The Americas 62.4 (2006) 563-590
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American "Slackers" in the Mexican Revolution:
International Proletarian Politics in the Midst of a National Revolution
Dan La Botz
In the spring of 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I and adopted universal, male, military conscription, American war resisters and draft dodgers known at the time as "the slackers" began to arrive in Mexico.1 Senator Albert Bacon Fall claimed there were 30,000 slackers hiding out in Mexico, and slacker Linn A.E. Gale agreed with him.2 When American adventurer, reporter and writer Harry L. Foster passed through Mexico City in 1919, he noted that there were hundreds of Americans, many of them slackers, loitering in the city's parks and plazas.3 M.N. Roy, the Indian nationalist revolutionary, described the scene in his memoir:
Hundreds of pacifists, anarcho-syndicalists, socialists of all shades, had escaped to Mexico in order to evade compulsory military service, which was introduced soon after America joined the war. They were derogatorily called the slackers. According to their respective persuasion and predisposition, some wanted to join the Zapatistas, others to go to the El Dorado of Yucatan, and the rest to try their luck anywhere. Most of the Radical refugees, however, ultimately drifted toward the capital and congregated there.4
The New York Times reported in June of 1920 that there were still 10,000 slackers in Mexico, afraid to come home and face the justice that awaited [End Page 563] them.5 These were only a few of the almost four million men who in one way or another evaded the draft in the United States during World War I.6
While many of the draft dodgers simply wanted to save their skins, or to avoid killing someone they had never met, others were American anarchosyndicalists and socialists who opposed the draft, militarism and war on principle. Linn A.E. Gale wrote in Gale's Magazine what he saw as the slackers' self-conception.
Like many other criminals, "we slackers" labored under a hallucination. We were obsessed with an idea. The idea was that there was no good reason why we should go to Europe, and fight for the Allies. We insisted with irritating obstinacy that the war was simply a disgusting wrangle between two gangs of robbers, one headed by the late lamented Kaiser, the Krupps and the junkers of Potsdam, and the other headed by the moneyed men of Lombard Street, London and Wall Street in the United States.7
The slacker radicals, that is, tended to be internationalists who felt they had more in common with workers in other countries than the ruling classes of their own country.
Among the thousands of slackers in Mexico there must certainly have been many such radicals. We should remember that the Socialist Party of America had a significant following in that era. The party had about 100,000 members. In the election of 1912 the Socialist candidate, the railroad worker and strike leader Eugene V. Debs, had won almost one million votes (897,000), six percent of the total.8 The SP controlled about one third of the unions in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and SP members held office as mayors and aldermen in 1,200 cities and states throughout the country. The SP published 323 English and foreign language newspapers, the largest with a circulation of 750,000.9
The Socialists had, moreover, taken a strong anti-war stand. When the United States declared war, the Socialist Party passed a strong resolution [End Page 564] against the war and called upon its members to actively oppose it.10 Many Socialist Party members became national or local anti-war and anti-draft leaders, for which some, including Debs himself, were jailed, while others were fired from their jobs or beaten, and in a few cases killed by angry patriots.11 Moreover, the Wilson administration's severe political repression, the worst in the history of the country, and more...