Title Reviewed:
The Great Silent Majority: Missouri's Resistance to World War I

Author Reviewed:
Christopher C. Gibbs

Stephen Vaughn


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 86, Issue 2, pp 236-238

Article Type:
Book Review

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The Great Silent Majority: Missouri's Resistance to World War I. By Christopher C. Gibbs. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988. Pp. ix, 174. Notes, illustrations, table, selected bibliography, index. $24.00.)

American historians have usually assumed that while both apathy and opposition to the Great War existed—especially outside the urban Northeast—most citizens eventually came to support the nation's participation. Christopher C. Gibbs argues, however, that "the great silent majority" of Missourians opposed involvement throughout the war "by slacking when possible, resisting where necessary, and going along when no other course of action was available" (p. 156).

Gibbs refutes those critics who accused the war's opponents of being pacifists, pro-German, or political radicals. Pacifism, he contends, did not have deep roots in Missouri, and while significant numbers of German-Americans and Italian-Americans lived in the state, opposition to mobilization cannot "be explained by ethnicity alone" (p. 43). Nor does radicalism (Socialists were the most organized opponents) account for the widespread resistance. Rather, opposition emerged from longtime political and economic traditions, particularly "localism, faith in democracy, and anticorporate sentiment" (p. 41). The dominant theme of opponents, according to Gibbs, was that "Wall Street bankers, arms dealers, [and] food speculators … wanted war because they would get richer while the common people paid in money and blood" (p. 43).

Gibbs's monograph is based on several collections, including the papers of the Missouri Council of Defense, as well as about three dozen state newspapers. His chapter on the council is most interesting and tends to confirm similar research on other states. Created by "bankers, businessmen, and state officials" (p. 50), the Missouri council became like a "private club" in which "workers, blacks, and women were hardly represented at all" (pp. 53, 52). Its purpose was to mobilize the state as it tried to eliminate dissent. The impetus to suppress dissent, according to Gibbs, came not from the grass roots but from businessmen, public officials, and the press.

The major difficulty with this work stems from documenting the extent of opposition to the war. Newspapers, as the author acknowledges, pose problems because they usually denied dissenters a forum and as a result, news coverage and editorials leave the impression of widespread support for the war. Still, Gibbs says, "a careful reading of Missouri's press uncovers a second level of news" that mentions slackers and lack of support for mobilization (p. 28). Gibbs also uses evidence from the mobilizers themselves to show that their campaigns often did not meet their own criteria for success. Interestingly, he notes that only 3.8 percent of Missourians participated in the second Liberty Loan drive and less than 11 percent in the third, compared to the national averages of 10 and 18 percent respectively. Still, this reviewer remains skeptical that opposition was as pervasive as the author claims.

But this reservation is one of degree and should not obscure the fact that this book goes beyond John C. Crighton's Missouri and the World War, 1914–1917 (1947) in adding to an understanding of the homefront during the war. It is a nice contribution to the recent literature that has examined mobilization at the state and local levels. Students of twentieth-century American nationalism will find this book valuable, too, as an example of how the federal government increased its presence in the lives of citizens.

STEPHEN VAUGHN teaches history of mass communication at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of Holding Fast the Inner Lines: Democracy, Nationalism and the Committee on Public Information (1980). He is now completing a study of Ronald Regans's career at Warner Bros. Pictures.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.