Digital History at Ursinus

The Secret of War: The Masses

Dublin Core


The Secret of War: The Masses


Sex, Gender, Marriage, and the New Woman
Labor, Politics, and Journalism


News Front the Front as Brought to America by Mabel Dodge

Mabel Dodge seems like the mostly unlikely person to be writing about World War One. Dodge runs in circles of artists like Mina Loy, Lincoln Steffens, and Neith Boyce, who are experimenting in self-expression and new methods of artistic form. Even when Dodge is involved politically, she tends to participate on the more humanitarian side of the work of reformers by circulating their opinions and providing funding for their endeavors, as she did for Modernism, Labor Reform movements, and others. Dodge’s writing on the war actually maintains the same focus on the role of the individual. Mabel Dodge’s writing on World War One is unique and important because Dodge presents a female political opinion in a time when women couldn’t even vote. Dodge also conveys an understanding of the economic and class-based issues of war outside of just quarreling nations. Dodge takes a very Marxist approach to war, which illustrates her intuitive and analytic nature in that she is able to connect her experience overseas in Florence and Pairs to the labor reform politics she only became engaged in once in the city. Additionally, Dodge’s piece supports the idea of women being morally superior to men. Despite being well-intentioned, Dodge presenting women on a moral high ground negates her overall aims at equality.

Dodge was an active member of the Women’s Peace Party, though she was more of a financial than an actual participant in organized events. In fact, Dodge actually left New York when the organization would begin to really gain momentum under the leadership of figures like Carrie Capman Cat and Jane Addams (Barr 1). Still, Dodge’s publication is important because it exists as a rare instance of a female being able to vocalize her concerns and interpretations of a very “masculine” issue like war. Dodge’s connections with the publisher of the Masses (Max Eastman) as well as her economic and social status give her with the unique agency to speak her mind about politics as well as have to means to circulate her views. Dodge’s publication is one of the earliest manifestations of the work of the Women’s Peace Party. The article’s publication in The Masses is important because The Masses would have had a larger audience than just the small group of women who were beginning to ban together under the anti-war cause. Dodge was taking on the role of bringing the voice of a smaller group to the public like she does for other causes throughout Bohemia. Though Dodge’s approach is centered around her interpretation as female, Dodge still presenting a crucial point of view on the war that might not be otherwise articulated. Dodge was also in these locations she talks about, like Paris, which demonstrates that Dodge also occupies the unique position of being informed about the experience of the war overseas, which many Americans had limited understanding of. Dodge writes, “In Paris it was still difficult to believe that there was war. Beyond the fact that everyone talked of it—that the papers speak of nothing else—that the streets seemed full of the paraphernalia and preparation for war, we nowhere saw signs of war itself.” Dodge contrasts the European city life to that of the soldiers on the field, setting up her interpretation of the war on economic and class issues.

Dodge radically places the blame of war on economic conditions and greed of governments. Though she does attest “men like fighting” and seems to suggest that war is in human nature, Dodge goes on to explore how men who fight in war are indoctrinated by their governments and by economic constraints. It isn’t clear in her writing how aware Dodge was of the complicated concepts she hints at in her piece. Dodge describes how the government paints the conflict as, “the business of war” and explains how war took over all aspects of society as a controlling force of production. Dodge explains the plight of the women in the productions of war. Dodge reports that “women thrown out of work received a franc and a few sous over, a day. Soup kitchens were established by the Syndicalists, who were acting for the Government.” Dodge repeatedly places blame for the war on governments. Dodge writes that deadly weapons were deployed “at the command of the Government” and under the guise of “patriotism.” Dodge’s radical understanding that the impact of war is different for the poor versus the rich conveys her ability to create connections between experiences and broader ideas like Marxism. Dodge’s pacifist stance is also important because it goes against the trend of the United States government. The trend was to be more patriotic and more nationalistic in the face of foreign threats brewing in Europe. In 1914, when this article was written, the United States was not involved in the war but was inching towards it. Because of the protection her high society status provided, she was able to write in opposition to the government and therefore further discussion on the meaning of war and what it meant for society at large.

Though Dodge’s piece for The Masses was radical and important for women’s voice in politics and for her articulation of Marxist concepts, it is important to also recognize how her final argument placed women on a moral high ground compared to men. Dodge writes “Women don’t like war” and explains how when men enjoyed war times their “women stayed in their houses.” Despite being a positive depiction of women, the idea of presenting females as morally superior to men does not completely fit in with Dodge’s over-arching goals of gender equality. By painting females as morally superior, Dodge is attempting to argue for their political voice but in doing so she is perpetuating the division between male and female. Dodge’s points about the gender divide in war are valid, though the divisions between the impact of war on males and females during the war take their roots in economic constraints. For instance, the ideal of women during Dodge’s time was that the woman must stay at home to protect children. The societal expectations of day were for women to take on this role within the institution of the nuclear family and it does not necessarily mean women are morally incapable of war. Dodge does illustrate knowledge of the economic conditions which is already radical for early 20th century America; it would be a bit much to ask for her to present all her arguments for gender equality perfectly as well.

