Saturday, February 17, 2007

Dissent and Wars of Choice

There's been a lot of buzz around the blogosphere about a phony Abraham Lincoln quote that Bush Iraq War supporters keep throwing out there (most recently senior House GOPer Don Young of Alaska), suggesting that dissenters in Congress during wartime are "saboteurs" who might well be "arrested, exiled or hanged."

Lincoln never said that, but the more important issue is the underlying suggestion that there's something unprecdented and un-American about dissent, in Congress and elsewhere, in wartime. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many southerners opposed the War of 1812 as a New England conspiracy to seize Canada and enhance its regional power. Most northern Whigs--including, most notably, a young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln--opposed the Mexican War as a southern conspiracy to seize Mexican lands and enhance its own regional power. During the Civil War, much of the Democratic Party in the North officially opposed the government's war aims. There were open and large and vibrant antiwar movements as well prior to and during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and Vietnam. And there's no question that most Republicans openly challenged the Truman administration's policies during the Korean War, and the Clinton administration's intervention in Kosovo.

The only real exceptions to the normal pattern of dissent were World War II and Afghanistan. And it's no accident that in both cases, war began through a direct attack on the United States.

The other wars were, like Iraq, wars of choice, waged not as a matter of immediate national self-defense, but in response to debatable and rebuttable arguments of national interest.

Nearly two years after the Mexican War commenced, a Member of Congress penned a letter challenging the war's original justification, and commencing with a demand for its termination, with these words:

"[It] is a singular omission in this message [by President James K. Polk], that it, no where intimates when the President expects the war to terminate. At it's beginning, Genl. Scott was, by this same President, driven into disfavor, if not disgrace, for intimating that peace could not be conquered in less than three or four months. But now, at the end of about twenty months, during which time our arms have given us the most splendid successes--every department, and every part, land and water, officers and privates, regulars and volunteers, doing all that men could do, and hundreds of things which it had ever before been thought men could not do,--after all this, this same President gives us a long message, without showing us, that, as to the end, he himself, has, even an imaginary conception. As I have before said, he knows not where he is. He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show, there is not something about his conscious [sic], more painful than all his mental perplexity!"

The author of this missive, which any Member of Congress could equally address to George W. Bush, was one Abraham Lincoln.

UPDATE: Oops. As I was nicely reminded via an email from a history professor, I got the regional background of the War of 1812 wrong. Most New Englanders, especially those in the traditionally pro-British Federalist Party, opposed the war, some even proposing secession. My general point about opposition to wars of choice holds, but sorry for the embarassing lapse of historical knowledge.
-- Posted at 1:42 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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