Michael Kazin’s War Against War confirms his stature as one of the most astute historians of American 19th- and 20th-century social movements. Equally significant to readers is that the lessons contained in his new book are presciently relevant ... The one weakness of Kazin’s book is that his four figures come and go, like actors on a stage, leaving the reader wanting to know more about the personal or inner lives of these figures. But that may be too much to ask in a history of this kind ... Kazin does not end his valuable book with the collapse of the movement. Rather, he reports how both country and government turned against these activists. Free speech was repressed without compunction and prison terms freely handed out to those activists who refused to cease opposing the war ... Offering a lesson for today, Kazin says that peace movements are unlike other efforts at social change. They must grow quickly and lure leaders from other movements if they are to succeed, as did the World War I anti-war forces for 51 months until events undid their work. But Kazin’s book should not be seen merely as the tale of the work and ultimate failure of peace activists. This was the most consequential of debates in the 20th century. Since then, every one of the numerous entries of the United States into war has raised the question that this struggle first brought up.
...[a] fine, sorrowful history ... Kazin’s work is an instructive one, an important book in chronicling a too often neglected chapter in our history. Most of all, it is a timely reminder of how easily the will of the majority can be thwarted in even the mightiest of democracies ... No matter how familiar one is with the era, it is still shocking to read the breathtaking swiftness with which the country flipped into reaction once war was declared...Strikes were brutally crushed and labor unions all but annihilated. Black churches and neighborhoods were burned to the ground, and hundreds, maybe thousands of African-Americans murdered in white-on-black pogroms. Civil liberties continued to be curtailed, elected Socialist leaders were thrown out of office and radicals like Emma Goldman were deported ... It is, in the end, difficult to believe that the United States could really have stayed as pure and unentangled in foreign affairs as Kazin would have preferred...Kazin would trace our existing national security state back to the decision we made to enter the Great War in 1917, but in fact that prototype was almost entirely dismantled. It was the ways of the world, alas, that forced us to rebuild it.
Central to the story is Woodrow Wilson, who encourages the peace advocates while slowly moving his country toward a pro-Allies stance. Mr. Kazin seems ambivalent about how to portray him — at various points, he comes across as idealistic, scheming and self-sacrificing ... Could the U.S. have kept itself out of World War I? Mr. Kazin suggests a few scenarios. One of the most fascinating involves Mr. Wilson losing his re-election bid in 1916. By running as the president who 'kept us out of war,' Mr. Wilson held the peace forces at bay and had a freer hand to join the Allies a year later ... Mr. Kazin ends War Against War with a salute to those who search for peace. He deserves praise for portraying that quest with clear-eyed honesty and rigor. Maybe that kind of clarity could help keep us out of wars to come.