Barr, Eleanor. Women's International League of Peace and Freedom Collection.
Swathmore: Swathmore College Peace Collection, 1980. Print.


Mabel Dodge


Tamiment Library, NYU


The Masses


November 1914


Max Eastman


Magazine Article




Magazine Article

Text Item Type Metadata


The Secret of War

By Mabel Dodge Luhan

We knew that if we could get to Paris where we could see something, we would understand it all better. And we knew that we had to understand it—that we could never get away from it until we did.
We had to know the hidden reason—the principle behind that overwhelming fact that all the nations of Europe and some of Asia and Africa with each in the Twentieth Century.
So as soon as trains began to pass people through from one country to another, we went away from Florence glad to leave the trifling incoherencies of that August in Italy.
In Paris it was still difficult to believe that there was war. Beyond the fact that everyone talked of it—that the papers speak of nothing else—that the streets seemed full of the paraphernalia and preparation for war, we nowhere saw signs of war itself. I am sure I don’t know what we expected. Perhaps no one ever sees war as he expects to see it. Perhaps “Tommy” in the trench shooting away monotonously, under order at a clump of trees in the distance says to himself in suppose “So this is war!”
With flags flying from every door and window, Paris never looked more gallant. The Germans we heard were only a few miles away. Yet Paris in the sunshine seemed smiling like a great lady going to the guillontine en grande toilette; exquisitely French.
The streets were empty of all, save motors carrying soldiers and officer, and every variety of cart and truck bearing the Red Cross Flag and pressed into the service of the army for provisioning and transporting the wounded.
With the officers of the Government at Bordeaux Paris under the Military Governor was a model of order and precision. From one day to the next France adopted the strict discipline of militarism and everything proceeded as though by machinery. There were no signs of discontent. All the families of soliders were provided for within the organization—women thrown out of work received a fran and a few sous over, a day. Soup kitchens were established by the Syndicalists, who were acting for the Government . They had stopped all their own propaganda to urge their men to the front. Almost a great humanitarian movement, seemed the war to these Frenchmen, and they unhesitatingly sent all the workers to “the war which is to kill war.”
The two busiest spots in Paris were the square in front of the Invalides and the Rue Royale, near the Madeleine.
All day long men came and went tin the Place des Invalides bearing messages—getting orders—and twice a day they pulled up at the Taverne Royale to rush in and eat, and out again. There officers in wonderful uniforms sat down for a bite with their brothers and cousins dressed in the red trousers and blue coat of the volunteer soldier, and there all day there came and went a stream of color and a stream of electric excitement.
Up and down on the sidewalk flowed the idle and the curious—looking for new – for incident—the eternal Parisian spectator whose life is passed, in wartime or in peace, in watching others act.
Sometimes a pair of Highlanders would motor up and take a couple of seats at a table outside—those neat bare knees were loved in the Rue Royale! And the air men with the wings of Mercury embroidered on their sleeves, came and went. Their eyes seemed full of light.
All that we saw done was done for war. Everyone was going about on the business of war, and always of war itself we saw no sign, yet these men had all seen it—they had been in it—they were it. There is some difference between the men who are in it and those who are not, and the difference isn’t the uniform. It is in the man himself. Some chemicalization has taken place. He is transformed by it. He is perhaps not more alive, but he is quickened in the way that nothing else has ever quickened him. This is true of all the men that I saw.
And so always seeing the signs of this unseen thing called war—this lure that has drawn all these millions of men together on to strange soil to kill each other we asked ourselves more and more: What is it?
Does anyone know? It is called by so many names. Some are calling it patriotism. A great many are calling it that. The Socialists and Syndicalists in France are calling it a humanitarian movement. They say that they have gone to war to destroy militarism. In Germany some of them are fighting because they have been ordered out and they call it “an officer’s war”: others are fighting with an intellectual motive, to increase the opportunity for expansion and growth. And they call it war against Czarism and the British death grip.
The German Socialists have told us that they go to war against their French brothers with sorrow in their hearts, but that they go to bring greater life to the future of socialism by destroying the oppressive enemy.
And yet one English “Tommy” told me on the street one afternoon—he and his chum had escaped from some Germans and had wandered into Paris for a day and a night before looking for their battalion—
“We don’t want to kill those German chaps,” he said “and they don’t want to kill us. It’s all just a dirty mess—it’s war.”
But he had been killing—he had the look; and he had excaped with his life from the Germans by a fluke—but his eyes were full of light.
A French soldier told that after the battle on the Marne he and his chum would do out to the battlefield in the evening after fighting all day and they would help the wounded German soldiers all they could and give them cigarettes.
“Ils nous appellaient Kamarads!” he said; and he too had the look of having been quickened by war.
And think of this. A soldier hardly ever knows where he is. Even in his own country he cannot tell where he is. Even in his own country he cannot tell because the names on the sign posts along the road are painted out. He is simply moved by orders which are just comprehensible enough to obey at that moment. When he isn’t on the move it is mostly summed up in the command:
