The Lost Promise of Patriotism and World War I (Part I)

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ZACH DORFMAN : In your book The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity 1890-1920, you identify a group of scholars, public intellectuals, and social reformers—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Eugene V. Debs, Jane Addams, and Randolph Bourne—that you refer to as “cosmopolitan patriots.” Can you tell us a little bit about what the “cosmopolitan patriots” believed, and what differentiated them from their peers?

JONATHAN HANSEN: Sure. That book examined a disparate group of American intellectuals and cultural critics who attempted to reconcile American nationalism with the liberal principles undergirding the American republic. Far from impinging on individuality, the cosmopolitan patriots insisted, a nation genuinely committed to liberty could marshal the political, economic, and cultural resources required to safeguard individual autonomy from the illiberal outcomes of a corporate-industrial, mass-market society. The cosmopolitans struggled to maintain a critical tension between local, national, and international affiliations. Locally, they sought to revive the reciprocal face-to-face community relations once assumed to nurture and sustain individual autonomy. Nationally, they challenged Anglo-Saxon cultural assumptions about the meaning of American identity. Internationally, they repudiated diplomacy that advanced Western interests at the expense of other nations.

I want to emphasize that they did not refer to themselves as cosmopolitan patriots. By calling them patriots, I meant to accentuate their claim that critical engagement with one’s country constitutes the highest form of love. The cosmopolitan patriots rejected the notion ascendant in their day that patriotism entails uncritical loyalty to the government and to the military in wartime. They were not blind to the magnanimity of soldiers sacrificing their lives on the battlefield; some of them endorsed America’s entry into World War I. But all insisted that love of country, like sacrifice itself, could take many forms.

At the end of the 19th century, the cosmopolitan patriots launched a vigorous critique of American corporate capitalism, sexism, and racism in the name of equal opportunity and equality before the law. Critical vigilance became the keystone of their patriotism. Loving their country, they vowed to extend its privileges and protections to all Americans regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, or race.

By adopting the adjective cosmopolitan to describe a group of patriots, I aimed to highlight their perspective on social and political affiliations. Liberals of their day typically divided into two camps regarding the role of ethnoracial affiliation in people’s lives: universalists viewed ethnoracial allegiances as parochial and divisive, the source of untold misery the world over; cultural pluralists celebrated ethnoracial allegiances as wholesome and inviolable, the sine qua non of individual and collective agency. The cosmopolitan patriots recognized partial truth in both accounts. They shared the universalists’ commitment to individual self-realization but insisted that individuals realize themselves in local, national, and global communities. They acknowledged that communities and nations have historically inhibited individuality at home and abroad, but argued that this need not be so. A nation genuinely committed to liberal individuality, they maintained, would view affiliation as a product of choice rather than a consequence of stultifying ascription.

By appropriating a middle ground between universalism and cultural pluralism, these critics cut against the grain of a historical tradition that has long associated cosmopolitanism with what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. described as “a rootless self-seeking search for a place where the most enjoyment may be had at the least cost.” To Holmes, as to so many critics, cosmopolitans did not recognize the culturally contingent character of their privileged moral and economic position. Cosmopolitans were social parasites, preying on the work of others. More recently, scholars have dismissed cosmopolitan patriotism for being theoretically contradictory. Patriotism’s passions are said to be corrosive of individuality and moral universalism, just as individuality and moral universalism are thought to weaken affective bonds.

The cosmopolitan patriots that I studied were neither parasitical nor theoretically naïve. They recognized that affiliations change with context—that the unvarnished claims of either universalism or cultural pluralism are plausible only in a political or moral vacuum. In real life, individuals maintain overlapping, often competing, allegiances—as Eugene Debs discovered when canvassing locally for international socialism, or as Jane Addams learned when interacting with her “cosmopolitan” neighbors. Most people do not or cannot strive for theoretical coherence in their workaday lives. Rather, individuals maintain a sort of dynamic equilibrium between their private and public, local and national, national and international affiliations—precisely the pragmatic response I associate with cosmopolitan patriotism. Which is not to say that sustaining such an equilibrium is easy, or pretty, or perhaps even possible.

