Opponents of War 1917-1918 by Horace C. Peterson and Gilbert C. Fite

Opponents of War 1917-1918 by Horace C. Peterson and Gilbert C. Fite attempts to build a comprehensive history of America’s wartime repression. Largely following a historical sequence, Peterson and Fite explore nearly every major topic and controversy of the war years. The book discusses the pre-war disputes and the entry of the US into the war, exploring the debate over conscription and the resistance to registering for the draft. In one of the largest instances of draft resistance, 450 poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers in Oklahoma were arrested in the Green Corn Rebellion. Nationally, “a strong minority bitterly resented the war and conscription.”[1] While Peterson and Fife document dozens of examples of government repression of IWW and Socialist Party members, they also discuss less well-known cases of repression. The People’s Council, a pacifist group, was attacked in the media as German pawns, meetings were broken up by police and vigilantes, and group members had their lives threatened.[2] The Nonpartisan League, a socialist-leaning farmers’ movement, had meetings disrupted by police and was undermined by the Minnesota government in order to weaken it and protect the mainstream political parties. In addition, wartime fervor increased the scrutiny on, and intolerance of, recent immigrants, of which 2,300 were interned by the military.[3] Opponents of War has in-depth chapters on censoring films and newspapers, cracking down on schoolteachers and university professors, and policing of the clergy. There is a chapter on the plight of conscientious objectors in the military. While religious objectors were recognized and offered noncombatant roles, political and ethical objectors were at first treated as criminals and held in prison camps, subjected to physical abuse in order to change their positions. When finally offered noncombatant roles, nearly 4,000 refused to perform any kind of military duty. 540 of these men were court-martialed and all but one convicted. Interestingly, Peterson and Fife (writing in the 1950s) pay homage to the work of the NCLB did for conscientious objectors, not aware that the organization collaborated with the Justice Department to avoid prosecution.[4] The book’s final chapters cover the continued repression of the Socialist Party and IWW, including the trial of Debs, and the trial of IWW activists in Chicago, Kansas City, and Sacramento. The book concludes with the campaigns for amnesty (which saw eventual success in the Harding administration) and the Red Scare. All-in-all Opponents of War is an excellent history and appears to be a definitive work on the subject of wartime repression. However, given it was published in 1957, the authors did not have access to as many declassified files as later historians had (Bureau of Investigation files for this time period were only declassified in 1976). Consequently, there is nothing in the book about the Bureau of Investigation and its role in policing dissent. Another criticism of the book is the Supreme Court was only given limited attention. Fortunately, legal scholars have provided plenty of perspectives on the US courts and Constitutional law of this era.

[1] Horace C. Peterson, and Gilbert C. Fite, Opponents of War 1917-1918 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press 1986. First published 1957 by University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI)), 30-42.

[2] Peterson, 73-80.

[3] Peterson, 86.

[4] Peterson, 121-138.

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