Examine the main idea that emerges from Chapter 14 of A People's History of the United States.

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this chapter on the U.S. involvement in World War I, Zinn continues a theme that he began in writing about the Civil War: despite the way history books have been written, wars have not been popular with or enthusiastically supported by the average person. In fact, he argues, wars disproportionately serve the ruling classes. Wars allow the wealthy to get wealthier by selling arms and supplies, and they give the ruling elite an excuse to clamp down on the rights of the average person.

Zinn outlines the sheer carnage of World War I and the vast numbers of lives wasted so that one side or the other could gain a tiny bit of territory in France. He then turns to the reason the U.S. entered the war on the side of England: to protect the financial investments of its wealthiest citizens. Zinn writes:

 in 1915, [when] Wilson lifted the ban on private bank loans to the Allies, Morgan could now begin lending money in such great amounts as to both make great profit and tie American finance closely to the interest of a British victory in the war against Germany.

War primarily helped the rich, Zinn contends:

The industrialists and the political leaders talked of prosperity as if it were classless, as if everyone gained from Morgan's loans. True, the war meant more production, more employment, hut did the workers in the steel plants gain as much as U.S. Steel, which made $348 million in profit in 1916 alone? When the United States entered the war, it was the rich who took even more direct charge of the economy. Financier Bernard Baruch headed the War Industries Board, the most powerful of the wartime government agencies. Bankers, railroad men, and industrialists dominated these agencies. 

Zinn argues that the average person was lukewarm about World War I, as evidenced by the very low number of people who enlisted, causing Congress to enact a draft along with stiff punishments for those who resisted going to war. The government, backed by the major newspapers, also had to engage in an all-out propaganda campaign to whip up even tepid war enthusiasm.

Finally, Zinn discusses the ways the very broad-reaching powers of the Espionage Act allowed the government to arrest and jail dissenters, especially socialists.


Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main idea that comes out of Chapter 14 can be found in its title.  Randolph Bourne's notion of "War is the health of the state" suggests that the government and state, as a whole, benefits when immersed in war.  This is an idea that Zinn brought out in a previous chapter, "Robber Barons and Rebels."  President McKinley declares war on Spain as an act of "patriotic fervor."  Zinn's thesis in this instance and in chapter 14 is that those in the position of power benefit when  war is declared.  Internal disagreements, class distinctions, and the constant antagonistic relationship that modern capitalism creates between those who have economic power and those who lack it can be put aside in war.  The love of country and "wrapping oneself in the flag" become dominant sensibilities that benefit the Status Quo and deny the essence of change and allocation of resources. For Zinn, this becomes one of the primary motivations that underscored the entry of the United States into World War I:

In the United States, not yet in the war, there was worry about the health of the state. Socialism was growing. The IWW seemed to be everywhere. Class conflict was intense.... Senator James Wadsworth of New York suggested compulsory military training for all males to avert the danger that "these people of ours shall be divided into classes." Rather: "We must let our young men know that they owe some responsibility to this country."

Zinn's main idea is that when the nation is able to immerse itself into war, class conflict becomes secondary and thus change is offset.  At the same tie, the consolidation of the nation's centralized power that takes in war helps to create conditions in which submission is absolute.  Zinn supports this idea with the imprisonment of labor leaders like Eugene Debs under the Espionage Act of 1917, as well as the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti.  The health of the state that war enables is one in which individual rights become sacrificed to the "general will."  The state benefits when war is declared because it makes targeting individuals, as seen in the Red Scare, much easier.  Exploring this dynamic becomes the main idea and focus of the chapter.

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