John Dewey: “The Social Possibilities of War” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

World War I broke out in Europe in 1914. After years of resistance, the United States officially entered the conflict in 1917 as part of the Allied forces. Philosopher John Dewey had previously expressed his disapproval of US involvement in the war, but consistent with his usual pragmatic approach, he accepted and incorporated the reality into his writings once it happened. “The Social Possibilities of War,” written in 1918, did not express an opinion about the US involvement in the war. Instead, the essay focused on both social changes brought about by the war and Dewey’s belief that many of these changes would be permanent. In particular, he believed that the working class would continue to wield more social and political power than in the past and that people would be less tolerant of the control of key resources, like food and fuel, by private interests focused on profit.

Summary Overview

World War I broke out in Europe in 1914. After years of resistance, the United States officially entered the conflict in 1917 as part of the Allied forces. Philosopher John Dewey had previously expressed his disapproval of US involvement in the war, but consistent with his usual pragmatic approach, he accepted and incorporated the reality into his writings once it happened. “The Social Possibilities of War,” written in 1918, did not express an opinion about the US involvement in the war. Instead, the essay focused on both social changes brought about by the war and Dewey’s belief that many of these changes would be permanent. In particular, he believed that the working class would continue to wield more social and political power than in the past and that people would be less tolerant of the control of key resources, like food and fuel, by private interests focused on profit.

Defining Moment

Political unrest in Europe led to World War I in 1914. Under President Woodrow Wilson, the United States endeavored to stay out of the conflict. Public opinion generally favored this position, and the United States held to its neutral stance for nearly three years. But in early 1917, British intelligence intercepted a German telegram inviting Mexico to become its ally; in exchange, Germany offered to help Mexico recover Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona from the United States. This revelation, combined with increasing German attacks on shipping vessels, led US public sentiment to change in favor of the war. On April 6, 1917, the United States officially declared war on Germany and joined the Allied forces, which included the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan.

World War I was the largest war in world history up to that time, and it required an immense amount of resources to fight and an unprecedented level of coordination to redirect these resources to where they were needed the most. Within the United States, this enormous organizational responsibility fell to the federal government, which was in a unique position to regulate private industries and consolidate transportation systems. A variety of programs and departments developed designed to create jobs and meet various wartime needs.

Even before the United States officially entered the war, the government launched a preparedness campaign to ensure that the country was ready in the event of a sudden change in circumstances. Some of this focused on military preparedness, which proved a highly divisive subject among various social and political groups; these efforts culminated in the passage of the Selective Service Act (often referred to as “the draft”) in 1917. Other programs focused on civilian activities: for example, the US government sold “Liberty Bonds” to help finance the war; public campaigns encouraged families to economize their food consumption and grow “victory gardens” in their backyards to supplement national food production; and the Department of Labor created programs to draw workers to important wartime industries, such as steel and ammunition manufacturing.

True to his pragmatic approach, philosopher Dewey adjusted his writings to account for the reality of US entry into war. Although he had previously advocated against US involvement, he does not give any opinion on the matter in this document. Instead, the essay focuses on possible political and social outcomes of the war, addresses the changes that war has already brought to society, and posits how programs implemented to facilitate the war effort might remain in place after the war ends. Some criticized Dewey for backing down from his earlier antiwar stance, but others felt his new opinion was consistent with his overall approach to philosophy. Dewey was no more in favor of the war after the United States joined it, he simply incorporated the new reality into his philosophies.

Author Biography

John Dewey was born in 1859 in Burlington, Vermont. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont and his PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He taught at the University of Michigan (1884–88), the University of Chicago (1894–1904), and Columbia University (1904–30). He also served as president of the American Psychological Association (1899) and the American Philosophical Association (1905). In 1919, he cofounded the New School for Social Research in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City.

During his career, Dewey published more than seven hundred journal articles and forty books. Some of his most influential works include Democracy and Education (1916) and the 1908 textbook Ethics, which he coauthored with University of Chicago colleague James Tufts. Dewey made significant contributions to psychology and philosophy, particularly with regard to the interaction of social environment and the mind and the intersection of education and politics. He died in 1952.

