In the United States, reaction to the “European” war was mixed. Socialists, internationalists, woman suffrage workers, and peace activists viewed the situation with growing horror as decades of work for arbitration, international networks, and support for a peaceful community of nations dissolved in the quickly expanding war. Many of these activists believed the U.S., as a neutral nation, could act as an arbitrator to end the hostilities. European veteran activists quickly sought out support in the U.S. and found their American counterparts eager to assist in finding a solution agreeable to all sides in the conflict. Well-known public figures such as Jane Addams of the Hull-House settlement in Chicago, Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of The Nation, Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, David Starr Jordan, president of Columbia University, and Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, amongst many others all rallied support for ending the war. There were parades, lobbying in Congress, letters to the editor, and organizing to directly negotiate with the leaders of belligerent nations, as well as citizen leaders of internationally-focused organizations.
In late 1915, industrialist Henry Ford and one hundred peace activists sailed for Norway and a series of peace meetings in non-belligerent Europe. Ford financed the voyage, and the conference of neutral nations which would seek to implement peace proposals through continuous mediation and establish principles which could serve as the basis for an equitable peace settlement. Although Ford himself returned to the United States early, peace activists from neutral European nations and the U.S worked until the end of 1916.
Others understood that Americans still had ties to their ancestral homelands, hailing from countries on all sides of the War. Many did not want the U.S. to support one side or the other in this conflagration across the Atlantic. This was combined with a strong sentiment on the part of many Americans to avoid a big and costly war in Europe. Indeed, President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 as the anti-war candidate, with the slogan “He kept us out of War”.
In early 1917 much of the American popular sentiment against participation in the war began to change with the increase of German submarines targeting even U.S. civilian ships sailing in the Atlantic. Even so, 53 members of Congress voted against the U.S. entering the war, including Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. Rankin famously said as she voted: “I love my country, but I cannot vote for war.”
Once the United States entered the war, some of those who had opposed a European conflict, supported the Wilson administration. Others continued a difficult state as the federal government began to suppress most overt opposition, under the infamous Espionage Act of 1917 it became illegal “to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies.” Socialists, such as Eugene Debs and Kate Richards O’Hare were sentenced to long prison sentences for speaking out against military recruitment of working men. Radicals, such as the members of the Industrial Workers of the World were brutally suppressed by local militias and state police forces. The offices of the Woman’s Peace Party in New York City were under constant surveillance by agents of the Justice Department.
Even more mainstream activists, like Jane Addams, lost all public support because of her opposition to the war. Addams’ membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution was revoked, and she was opposed by veterans groups long into the 1930s. Her reputation was restored in the U.S. only when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Several thousand men, drafted into the armed forces to fight in the fields of France, personally opposed the war as conscientious objectors. The U.S. government had not provisions for men opposed to military service during World War I. Many of the C.O.s were placed in military camps where officers and fellow enlisted men tormented them; others were sent to military prisons, where they survived under a variety of conditions. Some endured solitary confinement and other harsh conditions. Several men died due to the treatment they received. Some C.O.s remained in custody long after the war ended in 1918.
Government interference in the civil liberties of C.O.s and other war objectors roused support for the development of such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union, which came out of a support organization for conscientious objectors.
During the years of World War I the movement of organizations and people opposed to the violence grew in numbers and sophistication. Activists published magazines and newspapers, held parades, demonstrations, and put on plays. They used the up and coming new media forms, film and radio to spread their message of peace and reconciliation. After the war, and through the 1920s and 1930s, most Americans were against entering another war. Peace organizations, some organized during the Great War, flourished, and enjoyed broad support. Many peace activists sought to develop stronger international ties with their counterparts in all parts of the world, hoping to avoid future global outbreaks of violence.
The Swarthmore College Peace Collection has dozens of primary source collections of documents, photographs, posters, and other materials on World War I from around the world. These are organized into collections of the records of grassroots peace organizations or the papers of individual peace activists. The collections listed below have online finding aids (lists of documents folder by folder), or image collections available on line. The Peace Collection has many additional collections of documents and other materials, which are not yet online, but are available for research.
The Peace Collection is open to the general public throughout the year. See the full website at: http://www.swarthmore.edu/Library/peace
The Swarthmore College Peace Collection has dozens of primary source collections of documents, photographs, posters, and other materials on conscientious objection during World War I, and from around the world. These are organized into collections of the records of grassroots peace organizations or the papers of peace activists. The collections listed below have online finding aids (lists of documents folder by folder), or image collections available on line. The Peace Collection has many additional collections which are not yet online, but are available for research.
Some of the resources available at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection on opposition to World War I in the U.S.
Peace and Reconciliation
Organizations and Individuals Opposed to the War
William C. Allen Collected Papers
American Union Against Militarism Records
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana Papers
Edward Evans Papers
George Nasmyth and Florence Nasmyth Papers
Scott Nearing Papers
John Nevin Sayre Papers
James Warbasse and Agnes Warbasse Collected Papers
Conscientious Objection and Civil Liberties
Eichel Family Papers
William Kantor Collected Papers
New York Bureau of Legal Advice Collected Records
People's Council of America for Democracy and Peace Collected Records
Database of U.S. World War I Conscientious Objectors
Subject File on Conscientious Objection
Conscientious Objection in America
Women and Peace
Jane Addams Collection
Emily Greene Balch Papers
Katherine Devereux Blake Collected Papers
Lella Secor Florence Papers
Rose Dabney Forbes Papers
Jessie Wallace Hughan Papers
Edwin Mead and Lucia Ames Mead Papers
Tracy Mygatt and Frances Witherspoon Papers
Rosika Schwimmer Collected Papers
Woman's Peace Party Records [renamed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919]
This page was composed by Wendy E. Chmielewski, George R. Cooley Curator, Swarthmore College Peace Collection [WEC]