Union of War and Prosperity

In a brief 55 days during the summer of 1898, the United States took control over five distant lands with a total of 11 million inhabitants: Guam, Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Never in history has a nation leaped so suddenly to overseas empire (read more).

In 1914 Europe went to war, later known as WWI. Noble reasons were given but in reality it was fighting over which European countries could exploit the resources of Africa, the Middle East and other regions. I suspect that the recent global gains of the United States fed this European rush for resources to hold their own against the rising power of the United States. The competition is within a corporation, between corporations and between countries.

Despite the fortunes made in expanding the United States empire in the Americas through the Pacific and on to parts of Asia, by 1914 the United States had entered a serious recession. The rich of the United States wanted to enter the war, both for the profits and also to avoid revolution at home as the general public was suffering and getting organized to fight for real democracy.

The general public was fairly well informed, knew their problems were at home and definitely did not want to die in this European war to plunder people of other countries to give more wealth to the wealthy of Europe.

Our government took extreme action to get the United States into WWI. It sponsored 75,000 speakers, who gave 750,000 four-minute speeches in five thousand American cities and towns. Very few enlisted so Congress voted for a draft and declared war. Subsequently Congress created a law, the Espionage Act which had a clause that provided penalties up to twenty years in prison for “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall wilfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall wilfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the U.S. . . .” About nine hundred people went to prison under the Espionage Act. The Department of Justice sponsored an American Protective League, which by June of 1917 had units in six hundred cities and towns, a membership of nearly 100,000. The League claimed to have found 3 million cases of disloyalty.

In total ten million died in battle and twenty million died of hunger and disease related to the war. Extraordinary profits were made by United States corporations with 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires, only counting those who reported it on their taxes (read more).

By 1929, financial speculation with this new wealth crashed the stock market, taking the United States into the Great Depression. More than 20,000 WWI veterans went to Washington asking the government to pay their bonus certificates from WWI so they could feed their families. They were violently routed by the military (read more).

To learn more about these and more events in our history, I strongly recommend reading “A PEOPLES HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES – 1492 – PRESENT” 1980 by Howard Zinn. I have attached a few excerpts to entice you:


A PEOPLES HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES – 1492 – PRESENT


1980 by Howard Zinn

War is the Health of the State

[page 392]

“War is the health of the state,” the radical writer Randolph Bourne said, in the midst of the First World War. Indeed, as the nations of Europe went to war in 1914, the governments flourished, patriotism bloomed, class struggle was stilled, and young men died in frightful numbers on the battlefields—often for a hundred yards of land, a line of trenches.

In the United States, not yet in the war, there was worry about the health of the state. Socialism was growing. The IWW seemed to be everywhere. Class conflict was intense. In the summer of 1916, during a Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco, a bomb exploded, killing nine people; two local radicals, Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, were arrested and would spend twenty years in prison. Shortly after that Senator James Wadsworth of New York suggested compulsory military training for all males to avert the danger that “these people of ours shall be divided into classes.” Rather: “We must let our young men know that they owe some responsibility to this country.”

The supreme fulfillment of that responsibility was taking place in Europe. Ten million were to die on the battlefield; 20 million were to die of hunger and disease related to the war. And no one since that day has been able to show that the war brought any gain for humanity that would be worth one human life. The rhetoric of the socialists, that it was an “imperialist war,” now seems moderate and hardly arguable. The advanced capitalist countries of Europe were fighting over boundaries, colonies, spheres of influence; they were competing for Alsace-Lorraine, the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East.

The war came shortly after the opening of the twentieth century, in the midst of exultation (perhaps only among the elite in the Western world) about progress and modernization. One day after the English declared war, Henry James wrote to a friend: “The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness . . . is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we have supposed the world to be . . . gradually bettering.” In the first Battle of the Marne, the British and French succeeded in blocking the German advance on Paris. Each side had 500,000 casualties.

The killing started very fast, and on a large scale. In August 1914, a volunteer for the British army had to be 5 feet 8 inches to enlist. By October, the requirement was lowered to 5 feet 5 inches. That month there were thirty thousand casualties, and then one could be 5 feet 3. In the first three months of war, almost the entire original British army was wiped out.