Document Analysis

Dewey opens his essay by observing that, regardless of intent, actions often bring unplanned consequences. In this instance, the stated objective of World War I was to conquer Germany and restore peace to Europe. However, Dewey notes that the war set important social changes in motion, and many of these would not disappear when the war ended.

One example is the “rise in power of the wage-earning classes” in countries affected by the war. The necessities of war–including food, fuel, machinery, ammunition, and other manufactured goods–require a large, strong workforce for their creation and transportation. The increased demand for labor improves the position of the wage-earning class in negotiating better working conditions and participating more actively in important decisions affecting their lives and livelihoods. Another example of change, Dewey notes, is the rapid consolidation of smaller local railways into a national system in Germany. This process began before the war, but requirements for efficient, rapid transportation of people, weapons, and other goods across the entire country hastened its progress once the war started.

Dewey observes that, during times of war, “production for profit” becomes subordinate to “production for use.” Some profiteering still exists, but many industries, such as transportation and raw materials, become subject to increased government regulation, and their output is redirected toward the war effort. He notes that people often participate willingly in these efforts and believes the redistribution of basic resources for broader public use will persist even beyond the end of the war.

On a global scale, Dewey asserts that only economically self-supporting countries will remain independent after the war. He expects this to result in either a world federation that is a “genuine concert of nations” or “a few large imperialistic organizations, standing in chronic hostility to one another.” He believes this issue must be settled before the world can relax into a peaceful state. In fact, he suggests that if the issue is dodged in the aftermath of the war, it will merely set the stage for the next war.

Ultimately, Dewey argues that “it is hopeless to expect unity” when there are profits to be had from conflict. World War I did not create this reality, but he hopes that it will illuminate the issue enough to bring about lasting change. Combined with the increased power and influence of the wage-earning class, he believes that the socialization of industry will be one of the “enduring consequences” of the war.

Essential Themes

Dewey lived during a time of dramatic change and growth for the United States. Between the beginning of the Civil War and the end of the World War II, the United States shifted from a collection of smaller communities vaguely united by federal rules to a country coordinated on a national level. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his pragmatic, socialist leanings, much of Dewey’s writing highlighted the benefits of government-sponsored programs and public regulation of important resources. “The Social Possibilities of War” provides a prime example of this type of thinking.

Dewey posited that the socialization of industry would be a long-lasting effect of the war. Specifically, he believed that once people recognized how many resources are removed from public circulation by private interests, they would rebel against the practice rather than accept it as a matter of course. They would question why those resources can be rallied and gathered for public needs, such as war, but not for public needs, like education and housing. And as a result, citizens would demand permanent changes so these resources would be available to the public even in times of peace.

During World War I, national governments set up many programs to regulate various industries. Dewey noted that this approach required a significant shift in thinking, particularly in a country such as the United States, where entrepreneurship and individualism are celebrated and the needs of the public are often subordinate to personal desires. He cites the Selective Service Act of 1917 as an extreme manifestation of this shift: forcing young men into military service drove home the supremacy of public need over private interests, and in this instance, the public willingly complied. Dewey believed this shift in thinking would persist even after the war and hoped it would be used as a force for positive social change.

World War I caused the decline of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires, as well as the formation of the League of Nations (a precursor to the United Nations, whose mission was to prevent a similar conflict in the future). However, the defeat was not accepted gracefully and, instead, set the stage for World War II to erupt barely two decades later.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Dewey, John, and John J. McDermott. The Philosophy of John Dewey. New York: Putnam, 1981. Print.
  • “Dewey’s Moral Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford Center for the Study of Language and Information, 20 Jan 2014. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
  • Doenecke, Justus D. Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2011. Print.
  • Reeves, Thomas C. Twentieth-Century America: A Brief History. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
  • Stevenson, David. With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011. Print.
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