“A number of prominent individuals in Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere publicly pushed for peace. Some were celebrated for their convictions; others were vilified as traitors.”
UNLIKE 1914, FEW in France or Britain relished the prospect of war with Germany in 1939.
There were no cheering mobs in the streets of Paris or London following Hitler’s invasion of Poland as was the case at the outset of the Great War. There was little talk of glory, adventure or fun this time out. In fact, most citizens of the Allied nations dreaded the prospect of standing up to Nazi aggression.
Yet with the joint Anglo-French declaration of hostilities on Sept. 3, the populations of the Allied nations largely viewed the coming conflict as one that (like it or not) needed to be fought. A poll conducted at the time found that more than 76 percent of Britons backed the Chamberlain Government’s decision to go to war against Nazi Germany (LISTEN TO THE PRIME MINISTER’S SPEECH HERE), while Only 13 percent opposed to the move.
When two years later, America’s formally joined the fight, public support in the U.S. was even more hawkish. Although, up until late 1941, the overwhelming majority of stateside voters wanted the country to stay out of widening conflict (80 percent according to a Gallup poll from February of that year), after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, support for war against the Axis skyrocketed to 97 percent.
Yet despite the popularity of the war effort, not everybody was in favour of conflict. A number of prominent individuals in Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere publicly pushed for peace. Some were celebrated for their convictions; others were vilified as traitors. Here are some of the more famous cases.
George Bernard Shaw
Irish-born intellectual, journalist and Nobel Prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw was an outspoken pacifist. On the eve of the Second World War, the 82-year-old author of such plays The Devil’s Disciple, Saint Joan, Caesar and Cleopatra and Pygmalion, famously invoked The Bible’s “Sermon on the Mount” to decry the coming bloodshed. “The lesson we have to learn,” Shaw told the BBC in 1939, “is that our dislike for a certain person, or even for the whole human race, does not give us any right to injure our fellow-creatures, however odious they may be.”
One of history’s foremost champions of non-violent resistance, Mahatma Gandhi also abhorred all armed conflict. With the clouds of war looming in Europe, the 69-year-old Indian statesman and spiritual leader went so far as to send a personal letter to Hitler appealing for peace. “Dear friend,” he wrote. “It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state. Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success? I anticipate your forgiveness if I have erred in writing to you.” The letter was signed: “Your sincere friend.” When hostilities erupted, Gandhi repeatedly called upon world leaders to eschew bloodshed and search for peace. Later, he reluctantly embraced India’s involvement in the British Empire’s war effort, insofar as it might help further the cause of independence.
Britain’s Oswald Mosley was also opposed to war with Germany, but not on ethical or spiritual grounds — his rationale was purely ideological. As the head of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), Mosley spent most of the 1930s railing against communism, immigrants and Jews while singing the praises of Nazism. At the peak of his party’s popularity, the World War One veteran and former Conservative MP, commanded a following of 50,000 Britons. But as Europe edged closer to conflict, his supporters dwindled. Despite this, the 42-year-old Mosley continued to blast London’s opposition to Hitler with his Mind Britain’s Business campaign. When hostilities commenced, the BUF advocated a negotiated settlement with Nazi Germany. In 1940, the government finally outlawed the party and placed Mosley under arrest for the duration. After the war, he lived in both Ireland and France, but later returned to Britain and tried to reenter public life. He died in 1980.
Fritz Julius Kuhn
Mosley’s American counterpart, Fritz Julius Kuhn, was also a public opponent of war with Germany. The Munich-born World War One veteran left his homeland for the United States in 1928, becoming a U.S. citizen six years later. Although an American, Kuhn was enthralled by Nazism. In 1936 he established an ultra-right wing copycat party known as the German American Bund. Staunchly anti-communist and anti-Semitic, Kuhn and his followers organized trips to the Fatherland to revel in the accomplishments of National Socialism and hoped to transplant the movement to North America. Kuhn even established his own army of stormtroopers who frequently brawled with anyone who turned up to protest his Bund meetings. The increasingly wary national press soon labelled Kuhn the “American Fuhrer”. In early 1939, the Bund staged a rally at Madison Square Gardens that drew 20,000. Kuhn used the occasion to savage the Roosevelt Administration as a nest of Marxists and puppets of the so-called international Jewish conspiracy. Eager to squelch the group, U.S. authorities investigated the Bund’s finances and found that Kuhn had been embezzling its funds. He was imprisoned, stripped of his citizenship and deported in 1945. He died in his native Munich six years later with barley a cent to his name.
Jeannette Rankin was also against the U.S. involvement in World War Two, but not because she was in league with the Axis. The Montana Congresswoman, Republican and one-time suffragette was a committed pacifist. In fact, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rankin, 61, would go down in history for casting the only vote against declaring war on Japan. “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” After leaving the Capitol that day, Rankin was chased by an angry mob. A political pariah virtually overnight, she promptly resigned her seat in and became an advocate for civil and women’s rights. Twenty-five years later, Rankin returned to the limelight when she joined anti-war movement of the 1960s. She died in 1973 at the age of 92.
Desmond Doss was also against the war. A self-described pacifist, the 23-year-old Lynchburg, Virginia-native and Seventh-Day Adventist was drafted into the army in early 1942. Refusing to carry a gun on the basis of his unwavering religious convictions, the unlikely infantryman volunteered to serve as a medic instead. Despite his unwillingness to kill, Doss repeatedly darted through machine gun fire at Okinawa to retrieve his wounded comrades. His heroism eventually won him the Medal of Honor. In fact, he was the first conscientious objector in history to win the legendary commendation.
Charles Lindbergh (… and others)
Another American hero, aviator Charles Lindbergh, focused his unrivalled star power on keeping the U.S. on the sidelines of the war in Europe. During the late 1930s, Lucky Lindy, who was also an admirer of Hitler, travelled to the Third Reich on a number of occasions to marvel at Germany’s growing air power. The Nazis in turn hailed Lindbergh as a hero. As the United States was slowly drawn into the conflict, Lindbergh became the pitchman for the isolationist America First Committee, an organization whose supporters included Walt Disney, actress Lilian Gish along with future presidents Gerald R. Ford and John F. Kennedy. Lindy roundly condemned Britain and France the real aggressors of the conflict and cautioned Americans against what he saw as the real menace to U.S.: Bolshevism. “I was deeply concerned that the potentially gigantic power of America, guided by uninformed and impractical idealism, might crusade into Europe to destroy Hitler,” Lindbergh explained. “Hitler’s destruction would lay Europe open to the rape, loot and barbarism of Soviet Russia‘s forces, causing possibly the fatal wounding of western civilization.” Later, he stumped against the White House’s policy of Lend Lease and advocated a non-aggression pact between Washington and Berlin. In early 1941, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army Air Corps reserve in protest of the Roosevelt Administration’s pro-British foreign policy. It was only the attack on Pearl Harbor that changed Lindbergh’s mind, after which he became a tireless booster of the Allied war effort.