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Dissenting Against War Is as American as Apple Pie

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.