Why Wars Always End Up Hurting the Most Vulnerable Americans

The centennial of World War I is a chance to remember naive predictions about how it and other fights would improve society—and the awful abuses those wars actually enabled.
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Eugene V. Debs leaves prison on Christmas Day 1921, after his 10-year sentence for opposing the draft was commuted. (Library of Congress)

The impending anniversary of the start of World War I has given historians and pundits the chance to speculate about whether we’re heading for another era of mass war and redrawing of borders. Put me down as undecided. But as we prepare to dwell on the ghastliness that occurred overseas between 1914 and 1918, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the ghastliness that occurred over here.

On June 30, 1918, perennial Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs was sentenced to 10 years in jail for opposing the draft. (In 1920, he won nearly a million votes while in prison; he was freed in 1921.) During the war, Cincinnati outlawed the sale of pretzels; Iowa made publicly speaking German a crime. On August 1, 1917 in Butte, Montana, a mob seized Frank Little, who was trying to unionize copper miners for the anti-war Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In Over Here, his wonderful book about America’s wartime home front, the historian David Kennedy recounts what happened next. “Pummeled into the street, Little was tied to the rear of an automobile and dragged through the streets until his kneecaps were scraped off, then hanged from the side of a railroad trestle.” While calling the lynching was regrettable, the New York Times insisted that, “the IWW agitators are in effect, and perhaps in fact, agents of Germany.”

Most Americans have forgotten how repressive a period World War I was. “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage,” quipped the writer Max Eastman. “They give you ninety days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible.” Walter Lippmann said Woodrow Wilson’s administration had “done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years.”            

Which makes it all the more remarkable that Lippmann had championed America’s entrance into the war on the grounds that it would further liberal ideals. While fighting for democracy in Europe, he declared, “we shall stand committed as never before to the realization of democracy in America ... we shall turn with fresh interest to our own tyrannies—to our Colorado mines, our autocratic steel industries, our sweatshops and our slums.” The progressive philosopher John Dewey thought the war would unleash a new spirit of public-mindedness in the United States and a “more conscious and extensive use of science for communal purposes.”

It’s easy to deride Lippmann and Dewey for their naïveté. But they’re in good company. Every time America launches a major war, intellectuals predict it will spawn a new culture of public spiritedness and political reform. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy promised to seize the initiative against communism in the developing world—Vietnam would become the test case—sympathetic intellectuals claimed the effort would energize America at home. “This is the challenge of the 1960s: the reorganization of American values,” wrote the historian and Kennedy confidante Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “If we are going to hold our own against communism in the world ... the production of consumer goods will have to be made subordinate to some larger national purpose.”

It was the same after 9/11. For conservative hawks, the “war on terror” offered the chance to replace the tawdry materialism of the 1990s with a devotion to higher things.  The “commercial life seems less important than public life,” wrote David Brooks. “When life or death fighting is going on, it’s hard to think of Bill Gates or Jack Welch as particularly heroic.” Liberal hawks (myself included) followed in Lippmann’s footsteps and proclaimed the struggle for democracy abroad an opportunity to revitalize democracy at home. In his edited volume The Fight Is for Democracy, George Packer expressed his hope that the September 11 “attacks and the response would puncture a bloated era in American history and mark the start of a different, more attractive era. I thought that without some such change we would not be able to win this new war—that the crisis that mattered most was internal.”

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Peter Beinart is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Journal, an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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