"Sanger Speaks Out Against War", Spring 2003, #33

"America's participation in the war had been brought about by interested groups, not in response to the will of the majority."

This argument would have been as valid during the Vietnam War as it is today with America's "shock and awe" war in Iraq. But it was, in fact, written by Margaret Sanger in June 1917, just two months after the United States declared war on Germany.

A lifelong pacifist, Sanger spoke out frequently and forcefully against war and effectively wove her antiwar sentiments into her birth control writings and propaganda. As long as women create "superfluous humanity," argued Sanger, there would be war. In her earliest writings in the Woman Rebel on the eve of World War I, in her interwar speeches of the 1930's, and even late in her career as the leader of the international birth control movement, Sanger called on women to control their fertility not only for their own liberation but to reduce the "cannon fodder" that drives the war machines.

Though outspoken against war, Sanger was wary of adopting a strong public identification with the antiwar movement for fear it might jeopardize financial support and endorsements for birth control. As early as 1917, she told writer Harold Hersey, upon seeing him in military uniform, "I'm against all war, just as my father is – just as all my friends and associates are – but if I take a stand against it, become an active pacifist, the Birth Control movement will suffer." (quoted in Harold Hersey, Margaret Sanger: The Biography of the Birth Control Pioneer [New York, 1938], 106.)

Sanger witnessed the government suppression of antiwar sentiment during World War I and saw many of her radical friends imprisoned or deported, including Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood, Marie Equi, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman and Scott Nearing. She defended them in editorials in the Birth Control Review but refused to set aside her birth control activities and join in peace protests as many of her radical associates had done in suspending their primary causes to oppose the draft and war escalation. She did join the American Union Against Militarism in 1917, and she published antiwar material in the Review. These included editorials condemning the government's suppression of speech and round-up of radicals, as well as antiwar cartoons and a passionate appeal to women to protest the war, and put her in considerable danger of arrest under the 1918 Sedition Act. While the FBI had her under surveillance at the time, the government chose not to take action, possibly for fear that it would create another highly publicized opportunity for Sanger to advocate birth control.

After World War I Sanger never published anything quite as subversive, but her efforts to link birth control and peace did not abate. Her two major theoretical books on birth control, Woman and the New Race (1920) and Pivot of Civilization (1922), argued that birth control, by limiting population growth, would reduce the strain on the food supply, the competition for natural resources and other components of expansionism, and thereby ease the pressures that lead to war. In other writings and speeches in this postwar period Sanger cited a rising population in Germany as the chief cause of its belligerence and its "might makes right" mentality. Conversely she argued that France and Holland had kept their populations relatively stable and focused on the quality of their citizens; allowing them to be expansionist culturally, though not militarily.

Sanger's world travels in the 1920s and 1930s strengthened her belief that World War I was avoidable and that any future military entanglements must be prevented. Sanger observed with alarm the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe, and the increasingly militancy of Japan, but did not believe the U.S. should be drawn into war with them. "To the pleas of the militarists," she wrote in 1933, "woman must refuse to listen." ("Woman of the Future," Sept. 3, 1933 [MSM S71:525].)

By the late 1930s, Sanger, the mother of two draft-age sons, fell into step with the America First campaign, defending the isolationist writings of Charles Lindbergh to her pro-war friends. When Pearl Harbor ended all debate, Sanger, like countless others, wholeheartedly supported the war effort. She soon had an immense personal stake in the war: both Stuart and Grant Sanger were stationed overseas by 1944. Sanger focused her wartime efforts on educating servicemen and war brides about birth control, supporting a national training service for girls, and helping to plan a postwar role for Planned Parenthood.

Sanger cited World War II as validation, once again, for her certainty that overpopulation leads to belligerency. After the war, she found new followers in the U.S. and abroad who were eager to see America take a global role in population control programs, although in post-war European countries and in much of the developing world, her calls for fewer children and moratoriums on births were sometimes met with derision. As president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Sanger used nearly every conference and public platform to express her vision of peace based on free motherhood and a controlled population. For Sanger, birth control alone could bring peace to the world.

What follows is an assortment of Sanger's antiwar speeches and writing, both public and private:

1914

If this European war does not convince the workers of the absolute necessity of SOLIDARITY, if this thrilling slaughter does not show working women that they must control the true destinies of a newer Civilization not based on Murder, then there is no reason for any revolutionary movement at all. We are hearing much cant and hypocrisy these days about peace and anti-militarism. The truth is that we do not want peace based on inevitable and certain Murder, on potential warfare. We are glad to witness the collapse of a hypocritical Civilization that can end only in wholesale Murder. . . . The war is good. It is a challenge to the working class. It is a challenge we cannot avoid. It proves the murderous insanity of present day barbarism. Let us accept the challenge, and begin a new era at once. ("The War's Lesson," The Woman Rebel, August, 1914.)

1917

Woman hates war. Her instincts are fundamentally creative, not destructive. But her sex-bondage has made her the dumb instrument of the monster she detests. For centuries she has populated the earth in ignorance and without restraint, in vast numbers and with staggering rapidity. She has become not the mother of a nobler race, but a mere breeding machine grinding out a humanity which fills insane asylums, almshouses and sweat shops, and provides cannon fodder that tyrants may rise to power on the sacrifice of her offspring.

