Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley: Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods, Jr., eds., We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now (New York: Perseus Group, 2008)

Feb 14, 2009 7:24 pm

Ron Briley: Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods, Jr., eds., We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now (New York: Perseus Group, 2008)

In We Who Dared to Say No to War, editors Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods, Jr. remind us that those opposed to President George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq are part of an antiwar tradition in American history well established before it was rediscovered by the Vietnam generation. Polner and Woods believe that this antiwar tradition is neither the product of the political left nor right. Concerns about the human cost of war, the centralization of state power necessary to pursue military victory, the erosion of civil liberties, and the militarization of our culture are issues which concern Polner, a liberal who has written upon the Vietnam-era dissent of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and Woods, a libertarian and senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Polner and Woods begin their volume with a selection of documents on the oft-neglected War of 1812. Among the 1812 documents suggesting the common threads of war and dissent down to the present are addresses by Daniel Webster proclaiming his opposition to conscription, Congressman Samuel Taggart’s skepticism that Canadians would perceive an invasion as an act of liberation, and an antiwar editorial by Alexander Hanson which led to a patriotic mob ransacking the Federal Republican—a Baltimore newspaper.

Parallels between the dishonesty exhibited by Presidents George W. Bush and James K. Polk in their initiation of hostilities in Iraq and Mexico, respectively, are apparent in the documents provided by Polner and Woods. Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln believed that Polk manipulated Congress and the American people into supporting war by placing troops in the disputed boundary along the Rio Grande and provoking an attack by Mexico. Others such as abolitionist William Goodell perceived the conflict as a conspiracy to extend slave territory into the West.

And, of course, the Mexican War did reopen the political question of slavery expansion, culminating in the Civil War—a conflict which many endorse as a brutal but necessary conflict to destroy the institution of slavery. Polner and Woods, however, side with critics of the war such as abolitionist Ezra Heywood, Ohio Representative Clement L. Vallandigham, and Southern minister David Lipscomb. In what is probably the most controversial section of the book, Polner and Woods agree with historian Jeffrey Hummel, who argues in his book Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men (1996) that slavery was doomed even without the conflagration of war. The editors also deplore Lincoln’s violation of civil liberties during the conflict in the name of an abstraction such as “the Union.” Furthermore, Polner and Woods argue, “The religious veneer of Lincoln’s political rhetoric seared into the American consciousness the idea of the U. S. government as an instrument of God’s will, to be employed without mercy against any force so impious as to resist it” (58).

The Union saved by Lincoln was destined to become an empire with the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the brutal suppression of a Filipino revolt in opposition to American annexation. Although the United States moved into the twentieth century as an imperial power, Polner and Woods document the countervailing arguments of the American Anti-Imperialist League which included Congressman William Jennings Bryan, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and labor leader Samuel Gompers. Yet, the editors fail to include any dissent regarding the path of continental expansion at the expense of Native Americans, paving the way for a global expansionism often associated with elements of racial intolerance and bigotry.
American entrance into the First World War was met with considerable opposition by citizens who reelected Woodrow Wilson on the platform “he kept us out of war.” Polner and Woods document the opposition of Senators George W. Norris and Robert La Follette who perceived the conflict as primarily benefiting big business, while young anarchist Randolph Bourne feared the centralization of state power in an era of total war. When Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs denounced the war and conscription, he was imprisoned. The government used the war as an excuse to silence radical voices on the left such as the Socialists, anarchists, and Industrial Workers of the World.

The Second World War, often perceived as “the good war,” produced a greater degree of unity. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, isolationist groups such as American First closed ranks in support of the war effort. Nevertheless, dedicated pacifists David Dellinger and Milton S. Mayer were willing to face incarceration rather than abandon their principles.

Following World War II, liberals jointed the anticommunist and Cold War crusade of President Harry Truman. Those on the left who dissented from the Cold War consensus, such as former Vice-President Henry A. Wallace, were labeled as communist sympathizers. Thus, the critique of the emerging military/industrial state was often enunciated by those on the political right such as Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft and libertarians Robert Lefevre, Murray N. Rothbard, and Russell Kirk. There are, however, no documents which directly address the Korean War—maintaining that conflict’s reputation as “the forgotten war.”

But dissent during the Vietnam War is well developed with a greater emphasis upon the political left than in the more libertarian section of the book dealing with the Cold War. The voices of opposition to Vietnam selected by Polner and Woods include Senators Wayne Morris and George McGovern, Marine Corps General David M. Shoup, antiwar activists Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and the cultural anthem of Country Joe & The Fish, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” (1965).

Polner and Woods illustrate that the nation’s antiwar legacy remains alive and well in opposition to the War on Terror and the military occupation of Iraq. Among the voices questioning the contemporary conflict, readers will find Democratic Representative Barbara Lee and Senator Robert Byrd as well as conservative commentators Paul Craig Roberts and Patrick J. Buchanan. But perhaps the most poignant piece is by Iraq War opponent Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, whose son was killed in the conflict—bringing home the human cost of war.

Calling for an alliance of the left and right in opposition to the continued military occupation of Iraq and attack upon civil liberties found in the Patriot Act, Polner and Woods conclude, “The history of American wars is littered with propaganda, falsehoods, a compliant media, the manipulation of patriotic sentiment—everything we’ve seen recently; we’ve seen before. . . .we can at least be consoled that we are not alone, that for two centuries thoughtful Americans have struggled against the very things that confront us today” (xv). And as the war in Iraq appears to be winding down, amid calls for a “surge” of troops in Afghanistan, it seems that war opponents will have ample opportunity to employ the rich antiwar tradition in America so ably documented by Polner and Woods.

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