World War I marked the end of the program of the peace movement of preceding years. The war was a chilling experience. Although statesmen had anticipated the war, they and people everywhere were shocked when it did not end quickly, like the Franco-Prussian War, and lasted more than four years. The United States intervened. It became necessary, so it seemed, for the New World to redress the balance of the Old. It was necessary, Americans believed, to get the Europeans off dead center, to move them toward peace.
The principal accomplishment of peaceminded Americans during the war and in the months of negotiations afterward in Paris was to draw up the constitution, or Covenant, of the League of Nations. Participation in the war convinced many Americans that they had not merely repaid their debt to the marquis de Lafayette but that their country, as President Woodrow Wilson said, comprised all nations and therefore understood all nations, and American organization of the peace would ensure a decent future for mankind.
But then came another shock for the millions of Americans who looked forward to world peace—rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and thereby of the Covenant, which constituted the first twenty-six articles of the treaty, by the Senate in 1919–1920. President Wilson had told everyone who would listen that Article X, which promised international action to prevent war, was the "heart" of the Covenant. To the millions of League of Nations supporters in the United States, it seemed that the Senate had broken the heart of the world.
The American peace groups of the interwar era divided over the wisdom of establishing a League of Nations, and perhaps the best way to understand the division is to characterize it as pro-league and anti-league—or conservative and radical—because of differing outlooks on the organization of peace. Most conservative peace groups—including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the World Peace Foundation, the League of Nations Association, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation—had originated in the eastern portion of the country. They possessed financial strength—at its foundation in 1910 the Carnegie Endowment received $10 million in bonds of the United States Steel Corporation. Those bonds had been insured by the profits of World War I, a situation presenting the odd picture of a peace organization operating on the profits of war. The World Peace Foundation had also begun its work in the same year, with $1 million. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation, created in 1923, received initial contributions of nearly $1 million.
The work of the conservative wing of American peace organizations varied, for their members realized that all sorts of activity could come under the general heading of peace. The Carnegie Endowment annually spent $500,000 sponsoring such projects as a monthly bulletin, International Conciliation, and "international mind alcoves" in small libraries throughout the United States. Its publishing program included the monumental Economic and Social History of the World War in one hundred volumes. It financed smaller peace organizations in the United States and abroad, maintained the Paris Center for European Peace, rebuilt the library of the University of Louvain in Belgium, endowed university chairs in international relations, and advanced codification of international law. The World Peace Foundation worked in favor of the World Court and distributed League of Nations publications in the United States. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation worked to perpetuate Wilsonian ideals.
Radical peace organizations of the interwar era were far less staid and restrained. Almost all had come into existence as a result of World War I. Names of these groups changed as finances and memberships waxed and waned, but altogether there were perhaps forty operating at the national level, with many more local organizations. These were groups of believers in world peace, filled with hope for their programs. Often their purposes were revealed in their names: the American Committee for the Outlawry of War, the American Committee for the Cause and Cure of War, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the National Council for the Prevention of War, the Committee on Militarism in Education, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Parliament of Peace and Universal Brotherhood, the Peace Heroes Memorial Society, the War Resisters' League, the Women's Peace Society, the World Peace Association.
Operating procedures of the radical peace organizations, the evangelists among the peace workers, varied markedly. Some were virtually one-man operations, such as the American Committee for the Outlawry of War, financed by the Chicago lawyer Salmon O. Levinson, who spent $15,000 a year to spread the idea that war should not be permitted under international law—it should be outlawed. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom had as many as six thousand members and thousands of dollars each year for expenses, much of the money provided by friends of the Chicago social worker Jane Addams. The National Council for the Prevention of War was the creation of the Congregational minister Frederick J. Libby to work against arms manufacturers during the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922, and after the success of that meeting Libby continued his group in support of other causes. It acted as a Washington lobby for peace groups, but always reflected the pacifism of its founder. It spent $100,000 a year; in 1928 its office roster included twelve secretaries and eighteen office assistants. Among other radical groups the Women's Peace Society had two thousand members; the Fellowship of Reconciliation, forty-five hundred; and the War Resisters' League, four hundred. Their financial situations were relatively modest.
