Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight

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Jeanette Keith. Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Pp. VII+260. ISBN 0-8078-5562-1.


This book looks at resistance to the draft during World War I by rural Southerners and at the government power that was used to enforce the unpopular conscription program on poor white and black males who were not willing to fight the Great War. For Jeanette Keith, the topic has a much broader meaning that just military service in a war whose unpopularity was masked by government imposed sanctions on free speech. Keith questions the hegemony of Southern political thought, explores the class divisions of the region, and suggests class distinctions trumped racial differences in enforcing the “selective service” in the South.

Keith attempts to draw broad conclusions about the entire Southern region, but her coverage is limited by the availability of information. She relies on Selective Service System records from state and local draft boards, small town newspapers, letters to Congressmen, and court files to find the voice of the rural Southerner, but these records are not universally available for the entire region. The vignettes she finds are used to support her broader statistical evidence of the extent of rural Southern resistance to World War I and the draft.

Under the Selective Service System, local draft boards were given broad powers within the structure of federal guidance to force conscription or grant exemptions to the draft. Keith finds that this power was used arbitrarily, but most local draft boards consistently targeted poor whites and blacks who were not directly employed by middle and upper class whites. Within this economic division of the South, Keith sees the basis for political division of the region. Bourbon Democrats who represented the middle class whites of the cities and towns were pro-war. Agrarian Democrats, who represented the rural, poorer areas, were more populist and liberal in their ideas and generally did not support the war. Keith’s findings show that many blacks were also anti-war, but Jim Crow laws disenfranchised them. This common bond of distaste for the war between blacks and rural whites did not preclude Agrarian Democrats from campaigning using racist rhetoric. Even though Bourbon Democrats were as racist as their Agrarian counterparts, they were more concerned with black’s draft status because blacks were needed as labor for white farmers and businessmen. Therefore, Keith believes that class status was more important than race in determining who would be drafted in World War I.

With rural whites bearing a disproportionate brunt of the draft, they were believed to be a more dangerous group of dissidents than blacks who were often described as ignorant. Keith is able to show neither description was appropriate. Rather, she believes that both groups were using methods of resistance that are common to those with little power. The rural poor were very politically engaged, but with open criticism of the war and the draft prohibited, they used resistance as the means to express their political feelings.


Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007

Jeanette Keith finds her inspiration for this work from a political scientist, James C. Scott, who in his book, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University Press, 1985), describes interactions between classes in a rural Malaysian village. Scott contends, “Most subordinate classes throughout most of history have rarely been afforded the luxury of open, organized, political activity. Or, better stated, such activity was dangerous, if not suicidal” (P. XV). Certainly this was true of Southern blacks in the early twentieth century, and it even pertained to poor Southern whites after the passage of the Sedition Act in which Congress made criticism of the war a criminal act. Thus, Scott studied “everyday forms of peasant resistance—the prosaic but constant struggle between the peasantry and those who seek to extract labor, food, taxes, rents and interest from them” (P. XVI). Keith has used this model with less satisfying results. Scott lived among the villagers of Malaysia to observe the interactions among the classes. As a historian, Keith must use the available evidence to piece together the story of resistance by rural Southerners to those supporting World War I. Although she has clearly documented the fact that rural Southerners did not embrace the Great War, Keith cannot know the complexity of the resistance from the surviving archival documents. In no way does that discredit the importance of her work, but it leaves the topic open to further discovery as more evidence of the complexity of Southern class politics is found.

In particular, Keith does not distinguish between male and female attitudes towards the war as is done in Kathleen Kennedy’s book, Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens. Keith’s look at rural Southern resistance and Kennedy’s findings concerning middle class women are similar in that both works find open resistance to the war among groups that have been politically marginalized. Both groups pay a large price for their resistance—rural Southerners are drafted into the war and middle class women are jailed for expressing their opinions. However, the two works diverge on the issue of class. Keith sees monolithic ideas among the classes with lower class rural Southerners opposing the war and middle class Southerners supporting the war. Kennedy’s work shows that some middle class women staunchly opposed the war, but her examples were primarily Socialists or recent immigrants. But in each case, middle class masculine ideal of war is challenged.

World War I became a time in which the new manliness as described by Gail Bederman was tested not only through participation and support of the war but also by discrediting those who resisted. Women who opposed the war were labeled as improper mothers, and lower class people who resisted the draft were seen as ignorant or dangerous. If the new middle class man of the twentieth century acted on his primitive urges by supporting the Great War, resistance by women and lower classes provided an alternative rhetoric that placed a human cost on the new manliness.

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