Apologists and defenders of Bush’s global war on terror have always had one thing they could fall back on should none of their other lame arguments for war, militarism, the suppression of civil liberties, an imperial presidency, and an aggressive foreign policy be convincing: to dissent when America is at war is to be un-American or anti-American.
Not any more.
This pathetic argument has been laid to rest once and for all by Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods with the publication of We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now (Basic Books, 2008). Polner, who has written for the Nation, and Woods, who has written for the American Conservative, are as opposite politically as two men can be. They are united in this book by one, great, noble idea — mass murder is wrong, even when undertaken by governments.
Polner and Woods claim to have assembled “some of the most compelling, vigorously argued, and just plain interesting speeches, articles, poetry, and book excerpts” in the American antiwar tradition. Their assertion is accurate. What will be a surprise to many Americans is that this tradition includes such anti-Americans as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Helen Keller, Senator Robert Taft, Governor Robert La Follette, and Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower.
Yes, the book is an anthology, but an eminently readable one, and on a subject of grave importance. The format is quite simple: a brief introduction to each major war in American history is given followed by “some of the most memorable, if largely neglected, writings and speeches by those Americans who have opposed our government’s addiction to war.” Thus, the selections in the book cover the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War. The authors have also wisely included a chapter on the Cold War and a concluding chapter in which “Americans from the past two centuries address various aspects of war.” The whole book actually addresses all aspects of war, including militarism, imperialism, empire, conscription, and government propaganda.
It is this latter point that is especially pertinent, for as the authors point out in their introduction: “The history of American war is littered with propaganda, falsehoods, a compliant media, the manipulation of patriotic sentiment — everything we’ve seen recently, we’ve seen before. Time and again.”
During the War of 1812, Daniel Webster delivered a speech in Congress disparaging conscription as inconsistent with free government, civil liberty, and the Constitution:
Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly or the wickedness of Government may engage it?
During the Mexican War, future president Abraham Lincoln, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, gave a speech in Congress against the war in which he denounced President Polk as a “bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man.” Polner and Woods point out in their introduction to the Mexican War that “Congress voted 85 to 81 to censure President Polk, declaring that the war had been u2018unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States.’”
The authors include in their chapter on the so-Civil War the speech of Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham that was declared to be an act of treason and resulted in him being seized, tried before a military tribunal, and deported from the Union:
I assert here, to-day, as a Representative, that every principal act of the Administration since has been a glaring usurpation of power, and a palpable and dangerous violation of that very Constitution which this civil war is professedly waged to support.
Three-time Democratic Party candidate for president William Jennings Bryan is featured in the chapter on the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. Although he initially supported the Spanish-American War, he objected to the later occupation of the Philippines:
Those who would have this nation enter upon a career of empire must consider not only the effect of imperialism on the Filipinos but they must also calculate its effects upon our own nation. We cannot repudiate the principle of self-government in the Philippines without weakening that principle here.
Bryan later resigned as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson because he felt that Wilson was not committed to avoiding American involvement in World War I.
Although Helen Keller could neither see nor hear, she was more perceptive than most members of Congress when it came to the United States entering World War I. In her speech before the Women’s Peace Party of New York City in 1916 she told the truth about the war:
Congress is not preparing to defend the people of the United States. It is planning to protect the capital of American speculators and investors in Mexico, South America, China and the Philippine Islands. Incidentally this preparation will benefit the manufactures of munitions and war machines.
The clever ones, up in the high places know how childish and silly the workers are. They know that if the government dresses them up in khaki and gives them a rifle and starts them off with a brass band and waving banners, they will go forth to fight valiantly for their own enemies. They are taught that brave men die for their country’s honor. What a price to pay for an abstraction — the lives of millions of young men; other millions crippled and blinded for life; existence made hideous for still more millions of human beings; the achievement and inheritance of generations swept away in a moment — and nobody better off for all the misery!
World War II, which many Americans consider to be “good” or “necessary,” was neither. Polner and Woods describe in their introduction to this war the America First Committee (AFC), which “prevented the U.S. from becoming even more involved in the European war for some two years.” The AFC included among its estimated eight hundred thousand members Gerald Ford, John F. Kennedy, Frank Lloyd Wright, E. E. Cummings, Walt Disney, and Charles Lindbergh. The Committee was unfortunately disbanded after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Given the almost universal American acceptance of the necessity of American involvement in World War II, this is the weakest chapter in the book, with the authors including only five selections, two of which concern the draft, and two others that were written before Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, the other piece that is included is a classic. It is “Two Votes Against War: 1917 and 1941,” by Jeannette Rankin, the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. involvement in both world wars. Rankin recounts how, when the first anniversary of the congressional vote to enter World War II came around, she “extended remarks in the record in which I brought out some points which may well be recalled at the present critical moment.” She then proceeded to remind the Congress of a number of instances in which it was apparent that the United States was guilty of provoking Japan.
