Dissenting Against War Is as American as Apple Pie

News Abroad

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

As Congress recesses for the 2006 campaign season, the President hopes to resurrect Republican electoral hopes by once again appealing to the politics of fear. Building upon his politicization of events commemorating the fifth anniversary of the 2006 terrorist attacks, President Bush has pushed for the Congress to authorize military tribunals for the trials of detainees described as terrorists. The President and his Congressional supporters describe those opposed to the legislation, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, as limiting the President’s ability to wage the war on terror and protect the American people. Republican operatives such as Karl Rove depict those opposing the President’s policies as soft on terrorism and guilty of appeasement. Dissent against the war in Iraq is equated with failure to support the troops in Vietnam and appeasement of fascism in the 1930s. Patriotic opposition to militarism and war, however, contributed to the quality of political discourse well before the Vietnam era. Yet, this rich legacy of political dissent is ignored by those who would dismiss loyal opposition as unpatriotic.

The Mexican-American War achieved the goals of Manifest Destiny by extending the nation’s borders into the Southwest and California. Yet the aggressive expansionism of the conflict negatively impacted the nation’s reputation in Latin America. Politicians such as Abraham Lincoln had initially supported the war, but they felt betrayed upon learning that President James K. Polk misled them into war with his assertion that “American blood has been shed upon American soil.” In reality, American troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor were attacked after establishing an encampment along the disputed Rio Grande border. Thomas Corwin, a Whig Senator from Ohio, insisted that the nation had abandoned its principles in waging a war of aggression against Mexico. Speaking of what he called true patriotism, Corwin proclaimed, “Let us abandon all ideas of acquiring further territory and by consequence cease at once to prosecute this war. Let us call home our armies, and bring them at once within our own acknowledged limits. Show Mexico that you are sincere when you say you desire nothing by conquest.” Corwin informed President Polk, “It is your invasion that has made war; your retreat will restore peace.”

Like Corwin, Henry David Thoreau feared that the Mexican War would expand slavery. Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax to protest the nation’s support of slavery and belligerence in Mexico. His influential essay “Civil Disobedience” was enthusiastically read and endorsed in the twentieth century by such acclaimed dissidents and reformers as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and that terrorist turned statesman Nelson Mandela. In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau chastised his fellow citizens for ignoring the evils of slavery and the Mexican War. Believing that others should follow his example of opposition to the war, Thoreau wrote, “There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advice from Mexico, after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both. . . .”

The Spanish-American War and the acquisition of an American empire also spawned an anti-imperialist movement in the nation. Breaking with his own political party, Massachusetts Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar rebuked the McKinley administration for betraying the ideas of the Declaration of Independence in pursuit of trade and empire. Hoar was appalled by the brutality exhibited by American troops in crushing the Filipino rebellion against American annexation. In a 1902 Senate speech, Hoar asserted, “We vulgarized the American flag. We introduced perfidy into the practice of war. We inflicted torture on unarmed men to extort confession. We put children to death. We established reconcentrado camps. We devastated provinces. We baffled the aspirations of a people for liberty.”

This tradition of dissent was kept alive during World War I by Republican Senator George Norris of Nebraska. While President Woodrow Wilson, much like George W. Bush today, championed the conflict as a war to make the world safe for democracy, Norris argued that the war would primarily benefit Wall Street bankers and munitions makers. In reply to Wilson’s request for a declaration of war against Germany, Norris denounced corporate interests which would profit from the conflict. Norris concluded, “Their object in having war and in preparing for war is to make money. Human suffering and the sacrifice of human life are necessary, but Wall Street considers only the dollars and cents. The men who do the fighting, the people who make the sacrifices, are the ones who will not be counted in the measure of this great prosperity he depicts. The stock brokers would not, of course, go to war, because the very object they have in bringing on the war is profit, and therefore they must remain in their Wall Street offices in order to share in the great prosperity which they say war will bring.” Change Wall Street to Exxon or Halliburton, and Norris’s speech could certainly be employed as a critique of the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq.

