War Is the Health of the State
excerpted from a
People's History of the United States
by Howard Zinn
"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 ma chine 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 senes 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.
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
t,; 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 manifests were falsified to hide this
fact, and the British and American governments lied about the
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~ 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."
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 workingman 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."
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 deter mined 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.
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 willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination,
disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval
forces of the United States, or shall willfully 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.
Two months after the law passed, a Socialist named Charles
Schenck was arrested in Philadelphia for printing and distributing
fifteen thousand leaflets that denounced the draft law and the
war. The leaflet recited the Thirteenth Amendment provision against
"involuntary servitude" and said the Conscription Act
violated this. Conscription, it said, was "a monstrous deed
against humanity in the interests of the financiers of Wall Street."
And: "Do not submit to intimidation." Schenck was indicted,
tried, found guilty, and sentenced to six months in jail for violating
the Espionage Act. (It turned out to be one of the shortest sentences
given in such cases.) Schenck appealed, arguing that the Act,
by prosecuting speech and writing, violated the First Amendment:
"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of
speech, or of the press...."
The Supreme Court's decision was unanimous and was written
by its most famous liberal, Oliver Wendell Holmes. He summarized
the contents of the leaflet and said it was undoubtedly intended
to "obstruct" the carrying out of the draft law. Was
Schenck protected by the First Amendment? Holmes said:
"The most stringent protection of free speech would not
protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing
a panic.... The question in every case is whether the words used
are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to
create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the
substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."
Holmes's analogy was clever and attractive. Few people would
think free speech should be conferred on someone shouting fire
in a theater and causing a panic. But did that example fit criticism
of the war? Zechariah Chafee, a Harvard law school professor,
wrote later (Free Speech in the United States) that a more apt
analogy for Schenck was someone getting up between the acts at
a theater and declaring that there were not enough fire exits.
To play further with the example: was not Schenck's act more like
someone shouting, not falsely, but truly, to people about to buy
tickets and enter a theater, that there was a fire raging inside?
Perhaps free speech could not be tolerated by any reasonable
person if it constituted a "clear and present danger"
to life and liberty; after all, free speech must compete with
other vital rights. But was not the war itself a "clear and
present danger," indeed, more clear and more present and
more dangerous to life than any argument against it? Did citizens
not have a right to object to war, a right to be a danger to dangerous
(The Espionage Act, thus approved by the Supreme Court, has
remained on the books all these years since World War I, and although
it is supposed to apply only in wartime, it has been constantly
in force since 1950, because the United States has legally been
in a "state of emergency" since the Korean war. In 1963,
the Kennedy administration pushed a bill [unsuccessfully] to apply
the Espionage Act to statements uttered by Americans abroad, it
was concerned in the words of a cable from Secretary of State
Rusk to Ambassador Lodge in Vietnam, about journalists in Vietnam
writing "critical articles ... on Diem and his government"
that were "likely to impede the war effort.")
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.)
Debs refused at his trial to take the stand in his defense,
or to call a witness on his behalf. He denied nothing about what
he said. But before the jury began its deliberations, he spoke
I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen,
I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone.... I have sympathy
with the suffering, struggling people everywhere. It does not
make any difference under what flag they were born, or where they
The jury found him guilty of violating the Espionage Act.
Debs ad dressed the judge before sentencing:
Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living
beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than
the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there
is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element,
I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
The judge denounced those "who would strike the sword
from the hand of this nation while she is engaged in defending
herself against a foreign and brutal power." He sentenced
Debs to ten years in prison.
Debs's appeal was not heard by the Supreme Court until 1919.
The war was over. Oliver Wendell Holmes, for a unanimous court,
affirmed Debs's guilt. Holmes discussed Debs's speech: "He
then ex pressed opposition to Prussian militarism in a way that
naturally might have been thought to be intended to include the
mode of proceeding in the United States." Holmes said Debs
made "the usual contrasts between capitalists and laboring
men . . . with the implication running through it all that the
working men are not concerned in the war." Thus, Holmes said,
the "natural and intended effect" of Debs's speech would
be to obstruct recruiting.
Debs was locked up in the West Virginia state penitentiary,
and then in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, where he spent thirty-two
months until, at the age of sixty-six, he was released by President
Harding in 1921.