For three years the battle lines remained virtually stationary in France. Each side would push forward, then back, then forward again—for a few yards, a few miles, while the corpses piled up. In 1916 the Germans tried to break through at Verdun; the British and French counterattacked along the Seine, moved forward a few miles, and lost 600,000 men. One day, the 9th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry launched an attack with eight hundred men. Twenty-four hours later, there were eighty-four left.

Back home, the British were not told of the slaughter. One English writer recalled: “The most bloody defeat in the history of Britain . . . might occur . . . and our Press come out bland and copious and graphic with nothing to show that we had not had quite a good day—a victory really. . . .” The same thing was happening on the German side; as Erich Maria Remarque wrote in his great novel, on days when men by the thousands were being blown apart by machine guns and shells, the official dispatches announced “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

In July 1916, British General Douglas Haig ordered eleven divisions of English soldiers to climb out of their trenches and move toward the German lines. The six German divisions opened up with their machine guns. Of the 110,000 who attacked, 20,000 were killed, 40,000 more wounded—all those bodies strewn on no man’s land, the ghostly territory between the contending trenches. On January 1, 1917, Haig was promoted to field marshal. What happened that summer is described tersely in William Langer’s An Encyclopedia of World History:

Despite the opposition of Lloyd George and the skepticism of some of his subordinates, Haig proceeded hopefully to the main offensive. The third battle of Ypres was a series of 8 heavy attacks, carried through in driving rain and fought over ground water-logged and muddy. No break-through was effected, and the total gain was about 5 miles of territory, which made the Ypres salient more inconvenient than ever and cost the British about 400,000 men.

The people of France and Britain were not told the extent of the casualties. When, in the last year of the war, the Germans attacked ferociously on the Somme, and left 300,000 British soldiers dead or wounded, London newspapers printed the following, we learn from Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory:

WHAT CAN I DO?
How the Civilian May Help in this Crisis.
Be cheerful. . . .
Write encouragingly to friends at the front. . . .
Don’t repeat foolish gossip.
Don’t listen to idle rumors.
Don’t think you know better than Haig.

Into this pit of death and deception came the United States, in the spring of 1917. Mutinies were beginning to occur in the French army. Soon, out of 112 divisions, 68 would have mutinies; 629 men would be tried and condemned, 50 shot by firing squads. American troops were badly needed.

President Woodrow Wilson had promised that the United States would stay neutral in the war: “There is such a thing as a nation being too proud to fight.” But in April of 1917, the Germans had announced they would have their submarines sink any ship bringing supplies to their enemies; and they had sunk a number of merchant vessels. Wilson now said he must stand by the right of Americans to travel on merchant ships in the war zone. “I cannot consent to any abridgement of the rights of American citizens in any respect. . . .”

As Richard Hofstadter points out (The American Political Tradition): “This was rationalization of the flimsiest sort. . . .” The British had also been intruding on the rights of American citizens on the high seas, but Wilson was not suggesting we go to war with them. Hofstadter says Wilson “was forced to find legal reasons for policies that were based not upon law but upon the balance of power and economic necessities.”

It was unrealistic to expect that the Germans should treat the United States as neutral in the war when the U.S. had been shipping great amounts of war materials to Germany’s enemies. In early 1915, the British liner Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. She sank in eighteen minutes, and 1,198 people died, including 124 Americans. The United States claimed the Lusitania carried an innocent cargo, and therefore the torpedoing was a monstrous German atrocity. Actually, the Lusitania was heavily armed: it carried 1,248 cases of 3-inch shells, 4,927 boxes of cartridges (1,000 rounds in each box), and 2,000 more cases of small-arms ammunition. Her manifest were falsified to hide this fact, and the British and American governments lied about the cargo.