ZACH DORFMAN: As a pacifist, Jane Addams had difficulty reconciling her beliefs in mankind’s linear improvement with the ferocious enthusiasm with which many of the belligerent nations went to war. Can you talk a little about how she dealt with this contradiction?

JONATHAN HANSEN: Yes, but first let me establish the discursive context in which Addams articulated her pacifism. From my perspective, there’s no understanding Addams’s pacifism without also understanding her colleague William James’s attempt to identify “the moral equivalent of war.” It’s fair to say that Americans of this era were consumed by war. When not actually fighting, as in 1898 and 1917, they kept war current by glorifying the recent battle between the states. Whether casting the Civil War as a struggle between liberty and tyranny, as the subordination of self to state authority, or as simple heroism, Americans concealed their materialism by cloaking it in the mantle of their forefathers’ military feats.

Amid such a climate, James and Addams believed that the way to slake their compatriots’ yearning for meaning was not to deny the virtues spawned by war but to enlist Americans’ untapped energy in a campaign for social justice. Exploiting a regrettable byproduct of nineteenth-century liberalism, they would strike at the heart of laissez-faire.

The point was not to militarize civilian life, as Theodore Roosevelt suggested, but to infuse civil society with the spirit of civic consciousness. Know thy enemy, James counseled delegates to the Boston Peace Congress of 1904: human nature was essentially bellicose; people wanted war; the possibility of war relieved the tedium of daily life. Pacifists should not hope to transform human nature; they should work to “cheat” or “circumvent” it. In one crucial respect war was like love. Both left mankind with “intervals of rest” during which “life goes on perfectly well without them, though the imagination still dallies with their possibility.” Just as “old maids and bachelors” attained their status by “sliding on from year to year with no sufficient provocation,” so nations ripened in the face of war without being actually at one another’s throats. James urged pacifists to “let the general possibility of war be left open…for the imagination to deal with.” Soldiers must be free to “dream of killing, as the old maids dream of marrying.” Meanwhile, proponents of peace should “organize in every conceivable way the practical machinery for making each successive chance of war abortive.” This entailed not only promoting arbitration and elevating pacifists to positions of political power, but fostering “rival excitements” and identifying “new outlets for heroic energy.”

Six years later, in 1910, having heeded his own counsel, James broadcasted his results. On the one hand, he criticized as “nonsense” the “fatalistic” notion that war alone could inspire self-sacrifice and heroism; on the other hand, he praised these virtues as “absolute and permanent human goods,” as if ignoring pragmatism’s cardinal rule that ends must evolve as means themselves are readjusted. James’s lapsed pragmatism resulted in a vision at once sentimental and undemocratic. In the first place, working inductively, he embarked on a futile search for the means capable of realizing his prescribed end. Compared to the urgency of battle, his “immemorial human warfare against nature”—with its mining and fishing, its dishwashing and clothes-washing, its road-building and railroading—sounded overblown and uncompelling. And as the critic Randolph Bourne would later note, the absolute goods to which James adhered did not reflect the contribution of women and individuals unfit for physical labor (like the crippled Bourne himself). Like his nemesis Roosevelt, James associated manliness with masculinity, a counterforce to the perceived softening influence of women. All that is noble in nature James ascribed to men; all that was problematic he attributed to women.

ZACH DORFMAN: So, this, then, was the backdrop, against which Jane Addams’s described her pacifist ideal?

JONATHAN HANSEN: That’s right. By contrast, Addams described an ideal of permanent peace that counterbalanced James’s masculine will to power with a feminine, nurturing instinct. In her book Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), Addams argued that the struggle to perpetuate life called forth virtues no less virile than war. But Addams’s “moral substitute,” as she called it, did not merely uphold traditional gender stereotypes. Consistent with politics and physical exertion, her ideal presented an alternative moral paradigm, juxtaposing militarism to industry, stubbornness to flexibility, “dogmatism” to “humanism,” and tribalism to cosmopolitanism.

