Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War
by Jeanette Keith (University of North Carolina Press, 2004); 260 pages; $55.95 hardcover; $22.50 paperback.
What little most Americans have heard about U.S. involvement in World War I is that U.S. troops swaggered into France, defeated the mighty armies of Imperial Germany, and thereby made the world safe for democracy (as President Wilson put it). That there was deep opposition to the war across a wide swath of the American public is scarcely known at all. At the time, however, the Wilson administration was so concerned about opposition to U.S. entry into the raging European conflict that it pushed through Congress the Espionage and Sedition Acts, which were vigorously used against people who spoke out against the war. Neither the effusive pro-war rhetoric of Wilson and his allies nor the crackdown on civil liberties was, however, able to extinguish the sentiment among many Americans that the war was a horrible blunder.
In her new book, Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight, history professor Jeanette Keith examines the opposition to American participation in World War I by focusing on, as the book’s subtitle says, “race, class, and power in the rural South.” Keith has dug deep into historical data — small-town newspapers, Selective Service records, court documents, and more — to give us a picture that many people will find difficult to believe, namely that “some of the most determined resistance to the World War I draft took place in the rural South.” She tells a fascinating story.
The groundwork for U.S. military intervention abroad was begun years before the onset of war in Europe. Keith explains that the “Preparedness Movement” was the brainchild of ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and other nationalists who “made a military buildup part of their agenda, along with Anglophilia, immigration restrictions, Americanization, eugenics, and strident glorification of manhood and ‘patriotic Motherhood.’” That movement started in the Republican Party, following its split in 1912 and the consequent victory of Woodrow Wilson. Once the war began in Europe, the cries for “preparedness” spread rapidly throughout much of both the middle and upper classes. Newspapers editorialized in favor of conscription and the expansion of the military. Writers such as Hudson Maxim (of the famed armaments family) harangued the populace with tales of how American women would become the prey of invading German armies unless the nation turned itself into a New World version of Prussia. By 1915, much of America was bristling and ready for action.
Southern opposition to World War I
But much of it wasn’t. Many Americans, from all walks of life and places in the political spectrum, abhorred the militaristic talk and tried to dampen the nation’s surging bellicosity. Although the South is generally regarded as an especially militaristic section of the country, Keith shows that there was strong opposition to the Preparedness Movement there. “Southern antimilitarists,” she writes,
argued that when the nation needed defending, American men would volunteer for the military, as they had in all previous wars, and they opposed building up a conscripted military force large enough to allow the U.S. government to go adventuring overseas.
Opponents also raised another objection — that a big army would mean tax increases. It is interesting to note that when government was relatively small, people were attentive to the prospect of even a small increase in taxes, while today, with our vast government, people hardly seem troubled at all when further huge expansions are announced.
When war was finally declared in April 1917, some of the most vocal opponents were southern Democrats. Rep. Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, for example, spoke against the declaration of war, saying, “Let me once remind the House that it takes neither moral nor physical courage to declare a war for others to fight.” Many Southerners felt the same way. Keith quotes from a letter written to a Mississippi senator:
You may go ahead and declare war in order to satisfy a very few, but I hear the men behind the plow say they are not going for they have nothing in Wilson’s war.
Sedition and conscription
Soon the phrase “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” became a popular expression of the disdain many ordinary Americans had for U.S. entry into the war. The Wilson administration, frantic to shut down criticism, quickly passed the Sedition Act to make it illegal for people to denounce the war. Within days of its enactment, a barber in Roanoke, Virginia, was arrested by federal agents for having distributed a flyer entitled “A Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight.” Freedom of speech was unimportant to Wilson and his backers. Maximizing the war effort trumped every other consideration, including the Constitution.
Wilson’s campaign against open dissent was quite successful. Keith writes,
By late summer, when “the boys” shipped out for camp, southern rural dissenters had been thoroughly intimidated: denied access to the mails, spied upon by agents of the federal government, denounced by their local political enemies, and in some cases, accused of sedition and incarcerated.
Opposing the war and opposing the suppression of free speech were equally dangerous to one’s liberty, yet a few Southerners still did. Some, Keith notes, were Populists, some agrarians, a few were Socialists, and many had no particular political philosophy. The common thread was an inability to see why young American men should be forced to risk death in the trenches of Europe.
Keith’s chapter “Race, Class, Gender, and Draft Dodging” is especially enlightening. She notes first that while the government initially sought to fill up the army’s ranks with volunteers, so few men volunteered that conscription was quickly adopted. Local draft boards held almost unchallengeable power to either induct or defer men. It is perhaps surprising that the prevailing racism and economic structure here worked against whites. Blacks were largely exempted from the draft because they were mostly employed by white businessmen who didn’t want to lose their labor force. Those businessmen had “connections” and used them to keep their workers home.
Also at work was the widespread belief that blacks just wouldn’t be dependable soldiers. In that, there may have been a fair measure of truth, since many southern blacks in 1917–1918 tended to view the war as irrelevant to their concerns. Some blacks were drafted, but the white view was that they wouldn’t be reliable in battle and they were mostly consigned to rear-echelon duties.
It was rural white men who were drafted in the largest numbers and were sent to the front- lines. Keith quotes numerous letters written by women to draft boards and elected officials begging that their husbands and sons be exempted from the military because their work was needed at home. Such pleas fell mainly on deaf ears.
Draft evasion was surprisingly common. One key reason that it was possible for many Southerners to escape conscription was the “primitive” state of governmental record keeping in the South. In those days, prior to Social Security and its near-universal tracking of people, government officials often lacked accurate information about citizens’ residences and ages. Referring to James Scott’s important book Seeing Like a State, Keith contends that Southern states hadn’t yet perfected the techniques used by modern governments to “see” their populations and thereby subject them to control. No doubt, some young men in the South survived owing to the fact that “their” officials didn’t know as much about them as officials in the Northern states knew about young men there.
Among those who couldn’t evade the draft, there was a surprisingly high degree of resistance and desertion. Federal officials had a difficult time tracking down draft resisters and deserters from military camps, men who were often sheltered by sympathetic citizens. Desertion rates, Keith’s research indicates, ranged from 7 percent in North Carolina to more than 20 percent in Florida. Desertion was not just a southern phenomenon, however; in New York, the desertion rate was higher than 13 percent. Blood was shed in more than a few of the forays where officials went to apprehend men who were supposed to be in the army, but preferred their freedom instead.
Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight gives the reader a unique view of the United States in its first modern war, the extraordinary lengths to which the government was willing to go to choke off dissent, and the reaction to the war in a region of the country that most people would assume reflexively supported a Democratic president who had done his utmost to generate war fever in the nation. It is a truly original piece of historical analysis.
My sole complaint is that Keith makes it sound as though the only opposition to the war came from the American Left. (Some of those leftists, it should be noted, were war enthusiasts later when Stalin attacked nations such as Poland and Finland. Their opposition to American involvement in World War I was opportunistic rather than based on a principled rejection of militarism.)
While it wasn’t her aim to give a thorough catalogue of the Americans who didn’t buy the war hysteria, Keith might at some point have noted that there were libertarian opponents such as Albert Jay Nock and H.L. Mencken. The phrase “rich man’s war” was a calumny on the many wealthy who wanted the United States to stay out of the war. World War I was mostly a poor man’s fight, but it would have been more accurate to call it an interventionist politicians’ war. But for them, America would have stayed at peace.
That imbalance aside, this is an excellent work that reveals much about militarism and its enemies in early 20th-century America.
This article originally appeared in the July 2005 edition of Freedom Daily. If you enjoyed reading this article, you may want to consider subscribing.