on the Eve of War
April 6, 1917. It was past midnight when Claude Kitchin of North Carolina rose to speak to the House of Representatives. For hours, congressmen had passionately debated President Woodrow Wilson’s request that Congress declare war on Germany. All knew that the declaration would pass, but few could resist going on record at this historic moment. While prowar congressmen reiterated their anger at Germany’s abuses and violations of international law, antiwar congressmen—a distinct minority—insisted that the war going on in Europe was not America’s fight and cited equally egregious British infringements on the nation’s rights as a neutral power. Now, in the early morning hours, the galleries were packed.
Kitchin, the Democratic majority leader in the House, rose not to push the Democratic president’s war declaration forward but to speak against it. Usually a forceful, clear-voiced extemporaneous speaker, Kitchin read from a written text, his voice tired and husky as he asked his colleagues to reconsider what they were about to do before they took the ‘‘measureless step’’ of a declaration of war. After hours of prowar speakers who called antiwar congressmen disloyal cowards, Kitchin drew applause when he said, ‘‘let me at once remind the House that it takes neither moral nor physical courage to declare a war for others to fight.’’ He continued, ‘‘It is evidence of neither loyalty nor patriotism for one to urge others to get into a war when he knows that he himself is going to keep out.’’1
Kitchin understood that his speech would be unpopular: ‘‘for my vote I shall be not only criticized, but denounced from one end of the country to the other. The whole yelping pack of defamers and revilers in the Nation will be at once set upon my heels.’’ Yet, he said, he had no inheritance to leave his children but honor. He spoke eloquently about America’s status as ‘‘the last anchor of peace in the world . . . the last remaining star of hope for Christendom,’’ and said, ‘‘by passage of this resolution we enter the war, and the universe becomes one vast drama of horrors and blood. . . . I shall always believe we could and ought to have kept out of this war.’’2
Kitchin reviewed the nation’s conduct during the past three years of the Great War. Like other antiwar speakers, he denied that the Wilson administration’s policies had been truly neutral, noting that the United States had tolerated British violations of neutral rights while refusing to tolerate similar violations from Germany. Kitchin said, ‘‘We are told that Germany has destroyed American lives while Great Britain destroyed only property. Great Britain destroyed no American lives, because this nation kept her ships and her citizens out of her war zone. . . .’’ Further, he denied that Germany threatened the United States in any way. Then he reached the heart of his argument. Kitchin warned the House that a declaration of war did not commit the United States solely to defending its shipping rights. Instead, he said, ‘‘We are to make the cause of Great Britain, France, and Russia, right or wrong, our cause. . . .’’ Kitchin said that the United States was going to commit ‘‘men, money and credit’’ to fight out ‘‘a difference between the belligerents of Europe to which we were and are utter strangers.’’ He added, ‘‘Nothing in that cause, nothing in that quarrel, has or does involve a moral or equitable or material interest in or obligation of our Government or of our people.’’
Kitchin had known that his cause was lost before he took the floor. In his concluding remarks, he compared himself to a son desperately trying to dissuade his father from fighting, ‘‘but when the final word is spoken and blows are about to be given, taking off his coat and struggling with all his soul and might in defense of that father.’’ Once the decision for war was taken, Kitchin said, he would emulate that son. The House rose in a standing ovation for the popular majority leader, who had made what many considered ‘‘the speech of the night.’’ Although now largely forgotten, Kitchin’s speech ranks in quality and in contemporary significance with those given by George Norris and Robert La Follette against the United States’ entry into the Great War.3
As he predicted, the prowar press excoriated Kitchin. However, he must have been heartened by the flood of praise, affection, and blessing sent his way by his fellow Tar Heels. A laudatory telegram stated, ‘‘A man and sane in the midst of a crazed nation congratulations.’’ From Durham, a correspondent wrote that he had read Kitchin’s speech to four workers: ‘‘When I had finished your speech their eyes were wet . . . they said almost together, ‘God bless Claude Kitchin!’ I said ‘Amen’ in good old Methodist fashion.’’4
When rural southerners of both races evaded conscription, when southern blacks could not be found by draft boards, and when white southerners barricaded themselves in mountain cabins and shot at the authorities sent to round them up, federal and state authorities attributed their recalcitrance to ignorance. To do otherwise, to acknowledge southern draft resisters’ political motives, risked legitimating actions contrary to the interests of the nation-state. Rather than saying, ‘‘These people are shooting at the sheriff because they don’t want to go to war,’’ authorities from the provost marshal general’s office on down found it more expedient—and less politically embarrassing—to say, ‘‘These people are patriotic and loyal; they are just ignorant.’’