Newer Ideals of Peace opens with the claim that the means existed by which to banish war naturally, a contention that compelled Addams to demonstrate the artificiality of both “the older dovelike ideal” of peace and the traditional apology for war. Historically, she explained, peace advocates had argued along two lines: one group, exemplified by Tolstoy, appealed to mankind’s “imaginative pity,” portraying war’s tedium and brutality from the perspective of the peasant. Meanwhile, a second group, typified by the Russian economist Jean de Bloch, exposed war’s improvidence and inefficiency. Addams acknowledged that these protests had, over the years, expanded mankind’s moral horizon. But she repudiated them for being rooted in the “the appeal of dogma.” Reducible to “a command to cease from evil,” they represented no adjustment of morals to contemporary social and material conditions.

Addams attributed war’s hold on the imagination of her compatriots as evidence of America’s moral escapism and intellectual immaturity. To cling to militarism as a source of heroism and sacrifice, she complained, was to “borrow our virtues from a former age.” Concluding that America’s “humanitarianism has been too soft and literary,” Addams did not so much declare war on the life of the mind, as unleash the mind on pressing human problems. It was not a Jefferson or Lincoln or Emerson whom the nation needed, but individuals of their bearing capable of adapting “our morality and courage to our present social and industrial developments.” Those who would apply old answers to contemporary problems alienated the democratic public from whom genuine solutions must come. Nostalgia not only bred intellectual complacency, it relieved the electorate of its obligation to strike what Addams called “a nice balance between continuity and change”—in effect robbing citizens of political agency.

Once she embarked on a search for a moral foundation for peace, Addams did not have to venture far. The basis of peace, like the bulwark of virtue, lay at the heart of the cosmopolitan city. America’s urban cauldrons constituted what Addams labeled an “American tribunal,” in which inhabitants’ practical concerns overwhelmed Old-World jealousies. In the modern metropolis, exigency demanded that neighbors regard one another sympathetically; mutual dependence, in turn, bred an irrepressible “power of association” at odds with “the old and negative bonds of discipline and coercion.” Addams, however, harbored no illusions that peace was foremost in the minds of urban denizens. On the contrary, she acknowledged, if city folk clamored for anything, it was for war. But they inadvertently promoted peace by “attaining cosmopolitan relations through daily experience.”

Like James, Addams was at her best when critiquing the methods of her allies, rather than in delineating the path to permanent peace. It seems that Addams, no less than James, had mistaken a part of human instinct for the whole. Despite her claim to have accounted for war’s psychological allure, her moral substitute denied the endurance of evil, just as James’s juxtaposition of Nature to Reason disregarded mankind’s innate propensity for good. James had been more right in 1904 than either he or Addams would be thereafter: pacifists should hope not to banish war; they could only strive to postpone war indefinitely. In the intervals, loyalty might be inculcated by national service, but heroism would inhere in the dissident’s struggle to maintain open avenues of reconciliation, and in the perpetual campaign for political and economic justice.

ZACH DORFMAN: So what happened to Addams’s pacifism during the war?

JONATHAN HANSEN: Well, as a committed pacifist, Addams had no choice but to oppose the disintegration of Western civilization into armed nationalist camps. But for a pragmatist, the evidence emanating from Europe was disconcerting. War proved pacifism to be less social science than wishful thinking, as the local, national, and international developments that she turned to as evidence of war’s atavism were subsumed by the tumult. Plainly, in its first, great practical trial, the Newer Ideals of Peace had failed to slow the militarist juggernaut.

Still, that didn’t stop Addams from trying to get pacifism right. In early January 1915, she delivered her first explicit statement about the war to the inaugural meeting of the Women’s Peace Party in Washington, D.C. Although Addams seems in retrospect the natural person to preside at the founding of this organization, her participation in the conference was by no means foreordained. When war erupted the previous summer, Addams worked resolutely to keep true to her pragmatism amid a climate of rhetorical hyperbole. Her correspondence that fall with colleagues in the settlement house movement chronicles the anticipation (and caution) with which she prepared to put her cosmopolitanism to the test. She would align herself warily. Had her reputation been humbler and the demands on her time less prodigious, Addams might have delineated the deliberate, perspicacious response she knew that the situation demanded. But her prestige among American moral reformers propelled her to the forefront of international pacifism quite against her will.

