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Rosika Schwimmer, Pacifist

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Get the boys “out of the trenches by Christmas!"

Thus began the Ford Peace Expedition of 1915, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince warring European parties to make peace. The brains behind the project, short, stocky, bespeckled pacifist Rosika Schwimmer convinced automaker Henry Ford to finance the venture. Together, they chartered a ship—the Oscar II—and enticed a number of intellectuals, social and political luminaries, students, journalists, three small children, and one stowaway to join them on their voyage across the Atlantic.

The inspiration for the journey did not appear entirely out of the blue: Madame Schwimmer had met with diplomats from several of the warring countries earlier in the year, securing signed documents agreeing to consider a neutrally-brokered peace. She kept these letters safely tucked into her small leather purse, producing them when she met with President Woodrow Wilson and argued for an American role in peaceful intervention. His lingering isolationist tendencies forced her to search elsewhere.

And search she did, eventually landing upon Henry Ford, who agreed to lend his considerable wealth towards her goal. Once committed to the endeavor, Ford called a press conference at which he declaimed the famous phrase above, setting in motion the exciting preparations about a month before the actual launch date of December 4. On the 4th, the ship was seen off from the Hoboken port by a cheering crowd, including William Jennings Bryan and Thomas Edison.

Having departed, the participants soon found the voyage across the Atlantic to be far from pacific: there was no stated strategy for the expedition and no clear lines of authority. Ford holed up in his ship cabin with the flu; Madame Schwimmer stalked the deck, waving the leather purse believed to contain the much-heralded diplomatic documents; the pacifists went several rounds over formulating a plan; and the journalists gleefully reported the confusion to the world’s papers. Upon arrival in Norway, Henry Ford left the expedition to return to the U.S., but continued to fund the effort for a year. Ultimately the project was a failure—the war lumbered on for another 3 years—however it sparked manifold discussions of peace the world round.

So who was the woman who planned the whole adventure? Rosika Schwimmer, who began life in Hungary in 1877, and ended it as a “woman without a country” in New York in 1948. Her life was a colorful one, including an ambassadorship to Switzerland, an escape from Communist Hungary using a falsified passport, and a seminal Supreme Court case in the U. S. (Schwimmer v. United States). She was a pacifist, suffragist, journalist and editor, public lecturer, children’s book author, diplomat and world government lobbyist. Among her friends and co-workers were progressives from Jane Addams, to Carrie Chapman Catt, to Albert Einstein.

But Schwimmer was not much praised during her lifetime. Her sometimes difficult personality and unusual beliefs led her detractors to mislabel her a German sympathizer (during WWI), a Communist (the red scare), the cause of Ford’s anti-Semitism, and a traitor to the country she so desired to join as a citizen.

In 1926, her pacifist beliefs brought her into conflict with the United States government, when she applied for American citizenship. The catch? She refused to swear to “bear arms in defense of the country” (and as a fifty year old woman in 1926, the odds of her being called to do this were slim). Schwimmer appealed the subsequent naturalization rejection all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. While she lost (thus remaining stateless for the remainder of her life), Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s minority opinion in her appeal became a cornerstone of equal protection for freedom of speech: not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

Not a bad legacy, eh?

Interested in learning more about Madame Schwimmer? View the finding aid to her papers here.

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