Do Democratic Presidential Candidates Have to Remain Mute During the War?

Mr. Higginbotham is profesor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Although one might think from reading some letters to the press that dissent from government policies that result in war is by definition unpatriotic if not treasonous, American history provides a very different conclusion. In fact, from the War of Independence through the Vietnam War, every major conflict, with the exception of World War II, has witnessed substantial opposition. Moreover, influential critics, even though their opinions were not shared by a majority of Americans, did not always pay the price of ruining their political careers. Whatever their private opinions, virtually all the Democratic hopefuls for their party's presidential nomination in 2004 have been unwilling to raise hard questions about the course of action President Bush has elected to pursue. If any of them have reservations that they have failed to express for fear of the political cost, they might recall that two distinguished Americans dissented without paying the ultimate price for a politician: permanent banishment from public office.

Two of the most notable examples of men who opposed war for reasons of principle are Abraham Lincoln and Claude Kitchin. Lincoln, a congressman from Illinois during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, branded the war that gained what is now the American Southwest, increasing by 66 percent the size of the country, an immoral conflict of aggression. A master of ironic wit and colloquial speech, Lincoln said that the justification for conquest made by President James K. Polk reminded him of the farmer who declared, "I ain't greedy 'bout land, I only just wants jines mine." But Lincoln was no philosophical pacifist. In the following decade Lincoln emerged as a leader of the new national Republican Party and won election to the presidency in 1860. The man who had opposed the Mexican-American War became a great war leader in the Civil War.

Kitchin, who is not well-remembered today, was from a prominent family in eastern North Carolina. He and his brother William served in the United States House of Representatives, and his brother served a term as governor of the state. During his long congressional career Claude Kitchin gained the reputation of being the most powerful debater in the House. He worked his way up in the Democratic hierarchy, becoming chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee and eventually reaching the post of majority leader, in 1915.

Kitchin opposed much of the military preparedness program of his fellow Democrat, President Woodrow Wilson, between 1915 and 1917. When Wilson called on Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in 1917, Kitchin concluded that he could not in good conscience support his president and his party, even though he was the majority leader. In an emotional midnight speech on the floor of the House, Kitchin announced that if his stand was unpopular, then so be it! He would walk "barefoot and alone if necessary." He was saddened that America would no longer be the last bulwark "of peace in the world." Despite his stand, Kitchin continued as Democratic majority leader, and he continued to have the support of his constituents in his North Carolina congressional district. He died in office after twenty-two years in the House.

Both Lincoln and Kitchin, though opposing their respective wars, nevertheless subsequently voted for military appropriations in order to provide for American soldiers fighting abroad.

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Anita Wills - 4/3/2003

I received a letter from Senator Diane Feinstein (D)California, in which she expressed her support for the troops. She also expressed her support for Bushes War, which I do not. I sent her a letter back stating that I do not support the War, and gave her my reasons. She is about the only Democrat (other than Governor Dean of VT), who has come out with a stand. I do not support the war, but do support politicians who are up front with their views.

When President Bush ran on Compassionate Conservatism, I felt that he was paying attention to Clinton. It seems that the Democrats are now copying Bush, in a vain attempt to win the White House back. It now appears that the clock can be turned back, and Americans will pay the price.

Sean Mulligan - 4/1/2003

Ohio Congressmen and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has expressed strong opposition to the war and called for bringing our troops home.

Bill Berman - 3/31/2003

While I share Professor Higginbotham's hope and view that politicians who oppose military ventures can survive, nevertheless, I am reminded that both Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, the two courageous senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964 lost their respective senate seats in 1968. In addition, several other senate doves were defeated in 1970. Their position probably undermined their bid for reelection.
I don't recall anyone in Congress losing in 1992 for opposing Gulf War One.

Angie - 3/31/2003

The article makes a good point, one I wish more democrats would pay attention to today. However, I think there is one important distinction that has been overlooked. Back in Lincoln's time the press was nothing compared to what it is today. Many people may have not even known that Lincoln opposed the Mexican-American war. Today anyone who opposes the actions of our president is heavily critiqued by the press. I think that this factor is probably what is keeping those who oppose in silence.

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