Addams declared that war jeopardized causes in which “women, as women, have held a vested interest.” She argued that women had long labored to foster an ideal of patriotism in which creativity played as crucial a role as destruction. For centuries they had struggled to advance a cosmopolitan consciousness of the sanctity of human life. This record of duty met in response to a natural obligation had earned women the civil right to protest anything that imperiled their work. When war summoned men to battle under the aegis of “tribal” patriotism, women had no choice but to resist it.

In May 1915, Addams’s work took her to The Hague and the International Congress of Women. The Hague Congress, in turn, authorized a committee, again led by Addams, to canvass Europe’s civil authorities about interest in a conference of neutral nations. This whirlwind tour exposed Addams to war’s civic and martial tribulations, an experience that formed the basis of her peace protest in the years preceding the American intervention. Home from Europe later that summer, Addams embarked on a speaking tour of the United States. Except in the eyes of a few loyal friends, the tour ended the day it began in New York’s Carnegie Hall, in early July. While describing her experience as a peace delegate in Europe, Addams made a four-sentence remark about the warring nations having to intoxicate their soldiers to prepare them for the bayonet charge. A minor part of her address, “the bayonet charge,” as it became known, unleashed a torrent of protest, both at home and abroad. From the vice-consul of France came a letter deploring Addams’s “horrible calumny.” Where she would emasculate France’s soldiers, they thought only of protecting their womenfolk. From The New York Times came two objections castigating Addams’s trespass into the affairs of men.

Early the next year, Addams testified before the House Committee on Military Affairs, which was dutifully preparing the country to enter the war. Addams advised her hosts to prepare for disarmament rather than war. She also took pains to defend America’s cultural diversity from partisans who saw a potential traitor in every immigrant. Far from imperiling American institutions and precipitating conflict, she assured her audience, Chicago’s immigrants represented the vanguard of a dawning “international understanding.” During the Balkan Wars, for instance, the familiarity of Balkan immigrants with one another bred sympathy, in stark contrast to the enmity unfolding on the continent. If anything, Addams continued, the immigrants’ firsthand experience of Old World enmities made them less likely to be seduced by war’s allure.

How much of Addams’s testimony got through to her listeners, one cannot be sure. A more sympathetic audience might have discovered what had become by now Addams’s consistent refrain: powerful nations must be wary of intervening in other nation’s affairs; military training in the schools was anathema to education; preparedness did not prevent war; war’s virtues could be got by other means.

Addams’s pacifism came to a head in May 1917 in an address before the City Club of Chicago, entitled “Patriots and Pacifists in Wartime.” This speech inspired great controversy. Letters inundated Hull House, castigating her trespass into the affairs of men and impugning her loyalty. Not only did her pacifism abet the enemy, according to one critic, but it exposed the elitism undergirding Addams’s democratic ideal. The United States was her country. The time had come for the United States to counter German militarism with uncompromising force.

Addams mounted only the leanest defense of her Chicago speech. When initial attempts to clarify her position inspired renewed criticism, she resigned herself to the fact that pacifism would never obtain an open hearing amid war. Despite being “profoundly discouraged,” Addams remembered having continued to speak out against the war. The historical record suggests otherwise. The career author of over 500 books and articles produced a meager 28 pages of text in the remaining 17 months of the war, none of them controversial. As if abiding by one correspondent’s demand to “confine your activities to philanthropic affairs,” Addams withdrew from the male arena of politics and diplomacy to the “female” realm of food relief.

Addams anticipated the problems of the Versailles Treaty practically to the letter. Indeed, several years after the armistice, Addams finally got round to answering her critics’ charges, defending her antiwar protest as the most up-to-date Americanism. In “Patriots and Pacifists in Wartime,” she had merely enjoined Americans to promote their country’s mission, she explained. America’s democratic institutions and cosmopolitan citizenry ideally suited the country to lead “the world into a wider life of coordinate political activity.” Moreover, as demonstrated by their rush to enlist in the war, American citizens had never appeared so eager for “self-forgetting” action. If only they would “refuse to follow the beaten paths of upholding the rights of separate nationalism by war,” Addams declared, “American patriotism might rise to supreme effort.” Finally, Addams denied that her pacifism rendered her antidemocratic. On the contrary, as she had argued in 1915, it was Europe’s politicians who betrayed the democratic process by presenting war to their electorates as a fait accompli, rather than submitting war to popular referendum.

