World War I:  The Destruction of a Dream


William Jennings Bryan remained in control of the Democratic party until Woodrow Wilson was elected President.  Therefore, Bryan was pivotal in Wilson’s victory.  As a repayment of his assistance and recognition of his role of prominence in the party, Wilson appointed Bryan Secretary of State.  Bryan was very happy with his position as it allowed him to work on his plan for world peace. In the time between 1912 and 1915, Bryan was able to negotiate treaties with thirty countries that specified arbitration rather than war for conflict resolution.  Bryan’s diplomatic efforts were in vain, as he was not able to negotiate treaties between the problematic countries of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Japan.  Bryan favored treaties over alliances since treaties involved arbitration while alliances encouraged fighting.  This logic did coincide with his beliefs, but he was very naïve in assuming that mere treaties could maintain peace in complicated world environment.  At the beginning of his tenure, he confidently proclaimed, “There will be no war while I am Secretary of State.”[1]  Bryan only managed to fulfill the statement by resigning his post in 1915.    The American public did not receive the resignation well.  Bryan was compared to the traitorous Royalists of the Revolutionary War and the Copperheads of the Civil War era, as he did not want to retaliate, or commit any act of aggression toward Germany in retribution for the Lusitania[2] incident.

          World peace was a vehicle for Bryan to apply Christ’s teachings.   Bryan felt that society’s affirmation of the necessity of war was a direct rejection of Christian ideas as it eliminated the possibility for a peaceful, Christian civilization.[3]  Bryan felt it demonstrated the vestiges of a pre-Christian barbaric era, devoid of moral instruction.[4]  The outbreak of war also destroyed Bryan’s Progressive[5] idea that socially responsible Christians could create heaven on Earth.

          Bryan was also tormented by the idea of European armament, a direct cause of World War I, as a barbaric rejection of Christian ideals.  In an ideal world, without the imminence of war, armament would be unnecessary.  Bryan compared the competition of the European powers with the greed of the capitalists the Progressive movement fought.[6]  Bryan proclaimed armament as the devil’s work when he stated, “The devil never won a greater victory than when he persuaded statesmen to make its absurd experiment of trying to prevent war by getting ready for it.”[7]

          After the outbreak of the war Bryan also developed plans for peace.  He proposed that the Unites States should cancel allied debts in exchange for disarmament.   Bryan believed, much like the Puritans, that America could serve as a shining example to the rest of the world.  He stated that, “The great question is whether the United States.  .  .  shall live up to its responsibilities as the greatest of the Christian nations and the only nation that can speak peace to the world.”[8]



William Jennings Bryan:  A Conservative Progressive

Early Life

The Progressive Politician

World War I:  The Destruction of a Dream

Church and State:  Religion's Role in the Democratic System

Bryan's Downfall:  Evolution and the Scopes Monkey Trial


Return to HIS 338 Supplements


This page was created by Kristy Owens

Email any questions to:

This page was last updated on March 30, 2001

[1] William Jennings Bryan, quoted in, Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods:  The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York:  Basic Books, 1997), 38.

[2] The Lusitania, that held U.S. civilians was sunk by the Germans before U.S. intervention in World War I.  There were over 200 casualties, which incited strong feelings of nationalism.

[3] Lawrence W. Levine, Defender of the Faith:  William Jennings Bryan:  The Last Decade, 1915-1925 (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1965), 28.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] The Progressive party represented those exploited by big business through political and social reform.

[6] Ibid., 50-51.

[7] William Jennings Bryan, In His Image (New York:  Fleming H. Revell Comapany, 1922), 240.

[8] Levine, 204.