This is the first of a three-part podcast series of History As It Happens examining the post-9/11 world for the 20th anniversary of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks.
In 1915, one of the most popular songs in America was a somber lament. “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier” inspired a peace movement of socialists, radicals and civil libertarians in a nation whose residents were deeply skeptical of military intervention.
Indeed, the United States could hardly be considered a military power before entering World War I — and many citizens wanted to keep it that way. The country lacked the large standing armies and reserve forces typical of the warring European powers whose battlefield losses soared into the millions.
American pacifists condemned militarism and wars’ loss of life. As the song’s lyrics went, “Ten million mothers’ hearts must break / For the ones who died in vain.” And opposition to U.S. involvement in the war was not relegated to the left. Industrialists such as Henry Ford sailed to Europe on a “peace ship.”
That was a different country: Our modern notion that the U.S. is obligated to dispatch thousands of troops across the oceans to, as President Woodrow Wilson put it, make the world safe for democracy, did not exist then.
In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Michael Kazin discusses the absence of any major peace movement in the United States today compared to the influential antiwar activism of the past century.
“The chaos that accompanied the end of the war in Afghanistan for the United States … obviously has made Americans think again about the war. Americans opposed that war for a long time, but there was not much of an anti-war movement to speak of,” said Mr. Kazin, the author of “War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918.”
Unlike the late 1960s, when the nation was roiled by massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War, antiwar activism in 21st century America is quiescent, despite the fact the U.S. has been in a state of constant war in multiple countries — at the cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives — since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Each antiwar movement has to be recreated with each war. It is not like other social movements … that go on for decades. Antiwar movements are different. They have to form very quickly… and they have to succeed very quickly,” said the Georgetown scholar.
Polls show a majority of Americans soured on the war in Afghanistan and supported the U.S. withdrawal, its chaotic climax notwithstanding. But for the better part of 20 years, the country’s longest war did not provoke the kind of outright anger that marked the Vietnam era — as troop deployments increased and ebbed, as the conflict drifted from one presidential administration to the next with no definable outcome in sight.
Can the difference be explained by the absence of the draft? Mr. Kazin is not convinced.
“If enough Americans think a war is a bad idea or immoral, as Abraham Lincoln thought about the Mexican War, then I think you can have an antiwar movement that can grow and have some influence,” he said.
For more of Mr. Kazin’s remarks about the history of antiwar activism in the U.S. and why American streets have been quiet during much of the past 20 years, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.