On October 29, 1915, Jane Addams, a leading American social activist, writes to United States President Woodrow Wilson, warning him of the potential dangers of readying the country to enter the First World War.
When World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, President Wilson accurately reflected the isolationist view of the majority of Americans when he called the war a cause “with which we have nothing to do, whose causes cannot touch us.” In the wake of the German sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania in May 1915—which left 1,201 people dead, including 128 Americans—public opinion, along with U.S. governmental policy, began to turn ever more steadily towards entrance into the war against the Central Powers. Before the end of that year, Wilson had issued a call to improve U.S. military preparedness, including a spike in the production of armaments and a twofold increase in the size of the army.
Addams, the celebrated founder of Hull House, a social settlement that served as a welfare agency for needy families in Chicago, had also become a leading international voice for peace and the chairwoman of the Women’s Peace Party. In April 1915, she attended the International Congress of Women at The Hague in the Netherlands, an assemblage of women from around the world, including the belligerent nations, who advocated a non-violent method of conflict resolution. Disturbed by Wilson’s call for increased military preparedness, Addams wrote to the president on October 29 of that year in the name of the Women’s Peace Party.
Above all, Addams expressed concern that the rich, powerful U.S. was setting an example for other, poorer nations, who would feel compelled to increase their own preparedness and move the world ever further from the ideal of peace and international cooperation. “At this crisis of the world, to establish a ‘citizen soldiery’ and enormously to increase our fighting equipment would inevitably make all other nations fear instead of trust us,” Adams argued. “It has been the proud hope of American citizens who love their kind, a hope nobly expressed in some of your own messages, that to the United States might be granted the unique privilege not only of helping the war-worn world to a lasting peace, but of aiding toward a gradual and proportional lessening of that vast burden of armament which has crushed to poverty the people of the old world.”
Wilson assured Addams at the time that he had no intention of leading the U.S. into war; he was in fact re-elected that November on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” By the following spring, however, events—including continued German aggression at sea and an intercepted telegram from the German foreign office proposing an alliance between Germany and Mexico in the case of war with the U.S.—had seemingly conspired to change his mind and to turn the tide of American public opinion more fully toward intervention against the Central Powers. On April 2, 1917, Wilson delivered his war message to Congress; the U.S. formally entered World War I four days later.
Addams continued her work with the Women’s Peace Party, which in 1919 became the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). As the WILPF’s first president, she served until 1929; she also assisted Herbert Hoover, head of the American Relief Administration, with that organization’s efforts to provide food supplies for millions in poverty-stricken post-war Europe. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, Addams died four years later; her funeral was held in the courtyard of Hull House.