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Southern Cultures 11.4 (2005) 112-114

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Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War. By Jeannette Keith. University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 260 pp. Cloth $59.95; paper, $22.50

The "southern military tradition," the idea that the American South has been the most militaristic section of the nation, is a generally accepted view among many observers of the region. As one prominent historian wrote in 1984, "The militant South, the military South, prone to shoot first and answer questions later, did and still does exist." The perpetuation of southern militarism is further reinforced by memorable titles and prominent authors—The Militant South by John Hope Franklin and The Fighting South by John Temple Graves. At the same time, other writers and historians have questioned the notion of the martial South.

Jeannette Keith's fine monograph, Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight, further undermines the idea of pervasive southern militarism. And along the way, she gives a voice to those rarely heard from when it comes to foreign policy and national security—ordinary rural folk. Those who are familiar with Keith's previous book, Country People in the New South: Tennessee's Upper Cumberland, know of her efforts to demystify the rural South. In Country People, Keith devoted a chapter to rural Tennesseans' responses to World War I, national power, conscription, and the roles played by local progressives and traditionalists. Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight examines this theme in greater detail and in the broader context of the rural South writ large. Throughout, Keith artfully uses the intrusion of national power as a lens through which to examine the complexities of the society and culture of the American South. Simply put, the response to conscription tells us much about southern society. [End Page 112]

As Keith notes, historians who have examined America's entry into World War I have generally concluded that "southerners quickly rallied to support the war, leaving behind only a small minority of dissenters, mostly rural." She also observes that historians "have provided overwhelming evidence that southern political and social elites supported President Wilson's war." Yet she finds that rural southerners, black and white, proved to be far more ambivalent about the nation's war effort than previously thought. Furthermore, class played a major role. Generally, working-class blacks and whites proved less supportive of the war than the middle and upper classes. The Lost Cause may have influenced middle class and urban white southerners, but Keith argues that rural whites, especially the poor, had little interest in Civil War nostalgia and an idealized martial spirit. Overall, rural southerners proved to be "thorns in the sides of war mobilization organizers."

So what inspired draft resistance in the rural South? According to Keith, in some cases race and class "biases" in draft procedures and selection fostered resistance. For other rural southerners, religious beliefs or family commitments inspired men to dodge the draft. Some simply saw no reason to fight in a foreign war. Here Keith draws a distinction between pacifists, opposed to all war, and anti-militarists, opposed to a specific war.

Most important to Keith's thesis, while 600,000 southern men were inducted into the military, some 95,000 deserted. Large numbers of southerners probably never even registered for the draft. A slight majority of southern deserters were African American, although whites made up the majority of deserters in Texas and Tennessee (two southern states with a relatively low percentage of blacks). And, while African Americans were drafted in greater numbers based upon percentage of the population, for a variety of reasons concerning both race and class, Keith concludes that "World War I was really a poor white man's fight."

Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight is a thorough, detailed, and logical analysis. Keith is both cautious and thoughtful in the generalizations she makes. She examines the rural South...


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