War, Dissent, and Democracy
by Ron Briley


As I led a discussion of President Woodrow Wilson's military intervention against Mexican President Victoriano Huerta and proclamation that the American President was going to teach Mexico to elect good men, some students made an effort to relate Wilson's failures in Mexico to President George W. Bush's plans for "regime change" in Iraq. When this happened I noticed a reluctance of many students to engage in criticism of either Wilson or Bush. Some stated that they simply did not have enough information to engage in such speculation, while others expressed discomfort, believing that criticizing American foreign policy historically or today was in some way disloyal. This disturbs me, for it demonstrates that as Americans we have forgotten the role that dissent and debate have played in our history. We seem to have bought into the idea that expressing our Constitutional right to question the nation's leaders is in some way disloyal as the President suggested when he asserted that Democrats who did not support his Homeland Defense legislation did not care about the nation's security.


We tend to extol World War II as the model of united we stand, divided we fall. Yet, the nation was bitterly divided over the direction of American foreign policy until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And even during that war, overcrowding and efforts to promote African-American workers led to a race riot in Detroit which temporarily shut down the arsenal of democracy. Violence flared in the streets of San Diego and Los Angeles as sailors attacked Chicanos in the Zoot Suit Riots. We do tend to nostalgically embrace the unified war effort of World War II, while ignoring the internal conflicts of the period. For all of American history has produced debate and conflict over the questions of war in a democratic society. Even in the American Revolution, the fledgling nation was divided between patriots and loyalists. In the War of 1812, a declaration of war against Great Britain only carried the U. S. Senate by a vote of 19 to 13, with the Federalist Party and Eastern mercantile interests opposing the conflict. The Manifest Destiny of the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, and its impact upon slavery expansion, also provoked dissent and one of the seminal texts of American democracy: Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience."


Of course, the greatest division in our history was the American Civil War. In the South, the ordinances of succession hardly enjoyed universal support, and many upcountry yeomen farmers refused to support the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln labeled his Northern Democratic critics as Copperheads, but if the war had not taken a positive turn for the Union, the Republican might have been defeated by George McClellanin 1864.


American expansion into the West after the Civil War produced fierce resistance by Native Americans, although less dissent than the Mexican-American War. Nevertheless, Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor (1886) did brand American Indian policy as a series of broken promises and treaties. The Spanish-American War of 1898 made the United States a colonial power with a naval base in Cuba and territorial possessions in Guam, Puerto Rico, and The Philippines. The war and its aftermath sparked an anti-imperialist movement led by Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.


American entrance into World War I featured considerable opposition. Progressive Republican George Norris of Nebraska asserted that the war would only benefit Wall Street interests and munitions-makers. While Norris continued to serve in the Congress, the government used patriotic fervor to shut down more leftist critics of American foreign policy. Leaders of the Socialist Party, such as Eugene Debs, and the Industrial Workers of the World were imprisoned for opposing the war. The violation of civil liberties during World War I draws a frightening parallel to the present with the chilling effect that such legislation as the Patriot Act has had upon free speech and dissent. In the 1920s and 30s, many Americans grew disillusioned with World War I, and there was a strong anti-war movement to keep the country out of the Second World War. This proved impossible, but the legacy of international failures to stop the rise of Hitler in the 1930s continue to have major repercussions for the present. During the Cold War, communist expansion was compared with Hitler's aggressions, and those, such as former Vice-President Henry Wallace, who urged negotiations with the Soviet Union, were labeled as appeasers. The success of McCarthyism in branding as disloyal and soft on communism those who questioned the Cold War generally blunted criticism of the Korean War, although right-wing critics argued that the nation needed a more aggressive military stance in Korea.


The escalation of the Cold War in Vietnam, with the accompanying growing number of draft notices and body bags, produced bitter divisions and dissent during the late 1960s and early 1970s. While war protesters were often accused of treason, public support for the long war in Southeast Asia eroded and American withdrawal from Vietnam was negotiated.


The experience in Vietnam left a bitter taste in the mouths of most Americans, who began to look back at World War II as a golden age of unity. Accordingly, the Persian Gulf War was orchestrated as a great patriotic war with ticker-tape parades for the soldiers. Yet, the ambiguous outcome of that conflict and the way that veterans with Persian Gulf War Syndrome were treated quickly took the luster off that conflict.


Today, we appear about to embark upon another great crusade in Iraq to topple a dictator who has been compared with Hitler. As the first Gulf War and Wilson's efforts in Mexico demonstrate "regime change" may not be quite as simple as our leaders suggest. As this brief survey indicates there is a rich tradition of dissent with American foreign policy and war. Those who ask the tough questions are simply exercising their democratic rights. But history also suggests that there is risk involved in this process. Nevertheless, I would like to see my students and fellow citizens unafraid to take up the responsibility of democratic citizenship and question our leaders.




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