John Nichols: The war that turned Wisconsin against war

soldiers landing in ship

On June 26, 1917, the first troops of the American Expeditionary Force deployed to France during World War I landed in St. Nazaire.

World War I was the war that turned Wisconsinites against war.

The conflict was so reckless, so brutal, and so completely unnecessary that for generations after its conclusion on Nov. 11, 1918, the awful memory of “the war to end all wars” has inspired a distrust of militarism and war profiteering that has always run deeper in Wisconsin than most states.

Before World War I, Wisconsinites were justifiably proud of the role our abolitionists and soldiers played in the Civil War struggle to end human bondage. So this was not a pacifist state. But World War I taught thinking Wisconsinites that not all wars were good. And that some could be very bad, indeed. So it is that, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — the official ending point of that first global conflict — we honor the long dead sons of Wisconsin. But we also measure the lingering cost of choices that broke faith with an American experiment that began in revolt against empire builders and their imperialist designs.

The thing about World War I is that Wisconsinites knew even before the U.S. entered the conflict of kings and kaisers that it was not our fight. U.S. Sen. Robert M. La Follette, the former governor and eventual independent progressive presidential candidate, led the opposition to President Woodrow Wilson’s rush to war. La Follette raged against the president’s scheme to send the sons of farmers and shopkeepers and factory workers to die in support of George V and British colonial power.

Wilson, who had been re-elected in the fall of 1916 with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” announced in April 1917 that “America is privileged to spend her blood and her might” in “the most terrible and disastrous of all wars.” The Senate was poised to consent to the president’s folly. But La Follette objected, forcing a debate in which he argued: “If it is important for us to speak and vote our convictions in matters of internal policy, though we may unfortunately be in disagreement with the president, it is infinitely more important for us to speak and vote our convictions when the question is one of peace or war, …”

La Follette described opposition to U.S. entry into the European conflict — reading aloud from petitions and the referendum results of Monroe, Wisconsin (954 against war, 95 in favor). He counseled: “The poor, sir, who are the ones called upon to rot in the trenches, have no organized power, have no press to voice their will upon this question of peace or war; but, oh, Mr. President, at some time they will be heard.”

Only a handful of senators joined La Follette in opposing the declaration of war. In the House, of the 50 anti-war votes, nine came from Wisconsinites. They were joined by Socialist Meyer London from New York City and the first woman to serve in the Congress, Jeannette Rankin, who explained: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.”

The war was as awful as Wisconsinites had feared. In less than two years, 117,000 Americans were dead, while more than 200,000 had been wounded. La Follette was initially vilified for his opposition — with only one daily newspaper, The Capital Times, taking his side amid calls for his expulsion from the Senate.

As the war was ending, however, voters in Milwaukee elected as their congressman Socialist Victor Berger, who campaigned on the slogan “For a Speedy and Lasting Peace, Tax the Profiteers.” And when La Follette sought re-election in 1922 — after declaring: “I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead …” — he was re-elected with 80 percent of the vote.

The legacy of La Follette’s courageous opposition to World War I extended across the decades. The two U.S. Senate votes against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which committed the United States to all-out war in Vietnam, came from Oregon’s Wayne Morse, a Wisconsin native who had imbibed La Follette’s anti-imperialism as a youth, and Alaska’s Ernest Gruening, the spokesman for La Follette’s 1924 presidential campaign. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy brought his anti-Vietnam War presidential campaign to Wisconsin in large part because of the state’s history of opposition to military adventurism. George McGovern did the same in 1972 and, as recently as 2016, Bernie Sanders recalled La Follette as he campaigned in the state.

Former Sen. Gaylord Nelson’s opposition to the war in Southeast Asia and former Sen. William Proxmire’s scrutiny of Pentagon abuse was grounded in lessons learned from the foes of World War I and the profiteers who capitalized upon suffering. Sen. Russ Feingold referenced La Follette when he opposed the USA Patriot Act in 2001 and George W. Bush’s rush to war in Iraq in 2002. So, too, did Tammy Baldwin, who as a House member sided with Feingold and La Follette’s legacy on those critical votes. Congressman Mark Pocan, who holds La Follette’s old House seat, has been a steady critic of militarism and of the “dollar diplomacy” that his predecessor decried. When President Trump nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to serve as secretary of State last year, Pocan warned about those who would “place profit margins ahead of diplomacy.”

That was La Follette’s language, echoing across a century — as true, and necessary, as ever. We have not forgotten World War I. We will garland the graves of the dead, once more, on this Nov. 11. And we well recall the words of the senator who warned before the U.S. entered World War I that “this war is being forced upon our people without their knowing why and without their approval, and that wars are usually forced upon all peoples in the same way.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising.  

Link to editorial

LaborFest 2018: Veterans for Peace-Madison

LaborFest crowd

Volunteers from Madison Veterans for Peace Clarence Kailin Chapter 25 joined the South Central Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO (SCFL) in celebrating Labor Day with its annual LaborFest on Monday, September 3, at the Madison Labor Temple grounds on South Park Street.