On World War II not being “good,” Polner and Woods point out that it “resulted in some sixty million deaths, mainly nonmilitary.” This alone is enough to make the war anything but good. On the war not being “necessary,” I highly recommend the recently published Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker, and Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, by Pat Buchanan.
The Cold War is another war that most Americans felt was necessary. In their introduction to this chapter, Polner and Woods relate how during this period: “Soviet capabilities were consistently exaggerated.” This should come as no surprise, as the U.S. government lies on a regular basis about all manner of things. Must reading in this chapter is “Those Who Protest: The Transformation of the Conservative Movement,” by Robert LeFevre, businessman and founder of the Freedom School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Here LeFevre explains how conservatives, who were originally in favor of peace, individualism, and smaller government, turned away from these ideals in the name of fighting communism. Although the Cold War has been over for twenty years, our authors correctly note its legacy: “The Soviet Union may be long gone, but the military-industrial complex that got such a boost from the Cold War, and the interventionist thinking that came to dominate policymaking circles, are as strong as ever.” Thank conservatives.
The war in Vietnam divided Americans as no other. Polner and Woods include many excellent selections here, but I think the one that carries the most weight is that of General David Shoup, former commandant of the Marines. Since it is very short, I here give the general’s remarks in their entirety:
You read, you’re televised to, you’re radioed to, you’re preached to, that it is necessary that we have our armed forces fight, get killed and maimed, and kill and maim other human beings including women and children because now is the time we must stop some kind of unwanted ideology from creeping up on this nation. The place we chose to do this is 8,000 miles away with water in between. . . .
The reasons fed to us are too shallow and narrow for students, as well as other citizens. Especially so, when you realize that what is happening, no matter how carefully and slowly the military escalation has progressed, may be projecting us toward world catastrophe. Surely it is confusing. . . .
I want to tell you, I don’t think the whole of Southeast Asia, as related to the present and future safety and freedom of the people of this country, is worth the life or limb of a single American.
I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own. That they design and want. That they fight and work for. And if unfortunately their revolution must be of a violent type because the “haves” refuse to share with the “have-nots” by any peaceful method, at least what they get will be their own, and not the American style, which they don’t want and above all don’t want crammed down their throats by Americans.
The current war in Iraq — Bush’s war — is also harshly criticized in this volume. In “Why Did Bush Destroy Iraq?,” Paul Craig Roberts, assistant secretary of the treasury under Ronald Reagan, sums it up nicely:
Every reason we have been given for the Iraqi invasion has proved to be false. Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Reports from UN weapons inspectors, top level U.S. intelligence officials, Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, and leaked top-secret documents from the British cabinet all make it unequivocally clear that the Bush regime first decided to invade Iraq and then looked around for a reason.
Although the concluding chapter in We Who Dared to Say No to War contains many hard-hitting essays, the opening selection of a speech by John Quincy Adams shows us just how far we have come in this country. I am referring, of course, to his famous statement that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” U.S. foreign policy is about as far removed from that of the Founding Fathers as it could possibly be.
The sad thing that We Who Dared to Say No to War manifests is that after all the lies and propaganda of one war have been exposed, Americans are all too willing to rally around their government, their president, and their troops for the next war.
This book is a stepping-stone to further enlightenment. How many Americans even know that the United States fought wars against Great Britain and Mexico between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War? How many Americans who know that the United States fought in World War I also know about the Spanish-American and the Philippine-American Wars that were fought just a few years earlier? And of course, how many Americans realize that there has been vocal opposition to these wars from all over the political spectrum?
All patriotic Americans should say no to war. They should say no to war and its evil stepchildren of militarism, imperialism, empire, nationalism, jingoism, gunboat diplomacy, torture, extraordinary rendition, domestic spying, conscription, nation building, regime change, the military-industrial complex, the warfare state, government propaganda, and an interventionist foreign policy. We Who Dared to Say No to War is a reminder that those who say no to such things are not alone.