One hundred years ago in April, the U.S. entered into World War I. Many people take President Woodrow Wilson’s stated foreign policy goals at face value and think of the war as an idealistic crusade to make the world “ safe for democracy.”
Yet, at the time, many labor activists within the American Federation of Labor and the more radical Industrial Workers of the World sought to harness the growing power of the labor and socialist movements to oppose U.S. intervention in the conflict, arguing it was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
The debate within labor circles during World War I offers important lessons for those promoting a more worker-centered U.S foreign policy and a more independent international role for the American labor movement today.
Working-class critiques of the Great War were as diverse as the U.S. working class itself. European immigrants often vehemently disagreed among themselves about which nation was most responsible for causing the war; significant regional, occupational and political differences divided even native-born workers.
Yet, one common theme predominated in working-class circles that rarely reverberated in the corridors of the White House. European nations, American labor activists argued, were warring against each other in order to protect the economic interests of their capitalist classes, yet it was workers who were disproportionately fighting and dying in the brutal trench warfare that became the hallmark of the conflict. Using a slogan resurrected from the Civil War, rank-and-file unionists regularly referred to the European conflict as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
Similarly, they argued that it was the American capitalist class that lay behind the effort to increase U.S. military preparedness and to involve the United States in the war. When preparedness groups lobbied on behalf of an increased defense budget and universal military training, labor and socialist groups staged anti-war rallies and filled their press with anti-militarist articles and cartoons.
When Wilson argued that German submarine attacks on American ships were a threat to U.S. national security, many labor activists and socialists argued that Wilson’s definition of national security revealed a class bias. Such attacks, they pointed out, were not an imminent threat to working people, but rather to the profits of American businessmen. Even more troubling to labor and socialist activists, Wilson insisted on defending the rights of wealthy American passengers to travel through war zones on belligerent ships in order to vacation or conduct business in Europe.
Yet when Germany declared that it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare in late January 1917, the stage was set for war. Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany on April 2. Wilson’s war address is often remembered primarily for its seemingly altruistic pledge to make the world “safe for democracy.” Yet, many labor and socialist dissidents expressed skepticism about this goal, noting Wilson’s paternalistic record of intervening in Latin American affairs and expressing doubts that democracy could ever be imposed on one nation by another.
Socialist and labor activists also noted another troubling theme in Wilson’s speech that received little public attention. The president argued that the United States had a special responsibility to defend those tenets of international law that guaranteed that the “ free highways of the world” remained open to neutral powers seeking to maintain their commerce during wartime.
This open-ended pledge seemed to suggest that Wilson was more interested in making the world safe for capitalism than democracy. Such a pledge, labor dissidents argued, might immerse the United States in endless wars to guarantee the profits of American businessmen.
Yet, despite the strong anti-war currents coursing through the U.S. labor movement, AFL President Samuel Gompers supported Wilson’s preparedness policies and declaration of war. A British immigrant, Gompers — like Wilson — sympathized with Britain in the conflict. Equally significant, Gompers had watched with interest the partnerships that developed between governments and labor movements in belligerent countries during the war and believed that U.S. labor would benefit from similar arrangements in the event the U.S. entered the war on the side of Britain.
Wilson rewarded Gompers for his loyalty by appointing him and others loyal to the government to serve on a network of war mobilization boards. By contrast, labor and socialist activists who continued to oppose the war and the administration’s conscription policies were increasingly persecuted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts. The war nonetheless remained unpopular among Americans, and high levels of draft-dodging and requests for exemption from military service prevailed throughout 1917 and 1918.
The legacies of the war proved troubling for labor collaborators and labor dissenters. The AFL leadership, though loyal to the administration, failed to achieve lasting improvements in labor’s bargaining power either domestically or internationally. Yet, the pattern of collaboration that developed between labor leaders and government policy makers would be repeated in other 20th-century wars, including World War II and the Cold War, with even more mixed results.
Particularly controversial during the Cold War was AFL-CIO support for the Vietnam War and for CIA efforts to destabilize democratically elected socialist governments such as that of Chilean leader Salvador Allende.
Labor dissenters, unsuccessful in their bid to establish an independent workers’ political party at the end of World War I, remained a minority voice within the labor movement throughout the 20th century. The Cold War’s end, however, brought renewed debate within a weakened labor movement about American foreign policy.
In the wake of the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, new groups such as U.S. Labor Against the War again inquired whether policymakers were using democratic rhetoric as a smokescreen to promote U.S. business interests at the expense of workers in the United States and other countries. In a manner reminiscent of the World War I era, labor critics also charged that the U.S. military forces fighting and dying in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remained heavily working-class in composition.
More recently, in the 2016 election, dissident labor groups such as Labor for Bernie took aim at the Democratic Party’s commitment to Wilsonian ideals of free trade as they were embodied in trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Yet in contrast to the Trump administration, their proposed solutions call not for economic nationalism but for greater democratic input by labor and other groups in constructing trade policy.
Despite a strong insurgency within the AFL-CIO on behalf of Bernie Sanders during his 2016 bid for the presidency, the AFL-CIO leadership endorsed Hillary Clinton, who had long advocated for an expansion of free trade agreements and supported some foreign interventions.
Although political analysts have abundantly argued that working-class disenchantment with the Democratic Party’s record on free trade and foreign interventions helped Donald Trump win the election, a recent analysis by the Washington Post has demonstrated that only 35 percent of Trump supporters earned incomes under the national median income of $50,000 per year. In other words, a majority of Trump voters came from the more affluent classes, suggesting the continuing complexity of working-class political alignments and perhaps the continuing influence of the labor movement.
To date, Trump’s foreign policy has been too chaotic to discern a clear class bias. Yet his domestic policies have clearly demonstrated a predisposition to redistribute income from the poor to the wealthy.
Although labor dissidents failed in their efforts to stop U.S. intervention in the Great War, they arguably spoke truth to power in insisting that the war was really more about making the world safe for capitalism than democracy. In a similar manner, labor leaders today must continue to ask hard questions of the Trump administration, which seems far more dedicated to increasing business profits than to improving the lives of American workers, its populist rhetoric notwithstanding.
Elizabeth McKillen is professor of history at the University of Maine in Orono. She is the author of “Making the World Safe for Workers: Labor, the Left and Wilsonian Internationalism” and “Chicago Labor and the Quest for a Democratic Diplomacy.”