A Rich Man's War and a Poor Man's Fight
by George C. Leef, Posted July 22, 2005
Rich Mans War, Poor Mans Fight: Race, Class, and
Power in the Rural South during the First World War by
Jeanette Keith (University of North Carolina Press,
2004); 260 pages; $55.95 hardcover; $22.50 paperback.
What little most Americans have heard about U.S.
involvement in World War I is that U.S. troops
swaggered into France, defeated the mighty armies of
Imperial Germany, and thereby made the world safe for
democracy (as President Wilson put it). That there was
deep opposition to the war across a wide swath of the
American public is scarcely known at all. At the time,
however, the Wilson administration was so concerned
about opposition to U.S. entry into the raging
European conflict that it pushed through Congress the
Espionage and Sedition Acts, which were vigorously
used against people who spoke out against the war.
Neither the effusive pro-war rhetoric of Wilson and
his allies nor the crackdown on civil liberties was,
however, able to extinguish the sentiment among many
Americans that the war was a horrible blunder.
In her new book, Rich Mans War, Poor Mans Fight,
history professor Jeanette Keith examines the
opposition to American participation in World War I by
focusing on, as the books subtitle says, race,
class, and power in the rural South. Keith has dug
deep into historical data small-town newspapers,
Selective Service records, court documents, and more
to give us a picture that many people will find
difficult to believe, namely that some of the most
determined resistance to the World War I draft took
place in the rural South. She tells a fascinating
The groundwork for U.S. military intervention abroad
was begun years before the onset of war in Europe.
Keith explains that the Preparedness Movement was
the brainchild of ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and
other nationalists who made a military buildup part
of their agenda, along with Anglophilia, immigration
restrictions, Americanization, eugenics, and strident
glorification of manhood and patriotic Motherhood.
That movement started in the Republican Party,
following its split in 1912 and the consequent victory
of Woodrow Wilson. Once the war began in Europe, the
cries for preparedness spread rapidly throughout
much of both the middle and upper classes. Newspapers
editorialized in favor of conscription and the
expansion of the military. Writers such as Hudson
Maxim (of the famed armaments family) harangued the
populace with tales of how American women would become
the prey of invading German armies unless the nation
turned itself into a New World version of Prussia. By
1915, much of America was bristling and ready for
Southern opposition to World War I
But much of it wasnt. Many Americans, from all walks
of life and places in the political spectrum, abhorred
the militaristic talk and tried to dampen the nations
surging bellicosity. Although the South is generally
regarded as an especially militaristic section of the
country, Keith shows that there was strong opposition
to the Preparedness Movement there. Southern
antimilitarists, she writes,
argued that when the nation needed defending, American
men would volunteer for the military, as they had in
all previous wars, and they opposed building up a
conscripted military force large enough to allow the
U.S. government to go adventuring overseas.
Opponents also raised another objection that a big
army would mean tax increases. It is interesting to
note that when government was relatively small, people
were attentive to the prospect of even a small
increase in taxes, while today, with our vast
government, people hardly seem troubled at all when
further huge expansions are announced.
When war was finally declared in April 1917, some of
the most vocal opponents were southern Democrats. Rep.
Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, for example, spoke
against the declaration of war, saying, Let me once
remind the House that it takes neither moral nor
physical courage to declare a war for others to
fight. Many Southerners felt the same way. Keith
quotes from a letter written to a Mississippi senator:
You may go ahead and declare war in order to satisfy a
very few, but I hear the men behind the plow say they
are not going for they have nothing in Wilsons war.
Sedition and conscription
Soon the phrase rich mans war, poor mans fight
became a popular expression of the disdain many
ordinary Americans had for U.S. entry into the war.
The Wilson administration, frantic to shut down
criticism, quickly passed the Sedition Act to make it
illegal for people to denounce the war. Within days of
its enactment, a barber in Roanoke, Virginia, was
arrested by federal agents for having distributed a
flyer entitled A Rich Mans War and a Poor Mans
Fight. Freedom of speech was unimportant to Wilson
and his backers. Maximizing the war effort trumped
every other consideration, including the Constitution.