Hofstadter wrote of “economic necessities” behind Wilson’s war policy. In 1914 a serious recession had begun in the United States. J. P. Morgan later testified: “The war opened during a period of hard times. . . . Business throughout the country was depressed, farm prices were deflated, unemployment was serious, the heavy industries were working far below capacity and bank clearings were off.” But by 1915, war orders for the Allies (mostly England) had stimulated the economy, and by April 1917 more than $2 billion worth of goods had been sold to the Allies. As Hofstadter says: “America became bound up with the Allies in a fateful union of war and prosperity.”

Prosperity depended much on foreign markets, it was believed by the leaders of the country. In 1897, the private foreign investments of the United States amounted to $700 million dollars. By 1914 they were $3 1⁄2 billion. Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, while a believer in neutrality in the war, also believed that the United States needed overseas markets; in May of 1914 he praised the President as one who had “opened the doors of all the weaker countries to an invasion of American capital and American enterprise.”

“Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. . . . the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down.”

Woodrow Wilson, 1907

Back in 1907, Woodrow Wilson had said in a lecture at Columbia University: “Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. . . . the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down.” In his 1912 campaign he said: “Our domestic markets no longer suffice, we need foreign markets.” In a memo to Bryan he described his aim as “an open door to the world,” and in 1914 he said he supported “the righteous conquest of foreign markets.”

With World War I, England became more and more a market for American goods and for loans at interest. J. P. Morgan and Company acted as agents for the Allies, and when, in 1915, Wilson lifted the ban on private bank loans to the Allies, Morgan could now begin lending money in such great amounts as to both make great profit and tie American finance closely to the interest of a British victory in the war against Germany.

The industrialists and the political leaders talked of prosperity as if it were classless, as if everyone gained from Morgan’s loans. True, the war meant more production, more employment, but did the workers in the steel plants gain as much as U.S. Steel, which made $348 million in profit in 1916 alone? When the United States entered the war, it was the rich who took even more direct charge of the economy. Financier Bernard Baruch headed the War Industries Board, the most powerful of the wartime government agencies. Bankers, railroad men, and industrialists dominated these agencies.

A remarkably perceptive article on the nature of the First World War appeared in May 1915 in the Atlantic Monthly. Written by W. E. B. Du Bois, it was titled “The African Roots of War.” It was a war for empire, of which the struggle between Germany and the Allies over Africa was both symbol and reality: “. . . in a very real sense Africa is a prime cause of this terrible overturning of civilization which we have lived to see.” Africa, Du Bois said, is “the Land of the Twentieth Century,” because of the gold and diamonds of South Africa, the cocoa of Angola and Nigeria, the rubber and ivory of the Congo, the palm oil of the West Coast.

Du Bois saw more than that. He was writing several years before Lenin’s Imperialism, which noted the new possibility of giving the working class of the imperial country a share of the loot. He pointed to the paradox of greater “democracy” in America alongside “increased aristocracy and hatred toward darker races.” He explained the paradox by the fact that “the white working man has been asked to share the spoil of exploiting ‘chinks and niggers.’” Yes, the average citizen of England, France, Germany, the United States, had a higher standard of living than before. But: “Whence comes this new wealth?
. . . It comes primarily from the darker nations of the world—Asia and Africa, South and Central America, the West Indies, and the islands of the South Seas.”

Du Bois saw the ingenuity of capitalism in uniting exploiter and exploited—creating a safety valve for explosive class conflict. “It is no longer simply the merchant prince, or the aristocratic monopoly, or even the employing class, that is exploiting the world: it is the nation, a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labor.”

Du Bois saw the ingenuity of capitalism in uniting exploiter and exploited—creating a safety valve for explosive class conflict. “It is no longer simply the merchant prince, or the aristocratic monopoly, or even the employing class, that is exploiting the world: it is the nation, a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labor.”

The United States fitted that idea of Du Bois. American capitalism needed international rivalry—and periodic war—to create an artificial community of interest between rich and poor, supplanting the genuine community of interest among the poor that showed itself in sporadic movements. How conscious of this were individual entrepreneurs and statesmen? That is hard to know. But their actions, even if half-conscious, instinctive drives to survive, matched such a scheme. And in 1917 this demanded a national consensus for war.

