Opposing the War Party

By Howard Zinn • The Progressive • May 2, 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.

In Oklahoma, the Socialist Party and the IWW formed a “Working Class Union” and planned a draft resisters’ march on Washington. There, 450 members of the union were arrested and sentenced to prison. In Boston, 8,000 marched against the war. The draft had been instituted because men were not responding to the call to enlist. But ultimately more than 330,000 were classified as draft evaders.

The first woman in the House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was asked to speak for “the womanhood of the country” in supporting the war. Instead she said during the roll call: “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote No.” A few months earlier, in the pages of The Progressive, Belle Case La Follette had saluted Rankin by noting how frequently suffragists were asked, derisively, “How about women holding office?” Explained La Follette: “The average objector to women’s suffrage generally puts this question to an advocate with the finality of playing a trump card.” No longer, she wrote. Rankin had won the respect of her colleagues. “Liberal minded, sympathetic, trained in economics, her attitude on public questions represents the progressive and enlightened twentieth century spirit,” said Belle Case La Follette. (Two decades later, when Congress was voting for war again, Jeannette Rankin was the one vote against it. Today, there is a thriving peace movement in Montana, which invokes her name as it demonstrates against the intervention in Iraq.)

When the leaders of the IWW were put on trial for their activities against the First World War, one of them spoke to the court:

“You ask me why the IWW is not patriotic for the United States. If you were a bum without a blanket . . . if your job had never kept you long enough in a place to qualify you to vote; if every person who represented law and order and the nation beat you up, railroaded you to jail, and the good Christian people cheered and told them to go to it, how in hell do you expect a man to be patriotic? This is a businessman’s war, and we don’t see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs that we now enjoy.”

World War II was the “good war,” because it was fought against Hitler and the evils of fascism. But its goodness was put into question by the massive bombing of civilians in Germany and Japan, culminating in the atrocities of the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the nuclear bombs that annihilated about 200,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At home, the war did not look as glorious to black people suffering segregation and humiliation. A black journalist wrote: “The Negro . . . is angry, resentful, and utterly apathetic about the war. ‘Fight for what?’ he is asking. ‘This war doesn’t mean a thing to me. If we win, I lose, so what?’ ”

Here in The Progressive, six months after Pearl Harbor, Milton Mayer warned that war was corrupting the nation, that we were condemning all Germans, all Japanese, that racism and jingoism were on the rise. “Here we are, with our tiny bit of hard-won humanness hanging now by a thread, and we are trying to teach our people to hate. A little German girl, a relative of mine and a refugee, went into a store and heard the jukebox singing something about ‘Slap the Dirty Jap.’ She screamed. In the Germany that to her is horror, the jukeboxes played a ballad called ‘Slap the Dirty Jew.’ ”

Early in the Vietnam War, before the Gulf of Tonkin and the rapid escalation, there was an editorial in The Progressive: “The tragedy of our role in Vietnam is but the current installment of an old story. Our commitment to ‘stop Communism’ too often leads us to support corrupt and decadent regimes detested by the peoples of those countries.”

That was a minority voice in the country in 1963, but the movement against the war soon began to grow. Some of the first to speak out were the most vulnerable to punishment–young blacks in the South. In McComb, Mississippi, in mid-1965, young blacks who had just learned that a classmate was killed in Vietnam distributed a leaflet: “No Mississippi Negroes should be fighting in Viet Nam for the White man’s freedom until all the Negro People are free in Mississippi.” (The Progressive, by the way, was not AWOL on civil rights. “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being,” Baldwin wrote here in his “Letter to My Nephew.”)

One of the most famous figures in the world, the heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, refused to serve in what he called a “white man’s war.” His boxing title was taken away from him, but he stood fast.

Martin Luther King Jr., against the advice of other black leaders, spoke out in 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York: “Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America. . . . I speak as a citizen of the world.”

This was the greatest movement against war in the nation’s history. On October 15, 1969, perhaps two million people across the nation gathered not only in the big cities, but in towns and villages that had never seen an anti-war demonstration.

Priests, nuns, lay people invaded draft boards and seized draft records to express their opposition to what the government was doing. The priest and poet Daniel Berrigan, on the occasion of one of the first of these draft board actions in Maryland by the “Catonsville Nine,” wrote a “Meditation”:

“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. . . . The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense.”

Fifteen years later, his brother Philip Berrigan echoed those words while protesting against the nuclear arms race. “The law is the Grand Illusion,” he wrote in 1983 in The Progressive. “It is not law at all, but anti-law. With endless pretension, it legitimates every phase of nuclear execution. Cloaked in probity, it stuns the mind and paralyzes the will, turning conscience to cowardice, protest to acquiescence. . . . We should break the anti-law, nonviolently, lovingly, responsibly. We should break it and fill the jails, for the only way out of nuclear imprisonment is into jail.”

When the United States government went to war against Iraq in 1991, the longtime editor of The Progressive Erwin Knoll wrote:

“I believe in ingenious, nonviolent struggle for justice and against oppression. So I won’t support our troops–not in the Persian Gulf or anywhere else. And I won’t support anyone else’s troops when they go about their murderous business.” Knoll spoke out against “a cycle of human violence that must be stopped because there is no such thing as a just war. Never was. Never will be.”

The spirit of La Follette, of Debs, of Helen Keller, of Martin Luther King Jr., of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and Erwin Knoll lives on today in the millions of Americans who oppose the present war in Iraq: those who hold vigil and demonstrate every day, every week, in towns and cities all over the country, the Military Families Against the War, the Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, the young people who have learned from the past and continue the struggle for peace.

The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world. On our side also is a power greater than money or weapons: the truth.

Published in The Progressive • May 2, 2004