Peace Movements, 1898–1945

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For any society, participation in war invariably raises debates over the causes and consequences of involvement. Such debates often reveal preexisting divisions in society and tend to reflect larger social debates over national identity. When peace movements developed in the United States in response to a series of crises between 1898 and 1945, they raised important questions as to the nature of American society and values.

the spanish-american war (1898) and the philippines war (1898–1902)

The United States' decision to help Cuban insurgents overthrow their repressive Spanish colonial rulers in 1898 led to its acquisition of overseas territories for the first time. Although the majority of Americans supported these events, a vocal minority did not. In particular, when American soldiers became embroiled in a bitter fight against nationalists in the former Spanish colony of the Philippines, a peace movement emerged in opposition to America's newly discovered imperialist impulse. The movement attracted some notable figures (including former presidents Harrison and Cleveland, social reformer Jane Addams, and industrialist Andrew Carnegie) decrying what they saw as Americans betraying their anticolonial, freedom-loving heritage. Less altruistic opponents of the war such as labor leader Samuel Gompers argued that the incorporation of foreign territory might lead to an influx of cheap foreign labor. Similarly, South Carolina senator Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman exemplified turn-of-the-century Anglo-Saxon racism when he warned of the dangers of a more racially diverse Union.

At the end of 1898, some peace proponents coalesced into the Anti-Imperialist League. But despite the notoriety of some league members, it lacked widespread public support and consequently had limited political power. America held on to Spain's former colonies and continued to repress the burgeoning nationalist movement in the Philippines.

world war i (1914–1918)

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the threat to American interests seemed remote. Consequently, a majority of Americans opposed direct involvement. Indeed, despite his clear sympathies for the allied cause, Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 presidential election largely on the promise that "He Kept Us out of the War." However, by April 1917 the pressures of cultural and economic ties to the allies and Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare combined to make Americans more accepting of the need for involvement.

In the three years before the start of the conflict and Wilson's official declaration of war, several groups tried to prevent the sacrifice of American lives on European battlegrounds. Pacifists—many of them members of the Progressive movement—opposed the war on moral grounds. Some of the same opponents of the Philippines War resurrected their opposition to U.S. militarism. Andrew Carnegie gave funds to peace organizers even before war had broken out in Europe. Jane Addams joined with leading feminists such as Carrie Chapman Catt to form the Woman's Peace Party in 1915. Applying the same line of argument put forward in support of the temperance and suffrage movements of the time, Addams saw it as a woman's natural role to temper the aggressive nature of man. Similar peace movements, such as the American Union against Militarism and the League to Enforce Peace, argued for nonintervention up to 1917.

Militant workers swelled the ranks of peace movements during World War I. Many saw the war as a distraction from the bitter struggle for workers' rights and social reform at home. Socialist and Communist parties in America opposed the war for its decimating effects on the working classes. They charged that only industrialists and financiers profited from the conflict. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) even advocated industrial sabotage against arms manufacturers. However, not all labor groups opposed the war. Samuel Gompers, of the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL), welcomed the new bargaining power that the demands of wartime production gave workers.

The cumulative effect of such peace movements succeeded in keeping the United States out of World War I for three years. However, once Wilson declared war in 1917, most opposition forces retreated voluntarily. Patriotic campaigns backed by restrictive legislation such as the Espionage Act of 1917 muffled many remaining cries for peace. One notable exception was the People's Council of America (PCA), which lasted from 1917 to 1919. The PCA attracted mostly disaffected workers from the Socialist Party and other radical labor groups. The PCA too fell victim to government repression during the "Red Scare" of 1919.

the interwar years and world war ii (1918–1945)

Largely as a reaction to the bitter negotiations that followed World War I in Europe, the U.S. retreated into a position of relative isolation after 1918. For pragmatic and ideological reasons, the United States did nothing in response to growing militarism in Italy, Germany, and Japan. The country did trumpet the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which called for an end to war as a means of settling diplomatic disputes, but it was in no mood to back up its provisions by force. Ultimately, the pact did nothing to deter aggressors.

In response to events in Europe and the Far East, several peace movements emerged during the 1930s. The American League Against War and Fascism attracted many Communist sympathizers and workers in opposition to European Fascism. The Emergency Peace Campaign opposed both Fascist aggression and Communist agitation and tended to attract members of the middle and upper classes. Although both of these groups denounced Fascism, they advocated a nonaggressive course of action.

The cynicism many felt over participation in World War I compounded America's revulsion to war. In addition to the ire raised by the continued squabbling of European powers, a 1935 Senate committee headed by Senator Gerald Nye of Colorado charged that corporate interests had influenced Wilson's decision to go to war in an effort to safeguard their overseas investments. The Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937 codified the isolationist impulse by prohibiting the shipment of war materials to any belligerents.

Not surprisingly, when war broke out again in Europe in 1939, the majority of Americans favored inaction. The most vocal Americans calling for U.S. abstention from the war were not pacifists but those claiming that it was not in America's interests to fight. The America First Committee (AFC), headed by General Robert E. Wood and with notable members such as Senator Nye and Charles Lindbergh, argued that America should arm itself only to defend its own borders and refrain from overseas combat. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, quickly snuffed out any momentum gained by peace movements. This one act of aggression caused America to go to war more unified, perhaps, than at any other time before or since. The AFC voluntarily disbanded on December 11, 1941. Thereafter, opposition to the war effort tended to be expressed through individual acts of conscience rather than through any broad-based movement.


Adams, David. The American Peace Movements. New Haven, CT: Advocate Press, 1985.

Beisner, Robert. Twelve against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898–1900. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Cole, Wayne S. America First: The Battle Against Intervention, 1940–1941. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1953.

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

Kennedy, David. M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Tompkins, E. Berkley. Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890–1920. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970).

Mark Boulton

See also:Addams, Jane; Propaganda, War; Public Opinion.

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Peace Movements, 1898–1945

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