Mothers of the working class, if your love for offspring, husband, sweetheart or brother stirs within you as deeply as the love that fired the mothers of France and Spain who strove to halt unjust wars by throwing their bodies across the railroad tracks to prevent troop trains from leaving, you too will rouse yourselves to action. You will make it necessary for this democracy, which has set out to conscript your men for foreign warfare, to take them over the dead bodies of the protesting womanhood of the United States. ("Woman and War," Birth Control Review, June 1917 [MSM S70:790].)

My baby brother is off today to Harvard to practice bomb-throwing and bayonet drilling and expects to leave for France early in Sept. I am sick and distressed to see him go and I can not help wondering what there is in "Democracy" that it should demand so great a sacrifice. (MS to Juliet Rublee, August 23, 1917 [MSM C1:205].)

1919

Perhaps the war has given or shall prove to give liberty to some of the worlds nations in Europe – but certainly it has deprived us here of all the treasured hopes upon which this country was founded. (California Diary, February 19, 1919 [LCM 1:50].)

1920

"Upon woman the burden and the horrors of war are heaviest. Her heart is the hardest wrung when the husband or the son comes home to be buried or to live a shattered wreck. Upon her devolve the extra tasks of filling out the ranks of workers in the war industries, in addition to caring for the children and replenishing the war-diminished population. Hers is the crushing weight and the sickening of soul. And it is out of her womb that these things proceed. When she sees what lies behind the glory and the horror, the boasting and the burden, and gets the vision, the human perspective, she will end war. She will kill war by the simple process of starving it to death. For she will refuse longer to produce the human food upon which the monster feeds." (Woman and the New Race, 167.)

1922

The conclusion to be drawn from Germany are that a nation will not find the solution of its problems in war: that war is no longer the way to settle international disputes. Nevertheless we cannot hope for world peace until all nations recognize that there are fundamental dynamic forces at work which must be controlled. These forces are hunger and propagation, and we cannot solve one without including the other. Until these forces are recognized and acted upon wisely, the idea of international peace will remain a dream and a myth. ("War and Population," March 14, 1922 [MSM S70:931].)

1933

  • As arrows in the hand of a mighty man

  • So are the children of youth,

  • Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them;

  • They shall not be ashamed

  • When they speak with their enemies in the gate. (Psalm 127)

In this we find the suggestion not of peace but of war. Men are advised to have sufficient children to hurl at their enemies, just as the militarists of the world to-day clamour for an increased population to enlarge their armies. In all this slaughter, woman has been the real victim, but she has also been the unconscious culprit. While crying aloud and wringing her hands at each rumour of war, she has applauded every victory and boasted of the conquests. From her body have come the sinews of war, the cannon-fodder that feeds enmity, greed and exploitation. When she ceases to produce the grist, the mills will stop grinding and war will cease! ("Woman of the Future," September 3, 1933 [MSM S71:525].)

1939

We set apart and give power to a set of men called to represent a Nation. They are supposed to have greater ability and knowledge of international affairs than most of us, and it is to these men whom we trust to safeguard our liberties, independence and our National welfare. When these men or any set of men fail to live up to the trust imposed in them and ruthlessly plunge their own nation into war, regardless of warnings, then it seems to me such men or group of men should resign their positions over to others more representative of the peoples ideals. ("Hitler and War," 1939 [MSM S72:122].)

1941

The question of United States entry into the European conflict is the most vital issue before the American people today. Both President Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie promised in their election campaigns to keep the country out of this war. Did they mean it? Was this promise only an election sop to the people? Was it only campaign oratory? We, a group of American citizens here in Tucson, refuse to believe this. We believe that our President meant what he said in his address "I stand on the Platform of My Party – It is for Peace That I Have Labored," delivered at Philadelphia, October 23, 940 . . . . (MS, Honorary Chairman Non-Partisan Sponsoring Committee, Citizens for Senator Bennett Champ Clark, April 22, 1941 [LCM 141:50].)

. . . until the President of the United States tells us that we must go into war I shall fight with the last breath in my body to keep us out of war and to help him stand by his pre-election promises to the American people to that effect. (MS to William L. Holt, April 22, 1941 [LCM 8:1103].)

1944

In the United States we have achieved a favorable balance between population and resources which has contributed greatly to the raising of our national standard of living. But it will avail us little in the long run if European and Asiatic countries continue to overrun their boundaries, and to breed themselves into greater poverty, famine and ultimately into war. Therefore the fight for planned parenthood must encompass the world." ("Children of Tomorrow," March 10, 1944 [MSM S72:380].)

1952

... General Douglas MacArthur ... refused to give me a visa to come to [Japan] in 1949. So we can well see that nowhere in the world does the military authority want the population controlled by any means whatsoever, and it does not take a college degree for any of us to know why. ("The Humanity of Birth Control," September 1952 [MSM S72:688].)

1955

But I could not help thinking how much more humane it might be if our great scientists had turned away from the invention of A-bombs and H-bombs, with their atrocious power of destruction, to the more necessary and benign task of producing a reliable, efficient, cheaply produced and easily distributed contraceptive. The victimized mothers of the world would with one great voice thank them as the benefactors of humanity today and all the future. How much greater would be this service to Civilization, instead of the present unholy alliance between Science and the powers of destruction! ("Civilizing Power of Planned Parenthood," April 1955 [MSM S72:927)



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Revised: April 23, 2003