Wilsons campaign against open dissent was quite
successful. Keith writes,
By late summer, when the boys shipped out for camp,
southern rural dissenters had been thoroughly
intimidated: denied access to the mails, spied upon by
agents of the federal government, denounced by their
local political enemies, and in some cases, accused of
sedition and incarcerated.
Opposing the war and opposing the suppression of free
speech were equally dangerous to ones liberty, yet a
few Southerners still did. Some, Keith notes, were
Populists, some agrarians, a few were Socialists, and
many had no particular political philosophy. The
common thread was an inability to see why young
American men should be forced to risk death in the
trenches of Europe.
Keiths chapter Race, Class, Gender, and Draft
Dodging is especially enlightening. She notes first
that while the government initially sought to fill up
the armys ranks with volunteers, so few men
volunteered that conscription was quickly adopted.
Local draft boards held almost unchallengeable power
to either induct or defer men. It is perhaps
surprising that the prevailing racism and economic
structure here worked against whites. Blacks were
largely exempted from the draft because they were
mostly employed by white businessmen who didnt want
to lose their labor force. Those businessmen had
connections and used them to keep their workers
Also at work was the widespread belief that blacks
just wouldnt be dependable soldiers. In that, there
may have been a fair measure of truth, since many
southern blacks in 19171918 tended to view the war as
irrelevant to their concerns. Some blacks were
drafted, but the white view was that they wouldnt be
reliable in battle and they were mostly consigned to
It was rural white men who were drafted in the largest
numbers and were sent to the front- lines. Keith
quotes numerous letters written by women to draft
boards and elected officials begging that their
husbands and sons be exempted from the military
because their work was needed at home. Such pleas fell
mainly on deaf ears.
Draft evasion was surprisingly common. One key reason
that it was possible for many Southerners to escape
conscription was the primitive state of governmental
record keeping in the South. In those days, prior to
Social Security and its near-universal tracking of
people, government officials often lacked accurate
information about citizens residences and ages.
Referring to James Scotts important book Seeing Like
a State, Keith contends that Southern states hadnt
yet perfected the techniques used by modern
governments to see their populations and thereby
subject them to control. No doubt, some young men in
the South survived owing to the fact that their
officials didnt know as much about them as officials
in the Northern states knew about young men there.
Among those who couldnt evade the draft, there was a
surprisingly high degree of resistance and desertion.
Federal officials had a difficult time tracking down
draft resisters and deserters from military camps, men
who were often sheltered by sympathetic citizens.
Desertion rates, Keiths research indicates, ranged
from 7 percent in North Carolina to more than 20
percent in Florida. Desertion was not just a southern
phenomenon, however; in New York, the desertion rate
was higher than 13 percent. Blood was shed in more
than a few of the forays where officials went to
apprehend men who were supposed to be in the army, but
preferred their freedom instead.
Rich Mans War, Poor Mans Fight gives the reader a
unique view of the United States in its first modern
war, the extraordinary lengths to which the government
was willing to go to choke off dissent, and the
reaction to the war in a region of the country that
most people would assume reflexively supported a
Democratic president who had done his utmost to
generate war fever in the nation. It is a truly
original piece of historical analysis.
My sole complaint is that Keith makes it sound as
though the only opposition to the war came from the
American Left. (Some of those leftists, it should be
noted, were war enthusiasts later when Stalin attacked
nations such as Poland and Finland. Their opposition
to American involvement in World War I was
opportunistic rather than based on a principled
rejection of militarism.)
While it wasnt her aim to give a thorough catalogue
of the Americans who didnt buy the war hysteria,
Keith might at some point have noted that there were
libertarian opponents such as Albert Jay Nock and H.L.
Mencken. The phrase rich mans war was a calumny on
the many wealthy who wanted the United States to stay
out of the war. World War I was mostly a poor mans
fight, but it would have been more accurate to call it
an interventionist politicians war. But for them,
America would have stayed at peace.
That imbalance aside, this is an excellent work that
reveals much about militarism and its enemies in early