Jonathan Zimmerman: Bush Has Backward View of Dissent

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools" (Harvard University Press).]

... [President] Bush has lashed out at Americans "who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people." True, the president said, some "honest critics" have condemned his decisions about Iraqi reconstruction, U.S. troop deployments and so on. But Bush drew a bright line between "responsible" opponents and the "irresponsible" kind, who raise doubts about the entire purpose of the war and thereby bring "comfort to our adversaries."

In other words, it's OK to criticize the White House for bungling the war after it started. But if you question how the war started, then you're obviously helping the Bad Guys. And you're hurting the United States.

The president has it exactly backward. By asking tough questions about the buildup to the war, Americans are acting in the very best traditions of their history. And it's the president himself -- not his opponents -- who is ignoring this same history.

Start with Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president and one of Bush's own heroes. We associate Lincoln with the Civil War, of course, so we forget that he was elected to Congress during an earlier conflict: the Mexican-American War. He opposed it, arguing that U.S. soldiers had incited the dispute needlessly.

"Marching an army into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, frightening the inhabitants away, leaving their growing crops and other property to destruction, to you may appear a perfectly amiable, peaceful, unprovoking procedure," a young Lincoln told the House of Representatives. "But it does not appear so to us."

Other prominent critics included abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who denounced the war as one "of aggression, of invasion ... and every other feature of national depravity." Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against the U.S. conquest of Mexican territory.

Sixty years later, in the Spanish-American War, the United States would acquire the Philippines and Puerto Rico. But the Filipinos revolted against their new U.S. rulers, spawning a brutal overseas war -- and a fresh round of critics back home. "God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippine Isles," screamed the Harvard philosopher William James, a founder of the American Anti-Imperialist League.

The League also enlisted Mark Twain, who blasted the war in his own typically caustic style. "We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining 10 millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket," Twain wrote. "And so, by these Providences of God -- and the phrase is the government's, not mine -- we are a World Power."

In the ensuing century, thousands of Americans would go to jail for opposing the United States' foreign wars, military conscription or both. Socialist leader Eugene Debs received a 10-year sentence after he criticized U.S. involvement in World War I; on the eve of World War II, David Dellinger and seven other seminarians served 10 months at a federal penitentiary for resisting the draft; and during the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali was sentenced to five years in jail (and was forced to relinquish his heavyweight crown) for refusing induction into what Ali called a "white man's war."

You don't have to agree with everything those people said or did; I certainly don't. But surely they were acting in the best U.S. tradition of democracy, which holds our leaders under constant scrutiny -- especially during wartime. Antiwar spokesmen such as Lincoln, Twain and Debs did not aid the United States' enemies, as Bush would now have it. Instead, they upheld the very principles upon which this country was founded: inquiry, free speech and the accountability of elected officials to the citizens who choose them. ...

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