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Review: A Footnote to Folly

by Mary Heaton Vorse, published by Farrar & Rinehart, 1935

Mary Heaton Vorse (1874–1966) was an American journalist, labor activist, and novelist in the early 20th century. From a well-to-do family, she was sympathetic with the poor, with working people, a supporter of the labor movement and women's issues.

Growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts, she describes 1912 as,

... a time of excitement, of growth, of optimism. War seemed outlawed. The Peace Conference of Hague guaranteed this. so did the international labor movement.

She was offended by the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914. At the end of April 1915 she attended the International Congress of Women held in the Netherlands. She described the other women there as mostly "well-to-do... the kind you see walking out of church any Sunday morning." They were, she wrote, "women full of inhibitions" and most of them "unaccustomed to self-expression." There were no delegates from France, Serbia, or Russia, one from Hungary and one from Italy. A 180-strong British delegation was reduced to two by British government machinations that included a reluctance to issue passports. Vorse writes that she saw in the delegates "Grief and Fear." But there the hope that they could accomplish something that brought them together. And one speaker, from Poland, touched the delegates with her call of "Give us back our men."

After the Netherlands, Vorse traveled to Germany where the "people seemed actually gay." (The Germans were "gay" because they were certain they were on their way to winning the war, despite their army's failed Schlieffen Plan and failure to reach Paris.) Trench warfare and a horrendous stalemate had begun on the Western Front. But there would be no offer from the Germans to undo the war that their Kaiser Wilhelm II had not wanted. (There would be no German offer to withdraw from France in exchange for a peace agreement.)

After Germany lost the war and Vorse returned to the US she wrote about the steel strikes in the US. There were the Red Scare and the Palmer raids. There was big Bill Hayward and future Communist Party leaders William Z Foster and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. And in the early 1920s she was sent as a reporter to cover the food crisis in the Soviet Union. She wrote about starving Russian masses viewing the Communist leaders Lenin and Mikail Kalinin with favor. In her book, Vorse didn't touch on the acrimonious differences among those who supported the masses and working class and called themselves anarchists or socialists. Published in 1935, more than a decade after Stalin's rise in the USSR, she didn't mention Stalin. She stuck to the issue of suffering humanity, especially children.

She describes her book as "not a biography. It is a picture of the world as I saw it during an important moment in history." She ended her book with a plea for activism, a plea for "more light" and a fight against fascism. By 1935, pacifism and isolationism were influential in the US. The US maintaining its wartime alliance with France and Britain might have presented Hitler with something other than a picture of weakness. But Vorse was, it seems, not one of those who saw preparedness for war as a way to prevent war.

Addressing an international audience in her book she wrote:

Look at your country. Find out what is happening to its children. Why are they wandering the roadways? ... Are we going to live in a world where we release the limitless energies and talents latent in mankind, or are we going to live in a world which stifles these gifts... [T]he development and education of children always has been and always will be the keystone of any civilization. The workers feel this instinctively... We still have a chance. This philosophy of hate, of religious and racial intolerance, with its passionate urge toward war, is loose in the world. It is the enemy of democracy; it is the enemy of all the fruitful and spiritual sides of life.


Mary Heaton Vorse quotes.

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