Yet rural southerners’ draft evasion had political roots. By 1917 the rural South, like the rest of the nation, had been debating issues of war for years. Some congressmen, like Kitchin, had constituent correspondent files that bulged with letters from rural southern whites, sent in during the 1915–16 ‘‘preparedness’’ controversies and the 1917 debates over war and conscription. Because of this constituent pressure, southern congressmen numbered among the most stalwart opposition to the Wilson administration’s proposed prewar military buildup and to the institution of conscription after war was declared. Southern politicians who declared that wartime draft evasion emerged out of ignorance sheltered their constituents from the consequences of their actions and themselves from political embarrassment, but their excuses were disingenuous at best.
Rural southern political thought as manifested in the 1917 debate emerged from the political world of the early twentieth-century South, where southern antimilitarists honed their arguments in national and regional debates on preparedness, neutral rights, and war. For southern politicians and their constituents, agrarian and otherwise, this debate revolved around conflicting concepts of honor, duty, history, and what it meant to be southern.
Southern Politics in the Early Twentieth Century
The southern political world of 1917 was a white male domain. Through disfranchisement, the establishment of segregation, and the application of violence, white southerners had labeled certain areas of southern life for ‘‘whites only.’’ Of these, politics was paramount, and politics dealing with foreign policy even more so. African Americans in the South, like white women, could act politically but, for the most part, only outside the realm of electoral politics. Black southern leaders could, with great care and judicious language, weigh in on a few select public issues, such as education or public health—always making it clear that they were asking for favors or charity from the white community, never demanding better treatment as a right. In some Upper South cities, black men could still vote, as long as they voted as instructed by powerful white politicians. But affairs of state, such as raising armies and going to war, were matters for white men, and black southern men who meddled therein literally risked their lives.5
Southern whites argued vociferously over all aspects of politics except white supremacy, which by 1917 had become as sacrosanct within the region as apple pie and motherhood. With their own racial superiority as a given, white southerners felt free to disagree, often violently, on issues relating to economics and foreign policy. Whites’ stances for or against war and conscription in 1917 reflected the complexity of politics and white culture in the region.
In the South of 1915–17, most political battles were fought out in the Democratic Party. These were the days of the one-party South, the Democratic ‘‘Solid South.’’ Throughout most of the region, the Republican Party made only token campaigns for office. Outside of pockets of Republican strength in Appalachia, white southerners were Democrats. White Democrats controlled state governments in 1917. White Democratic political hegemony led to bitter interparty factionalism, a fact of significance to this story. At the risk of oversimplifying a byzantine political scene, it is roughly accurate to say that in 1917 white southern Democrats were divided into three factions: conservatives (a.k.a. ‘‘Bourbons’’), progressives, and agrarians. Most progressives came from the region’s small towns and cities, while Bourbons and agrarians represented very different rural interests.6
Bourbons, named after the post revolutionary restored kings of France, believed in their right to rule as firmly as any hereditary aristocrat of Europe. Politically ensconced in plantation districts, where most of the population was black, disfranchised, and economically under the thumb of white landlords, Bourbons fought their primary political battles with agrarian and progressive reformers. Fiscal as well as social conservatives, they preferred low taxes and minimal state spending, especially on things like public schools, which they saw as a waste of money: Who needed educated farm workers, whether black or white? Bourbons affected a paternalistic concern for the well-being of blacks, whom they considered dependent inferiors, and they usually avoided the extremes of white supremacist rhetoric, perhaps because they considered it both ungentlemanly and unnecessary. Bourbons reserved their most virulent scorn for people outside their dominance, such as white small farmers and working people of the hill districts, whom they called poor whites, rednecks, wool-hat boys, crackers, hillbillies, and poor white trash. These were, of course, the people who voted for agrarian politicians.