The war ended in November 1918. Fifty thousand American soldiers
had died, and it did not take long, even in the case of patriots,
for bitterness and disillusionment to spread through the country.
With all the wartime jailings, the intimidation, the drive
for national unity, when the war was over, the Establishment still
feared socialism. There seemed to be a need again for the twin
tactics of control in the face of revolutionary challenge: reform
The first was suggested by George L. Record, one of Wilson's friends,
who wrote to him in early 1919 that something would have to be
done for economic democracy, "to meet this menace of socialism."
He said: "You should become the real leader of the radical
forces in America, and present to the country a constructive program
of fundamental reform, which shall be an alternative to the program
presented by the socialists, and the Bolsheviki...."
That summer of 1919, Wilson's adviser Joseph Tumulty reminded
him that the conflict between the Republicans and Democrats was
unimportant compared with that which threatened them both:
What happened in Washington last night in the attempt upon
the Attorney General's life is but a symptom of the terrible unrest
that is stalking about the country.... As a Democrat I would be
disappointed to see the Republican Party regain power. That is
not what depresses one so much as to see growing steadily from
day to day, under our very eyes, a movement that, if it is not
checked, is bound to express itself in attack upon everything
we hold dear. In this era of industrial and social unrest both
parties are in disrepute with the average man....
"What happened in Washington last night" was the
explosion of a bomb in front of the home of Wilson's Attorney
General A. Mitchell Palmer. Six months after that bomb exploded,
Palmer carried out the first of his mass raids on aliens-immigrants
who were not citizens. A law passed by Congress near the end of
the war provided for the deportation of aliens who opposed organized
government or advocated the destruction of property. Palmer's
men, on December 21,1919, picked Up 249 aliens of Russian birth
(including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman), put them on a
transport, and deported them to what had become Soviet Russia.
The Constitution gave no right to Congress to deport aliens, but
the Supreme Court had said, back in 1892, in affirming the right
of Congress to exclude Chinese, that as a matter of self-preservation,
this was a natural right of the government.
In January 1920, four thousand persons were rounded up all
over the country, held in seclusion for long periods of time,
brought into secret hearings, and ordered deported. In Boston,
Department of Justice agents, aided by local police, arrested
six hundred people by raiding meeting halls or by invading their
homes in the early morning. A troubled federal judge described
"Pains were taken to give spectacular publicity to the
raid, and to make it appear that there was great and imminent
public danger.... The arrested aliens, in most instances perfectly
quiet and harmless working people, many of them not long ago Russian
peasants, were handcuffed in pairs, and then, for the purposes
of transfer on trains and through the streets of Boston, chained
In the spring of 1920, a typesetter and anarchist named Andrea
Salsedo was arrested in New York by FBI agents and held for eight
weeks in the FBI offices on the fourteenth floor of the Park Row
Building, not allowed to contact family or friends or lawyers.
Then his crushed body was found on the pavement below the building
and the FBI said he had committed suicide by jumping from the
fourteenth floor window.
Two friends of Salsedo, anarchists and workingmen in the Boston
area, having just learned of his death, began carrying guns. They
were arrested on a streetcar in Brockton, Massachusetts, and charged
with a holdup and murder that had taken place two weeks before
at a shoe factory. These were Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
They went on trial, were found guilty, and spent seven years in
jail while appeals went on, and while all over the country and
the world, people became involved in their case. The trial record
and the surrounding circumstances suggested that Sacco and Vanzetti
were sentenced to death because they were anarchists and foreigners.
In August 1927, as police broke up marches and picket lines with
arrests and beatings, and troops surrounded the prison, they were
Sacco's last message to his son Dante, in his painfully learned
English was a message to millions of others in the years to come:
"So, Son, instead of crying, be strong, so as to be able
to comfort your mother . . . take her for a long walk in the quiet
country, gathering wild flowers here and there.... But remember
always, Dante, in the play of happiness, don't you use all for
yourself only.... help the persecuted and the victim because they
are your better friends.... In this struggle of life you will
find more and love and you will be loved."
There had been reforms. The patriotic fervor of war had been
invoked. The courts and jails had been used to reinforce the idea
that certain ideas, certain kinds of resistance, could not be
tolerated. And still, even from the cells of the condemned, the
message was going out: the class war was still on in that supposedly
classless society, the United States. Through the twenties and
the thirties, it was still on.
History of the United States