the American peace movement—and through the peace movement, on American society.

world war i

World War I spawned the modern American peace movement. Led by male business and professional elites and supported by middle-class professionals, the prewar peace movement (respectable, practical, and reformist) sought to resolve conflict through international law, arbitration, and conciliation. By contrast, the modern, post-1914 peace movement, characterized by citizen-peace activists, women's peace organizations, and a progressive reformist impulse, was a more militant grassroots movement that sought both peace and social justice.

Opponents of World War I included radicals, pacifists, social gospel clergymen, social workers, feminist women, labor lawyers, liberal publishers, university professors, public school teachers, isolationists, and some German Americans. Opponents of U.S. intervention organized against President Wilson's preparedness campaign (1915–1917); after the United States entered the war in April 1917, many opponents continued to express antiwar dissent. Radicals, including socialists, anarchists, and syndicalists, argued that capitalism, imperialism, and the competition for markets caused the war. The Socialist Party of America (SP) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were the most important radical groups to oppose the war and the draft. In April 1917, the SP condemned the war, opposed American intervention, and vowed support for "all mass movements" against conscription. The IWW, a revolutionary industrial union opposed to capitalism and militarism whose members were known as Wobblies, led wartime strikes that disrupted wartime production. Individual radicals also opposed the war, including anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who formed the No-Conscription League, which prompted their arrest.

Pacifists formed a number of organizations to oppose the conflict and the preparedness campaign. Jessie Wallace Hughan, a New York socialist pacifist feminist, founded the Anti-Enlistment League (1915), which collected pledges of war resistance to persuade the government to stay out of the conflict. The liberal American Union Against Militarism (AUAM, 1915), which was

created to oppose the preparedness movement, claimed 6,000 members and 50,000 sympathizers nationwide. The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR, 1915) became the major religious pacifist organization in America. Founded by Jane Addams, the Women's Peace Party (WPP, 1915) provided a link between the peace and suffrage movements; in 1919, the WPP became the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Proclaiming that women were more concerned than men with preserving human life, the WPP argued that females had a special role in the peace movement, and that the enfranchisement of women would promote peace in the political sphere. In 1915, a WPP delegation visited belligerent nations in an unsuccessful attempt to win neutral mediation of the conflict. The People's Council of America for Peace and Democracy (1917), dominated by left wing progressives and socialists, urged a quick negotiated peace. Finally, Quakers formed the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC, 1917) to organize conscientious objector-led reconstruction, humanitarian, and medical projects in wartime Europe.

Conscientious Objectors (COs) offered a particularly concrete expression of antiwar dissent. The Selective Service Act of 1917 effectively limited conscientious objection to members of the historic peace churches (Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren). Nearly 4,000 inductees obtained a CO exemption from active combat service. Of the 65,000 men who claimed CO status, 20,000 were inducted, of whom 16,000 dropped their objection during training. Another 450 absolutist COs were court-martialed and sentenced to military prisons, where some waged individual and collective rebellions to protest their mistreatment and to resist regulations that violated their conscience. Some religious leaders, particularly Protestant social gospel clergyman, opposed the war. For instance, John Haynes Holmes, a prominent religious pacifist, condemned World War I (and later, World War II). In addition to individual clergymen, denominations opposed to the war included, most notably, the historic peace churches and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

world war i: government suppression

Antiwar dissidents were battered by legal and extralegal measures. The government, private agencies, and "patriots" conducted repressive campaigns against radicals, pacifists, and liberals who challenged the war. Federal legislation, most notably the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, restricted dissent and promoted conformity. The government used the Espionage Act to convict many antiwar dissidents, including Eugene V. Debs, the SP leader who received a ten-year prison term for delivering an antiwar speech. Similarly, the federal government used the Espionage Act and the courts to suppress the IWW in a wartime campaign; the campaign culminated in a nationwide September 1917 raid and subsequent 1918 trial that convicted 101 IWW leaders and decimated the group. The Postmaster General suppressed radical periodicals shipped in the mail. The New York state legislature prohibited teachers from speaking against the war. New York City required teachers to sign loyalty oaths, though eighty-seven teachers refused. Nationwide, dissident public school teachers (and several university professors) were fired, suspended, and harassed for their antiwar and radical convictions. Private groups, including the American Protective League, the National Security League, and the American Defense Society, enforced the Espionage and Sedition Acts and attacked civil liberties and free speech. Also, citizen mobs attacked and in several cases murdered Wobblies.

