Ninety-six years ago today, on April 6, 1917, the U.S. Congress voted to declare war on Germany, bringing the United States into the First World War. Four days earlier President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech to Congress asking for the declaration. The proximate cause was Germany’s renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, which they had previously suspended after the May 1915 sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania. Beyond the issue of freedom of the seas, Wilson–perhaps naively–felt American entry into the war was necessary to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Congress’s vote for war was decisive, but not total. In the House of Representatives the vote was 373 to 50. In the Senate it was 82 to 6. The reasons for war are pretty clearly understood, but I thought on this anniversary of the event–the entry into what Wilson called “the most cruel and terrible of all wars”–it might be interesting to examine five people who voted against war, and why they did so.
By far the most famous dissenter from the war decision was Jeanette Rankin, Congresswoman from Montana, the first woman ever to sit in Congress. A feminist, suffragist and pacifist, Rankin, elected in 1916, was one of the few women serving in government at the time women nationally received the right to vote (some could vote under various state laws, including Montana). She voted against war in April 1917 because she felt that, as the first opportunity for an American woman lawmaker to vote against going to war, she should take the opportunity to do so. She was, however, a committed pacifist. By chance she was also in Congress in 1941 when World War II began, and also voted against that conflict–the only member of Congress in either house to do so. It is for this vote, more so than her 1917 vote, for which she’s famous.
Meyer London, born in Lithuania, represented New York State in the House of Representatives. He is only one of two “card-carrying” members of the Socialist Party ever to sit in Congress. Much of his early career was spent as a lawyer, specifically in labor cases, and he was a tireless advocate for workers’ causes. A Jew, London was also instrumental in organizing relief efforts for Jewish victims of racial prejudice around the world, especially in Russia. London was also a Zionist who believed in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, so long as it could be done without annexation, which he opposed; this stance got him in hot water with more traditional American Zionists who organized to defeat him for re-election. London’s stance against war in 1917 was consistent with his Socialist principles, but once the war was on he supported it fully. He died in 1926 after he was hit by a truck in New York City. An astonishing 50,000 people thronged the streets during his funeral.
The next time you hear someone call Barack Obama a socialist, you may want to refer them to the story of Meyer London, who illustrates what a real socialist looks like–and what one can accomplish.
James K. Vardaman
James Vardaman, Senator from Mississippi, opposed the war for reasons totally at odds with those of Rankin and London. A virulent racist who openly advocated lynching every African-American in Mississippi–yes, he actually said that–Vardaman was also a staunch isolationist who felt the U.S. had no business meddling in foreign wars. He openly insulted President Theodore Roosevelt for inviting an African-American, Booker T. Washington, to dine with him at the White House. While he did not coin the term, Vardaman was responsible for popularizing the term “rednecks” to describe poor white Southerners staunchly opposed to any kind of progressive reform and especially racial equality or integration. The rednecks couldn’t save Vardaman when it came time for re-election, though. Largely as a result of his vote against the war he was defeated for re-election in 1918. I include his story here not to glorify his racist beliefs but to illustrate how odd it is that someone who is the polar opposite of Rankin and London could wind up on the same side of a momentous political decision as they were, but for entirely different reasons.
George W. Norris
In marked contrast to Vardaman, George W. Norris, Senator from Nebraska, was a Progressive Republican (yes, those did exist) who was a passionate defender of direct democracy. He supported direct election of Senators–a proposal that eventually made its way into the U.S. Constitution–and abolition of the Electoral College, which did not. In his many years in the Senate Norris took principled stands for labor fairness and government regulation of utilities. Though a Republican, he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and much of the New Deal in the 1930s. Norris’s reason for opposing World War I was that he felt the United States was entering the war just to enrich large banking interests, which during the years of neutrality (1914-1917) had in fact lent billions of dollars to Britain and France. Unlike many of the others, his anti-war vote didn’t cost him his seat. He went on to serve in the Senate until 1943.
Robert M. LaFollette
Robert LaFollette, like Norris, was a deeply principled Republican. He represented Wisconsin in the Senate and was the spearhead of what became virtually a family dynasty in that state, frequently advocating for Progressive causes. He deeply believed that corporate control of government would lead to disaster and fought repeatedly for legislation that would hold business interests and industries accountable. He believed in women’s suffrage and supported a radical idea of government benefits for the aged–which, 10 years after his death in 1925, became Social Security. LaFollette’s reasons for opposing the war were similar to Norris’s; he thought it would be an undeserved windfall for corporate interests, would harm the international reputation of the United States, and was sharply critical of the Wilson administration’s truthfulness in the run-up to the war. LaFollette ran for President unsuccessfully in 1912 and 1924.
Though opposing the war for numerous reasons, the dissenters stretched the gamut of U.S. politics, from liberal socialism to staunch conservatism. Looking back in history we tend to forget how contentious issues like this could be. The U.S. did not enter the war until after a long period of agonizing and soul-searching. That’s the nature of a democracy.