ZACH DORFMAN: Likewise, can you discuss how W. E. B. Du Bois (as an anti-imperialist focused on race) and Eugene Debs (as a socialist focused on the plight of the international, but particularly American, proletariat) had their views challenged, or altered, by the onset of World War I?

JONATHAN HANSEN: Sure. Let’s start with Debs.

Debs viewed the global nationalist conflicts of the early 20th century as a conspiracy among capitalists throughout the world to thwart the progress of international justice. If Debs’s conspiracy theory ignores the extent to which Western consumers—as well as capitalists—benefitted from imperialism, it nonetheless highlights the connection between capitalism, imperialism, and the rise of the nation-state. Writing in Miner’s Magazine in 1902, Debs attributed America’s aggression in the Philippines to industrial overproduction. Private ownership of the means of production combined with economic disparity to ensure that workers and capitalist consumed only a fraction of the nation’s industrial surplus. Hence the need for American soldiers to secure foreign markets; hence it was “patriotic for man to murder man.”

Much to the dismay of Debs and other cosmopolitans, the internationalism of European socialism was among the first casualties of the war. As a result, American socialism took on the mantle of internationalism’s last best hope on earth. Debs experienced the outbreak of war as both tragic and exhilarating. On the one hand, the capitulation of European socialists suggested that much teaching remained to be done. On the other hand, war exposed the twin evils of capitalism and nationalism as no publicity campaign could. Debs was loath to admit any “good” emanating from what he regarded essentially as a clash of workers. Still, in 1915, he told the Scripps news syndicate that if war resulted in the razing of capitalism and the erection of an edifice for international peace, it would be worth the carnage.

Debs called on Americans “to help in every way in their power to terminate this unholy massacre and bring peace to the world.” Convinced that “capitalist patriotism” had precipitated the collapse of European socialism, Debs resolved to make patriotism itself the battleground of his neutrality campaign. This entailed awakening Americans to “the narrow, mean, and contemptible ‘patriotism’ surreptitiously inculcated in the minds of unsophisticated workers by their crafty and unscrupulous masters.”

In a series of essays published in the socialist journal National Rip-Saw in the fall and winter of 1914-1915, Debs tried to distinguish “genuine” patriotism from what he called its “fraudulent” cousin. Where fraudulent patriotism betrayed an artificial, or “bureaucratic,” character, genuine patriotism sprang naturally from citizens’ affection for a nation devoted to equal opportunity, equality before the law, and consensual government. Where false patriotism was quick to take offense and identify scapegoats, true patriotism was deliberate, self-critical, and above all wary of trying to resolve problems elsewhere when there was so much work left to be done at home. As a socialist, Debs did not advocate isolation; he acknowledged the impact of local decision on global politics. But he found it ironic that in a nation so steeped in patriotism “so many of the ‘patriots’ were gravitating toward pauperism.” “‘Patriotism’ and ‘pauperism,'” he concluded, “flourish side by side.”

War highlighted differences among socialists, no less than between socialists and capitalists. One issue dividing the Socialist Party concerned socialism’s relationship to organized pacifism. In the spring of 1915, Debs exchanged letters with Allan L. Benson, the man who would lead the Socialist Party ticket in 1916 while Debs ran for Congress. Where Benson embraced the call of conventional pacifists for popular referenda and arbitration, Debs argued that the way to halt war was to end capitalism. Whether the Socialist Party could tolerate dissension in its ranks became another dividing point. Benson equated opposition and uncertainty with disloyalty. Debs no more than Benson would excuse “treason” in Party ranks, but there were times, he wrote another friend, “when moral weakness”—much less uncertainty—was “not a crime.”

