Two recent seemingly incongruous events present symptoms of a larger disease in the American polity.
First, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un has promised to nuke the United States, and according to recent testimony before Congress, a North Korean EMP attack could kill 90% of the American population within one year.
Second, on Monday, October 16, the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, GA dedicated the “Global War on Terrorism” memorial. Highlighted are the over 6,000 American soldiers killed since 2002 in the modern campaign to “make the world safe for….”
The world wasn’t too safe for them or apparently for the almost 300,000,000 people who could be wiped out by a reckless Marxist thug with an itchy trigger finger. They are real and potential casualties—symptoms—of a disease that has consumed American life since the early twentieth century: American sabre rattling.
You see, the anthem protests, our worship of the military industrial complex, and making every event from the local civics meeting to an NFL game a setting for “patriotism” has provided the kindling for a massive military bonfire.
All it takes is a little spark. But it hasn’t always been so.
The modern neo-cons will tell you that Americans have been warlike from the beginning, that almost unanimous support for World War II was the rule rather than the exception. That is a lie.
There is a long-standing anti-war American tradition.
Probably half, perhaps the majority, of the British North American colonists wanted a peaceful solution to the constitutional crisis that became the American War for Independence. “The Penman of the Revolution” John Dickinson’s famous “Olive Branch Petition” was not some shot in the dark. He was a serious man dedicated to exhausting all peaceful avenues to the crisis before taking up arms even after the shots at Lexington and Concord in 1775. He wasn’t alone and loyalty to the cause often fluctuated during the hard years of war.
New England had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the War of 1812, an event they labeled “Mr. Madison’s War.” Americans had justifiable reasons to go to war with Great Britain in 1812, but that did not mean support for the conflict was unanimous.
“Mr. Polk’s War” with Mexico in 1846 faced considerable congressional opposition for various reasons. Abolitionists feared it would add new slave territory to the United States and called it part of a “slave power” conspiracy. This attack should have fallen on deaf ears. The recognized “defender of slavery” in Congress, John C. Calhoun, opposed the war because he feared its impact on executive power. He was right. Polk just wanted California and by getting it greatly expanded executive authority.
The War for Southern Independence saw opposition on both sides of the Mason-Dixon though far more pronounced in the North. Lincoln didn’t call it the “fire in the rear” because it lacked teeth. Thirty-thousand Northern civilians were arrested during the War for their opposition to the Lincoln regime, newspapers were shut down, and congressmen booted from their seats (or sent packing to Canada). In the South, Davis faced constant sniping about his leadership, war plans, and abuse of power from the opposition press. Even before the War began, various civic and political leaders wondered aloud why the North couldn’t just let the States go in peace, among them the abolitionist Lysander Spooner and United States Senator from Delaware James A. Bayard. Davis insisted in his first inaugural address that the South simply wanted to be left alone. Neither Lincoln nor a potential war were that popular during the “secession winter” of 1860-61.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 led to the birth of the American Anti-Imperialist League. This organization was an eclectic collection of political, religious, civic, and social leaders dedicated in their opposition to American expansion overseas. This “splendid little war” also gave William Graham Sumner the idea to pen his splendid essay “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” which laid bare the problems of American global aspirations.
Woodrow Wilson won in very close 1916 presidential election because he “Kept Us Out of War” in Europe. That was never his goal, and he pivoted shortly after winning the election, but the majority of the American public rightly did not want to send its boys to Europe to die in our first global crusade for democracy. That wasn’t the only outcome of the war. Massive expansion by the general government followed our charge “Over There” and the modern American bureaucratic nightmare in Washington D.C. was born. Throw in a new Sedition Law and over 200,000 political arrests and the Wilson regime did much to shred the United States Constitution.
Even the “unanimous” War with the Axis Powers in 1941 wasn’t so unanimous at the beginning. The American First committee led a considerable effort to keep the United States out of the costliest war in human history. They weren’t anti-Semitic or pro-German. They were simply anti-war and pro-American. Much of the neo-con attack on people like Charles Lindbergh is based on half-truths and outright lies. Of course, the economic impact of the war is always misrepresented as a positive. People had cash in their pockets (no gold because FDR confiscated that years before) because they couldn’t buy anything. Those who voted for Roosevelt to abolish bread lines now had to wait in line to buy sugar and gasoline. That was at least preferable to a grave in Europe or Asia.
Since this last officially declared war in 1941, a large percentage of Americans have been consistently opposed to American adventurism and foreign wars. Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Global War on Terror have all met opposition, albeit typically for partisan political reasons.
This doesn’t mean Americans should not defend our borders and protect our homes. That is a just war. Most Americans, however, still do not want to engage in a foreign policy that invites war, either. Donald Trump was elected in part because of this message. He seems to have forgotten his earlier positions.
Of course, I can’t let Alexander Hamilton off the hook in ushering in this mess. He provided the blueprint for the modern imperial presidency, the same presidency that can now send American troops into combat without congressional authorization.
But real “conservatives” have long warned against war. This is one reason they split with the neo-cons in the post-World War II era. They rallied against it, denounced it, and insisted that it would produce a host of horrors. And they were right.
Not only does it create economic and social dislocation, it allows the general government to expand its powers exponentially. That alone makes it dangerous. It is no coincidence that American liberty has suffered most during periods of war and why the American anti-war tradition should be studied and promoted.