Jane Addams, others tried to prevent 'war to end all wars' from starting

Peace lesson from the past

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

Often, when Presidents Day rolls around, my thoughts drift back to my grade school days at Jane Addams Elementary on Chicago's South Side.

Of course that was a much simpler time when the nation honored Abe on his birthday and George on his, 10 days later.

We didn't lump the holidays together and try to shift them to Monday to get a long weekend out of the deal. In fact, we didn't even get the day or days off from school back then.

Because Chicago is in Illinois -- the Land of Lincoln -- we would always do something special on Feb. 12 ... memorize the Gettysburg Address or put a top hat and fake beard on the tallest kid in the class and tell tales about walking zillions of miles to borrow books.

About all I can remember doing for George's big day was cut out yet another silhouette from black construction paper with tiny, dull scissors.

Today, however, when my thoughts drift back to grade school, they lock on to another kind of hero, the namesake of my old school.

Jane Addams wasn't the first president of the nation. She had little to do with abolishing slavery. And she didn't command any army ... well, not exactly.

Many Chicagoans, especially those of us who went to the school bearing her name, know Jane Addams and a friend, Ellen Gates Starr, founded Hull House, a residence in one of the city's impoverished neighborhoods to serve immigrant families.

A mission to the poor was nothing new to the city; many churches already had them. But, Addams and Starr were college-educated society women who actually chose to live in Hull House to experience the living conditions and struggles alongside the poor they served.

They provided day care services for children of working mothers, arranged for medical care for the sick and dealt with the garbage on the streets and the disease it brought.

By becoming part of the impoverished community and sharing the day-to-day experiences of the poor, Addams and Starr learned as much from the experience as did those they helped.

And, the experience led Addams to break from more traditional roles of Victorian women of the time and become active in campaigns for recreation facilities in crowded cities, better sanitation, protection of female workers, an end to child labor, better education and women's suffrage.

A turning point in Addams life came after the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, and she witnessed children beginning to play war games in the streets of Chicago and noticed an increase in violent street crime.

Addams joined the Chicago chapter of the Anti-Imperialist League, speaking out against how patriotism had become equated with saluting the American flag and singing patriotic songs rather than with the responsibility of serving one's community.

In the years prior to World War I, Addams spoke throughout the country to women's groups, social workers, college students and philanthropic organizations, she regularly published articles in the "Ladies Home Journal" and she became highly regarded for her strength of intellect and admired for going out into the world.

When the Great War began, generals from the warring nations in Europe thought it would be short and would be brought to a glorious end. Instead it was turning into a bloodbath no one had envisioned.

While the armies of Britain and France battled Germany, Australian troops battled the Turks and Austro-Hungarian troops took on those of Tsarist Russia, 1,100 women gathered for an international congress at the Hague in Holland, hoping to bring the war to an end.

The 47-member American delegation was headed by Jane Addams, who also presided over the congress.

Never before had such a group of women been convened, a fact that is even more remarkable because the women weren't even allowed to vote in their own countries.

Nevertheless, their idea to end the war through neutral mediation was taken seriously and the women were received by various heads of nations. Unfortunately, those same government leaders could not see clear to mediate a peace without losing face in the eyes of their opponents.

Undeterred, Addams sought an audience with President Woodrow Wilson, hoping to convince the head of one of the most powerful neutral nations to lead a mediation effort.

Wilson listened to Addams' plea, but because the Germans had just sunk the passenger liner Lusitania, he said conditions were not right for mediation. Shortly after, German U-boats began sinking American ships and the United States was drawn into the war.

Though the attempts by Addams and other women in the congress failed, they were not faulted by world leaders much more experienced at diplomacy, who could not prevent the "war to end all wars" from beginning in the first place.

Addams continued working for peace and admitted being close to despair at times observing that the pacifist in time of war "finds it possible to travel from the mire of self-pity straight to the barren hills of self-righteousness and to hate himself equally in both places."

Addams incurred vicious attacks from many prowar nationalists during her years of work to end war, but she continued, motivated by images of the inhumanness of war.

In 1931, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Phil Hermanek is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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