Political histories of this period use the term ‘‘agrarian’’ to describe a group of politicians (1) who were from the countryside, often from farming backgrounds, (2) who affiliated with William Jennings Bryan’s political faction in the national Democratic Party, and (3) who had sympathized with or participated in the populist movement of the 1890s. Sometimes a politician united these characteristics in one person, but not always. In general, agrarian politicians positioned themselves as the champions of the dirt farmers who made up the majority of the southern white population. If a liberal is a politician willing to use state power to better the economic conditions of the poor, then southern agrarian leaders like Claude Kitchin, James Vardaman, and Tom Watson were liberals whereas Bourbons were conservatives. These liberals were also committed white supremacists.7
Since the Second World War, an expressed commitment to racial justice has been the hallmark of American liberalism, its shibboleth without which no politician of the left could pass muster. Therefore it seems strange to talk about liberal racists. However, in the early twentieth-century United States, no southern white politician attacked the Jim Crow system: no Republicans, no Bourbons, no progressives, no agrarians, not even Socialists, who were in favor of blacks’ having the vote but not of ‘‘social equality,’’ that is, desegregation. (For that matter, no prominent northern politician made racial justice an issue either.) In this era, liberalism was defined in economic, not racial, terms.8
To get elected, agrarian politicians (and progressives) race-baited their Bourbon opponents. The classic example is James Vardaman of Mississippi, whose rhetorical abuse of black Mississippians and support for white supremacy went over the top, even by the standards of that state and that time. He called blacks ‘‘lazy, lying, lustful animal[s]’’ incapable of citizenship, and as governor, he cut funding for the state’s black normal school on the grounds that education for the black man served to ‘‘sharpen his cunning, breeds hopes that cannot be fulfilled, inspires aspirations that cannot be gratified, creates an inclination to avoid honest labor, promotes indolence and . . . leads to crime.’’ Wincing at Vardaman’s vicious words, it is easy to forget that his great patrician antagonists William Percy and John Sharp Williams were as committed as he to white supremacy. In 1907, when Williams and Vardaman vied for election to the Senate, Vardaman’s supporters accused Williams of treating his white servant and his black cook as equals. Not so, Williams replied: When he found out that the white servant was eating meals with his cook, he fired the white woman, thus demonstrating his commitment to white supremacy and the maintenance of the color line, even in his kitchen.9
Agrarian politicians wanted to use government to better the lives of the southern white rural majority, whereas Bourbons did not. In 1910 Mississippi, Vardaman the archracist was also the leading liberal. He supported measures to ease farm credit, a graduated income tax, the initiative and referendum, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, antitrust laws—and white supremacy. In parts of the South less racially obsessed than Mississippi, agrarian politicians rose to power by sponsoring economic agendas that echoed those proposed by the Populist Party in the 1890s, including banking reform, antitrust laws, and the income tax. In that regard, many agrarian Democrats were populists, without being, or having been, members of the defunct People’s Party.10
The reforms that agrarian politicians supported usually appealed also to Democratic progressives. The latter faction, rather smaller than the other two in most states, included the region’s reformers and activists but also many members of the South’s business and urban elites, people with economic and social ties to members of the same class throughout the nation. Progressives and agrarians agreed on many issues but differed in style. Progressives were townsfolk, business and professional people interested in a long list of reforms (prohibition, public health, better roads, better schools) designed to make the region’s growing cities safer and healthier for the bourgeoisie and to facilitate economic development. The tone of southern progressivism was that of uplift and benevolence, extended by the well-to-do toward the less fortunate. Agrarian politicians might—often did—support many of the same reforms as urban progressives but used a different rhetoric, one of economic justice and respect for the common white man. Of course, both race-baited when needed to get elected.11
This synopsis of the early twentieth-century political scene should not lead the reader to think that the different factions described above were orderly, disciplined, or consistent in their internal ideological stances. In the highly volatile world of southern politics, faction leaders made and broke alliances election by election, on the basis of momentary political expediency. Thus ‘‘crackers’’ voted on occasion for Bourbons, and progressives courted the support of backwoods pols.
Preparedness and Its Foes
In the years before the Great War, Americans participated in a great national debate on ‘‘preparedness.’’ Supposedly about what kind of military the United States should have, the preparedness debate was actually about what kind of nation it should be. Led by Theodore Roosevelt, conservative nationalists made a military buildup part of their agenda, along with Anglophilia, immigration restriction, Americanization, eugenics, and strident glorification of manhood and ‘‘patriotic Motherhood.’’ Preparedness originated in the Republican Party, apparently at least in part as an attempt to find an issue around which that institution could coalesce after its split into Old Guard and Bull Moose factions and subsequent defeat by the Democrats in the 1912 elections. Influenced by his friend General Leonard Wood, Theodore Roosevelt led other GOP progressives into an alliance with conservative Republicans in support of a much larger, modernized military, plus universal military training and the creation of a national reserve army to replace the staterun National Guard.
The elites who joined the preparedness movement did so for various reasons. Some believed that the United States needed a bigger, better navy so that the nation could assert its power in the world at large. While some members of the preparedness elite favored a military buildup for defensive purposes, others were frankly imperialists, anxious to see the United States capable of competing in the worldwide game for colonies and economic advantage. However, most members of the preparedness movement seem to have concentrated their hopes on the establishment of universal military trai...