“One, Two, Three, Fire!”
At the battle of the Oise these terrible words were flung at the French and English soldiers for three days and three nights without stopping.
This is war.
The motive for it the soldier calls by a poor or by a glorious name—according to his temperament.
I think that in France and England only the politicians say that they are fighting to destroy German militarism. Ask the soldiers why they are fighting. A good many of them only know that they are there because they have to be, a good many others because they heard the bugle call. And now that they are there most of them like it. Some of the mystics have been saying that some great natural force behind men and government precipitated this war and is pushing it on beyond the will of humanity.
“Nothing less than a miracle can stop its fearful momentum now,” they say.
But men like fighting. That is the force behind the war. That they will stop liking it—will be the miracle.
Of course, if they can find a principle to fight for, they fight and like it still better, but what war is for the main part is the inconceivable, the inevitable love of fighting itself. There is no deeper meaning than that to be found in it and there never has been any other.
If there were any stronger reason than that there might be some chance of peace in disarmament.
We have been saying for so long that war isn’t civilized. We should have realized perhaps that civilization isn’t human. Perhaps peace isn’t human Not in the same way that men are human.
It has just been laid over the human qualities and we live to see its most finish products proving their efficacy in the service of the most primeval instinct!
I believe that even the Gods and Mr. Chesterton must be dazzled at the spectacle of the great aeroplanes soaring like divine birds over cities and men, dropping upon them their bombs full of deadly gases and dynamite, at the command of Government!
Is that what is meant by the phrase “civilized warfare?” Warfare brought to its highest degress of deadliness and cruelty through machinery?
In Paris we learned that they are calling it “The war of machines.” Of his own machine guns a wounded French officer said to me:
“I don’t believe men could stand mowing each other down like that if they met in a hand to hand conflict, But with the machine gun—you just go on turning the handle. The narrow streets of the town of Soissons where we had been fighting all day were piled high on each side with men, where the machine gun had been playing all the afternoon.”
In London one saw even less war, but more than ever the illusion of it. The motor car were all bearing sign: “To arms!” “Your King and country need you! “The Duty of every man is to his country—and all the music halls were full of “artists” singing of war and its most gallant aspects.
The cinematographs showed pictures of the “brave boys” at the front and of the unbelievably inhuman enemy.
All these incentives were brought to a dress of art that was hard to analyze, which seemed to be a mingling of the simple and sincere poetic feeling of the people and the self conscience control of diplomacy. It was very real.
All things seemed to flow together in London for one end.
Since there is no conscription in England, social pressure supplies the necessary force when there is any hanging back. The ruling class needs the whole nation for an army in order to prevail , and men love war.
“Simon says thumbs up? Thumbs up!”
But this organized unspoken pressure made it seem as one keen observer said:
“A fashionable war!”
In Florence we had thought that through the effect of Emperor Williams “Superbia” it was a religious war—and in Paris we could not help seeing that behind its imperturbable military order and its smiling mask it was for all that a defensive war to save France from German manners so in London it resolved itself for us into a war of “Rule Britannia”.
To this Moloch they are sacrificing the first born and all the others. To maintain the illusion of Empire women are urging their men into the field and fathers are sending their sons up to the last.
The day after the Early of Plymouth lost his second son at the front he sat behind Asquith to support him as he made his great recruiting speech; and this typifies, I think not only the attitude of Englishmen, but of all men of the ruling class.
And all these men that are urged to go out joyfully with death in their hearts. Hardly a man whose heart leap at the sound of a bugle! It was in Paris that this truth came upon me. I had come up to see war and I had expected to find the terror the horror of war—and I didn’t find it anywhere. I was going about with a sober face, full of sympathy and I found the whole nation of men, soldiers and officers happy.
They were somehow happy and excited.
Paris was serious and intensely concentrated but it wasn’t unhappy. One saw nothing very sad.
The women all stayed in their houses.
Only a few miles away men were falling by hundreds, but by some process that takes place in human nature those who saw it were spared from feeling it.
It has been said that a sight of terrible human suffering produces its ineradicable effect upon the human mind, but perhaps much horror prevents its own realization because sensibility gets dulled by repetition.
At the same time that I found out the deep universal principle behind war I found out something else about it that is just as deep and just as universal.
Women don’t like war.
A poor woman with seven children down in White chapel whose husband had been away at the front for six weeks and no word from him said to me
“What I’m asking is what it’s all for? That’s what I want to know. What’s it all about?”
Not enough other women have asked this question and found out the answer, but their instinct against war aroused and conscious is the only force that can ever meet and overcome the other force of its appeal to men. The permanent peace lies in a woman’s war against war.

Original Format

Magazine article




Mabel Dodge, “The Secret of War: The Masses,” Digital History at Ursinus, accessed December 14, 2019,