The government quickly succeeded in creating such a consensus, according to the traditional histories. Woodrow Wilson’s biographer Arthur Link wrote: “In the final analysis American policy was determined by the President and public opinion.” In fact, there is no way of measuring public opinion at that time, and there is no persuasive evidence that the public wanted war. The government had to work hard to create its consensus. That there was no spontaneous urge to fight is suggested by the strong measures taken: a draft of young men, an elaborate propaganda campaign throughout the country, and harsh punishment for those who refused to get in line.

Despite the rousing words of Wilson about a war “to end all wars” and “to make the world safe for democracy,” Americans did not rush to enlist. A million men were needed, but in the first six weeks after the declaration of war only 73,000 volunteered. Congress voted overwhelmingly for a draft.

George Creel, a veteran newspaperman, became the government’s official propagandist for the war; he set up a Committee on Public Information to persuade Americans the war was right. It sponsored 75,000 speakers, who gave 750,000 four-minute speeches in five thousand American cities and towns. It was a massive effort to excite a reluctant public. At the beginning of 1917, a member of the National Civic Federation had complained that “neither workingmen nor farmers” were taking “any part or interest in the efforts of the security or defense leagues or other movements for national preparedness.”

The day after Congress declared war, the Socialist party met in emergency convention in St. Louis and called the declaration “a crime against the people of the United States.” In the summer of 1917, Socialist antiwar meetings in Minnesota drew large crowds—five thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand farmers—protesting the war, the draft, profiteering. A local newspaper in Wisconsin, the Plymouth Review, said that probably no party ever gained more rapidly in strength than the Socialist party just at the present time.” It reported that “thousands assemble to hear Socialist speakers in places where ordinarily a few hundred are considered large assemblages.” The Akron Beacon-Journal, a conservative newspaper in Ohio, said there was “scarcely a political observer . . . but what will admit that were an election to come now a mighty tide of socialism would inundate the Middle West.” It said the country had “never embarked upon a more unpopular war.”

In the municipal elections of 1917, against the tide of propaganda and patriotism, the Socialists made remarkable gains. Their candidate for mayor of New York, Morris Hillquit, got 22 percent of the vote, five times the normal Socialist vote there. Ten Socialists were elected to the New York State legislature. In Chicago, the party vote went from 3.6 percent in 1915 to 34.7 percent in 1917. In Buffalo, it went from 2.6 percent to 30.2 percent.

George Creel and the government were behind the formation of an American Alliance for Labor and Democracy, whose president was Samuel Gompers and whose aim was to “unify sentiment in the nation” for the war. There were branches in 164 cities; many labor leaders went along. According to James Weinstein, however, the Alliance did not work: “Rank-and-file working class support for the war remained lukewarm. . . .” And although some prominent Socialists—Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Clarence Darrow—became prowar after the U.S. entered, most Socialists continued their opposition.

Congress passed, and Wilson signed, in June of 1917, the Espionage Act. From its title one would suppose it was an act against spying. However, it had a clause that provided penalties up to twenty years in prison for “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall wilfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall wilfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the U.S. . . .” Unless one had a theory about the nature of governments, it was not clear how the Espionage Act would be used. It even had a clause that said “nothing in this section shall be construed to limit or restrict . . . any discussion, comment, or criticism of the acts or policies of the Government. . . .” But its double-talk concealed a singleness of purpose. The Espionage Act was used to imprison Americans who spoke or wrote against the war.

[page 400]

The case of Eugene Debs soon came before the Supreme Court. In June of 1918, Debs visited three Socialists who were in prison for opposing the draft, and then spoke, across the street from the jail, to an audience he kept enthralled for two hours. He was one of the country’s great orators, and was interrupted again and again by laughter and applause. “Why, the other day, by a vote of five-to-four—a kind of craps game, come seven, come eleven—they declared the child labor law unconstitutional.” He spoke of his comrades in jail. He dealt with the charges that Socialists were pro-German. “I hate, I loathe, I despise Junkers and Junkerdom. I have no earthly use for the Junkers of Germany, and not one particle more use for the Junkers in the United States.” (Thunderous applause and cheers.)

