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A “House Divided”: Wartime dissent in American history and today

Democracies are obviously much more fragile than their opponents in holding coalitions together or in keeping their domestic house in order while fighting on distant fronts. Since democracies have still yet to wage war with against another, it remains true that democracy’s wartime opponents have always been authoritarians. This is equally true today.

The American democracy is even more susceptible to dissent than most others, due to the vast openness of the political culture, the sanctity of free speech, and the importance placed on minority views, third parties and entertainment. The communications revolution in America has made stars of average people and has promoted TV personalities as arbiters of policies rather than just as reporters. Walter Cronkite was perhaps the most important American throughout the Vietnam War and solidified dissent against it.

The American tradition in wartime dissent was present from the beginning. Most colonists were either against breaking from Britain or were neutral. Less than one-third favored independence which was, of course, a treasonous act. In the War of 1812, the country was split between the so-called “War Hawks” of the south and southeast and the pro-British Federalists from the New England and mid-Atlantic states. In New England, dissension came close to secession, especially with the 1814 Hartford Convention, which demanded veto power against any future wars (never adopted).

The first modern opposition to a foreign war occurred after the Spanish-American War, when the McKinley Administration decided to keep Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines as possessions. An insurrection against U.S. occupation in the Philippines forced a major troop intervention. Opposition to this conflict and expansionism in general split the country into bitter halves and dominated the 1900 election. Yale professor William Graham Sumner’s essay of that time, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain,” may still stand as the most important anti-war statement in American history. Sumner’s thesis argued that, by keeping Spain’s old empire, the United States had in effect come to resemble European despotism and imperialism, thus reversing the original purpose of the Revolution. In this respect, wartime dissent was seen as patriotism in the extreme.

Neither of the world wars were marked by significant protest, although there were serious divisions before World War II. April 6, 1917 and December 8, 1941, it should be noted, were the only times during the twentieth century when the U.S. formally declared war. A declaration of war certainly marks a powerful divide within the political culture, when dissent can lawfully be considered as treason. This formality has allowed anti-war opposition since then to thrive without crossing the line into treason, a legality that has continued to plague American conduct of foreign wars since. The late Colonel Harry Summers, probably the most insightful critic of the strategy employed by the U.S. in Vietnam, insisted that the failure of President Johnson to declare war was the biggest obstacle to a U.S. victory. Today, we hear cries that the country is “at war” with Islamic terrorism, but how and against whom do we expect a formal declaration?    

Seen in its totality, the U.S. has been in deadly conflict against Islamic-driven terror since 1983, when 240 marines were blown up in their Lebanese barracks. More than a quarter century later, the political administration still cannot bring itself to identify properly the inspirational source for the “war.” At the same time, volunteers have been deployed in at least seventeen Middle East locales against the non-state enemy and the home front has been riddled with dissent from political quarters, left and right. This occurs within an amorphous and ambiguous strategic arena, somewhere between war and peace, which to this day defies even a definition.

This strategic “no man’s land” is the central reality of world politics. “Globalization” may unite the powerful economies of the developed world, but it simply offers opportunities for the millions of disaffected, who are supplied arms, support and sanctuary by rich suppliers. ISIS and its affiliates, contrasted with, say, Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, by themselves have no military resources, but have benefitted from the largesse provided by the wealthy and oil-rich to terrorize society from Paris to San Bernardino to Baghdad. Imagine: the entire Western world, the one that defeated Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Soviet Russia, has recoiled in a defensive and confused mode against a gang of masked and barbaric thugs, guided by a truly other-world vision, hopelessly beyond reason.

In today’s social atmosphere, one wonders what is going on. There is neither war nor sustained dissent, just endless tragedy without strategic direction. The country is irreparably divided.  For there to be unity, it make take a catastrophic event like Pearl Harbor — wherein unity ended debate. In the meantime, there are several America’s, reminding one of Lincoln’s comment that a “house divided against itself,” cannot stand.