Even though they did not prevent or shorten the war, antiwar activists had a significant impact on American society. First, the modern peace movement that emerged during World War I advanced peace and justice during the interwar period. Besides building a powerful interwar antiwar movement, the peace movement promoted social reform to abolish the social causes of war and injustice. Second, women, who played a prominent role in the wartime and postwar peace movement, challenged traditional gender roles by assuming a public voice on matters of war and peace, an issue previously dominated by men. Third, imprisoned COs, whose protests in jail created headaches for officials, led the government to liberalize provisions for COs in World War II. Fourth, peace activists made important contributions to the wartime and postwar civil liberties movement. In 1917, feminist pacifists, radicals, and socialists formed the New York Bureau of Legal Advice (BLA), while the AUAM created the Civil Liberties Bureau (CLB, later the independent National Civil Liberties Board, NCLB). Both groups provided free wartime counseling and legal assistance to COs and their families and to individuals persecuted for dissent. After the war, they provided legal services to legal aliens victimized by the Red Scare who awaited deportation. In 1920 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the successor to the NCLB, absorbed the work of the BLA. Thus, pacifists and the antiwar movement made a direct contribution to the founding of the ACLU and the promotion of civil liberties in the United States.

world war ii

Disillusioned by World War I, a powerful isolationist, or anti-interventionist, movement emerged during the 1930s. Anti-interventionists sought to prevent U.S. involvement in future wars by limiting American political and military commitments (but not trade) overseas. Ideologically and politically diverse, this anti-interventionist movement included the conservative America First Committee, liberal/left peace and pacifist groups, and the Socialist and Communist parties. To prevent a repetition of World War I, between 1935 and 1937 Congress enacted three neutrality acts that banned Americans from giving loans to belligerents, from shipping munitions to belligerents, from traveling on belligerent vessels, and from arming American merchant ships.

Unlike World War I, antiwar dissent during World War II was largely confined to pacifists. After Pearl Harbor, public opinion, previously divided, overwhelmingly supported U.S. intervention. For instance, the America First Committee (an influential isolationist organization), Norman Thomas (the respected Socialist Party leader and peace advocate), and mainstream churches all reversed course and endorsed U.S. intervention. In December 1941, the House of Representatives approved a declaration of war with only one dissenting vote; in April 1917, fifty House members had voted against a similar declaration. Partly because antiwar dissent was marginal and posed no serious challenge to the war effort, the civil liberties of dissenters were generally tolerated and respected during World War II.

While the American peace and isolationist movements collapsed after Pearl Harbor, the established pacifist organizations and historic peace churches continued to oppose World War II. Pacifist organizations that opposed the war included the FOR, the WILPF, the AFSC, the War Resisters League (WRL, a secular radical pacifist group founded in 1923), and the Catholic Worker Movement (1933). The Peace Now Movement (1943) sought to unite pacifists and non-pacifists against the war. Between 1939 and 1945, pacifists opposed conscription, lobbied to liberalize the immigration laws to help refugees, assisted COs, advocated a negotiated peace, condemned the internment of Japanese Americans, and criticized the saturation bombing of German cities.