The only kind of preparedness Debs could endorse was preparedness for peace. In November 1915, the New York Sun solicited his opinion on the issue of American armament. Socialist Charles Edward Russell had just declared American participation in the war inevitable and had come out in favor of a military buildup. Russell had forfeited socialist principles, Debs insisted. America might still avoid being drawn into war, but not by arming itself. Europe proved a “flaming example” of what preparedness meant for civilization. A state organized around a large standing army was a throwback to the medieval era, as anathema to the ideal of democracy as it was inimical to the interests of American workers. America had an opportunity to strike the note of global harmony. What a contrast it would make if in the face of European slaughter the U.S. government issued “a proclamation of peace” and set “an example of disarmament to the nations of the world.” Not only would such a model of preparedness accord with the nation’s “vaunted principles,” but it would constitute “a thousandfold greater guarantee to the respect of neighbors and to its own security and peace than if it were loaded down with all the implements of death and destruction on earth.” America’s exploited workers had “no country to fight for,” Debs would later tell Upton Sinclair; their only credible threat emanated from within.

America’s entry into the conflict in summer 1917 refocused Debs’ mind and steeled his conscience. On Flag Day 1917, President Wilson accused all who disagreed with his war platform of sympathizing with Germany. With due solemnity, Debs took up Wilson’s gauntlet. Socialists were “morally bound” to repudiate “this arch-conspiracy of capitalist preparedness” until “every jail in the land is choked with rebels and revolutionaries.” It would take 14 months for Debs to utter the calumny that ushered him to jail. Ray Ginger, Debs’s biographer, claimed that Debs floundered throughout 1917 and 1918, unable to respond to Wilson’s evolving idea of a war to end war. More likely, the issues confronting socialists simply stymied him, if only temporarily. No one who knew Debs ever accused him of hesitancy, but America’s declaration of war gave him reason to pause.

There is no denying the strain of Debs’s predicament. His difficulty lay not in finding something to say, but in saying something that could be heard in a climate inimical to nuance. In the first year of American participation, Debs shaped his remarks to particular constituencies. To socialists drifting toward embracing the war, he emphasized America’s own lack of liberty and democracy. Meanwhile, to comrades blind to developments in Europe, Debs stressed the need for perspective and flexibility.

By May 1918, Debs had wearied of beating back and forth against shifting winds. Thenceforth, Debs would be true to his cosmopolitanism. Maintaining the compatibility of patriotism and internationalism, he made his way toward jail.

On September 9, 1918, Debs appeared in Cleveland Federal Court to answer charges that he had violated the Espionage Act in a speech at Canton, Ohio, the previous June. According to the district attorney, Debs had impugned the U.S. government, derided the federal courts, praised the Russian Bolsheviks, and mocked the idea of a war to make the world safe for democracy. Worse, from the district attorney’s perspective, was Debs’s “sneering attitude towards patriotism and his attempt to make patriotism as we commonly understand it, ridiculous and absurd by his biting sarcasm.”

Debs began his plea to the jury by accepting full responsibility for his acts and utterances, assuring his peers that he harbored no guild in his conscience. He then responded to the government’s charges one by one: he had impugned the U.S. government for thwarting the advance of industrial democracy; he had derided the federal courts for persecuting the defenders of beleaguered workers; he had praised the Russian Bolsheviks for overthrowing the tyranny of the czar; and he had mocked the idea of a war fought to make the world safe for democracy because the people themselves had never yet declared a war. Renouncing the district attorney’s patriotism, Debs invoked another model. Patriotism, he argued, meant more than shedding blood and upholding law. As manifested in American history, patriotism meant defending sacred principles and resisting tyranny and oppression, often in defiance of the law.

Like Jane Addams, Debs had to come to terms after the war with the dashing of his prophecies of peace. America’s wartime jingoism along with the political reaction and renewed racism that followed the return of American troops from Europe soured him to the very concept of patriotism, which never recovered its association with critical vigilance. Released from jail in late 1921, Debs spent the last five years of his life futilely trying to capitalize on the Russian Revolution. Ironically, Debs’s focus on Russia robbed his critique of potency by eroding its emphasis on American principles, by which he had long held up a mirror to American injustice and hypocrisy.

ZACH DORFMAN: And what about Du Bois?