How, one might ask, could even substantial groups (in terms of finances) like the conservative organizations, or small groups such as the radical peace organizations, hope to influence the millions of American citizens in the years after World War I? How can one speak of the peace movement in America when the organizations for peace, affluent or otherwise, were composed of such disparate groups and often of committees dominated by a few persons or even one individual?
An important reason for their influence was their ability to act through a maze of supporting peace groups and interlocking committees. Membership of the radical peace organizations was astonishingly small, and within it the core of full-time peace workers was less than one hundred individuals in Washington and New York. But individuals could join more than one group or otherwise obtain cooperation between peace organizations. And the ardent peace worker Carrie Chapman Catt federated organizations not primarily interested in peace; she brought together as many as a dozen of these national organizations—such as the American Association of University Women and the Young Women's Christian Association—into the American Committee for the Cause and Cure of War.
Peace organizations were influential because of their frequent claim to represent the female voters of the United States. After World War I the franchise had been extended to all American women. Their voting preferences were highly uncertain, and Catt was able to threaten the nation's political leaders with a unified female vote in support of whatever she was advocating.
Still another reason for the extraordinary influence of American peace groups during the 1920s and 1930s perhaps needs to be explained. Elected officials of the time were sensitive to pressure from voters advocating a program. Of course there has always been pressure upon officials. But to leaders of the postwar period a new force, an aroused public opinion, seemed to be at work. Participation in the war had brought interest in propaganda, and in turn produced much learned and unlearned speculation about public opinion. Walter Lippmann published a book on the subject during the early 1920s. The science of persuasion, as applied to mass consumption, came into vogue, with advertising taking on the proportions of a national industry. Political leaders felt that they were being watched, their actions scrutinized, as never before. Any individuals or small groups who could claim to represent larger groups or great organizations received instantaneous attention. It was a nervous, rather unsophisticated era in which claims to importance, carefully advanced, could propel their bearers toward success in whatever they were advocating.
American peace organizations indulged in a pressure politics that for years proved far more successful than it should have been—because of the hypersensitive political climate. They did everything possible to give the impression that their programs represented the thoughts of the American people. In their letter-writing campaigns to members of Congress, workers for peace learned early on that it was advisable to make each letter appear different, even if it was for the same purpose and said the same thing; the technique was to have separately written appeals, individually signed—never should there be forms that, apparently, had been signed without much thought or purpose. They also engaged in the tactic of presenting petitions, and in the time-honored activity of interviewing members of Congress. In the latter work Catt was an expert; she warned one of her workers that she never believed a senator's attitude was sincere unless he had been interviewed by several people and said the same thing to each one.
As for the ideas of American peace workers during the period from the Armistice in 1918 to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, ideas about world peace, or peace for the United States, proliferated but most Americans interested in peace found a reason for advocacy of one of several major plans or purposes. The League of Nations was the greatest source of hope for peace, and many Americans looked to the future, if not immediate, membership of their country in that organization. The force of the league idea owed a great deal to its novelty. The United Nations has never captured the imagination of Americans in the way that the League of Nations did. The idea of a league had not been a part of earlier American peace programs, which had looked either to the codification of international law, including treaties of arbitration and conciliation, or to a working out of more diplomatic arrangements through periodic congresses like the Hague Peace Conferences.
Only during World War I did the idea of a more political League of Nations find favor in the United States. Interest had risen to a considerable height by the summer of 1919—so far, indeed, that Senator Henry Cabot Lodge found himself forced to temporize during hearings of the Foreign Relations Committee until popular sentiment lessened. During passage of the Treaty of Versailles through the tortuosities of Senate maneuver, Lodge always avoided criticism of the league idea; if he criticized, it was because the League of Nations was Wilson's league, not because of the idea itself. As the years passed, it became evident that American membership in the league was, practically speaking, impossible, because the league seemed too concerned about the smaller points of European politics. But many Americans—Wilsonians, they frequently called themselves—continued to feel that the Senate amendments of the League Covenant had broken the heart of the world and that the turning of the world toward war during the 1930s was a direct result of failure of the United States to join the League of Nations.
