America’s proud tradition of dissent

What do Tom DeLay, Trent Lott, Abraham Lincoln and Mohammad Ali have in common? They are all American wartime dissenters. Like today’s critics of the war in Iraq, they each made a principled stand against military conflicts they believed were wrong. Amid suggestions from average Americans, as well as leading politicians, that recent criticisms of war have been in some way unpatriotic, it is important to keep in mind the heritage of wartime dissent and its importance to a democracy.

On the eve of the war in Iraq, Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., made several pointed antiwar statements and criticized President George W. Bush for failing to resolve the crisis diplomatically. Many Americans, including many Republican members of Congress, admonished Daschle and labeled his remarks unpatriotic. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said Daschle’s remarks “may not give comfort to our adversaries, but they come mighty close.” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, took Daschle to task for “second-guessing Ö our commander in chief on the eve of war with Iraq.”

On the other hand, many welcome dissent during wartime. Besides protesting what they perceive as erroneous policy and destructive violence, war contrarians over the years have seen their activities as a way to check and counter a government bureaucracy that tends to control information and reduce personal liberties during periods of war. For war dissenters, this fortifies the promise of a democratic system – a government comprised of the people where minority views are given a forum.

Some media outlets, namely Fox News, have portrayed the recent dissenters as anti-American and insensitive to the fears of soldiers and their families. Further, these media outlets portrayed dissent as the exclusive work of bitter liberals, naive idealists and confused celebrities. History, however, tells us otherwise.

Some of the United States’ most idolized and vociferous patriots – individuals many conservative Americans claim as heroes – were well known dissenters during times of war, arguing hostilities should be stopped and diplomacy should be used to resolve the crisis instead. Wartime dissent is not the sole property of the U.S. left wing.

DeLay notes on his Web site that he “stands firmly behind (Bush’s) authority to confront Saddam Hussein and rid Iraq of his oppressive dictatorship.” However, during another recent war of liberation that involved U.S. troops – the campaign to protect Kosovo’s autonomy from an aggressive Serbia – DeLay backed legislation “directing the president … to remove U.S. Armed Forces from their positions in connection with the present operations against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” DeLay said at the time “(t)he bombing was a mistake. … And (President Bill Clinton) ought to show some leadership and admit it, and come to some sort of negotiated end.” DeLay was not the only congressional critic of the Kosovo war while U.S. forces were engaging the enemy. Sens. Trent Lott and Don Nickles, both southern Republicans, joined DeLay in opposition, highlighting the horrific mistakes that can be made during precise bombing campaigns and the difficulties associated with nation building.

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most revered Republican presidents in U.S. history. It was as a wartime dissenter that the congressman from Illinois gained notoriety. Lincoln opposed the pre-emptive strikes against the Mexicans that initiated the Mexican War, and blamed President James Polk for the war. Lincoln said of Polk, “The blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to heaven against him.”

To most Americans, Muhammad Ali is a venerable U.S. athlete suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. To his many admirers – black, white, conservative, middle-of-the-road and liberal – he was a graceful yet ruthless fighter in the ring and a humanitarian and role model outside of the ropes. Yet in 1967, Ali strongly challenged the Johnson administration’s policy in Vietnam by publicly refusing to honor the draft and declared, “I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam.”

Far from being unpatriotic, wartime dissenters can constructively expose problems in our foreign policy and counter the spin coming from our government officials. They are essential to the sustenance of U.S. democracy, seeking nonviolent solutions to foreign policy problems and challenging the ominous weight of government propaganda. Instead of telling dissenters to shut up, we need to acknowledge the important role they play. Right or wrong, it is imperative that wartime dissenters be respectful of feelings of other Americans, especially those families with relatives in the Iraqi theater. It is our hope that the long and respected line of wartime dissent continues today and tomorrow.