 

 

Steve Books LaborFest

 

 

 

Bands: the Jimmys and Red Hot Horn Dawgs performed.  There were family-friendly activities: magic shows, face painting, a bounce house, balloon twister, and a caricature artist.

Editorial: To forge a better future, we must know the past – Cap Times

      • Cap Times Editorial,

    November 7, 2018

The Greatest War banner

“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.'”

— Eduardo Galeano

 

“These are difficult and demanding times. We are all drawn to the news of the moment, to election results and the governing that extends from them. It is easy to lose ourselves in the slurry of “updates” and “news alerts.”

We understand the impulse.

But the clearest view of now is often from the perspective of then.

Sometimes we have to look backward in order to fully understand the present and to begin to anticipate the future.

That is an essential premise of The Capital Times.

There are plenty of newspapers that were founded as commercial endeavors.

There are not so many newspapers that were founded in response to a historical moment — and that ground their sense of the present in recognition of the past. But that is our experience.

The Capital Times was started in 1917, as a reaction to the madness of World War I. When the newspapers of Wisconsin turned against Sen. Robert M. La Follette because of his opposition to the war, William T. Evjue quit the Wisconsin State Journal to start a daily newspaper that would defend La Follette and free speech in wartime. Because it stood for the truth in a time of lies, and because it took the side of others who did so, The Capital Times was attacked by the militarists and war profiteers of the 1910s, boycotted by the economic and political elites, and investigated by the agencies of official power.

This newspapers survived and, ultimately, thrived because Wisconsinites shared our skepticism about World War I, and about the forces that drew the United States into a war between the kings and kaisers of Europe. When that awful war finally finished, on Nov. 11, 1918, it was clear that The Capital Times would remain as a distinct journalistic voice in Wisconsin and the United States. We have always been skeptical about wars, and about the preparation for wars. We have always warned against the tendency of those in power to attack dissenters in wartime.

These values, which put us at the side of the La Follette progressives a century ago, have over the ensuing years aligned us with Gaylord Nelson and William Proxmire, with Robert Kastenmeier and Tammy Baldwin, with Mark Pocan and Gwen Moore, with George McGovern and Bernie Sanders, with all the leaders who have had the courage to question whether war is the answer.

It is this questioning that, we believe, is essential to the maintenance of an American experiment that was initiated by men like James Madison, who warned, “War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war a physical force is to be created, and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war the public treasures are to be unlocked, and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions, and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”

It seems to us that exploring the history of past wars is the best way to avoid future wars. So we heartily embrace one of the most creative projects we have seen in many years in Madison: “The Greatest War: World War One, Wisconsin, and Why It Still Matters.” Ken Fitzsimmons, the frontman for one of Madison’s finest bands, The Kissers, serves as the artistic director for this remarkably ambitious project and we salute him for his creativity and his integrity. Building on his own passionate interest in World War I, Fitzsimmons and his many collaborators have produced a rock ‘n’ roll history show that examines the First World War with a special focus on how it has influenced Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Veterans Museum have donated archival materials, and Wisconsin musicians — The Kissers, Sean Michael Dargan, November Criminals, and The Viper and His Famous Orchestra — are contributing the songs for a one-night performance at 7 p.m. on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, at Madison’s newly renovated Barrymore Theatre.

This one night extravaganza will blend music, visuals and spoken word performance into a whole that tells the story of the First World War, from the sinking of the Lusitania to the end of the war — with The Kissers song, “Why Does It Have to Be Me?” that dramatizes the negotiation of the armistice that ended the conflict on that distant 11th day of the 11th month. This performance is deeply rooted in the Wisconsin experience of the Great War, with inspiration drawn from letters written by soldiers from Shawano and Stevens Point and a nurse who came of age on Few Street in Madison.

“No prior knowledge of World War I is needed to enjoy this concert,” explain the organizers. “You only need an appreciation for good music and thoughtful lyrics — along with a willingness to glimpse at the courage, despair, optimism, anger, hope, and sense of foreboding experienced back then by so many of our fellow human beings.”

After a long century, it is good to reflect. And to anticipate a future that will only be better if we understand enough about the mistakes of the past to avoid repeating them in the future.”

Link to editorial

More on Armistice Day

 

THE GREATEST WAR: WORLD WAR ONE, WISCONSIN, AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS

Click here for more information on the music/multimedia event at the Barrymore in Madison on Sunday, November 11: Armistice Day

November, 11, 2018 at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, WI

Presenting new music inspired by the First World War, this rock ‘n’ roll history show will explore the conflict and the effect it has had on Wisconsinites then and now.

Featuring The Kissers, Sean Michael Dargan, November Criminals, and The Viper and His Famous Orchestra.

Tickets


Facebook: Art by Amanda Zehren :Go like Amanda’s page here. Join us anytime after 3pm on the day of the show in front of the Barrymore as award winning, Wisconsin artist Amanda Zehren creates a chalk art piece. (She will also be creating a piece for Veterans for Peace-Milwaukee at their Armistice event.)