Even more than World War I, COs were a major element of the antiwar dissent during World War II. For COs, the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940 was a marked improvement over the World War I draft law. Unlike the World War I law which effectively restricted CO status to members of the historic peace churches, the World War II law broadened the religious test and granted CO status to any "person who by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form." It also permitted COs to choose either "non-combatant service" under military control or "work of national importance under civilian direction." During World War II, 12,000 COs enrolled in Civilian Public Service (CPS), an alternative program to military service which promised them "work of national importance" under civilian control in 151 camps and units. In addition, 6,000 COs went to prison, and 25,000 other COs performed noncombatant work in the armed forces. Although religious COs comprised the vast majority of objectors, political objectors included African Americans who refused to serve in a Jim Crow military, Puerto Rican nationalists who refused induction to protest Puerto Rico's colonial status, interned Japanese Americans who refused induction to protest their incarceration, socialists who refused to participate in a capitalist war, and pacifists who opposed war on political, humanitarian, and ethical (rather than religious) grounds.

In CPS and prison, radical COs staged nonviolent protests against racism, censorship, conscription, and the policies that dehumanized prison and marred the original vision of CPS. Disillusioned by CPS, COs resorted to work strikes, work slowdowns, hunger strikes, nonviolent sabotage, and walkouts to protest the absence of paid work, insignificant work assignments, and arbitrary camp management. Similarly, prison COs led nonviolent protests. For instance, at Danbury Correctional Institution, COs staged a 135-day work strike that abolished Jim Crow in the prison dining room. At Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, COs waged a 65-day hunger strike that led officials to liberalize censorship policies.

postwar legacy

Like World War I, World War II transformed the peace movement, which, in turn had a major impact on American society. Radicalized by World War II, COs such as David Dellinger, Bayard Rustin, George Houser, and James Peck, championed the nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience that marked postwar social activism. After World War II, COs and other pacifists, such as A.J. Muste, applied Gandhian techniques to advance peace and justice—most notably in the peace, civil rights, antinuclear, environmental, civil liberties, and women's movements. For instance, pacifists founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE, 1942), which spearheaded nonviolent direct action to win civil rights for African Americans; advised Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956), and, afterwards, in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and elsewhere; led the Committee for Nonviolent Action, a small radical pacifist group that organized dramatic direct action and civil disobedience protests at nuclear testing bases and missile sites; and provided leadership to the anti-Vietnam War movement. During the Cold War, pacifists also condemned both superpower blocs, opposed militarism, resisted conscription, and championed the right of dissent and conscientious objection. In these and other ways, the postwar peace movement, led by World War II COs, popularized nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to promote peace and justice in America and abroad.

In conclusion, even though it did not prevent or shorten the conflicts, significant antiwar dissent existed during both world wars. Ever since World War I, part of the peace movement has advocated social reform to abolish the social causes of war. During and after both conflicts, the peace movement has advanced peace and justice in America.


Alonso, Harriet H. Peace as a Women's Issue: A History of the U.S. Movement for World Peace and Women's Rights. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1993.

Bennett, Scott H. Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915–1963. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Chambers, John W. To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America. New York: Free Press, 1987.

Chatfield, Charles. For Peace and Justice: Pacifism in America, 1914–1941. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971.

DeBenedetti, Charles. The Peace Reform in American History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Doenecke, Justus D. Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939–1941. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Early, Frances H. A World Without War: How U.S. Feminists and Pacifists Resisted World War I. Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Frazer, Heather T., and O'Sullivan, John, eds. "We Have Just Begun To Not Fight": An Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in Civilian Public Service During World War II. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Goossen, Rachel W. Women against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941–1947. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Jaffe, Julian F. Crusade against Radicalism: New York during the Red Scare, 1914–1924. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1972.

Kennedy, Kathleen. Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens: Women and Subversion During World War I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Kohn, Stephen M. Jailed for Peace: The History of American Draft Violators, 1658–1985. Westmont, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Peterson, H.C., and Fite, Gilbert C. Opponents of War: 1917–1918. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957.

Sibley, Mulford Q., and Jacob, Philip E. Conscription of Conscience: The American State and the Conscientious Objector, 1940–1947. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1952.

Tracy, James. Direct Action: Radical Pacifism from the Union Eight to the Chicago Seven. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Wittner, Lawrence S. Rebels Against War: The American Peace Movement, 1933–1983. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.

Scott H. Bennett

See also:Civil Liberties, World War I; Civil Liberties, World War II; Peace Movements, 1898–1945.