They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. That is too much, even for a joke. . . .

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. . . . And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. . . .

Debs was arrested for violating the Espionage Act. There were draft-age youths in his audience, and his words would “obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service.”

His words were intended to do much more than that:

Yes, in good time we are going to sweep into power in this nation and throughout the world. We are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and re-create them as free and humanizing institutions. The world is daily changing before our eyes. The sun of capitalism is setting; the sun of Socialism is rising. . . . In due time the hour will strike and this great cause triumphant . . . will proclaim the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind. (Thunderous and prolonged applause.)

[page 402]

About nine hundred people went to prison under the Espionage Act. This substantial opposition was put out of sight, while the visible national mood was represented by military bands, flag waving, the mass buying of war bonds, the majority’s acquiescence to the draft and the war. This acquiescence was achieved by shrewd public relations and by intimidation—an effort organized with all the power of the federal government and the money of big business behind it. The magnitude of that campaign to discourage opposition says something about the spontaneous feelings of the population toward the war.

The newspapers helped create an atmosphere of fear for possible opponents of the war. In April of 1917, the New York Times quoted Elihu Root (former Secretary of War, a corporation lawyer) as saying: “We must have no criticism now.” A few months later it quoted him again that “there are men walking about the streets of this city tonight who ought to be taken out at sunrise tomorrow and shot for treason.” At the same time, Theodore Roosevelt was talking to the Harvard Club about Socialists, IWWs, and others who wanted peace as “a whole raft of sexless creatures.”

In the summer of 1917, the American Defense Society was formed. The New York Herald reported: “More than one hundred men enrolled yesterday in the American Vigilante Patrol at the offices of the American Defense Society. . . . The Patrol was formed to put an end to seditious street oratory.”

The Department of Justice sponsored an American Protective League, which by June of 1917 had units in six hundred cities and towns, a membership of nearly 100,000. The press reported that their members were “the leading men in their communities . . . bankers . . . railroad men . . . hotel men.” One study of the League describes their methods:

The mails are supposed to be sacred. . . . But let us call the American Protective League sometimes almost clairvoyant as to letters done by suspects. . . . It is supposed that breaking and entering a man’s home or office place without warrant is burglary. Granted. But the League has done that thousands of times and has never been detected!

The League claimed to have found 3 million cases of disloyalty. Even if these figures are exaggerated, the very size and scope of the League gives a clue to the amount of “disloyalty.”

The states organized vigilante groups. The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, set up by state law, closed saloons and moving picture theaters, took count of land owned by aliens, boosted Liberty bonds, tested people for loyalty. The Minneapolis Journal carried an appeal by the Commission “for all patriots to join in the suppression of antidraft and seditious acts and sentiment.”

The national press cooperated with the government. The New York Times in the summer of 1917 carried an editorial: “It is the duty of every good citizen to communicate to proper authorities any evidence of sedition that comes to his notice.” And the Literary Digest asked its readers “to clip and send to us any editorial utterances they encounter which seem to them seditious or treasonable.” Creel’s Committee on Public Information advertised that people should “report the man who spreads pessimistic stories. Report him to the Department of Justice.” In 1918, the Attorney General said: “It is safe to say that never in its history has this country been so thoroughly policed.”

Ultimately, over 330,000 men were classified as draft evaders.

Why these huge efforts? On August 1, 1917, the New York Herald reported that in New York City ninety of the first hundred draftees claimed exemption. In Minnesota, headlines in the Minneapolis Journal of August 6 and 7 read: “Draft Opposition Fast Spreading in State,” and “Conscripts Give False Addresses.” In Florida, two Negro farm hands went into the woods with a shotgun and mutilated themselves to avoid the draft: one blew off four fingers of his hand; the other shot off his arm below the elbow. Senator Thomas Hardwick of Georgia said “there was undoubtedly general and widespread opposition on the part of many thousands . . . to the enactment of the draft law. Numerous and largely attended mass meetings held in every part of the State protested against it. . . .” Ultimately, over 330,000 men were classified as draft evaders.