JONATHAN HANSEN: Du Bois’s ordeal is instructive about the dilemmas facing African Americans in the World War. Du Bois was well versed in the paradox of war. He knew that wars typically eluded control and mocked their declared ends. As an African American, he realized that participation in America’s wars provided African Americans with a rare avenue to freedom. Du Bois’s sense of the precariousness of freedom disinclined him from using incendiary rhetoric like Debs’s to motivate his constituents, except in dire circumstances. Like Addams, he maintained the legitimacy of self-defense, but he was determined to prove racist any “excuse” for further violence. More self-consciously than Debs, Du Bois identified his civil rights campaign as a moral equivalent of war: this was war insofar as it involved bombardment; this war was moral in that Du Bois pummeled the enemy not with threats or innuendo but with the demand for liberty and justice.

Du Bois’s ambivalence about war reflected the changing nature of America’s global involvement at the turn of the 20th century. Proud of his forefather’s military service, Du Bois was relieved by his family’s innocence in the Philippines invasion. His forebears had “fought in every single war the United States has waged,” he boasted in autumn 1907, “except thank God, the last.” America’s aggression in the Philippines impelled Du Bois to renounce war categorically in an essay entitled “Credo,” published in 1904. “War is Murder,” he proclaimed, and “armies and navies are at bottom the tinsel and braggadocio of oppression and wrong.” Du Bois sustained this conviction until 1914, when the sinister character of German militarism elicited finer distinctions. In the meantime, he decried the West’s refusal to recognize its “lust for land and slaves in Africa, Asia, and the South Seas” as “the greatest and almost the only cause of war between the so-called civilized peoples.” Along with Addams, Du Bois insisted that peace required democratizing international relations.

If the outbreak of war in 1914 caught the Western public by surprise, war wasn’t new to African Americans, Du Bois observed. They had been waging a struggle for liberty lasting 300 years. Particularly for Southern blacks, the United States resembled an armed camp; the merest lapse of self-discipline could result in a lynching. In the summer of 1914, Du Bois responded to the outbreak of a war in an editorial published in The Crisis. Founded in autumn 1910 as the organ of the new NAACP, The Crisis remained Du Bois’s principal social and political platform for the next 25 years—though the racial politics of the NAACP itself constrained his independence. Du Bois’s tenure at The Crisis would severely test his commitment to institutional integration. In his response to the war in Europe, he veered back and forth between trying to please the mostly white conservatives on the NAACP board and the more militant African Americans who composed the bulk of his constituency.

In May 1915, the Atlantic Monthly published what is to my mind Du Bois’s most trenchant wartime essay. In “The African Roots of War,” Du Bois exposed the tension at the heart of Western democracy, denounced the hollowness of the international peace movement, and outlined his vision of a truly democratic world. He also unveiled the paradox at the core of his identity as an African-American intellectual struggling to make it in Western civilization. Du Bois reiterated his warning that Western nations should quit their rape of “colored” races or brace for a battle whose violence would exceed “any war this world has yet seen.” He repeated this prophesy to counter the notion that America’s mandate was to end European hostilities. Calls for reconciliation among the belligerents would do nothing to avert looming racial conflagration, Du Bois declared, if reconciliation implied a “satisfaction with, or acquiescence in, a given division of the spoils of world domination.” Nor would mere peace talk prevent “renewed jealousy” from igniting future wars, or address the revolutionary discontent of Europe’s industrial masses who shouldered the burden of the arms race.

Individuals committed to breaking this cycle of exploitation and oppression had much to learn from the failure of international pacifism. Du Bois criticized pacifists who argued along economic or humanist lines. As long as the reward of imperial conquest exceeded the cost of military engagement, economic exceptions to war would remain ineffectual. No less quixotic were appeals to nations whose mercantilist policy expressly denied black humanity. But Du Bois’s response to Western imperialism contained contradictions of its own. Having described the nexus between democracy and oppression, he nevertheless insisted that to achieve “real peace and lasting culture,” Western nations would have to “extend the democratic ideal to the yellow, brown, and black peoples.” Similarly, to make “modern men” out of “docile beasts of burden,” the West would have to provide colonized people an “honest” and “effective” education in “modern civilization.” This merely begged the question he himself had raised of how more Western civilization could remedy Western-induced ills. Moreover, if one person’s freedom entails another person’s servitude, then on whom fell the burden of the world’s salvation? Ignoring these questions, Du Bois exhorted white folk to quit their racial slander in the name of a “steadfast faith in humanity,” sounding much like the pacifists whose “platitudes” he decried.

