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Lonely Dissenter: Jane Addams Reflects on her Peace-making Efforts During World War I

January 23, 2020

by Ellen Tucker

Peace Delegates on NOORDAM, the oceanliner that carried American delegates across the Atlantic — Mrs. P. Lawrence, Jane Addams, Anna Molloy, Bain News Service, 1915. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-18848.

In her essay “Personal Reactions In Time of War,” Jane Addams describes her experience as an opponent of World War I during a time of growing pro-war sentiment in the US, fed by government and media propagandists. By 1922, when Adams wrote the book from which the essay is drawn (Peace and Bread in Time of War), disillusionment had succeeded enthusiasm for America’s entry into the European conflict. The war had been promoted to those who enlisted as both a test of personal manliness and a holy crusade to protect democracy. Yet it did not fulfill these expectations. A new kind of warfare, characterized by constant shelling along a nearly immovable front line, did not offer clear opportunities for individual heroism. Most often, it pitted relatively helpless human beings against impersonal machines of destruction: mortars, artillery, flamethrowers, and poison gas. More important, instead of completely disabling German aggression against self-determining, democratic nations, the war ended in an armistice between the exhausted foes. Nevertheless, the changing American view of the war did not bring Addams back into harmony with public opinion.

Isolationism vs. Internationalism

Americans reacted to their experience in World War I by re-embracing their customary isolationism. Hence, when the League of Nations convened for the first time on January 10, 1920 (one hundred years ago this month) the United States was not among the founding members. Although President Woodrow Wilson had campaigned hard in favor of it, Republican Senators had persuaded their colleagues that membership in the league would deprive Americans of control over their own foreign policy; it would draw the US into each new European conflict.

Addams herself, during the war, had dared to hope that international efforts to mediate the conflict might end it. She served as president of the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace, a group formed in 1915 and headquartered in Amsterdam, which called for neutral parties to engage in immediate and continuous mediation between the belligerents. Addressing the group—whose members included women from both warring sides—Addams said that “profound and spiritual” forces had brought them together. Women, she said, understood that “there are universal emotions which have nothing to do with natural frontiers.”

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