A second program for American peace workers during the 1920s and 1930s was membership in the World Court. Advocates of the League of Nations often were advocates of the court, which, though technically separate from the league, was actually one of its organs. The World Court reflected the traditional American concern for codification of international law. Its protocol stated, in classic form, that among the sources of this law (in addition to treaties, decisions of international conferences, and writings of publicists) were decisions of jurists. It seemed sensible to assist in codification in this way, just as municipal law was organized through daily work of the courts. Yet connection of the league with the World Court, the proviso that the court could give advisory opinions to the league's council, encouraged the league's enemies in the Senate to affix so many onerous conditions to membership in the World Court as to make it impossible. Peace organizations did their best to secure membership, but failed to anticipate the importance of the league connection.
Disarmament was a popular program, and at least in the realm of naval disarmament (a better term would be "limitation" of armaments) there was some progress. As is now fairly evident, limitation of American, British, Japanese, Italian, and French naval arms was a useful activity during the 1920s. In the next decade it made less sense. It was not a major support of peace, for the peace of Europe was conditioned upon the size of armies, not navies. Germany and the Soviet Union were unaffected by the naval conferences sponsored by the allies of World War I. Germany and the Soviet Union attended the World Disarmament Conference held at Geneva in the early 1930s, and the Soviet spokesman, Maxim Litvinov, was eloquent in support of proposals for peace. But these two powers placed little trust in disarmament. Peace workers in the United States never really understood the peripheral importance of disarmament. It seems safe to say that they attached far too much meaning to it, spending too much time and energy working for it. Like the World Court, disarmament acted as a magnet, drawing their attention away from German and Japanese aggression that in the 1930s brought the collapse of world peace.
Another fascination of Americans interested in peace after World War I was the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), in which almost all nations of the world promised to renounce and outlaw war. The pact was the crowning achievement of American peace groups in the interwar period. Despite Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg's initial and private feeling that peace workers were "a set of God-damned fools" and "God-damned pacifists," the groups managed to coerce and then convert Kellogg to support the Pact of Paris. The secretary received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929. Unfortunately, the Kellogg-Briand Pact was too ethereal a creation, too impossible in terms of practical world politics, to assist world peace. It was an illustration of the traditional American liking for pronouncement, for doctrine and dogma. Peace movements, by their nature doctrinaire, were much attracted to formulas officially announced. Insofar as American groups occupied themselves with Kellogg's pronouncement, they failed, as in other programs, to work realistically for peace.
In the interwar years Americans continued to adhere to their traditional faith in freedom of world trade—in a trade largely unrestricted by tariffs, quotas, and other regulations. The American peace groups frequently championed this path to peace, although the idea of freedom of world trade failed to attract them in the manner of such programs as the League of Nations, the World Court, naval disarmament, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, for it seemed to be a less direct attack on war. Secretary of State Cordell Hull was fascinated by the problem of lowering tariff barriers. An old Wilsonian, he received much favorable public comment by promoting what to his mind was almost a substitute for American membership in the League of Nations, the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act (1934).
In the late 1930s, with war beginning to be talked about in Europe and then becoming a reality, many Americans interested in peace restricted their concerns to their own country's neutrality. The idea of neutrality flourished, an ancient American hope embodied in belief in a New World and an Old. There was a desire to restrict the merchants of death, the dealers in the international arms trade. Another belief of the time was that President Wilson's interpretation of neutral rights to include the right of Americans to travel aboard belligerent ships had taken the country into World War I; and if this interpretation and other latitudinarian views of neutrality were avoided, with the nation seeking only the most narrow of rights upon the sea, then the forthcoming European war would not touch the United States. The series of neutrality enactments beginning in 1935 attracted immense attention from American workers for peace. Congress eventually changed this legislation to permit American trade with the democratic nations of Europe, but the changes were made in gingerly fashion so as to avoid offending the predominantly isolationist peace organizations.