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Nov 1, 2014

Left and Right Against War

tags: FDR;Truman; Robert Taft; Murray Polner; Andrew Bacevich

Left and Right against War

By Murray Polner


“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.  We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”


                                                 ---General Omar Bradley


“Canada must be ours [say the war hawks]. We have nothing to do but to march into Canada and display the standard of the U.S., and the Canadians will immediately flock to it.”

                                                     --Rep. Samuel Taggart, whose antiwar article during the War of 1812 revealed how similar the prowar arguments then were as false as they were before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.




In short, the United States of America is historically addicted to war, more so than ever today with its vast “national security” apparatus, almost one thousand  military bases, and a nation torn between those who believe in military intervention for humanitarian causes and those who extol wars as a way of maintaining the country’s worldwide hegemony. Now, as 2014 turns into 2015 and beyond, we are faced with endless wars in the Middle East while the drums are beating for war against Iran in Washington and Jerusalem and hawks dream of teaching Putin a lesson as they eye Ukraine..


Years back Thomas Woods, Jr. asked me to collaborate with him in a book we titled We Who Dared Say No To War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now  (Basic Books). We wanted to portray a broad American antiwar tradition often absent from classrooms, Hollywood films, TV and the new media. Tom is a conservative libertarian who is also antiwar and a dedicated civil libertarian, and I a left liberal and believer in nonviolent activism. We differ on some things, especially on economics and the role of the federal government but not on our opposition to our nation’s reliance on war and conquest.


We had no illusions that our book can deter contemporary warmakers or outwit the fabrications and manipulations of governments and propagandists past and present. We were (and are) instead motivated by the hope that arguments for war should be critically examined as the men and women of different political persuasions we quote in the book have done. As we wrote:  We intend the book to be a “surprising and welcome change from the misleading liberal-peace/conservative-war dichotomy that the media and our educational establishment and popular culture have done so much to foster.”


During our efforts to find appropriate, acute, essays, speeches and documents, I reread Americans who had shaped my own thoughts about war: Randolph Bourne, the physically handicapped prophet who died far too young at age 32 but memorably and rightfully wrote that “war is the health of the state;”


And Robert A. Taft who condemned the incarceration of Japanese American citizens in 1943 by the FDR administration. Bitterly assailed as an isolationist—to the end of his life he was very suspicious about military interventions --- he  opposed Truman’s undeclared entry into the Korean War, where some 38,000 GIs died, many more were wounded in body and mind and several million Korean civilians were killed, saying “the President has no right to involve the United States in a foreign war;” Russell Kirk, the founder of postwar America’s genuine conservatism, urging “a policy of patience and prudence” against “preventive war” and decrying how “A handful of individuals…made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And then there was a man I proudly voted for in 1972, George McGovern, who publicly excoriated his senatorial prowar colleagues by saying each of them was “partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave." This chamber,” said this onetime WWII bomber pilot unforgettably, “reeks of blood,” adding as well, Edmund Burke’s cautionary words: “A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.”



Unsurprisingly, Tom and I  found that the same arguments used in all our wars are still used. We began with Daniel Webster’s speech in December 1814 after the war hawks (the term was coined during America’s aggressive war to capture Canada) urged a draft: “Where is it written in the Constitution,” he asked, “in what article or section is it contained, that you make take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly of the wickedness of Government may engage it?”


During our war of aggression against Mexico in 1846-48 we found the abolitionist William Goodell who called President Polk’s invasion a “war for slavery.” And many others:  Rep. Abraham Lincoln’s denunciation of the Mexican War, describing Polk’s war message as “the half-mumbling of a fever dream,” and Polk a “bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man.” Before the U.S. entered WWI,  Eugene Debs, the  heroic, memorable Socialist labor leader, spoke truth to power:  It is “the working class who freely shed their bloods and furnish the corpses” his words a crime in Woodrow Wilson’s administration and for which Debs received a ten year prison sentence (pardoned by the denigrated Warren Harding).  Senator George Norris, the progressive Republican from Nebraska ( long ago the Midwestern states  had many such sensible  Republican politicians) who condemned U.S. entry into WWI and their advocates: “Their object in having war and in preparing for war is to make money.” (117,000 GIs died in the war and 206,000 were wounded). Think, too, of contemporary war profiteers who have made so much money in Iraq and Afghanistan while future wars promise untold riches as well). War is a racket, angrily said Norris.


And we went on to note the hysteria generated during the Cold War, a frenzy which consistently and deliberately exaggerated Soviet military capabilities while frightening and punishing many Americans. (See, for example, the declassified documents released in September 2009 by George Washington University’s private and invaluable National Security Archive).


Our book featured a lot of tough words, echoed by many men and women (Helen Keller, Jane Addams, Jeannette Rankin, Rep .Barbara Lee, Gold Star mothers, etc.) whose words we rescued from obscurity. Had we had the room we would also have written about the military decimation of our Native American tribes and the habitual economic and military interference in the affairs of Caribbean and Central American states.


What we learned in writing this book was that lies, deliberate manipulation of patriotic feelings, scare tactics, a compliant, often indifferent media, and bribery of legislators kept and keeps the war machine oiled and too many decision makers in clover. Virtually everything heard in the past is still heard today. We quoted William Jay’s observation after the invasion of Mexico: “We have been taught to ring our bells, and illuminate our windows and let off fireworks as manifestations of our joy, when we have heard of great ruin and devastation, and misery, and death, inflicted by our troops upon a people who never injured us, who never fired a shot on our soil and who were utterly incapable of acting on the offensive against us”

And we concluded, “Everything we’ve seen recently, we’ve seen before. Time and again.”


In the end, I have personal favorites: William Graham Sumner, an irascible Yale academic who opposed the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars and the nation’s growing appetite for imperial conquest and world power; Marine Commandant David Shoup, who said of our Vietnam adventure, “Let’s Mind Our Business; W.D. Ehrhart (read his books!), a combat Marine veteran of Vietnam, who enlisted at age 18 and years later told students at a Pennsylvania school, “I am no longer convinced that what I owe to my country is military service whenever and wherever my government demands it…if I owe something to my country, my country also owes something  to me…it owes us the obligation not to ask for our lives unless it is absolutely necessary;” Howard Zinn, WWII bombardier turned pacifist,  who argued, “We need to refute the idea that our nation is different from, morally superior to, other imperial powers of world history” and instead “assert our allegiance to the human race, and not to any one nation,” to  libertarian  Llewellyn Rockwell, Jr.’s (editor of for writing, “Do we reject war and all its works? We do reject them?” and especially Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam War veteran, retired Boston University professor, and father of a son killed in Iraq, whose distressing “I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose; We Were Both Doing Our Duty” is unforgettable. 


We Who Dared Say No To War will not change the course of history. Still, it reflects our mission, our passion—to encourage debate and discussion, especially in our nation’s classrooms as well as among our compatriots, now drowning in a mass culture that celebrates trivia, “amusing themselves to death” in the sainted and late Neil Postman’s incisive words.  Tom Woods and I would like to encourage an alternative patriotism that does not goes abroad every few years to seek and destroy imagined “enemies” while sacrificing a new generation of our young.



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