As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I, it is useful to remember that North Carolina was very divided about entering “the war to end all wars.”
For many Tar Heels, World War I was another in a long list of bloody European conflicts that the United States would be best advised to steer clear of.
One of the leaders of the anti-war faction in Congress was House Majority Leader Claude Kitchin, a Democrat from Scotland Neck in Halifax County. Kitchin was a member of a famous North Carolina political family – his brother was a congressman and a governor.
Kitchin, an attorney, was a rural progressive who rose in North Carolina politics as a member of the Farmer’s Alliance – a powerful force in the late 19th century.
In the years leading up to the war, Kitchin opposed efforts to end the United States’ position of neutrality between England and Germany, and saw any effort by the United States to re-arm as the first step toward war. He railed against “the big Navy and big Army program of the jingoes and war traffickers.’’ He wrote to Populist William Jennings Bryan that “some of our level-headed people have gone mad over ‘national preparedness.’”
Although he backed fellow Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s election as president, he opposed Wilson’s appeal to Congress to declare war on Germany. In a dramatic midnight speech on April 5, 1917, Kitchin told a packed House that he was “unwilling for my country by statutory command, to pull up the last anchor of peace in the world and extinguish during the long night of a world-wide war the only remaining star of hope for Christendom.”
Knowing that his stand was unpopular, Kitchin offered to walk “barefoot and alone.” Fifty congressmen joined him in opposing the war.
Kitchin, who also was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, also had a role in financing the war. He helped push through the federal income tax and the inheritance tax – believing the war should be funded on a pay-as you go basis rather than by bonds.
On the Senate side, the new taxes were guided through by Sen. Furnifold Simmons, from the New Bern area, who was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
“During the war billions of dollars had to be collected from the people, an immense army had to be raised, quarters had to be built, ships had to be constructed, and supplies must be manufactured in great quantities both for ourselves and for our allies,” Simmons wrote in his memoirs. “The problem was to find the funds with which to acquire all of this war equipment, and that immense task fell mainly upon me and upon W.G. McAdoo, secretary of the treasury.”
Simmons recalled one Southern millionaire coming into his office to complain about the taxes on excess profits and incomes.
“You are ruining us,’ he said. “He complained at length of the new taxes, and I let him express his views freely,” Simmons wrote. “I told him that he could count himself fortunate if we merely took his income. Before the war was over a capital levy might be necessary. He threw up his hands and left.”
The war divided the Page brothers, who grew up in Cary.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Page, who represented the 7th District, opposed Wilson’s preparedness program and was also against his neutrality policies, which he thought tilted toward England. In 1916, he unsuccessfully opposed Wilson’s Navy buildup.
His brother, Water Hines Page, was Wilson’s Anglophile ambassador to Great Britain, who strongly lobbied the president to bring the country into the war on behalf of England.
Josephus Daniels, the longtime editor of The News & Observer and Wilson’s secretary of the Navy, was torn. Along with Bryan, the secretary of state, he was the Wilson Cabinet member who had the most reservations about entering the war. Bryan resigned his post because he disagreed with Wilson’s policies.
That left Daniels the leading skeptic of the war among Cabinet members.
“Well, Daniels?” the president asked, in polling his Cabinet before deciding to enter the war. Daniels would later record that it had been “a supreme moment” in his life – one in which he hoped and prayed “this cup would pass.”
Daniels replied: “But there is no other course opened.”
Daniels would be responsible for, among other things, ferrying American troops to Europe.
Even 100 years later, it is not entirely clear who was in the right. World War I was one of the great disasters of the 20th century, one that brought about the rise of communism, the Nazis, and the divisions in the Middle East with which we are still dealing.