As socialists and pacifists discussed preparedness in the winter of 1915-16, African Americans debated what they owed a country that denied them civil rights. Few African Americans openly opposed black participation in the war. African Americans disagreed, however, about how forcefully their own agenda should be pursued amid the national crisis. Partisanship in the debate divided along lines of ideology and even temperament. Integrationists and optimists generally committed themselves to America’s preparedness campaign; separatists and pessimists counseled a conditional approach.

Germany’s renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare lent this debate cogency in the late winter of 1917. Anticipating that war would introduce the conscription of black soldiers, Du Bois asked what sort of army black conscripts would enter and under whose command they would serve. At the urging of his NAACP colleague Joel Springarn, Du Bois petitioned the General Staff of the U.S. Army to establish a segregated training camp to commission black officers. Du Bois would have preferred to have had black officers trained in white camps, of course, but his appeal for integration in the armed service had met intractable resistance.

Segregated training camps confronted African Americans with yet another episode in what Du Bois called African America’s “Perpetual Dilemma.” They had always to “choose between insult and injury: no schools or separate schools; no travel or ‘Jim Crow’ travel; homes with disdainful neighbors or homes in slums.” According to Du Bois, theirs was a painful but nonetheless obvious choice: separate was better than none, when one implied the stifling of human aspiration. Self-realization depended on individuals having the opportunity to rise to positions of leadership in classrooms, communities, and jobs. Du Bois acceded to “the insult of the separate camp” only to forestall the “irreparable injury” of reinforcing current strictures against elevating African Americans to positions of leadership. Where power and authority were at stake, the choice was “clear as noonday.” Moreover, Du Bois argued, opposition to the training of black officers within the army and throughout the South justified the policy. Few Americans anywhere wanted to see blacks in positions of authority; Southerners, particularly, trembled at the thought of a well-organized black soldiery.

Du Bois’s championing of the separate camp signaled a compromise with bitter reality. Convinced that World War I offered African Americans an unprecedented opportunity to gain citizenship, Du Bois began to discourage dissent. A declaration of war would make the debate about segregation in the military “entirely academic,” he wrote. African Americans who believed they might choose between enlistment or abstention were naïve. Theirs was the choice “between conscription and rebellion.”

As Du Bois inched closer to a full-blown endorsement of the war, he enlisted sympathetic colleagues to perform editorial advance work. In this way he placed controversial subject matter before his constituents without jeopardizing his credibility. In summer 1918, Du Bois was chastised for writing the editorial “Close Ranks,” which exhorted African Americans to forget their “special grievances” for the duration of the war. Du Bois defended himself by insisting that “Close Ranks” said nothing that The Crisis hadn’t already stated. His adversaries scoffed, accusing him of selling out to the War Department.

Du Bois never admitted the fundamental paradox of warring for democracy. As late as 1942, he remarked that he would not “change a word” of “Close Ranks.” In the middle of another war, African Americans were once again “ready to stand shoulder to shoulder for democracy with soldiers of any race or color and for a democracy of all men.” Du Bois’s yearning for inclusion overwhelmed the skepticism that had informed “The African Roots of War.” In November 1918, Du Bois issued what proved to be his most explicit statement on the subject of patriotism. “Before the war,” he observed, “nobody loved America. The very phrase seemed maudlin and unintelligent. We loved Justice and Freedom; we sought reform and uplift in politics, protection; a nobler art, less class dislike, nor race hatred; and we hoped for universal education; but our country? We scarcely had a country—we willed the whole world.” Yet in truth, despite rampant injustice, African Americans, socialists, radicals, and immigrants did love America, Du Bois wrote, “because we deemed it capable of realizing our dreams and inspiring the greater world.”

Part Two of this interview will be published on Monday, March 24.

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Category: Interview, Podcast, The Living War: World War I in the 21st Century

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