Corwin, Thoreau, Hoar, and Norris represent a rich legacy of patriotic dissent to American militarism and war which was not invented during the Vietnam conflict. To assert that this exercise of free speech is disloyal and gives aid and comfort to the nation’s enemies does a disservice to those who have sacrificed for the principles of liberty and freedom upon which this nation was founded. A history of honorable and patriotic dissent should not be erased by demagogic politicians intent upon exploiting fear.

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Andrew D. Todd - 10/15/2006

The basic reality is that the United States is a continental nation. It has to go twelve thousand miles, to the other side of the world, as far as it is possible to go, in order to find someone to fight. At that distance, national interests tend to wear very thin. The people inevitably speak a language none of the troops can understand. That is Foreign Legion territory.

All recruits in the French Foreign Legion take false names upon enlistment, as an expression of solidarity with those of their number who are actually fugitives from justice, and as a means of avoiding invidious social distinctions. "Legio Nostra Patria," or, to put it in American English, "Ya Found a Home in the Army." The Legion's great holiday is Camerone Day, the anniversary of a small battle in a small Mexican village on April 30, 1863, in which sixty-two legionnaires fought to the death against two thousand Mexicans. This was part of a small obscure war whose purpose was to compel the Mexican government to pay debts allegedly owed to French bankers. Does this sound oddly familiar?

Jason Blake Keuter - 10/12/2006

is by Goodwyn not Wilentz.

Jason Blake Keuter - 10/12/2006

Certainly exists and has existed in the past. It is reasonable to argue, however, that there is a core group that is consistently anti-American military action but doesn't have a consistent set of principles in taking this action. It is indeed fair to call that group unpatriotic dissenters.

I've made this point many times regarding other articles: I think it fair to argue that there has been a profound shift within the "intellectual" classes that favor isolationism. At one point, they thought that American entanglement with other countries would corrupt American Democracy. A good essay on this strain is Christopher Lasch's "The Anti-Imperialists, the Philippines and the Inequality of Man". This notion goes back to the twin towers of American political life Jefferson and Hamilton - both of whom sought different kinds of self-sufficiency and independence in order to secure America is a "dangerous world". The prevailing assumption in past isolationism, however, was that America was essentially democratic, its system desirable and worth preserving.

I think it strains credibility to say that is the assumption dominating present isolationism - at least left wing isolationism. The assumption now, thanks to many decades of "new history" is to still regard America as exceptional, but in a negative way - as exceptionally embodying all that is wrong in the world, as having been on a pretty continuous historical line towards this point (i.e. rotten to the core) and thus a force for corruption of other states and peoples - who themselves are never scrutinized carefully enough to run the risk of adverse comparison with America.

There are more nuanced versions of this story line, but they differ little in kind. There are all sorts of histories that argue that once there was some kind of hope for fulfillment of "true democratic promise" (I think of Sean Wilentz's Chants Democratic and the Populist Moment); but even here, the hope is always found in some "peoples" movement, sure to be positioned outside of power, where machinating elites oversee the systemic march towards corporate rule.

Thus, in the eyes of the intellectual core of the modern dissent movement, America has become like England and France and Spain of the early years of the Republic - Imperial giants anxious to strangle the only hope for mankind in its crib. The difference is, applied to America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such an interpretation is valid - America was new and diffferent and democratic and its existence was threatened by European Imperial powers and with it the viability of the very idea of democracy itself.

Applied to America and North Korea or Iran or Saddaam, such an interpretation is laughable. Much, certainly not all or even a majority, of "anti-war" dissent is premised on such absurdities. This dissent is unpatriotic because it is so determined to make America a force for evil that it distorts and romanticizes truly despicable and fervently anti-democratic and inhumane forces as embryonic forces to right the injustice of the American initiated and led global order.