World War I started 100 years ago in August 1914. That war resulted in more than 16 million deaths and more than 20 million wounded. Today it is almost universally regarded as an avoidable and unmitigated disaster. The famous American diplomat and scholar George Kennan called World War I “the great seminal catastrophe of this century.”
When thinking about this sanguinary and unnecessary conflict, it is well to remember that strong opposition to the war existed in every country. The United States entered World War I in April 1917, almost three years after it started. Socialists, civil libertarians, many labor unions and pacifists (among others) fervently opposed U.S. involvement in the European bloodletting.
One of the most famous opponents of World War I was Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926). Debs was a founder of the American Railway Union, a leader of the Socialist Party, an organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World, and he had already run for U.S. president four times on the Socialist ticket. Largely because of the intense opposition to the war, Congress passed the Espionage Act which made it illegal to encourage resistance to U.S. participation. In defiance of this edict, Debs gave a series of eloquent and passionate antiwar speeches. He was subsequently arrested, convicted of impeding the U.S. war effort and sentenced to 10 years in federal penitentiary.
At his trial Debs made one of his most memorable speeches: “[Y]ears ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I am 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, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
In 1920, from his prison cell in Atlanta, Georgia, Eugene Debs ran for president yet a fifth time. One of his campaign slogans read: “For President, Convict Number 9653.” Running from prison, Debs received almost one million votes, about six percent of the popular vote.
The peace movement of 1914-19 was not able to prevent World War I or to forestall U.S. participation in that conflict. Today, 100 years after 1914, most thoughtful people wish that the movement had succeeded. Our world would be a far better place if it had. Nevertheless, the courage, foresight and noble spirit of Eugene Debs and his fellow peaceniks (including Jane Adams, Emma Goldman, Helen Keller and Ben Salmon) have inspired subsequent peace campaigns including the movement against nuclear weapons and the movement against the Vietnam War. Eugene Victor Debs and his compatriots continue to inspire us in the year 2014.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” column runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.