Howard Zinn: Opposing the War Party

Roundup: Historians' Take

Howard Zinn, in the Progressive (May 2004):

The Progressive has been a thorn in the side of the establishment for almost a hundred years. Its life span covers two world wars and six smaller wars. It saw the fake prosperity of the Twenties and the tumult of the Thirties. Its voice remained alive through the Cold War and the hysteria over communism.

Through all that, down to the present day, and the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, this intrepid magazine has been part of the long struggle for peace, for a boundary-less world. It may be useful to recall some of the heroes--some famous, some obscure--of that historic resistance to war.

When the United States government in 1917 decided to send its young men into the slaughterhouse of the First World War, one of the few voices in Washington speaking out against this was a Senator from Wisconsin. This was Robert La Follette, founder of The Progressive, who wrote in the June 1917 issue:

"Every nation has its war party. It is not the party of democracy. It is the party of autocracy. It seeks to dominate absolutely. It is commercial, imperialistic, ruthless. It tolerates no opposition. It is just as arrogant, just as despotic, in London, or in Washington, as in Berlin. The American Jingo is twin to the German Junker. . . . If there is no sufficient reason for war, the war party will make war on one pretext, then invent another."

The Socialist Party, with its hundreds of thousands of supporters, opposed the war, calling it"a crime against the people of the United States." The nation had been at war for a year when the Socialist leader Eugene Debs spoke in Canton, Ohio, outside a prison where three Socialists were serving time for opposing the draft. Debs said:"They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. That is too much, even for a joke. . . . Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. . . . And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles."

Those last words were quoted by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in writing the court's unanimous decision that Debs had violated the Espionage Act because his words, with draft-age youngsters in the crowd,"would obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service." Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison. Before sentencing him, the judge, acting in the tradition of a judicial system obsequious to the war-making branches of government, denounced those who, like Debs,"would strike the sword from the hand of this nation while she is engaged in defending herself against a foreign and brutal power."

Here's what The Progressive had to say about Holmes's decision: It is"a doctrine quite unsuitable to a free country."

Helen Keller, a persistent voice against militarism and a contributor to The Progressive, also reacted to the Supreme Court's decision on Eugene Debs. She wrote an open letter to Debs:"I write because my heart cries out, and will not be still. I write because I want you to know that I should be proud if the Supreme Court convicted me of abhorring war, and doing all in my power to oppose it. When I think of the millions who have suffered in all the wicked wars of the past, I am shaken with the anguish of a great impatience. I want to fling myself against all brute powers that destroy life and break the spirit of man."

Despite the huge propaganda campaign of the government and the obedience of the press (The New York Times asked its readers"to communicate to proper authorities any evidence of sedition"), there was widespread resistance. About 900 people were imprisoned for speaking against the war, and 65,000 men declared themselves conscientious objectors....


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