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Declaring War Doesn’t Make It Right

However representative of the people Parliaments and Congresses may be in all that concerns the internal administration of a country’s political affairs, in international relations it has never been possible to maintain that the popular body acted except as a wholly mechanical ratifier of the Executive’s will.

The formality by which Parliaments and Congresses declare war is the merest technicality. Before such a declaration can take place, the country will have been brought to the very brink of war by the foreign policy of the Executive. A long series of steps on the downward path, each one more fatally committing the unsuspecting country to a warlike course of action, will have been taken without either the people or its representatives being consulted or expressing its feeling. When the declaration of war is finally demanded by the Executive, the Parliament or Congress could not refuse it without reversing the course of history, without repudiating what has been representing itself in the eyes of the other states as the symbol and interpreter of the nation’s will and animus.

To repudiate an Executive at that time would be to publish to the entire world the evidence that the country had been grossly deceived by its own Government, that the country with an almost criminal carelessness had allowed its Government to commit it to gigantic national enterprises in which it had no heart. In such a crisis, even a Parliament which in the most democratic States represents the common man, and not the significant classes who most strongly cherish the State ideal, will cheerfully sustain the foreign policy which it understands even less than it would care for if it understood, and will vote almost unanimously for an incalculable war, in which the nation may be brought well nigh to ruin.

That is why the referendum [1] which was advocated by some people as a test of American sentiment in entering the war was considered even by thoughtful democrats to be something subtly improper. The die had been cast. Popular whim could derange and bungle monstrously the majestic march of State policy in its new crusade for the peace of the world. The irresistible State ideal got hold of the bowels of men. Whereas up to this time, it had been irreproachable to be neutral in word and deed, for the foreign policy of the State had so decided it, henceforth it became the most arrant crime to remain neutral.


The Middle West, which had been soddenly pacifistic in our days of neutrality, became in a few months just as soddenly bellicose and in its zeal for witch-burning and its scent for enemies within gave precedence to no section of the country. The herd-mind followed faithfully the State-mind and, the agitation for a referendum being soon forgotten, the country fell into the universal conclusion that, since its Congress had formally declared the war, the nation itself had in the most solemn and universal way devised and brought on the entire affair.

Oppression of minorities became justified on the plea that the latter were perversely resisting the rationally constructed and solemnly declared will of a majority of the nation. The herd coalescence of opinion which became inevitable the moment the State had set flowing the war attitudes became interpreted as a prewar popular decision, and disinclination to bow to the herd was treated as a monstrously antisocial act. So that the State, which had vigorously resisted the idea of a referendum and clung tenaciously and, of course, with entire success to its autocratic and absolute control of foreign policy, had the pleasure of seeing the country, within a few months, given over to the retrospective impression that a genuine referendum had taken place.

When once a country has lapped up these State attitudes, its memory fades; it conceives itself not as merely accepting, but of having itself willed, the whole policy and technique of war. The significant classes, with their trailing satellites, identify themselves with the State, so that what the State, through the agency of the Government, has willed, this majority conceives itself to have willed.

All of which goes to show that the State represents all the autocratic, arbitrary, coercive, belligerent forces within a social group, it is a sort of complexus of everything most distasteful to the modern free creative spirit, the feeling for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

War is the health of the State. Only when the State is at war does the modern society function with that unity of sentiment, simple uncritical patriotic devotion, cooperation of services, which have always been the ideal of the State lover. With the ravages of democratic ideas, however, the modern republic cannot go to war under the old conceptions of autocracy and death-dealing belligerency. If a successful animus for war requires a renaissance of State ideals, they can only come back under democratic forms, under this retrospective conviction of democratic control of foreign policy, democratic desire for war, and particularly of this identification of the democracy with the State.

Randolph Bourne [2] (1886-1918) was a progressive American writer and intellectual. Excerpted from “The State [3],” published posthumously in 1919.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Declaring War Doesn’t Make It Right"

#1 Comment By JB On September 9, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

A congressman named Louis Ludlow I think from Indiana, opposed US interference in “World War I” and proposed that the American people be allowed to vote by referendum whether or not to declare war.

Wish that one had passed! Except in caseof a true emergency where time is of the essence, we should require a 2/3 majority popular vote, a 2/3 congressional vote, or both, before going to war.

No way would the warmongers get a 2/3 vote of the American people in favor of war against the Assad government in Syria.

#2 Comment By David T On September 10, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

The text of the original Ludlow amendment H. J. Res. 199, 75th Congress, 1st session was:

SEC. 1. Except in the event of an invasion of the United States or its Territorial possessions and attack upon its citizens residing therein, the authority of Congress to declare war shall not become effective until confirmed by a majority of all votes cast thereon in a Nation-wide referendum. Congress, when it deems a national crisis to exist, may by concurrent resolution refer the question of war or peace to the citizens of the States, the question to be voted on being, Shall the United States declare war on _________? Congress may otherwise by law provide for the enforcement of this section.

The Amendment never came close to passing (i.e., to getting the necessary 2/3 vote in the House) as I note at [4]

Of course what worried Ludlow was the looming Second World War, and ironically that was one of the few wars that wouldn’t have required a referendum under the Amendment–Japan’s attacking the Philippines, let alone Pearl Harbor, would be enough to avoid one. (Nor would war with Germany have required a referendum, because it was Hitler who declared war on the US.)

#3 Comment By J On September 13, 2013 @ 10:41 am

I’m not confident we can rely on 1/3 of American people to be functionally literate enough to see through the propaganda.

#4 Comment By Victor Tiffany On September 13, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

I have to write that the more I read The American Conservative, the more impressed I am. I can’t imagine another right-wing publication offering an essay from a “progressive American writer and intellectual.”


Bourne wrote that “War is the health of the State.” Somehow, we need to redefine and transform that to wind down the American Empire in a way that the Soviets wound down their Empire, i.e, peacefully. The option is endless war, endless violence and endless depletion of our national treasury.

#5 Comment By Brian A. Cobb On October 1, 2013 @ 10:23 am

Prescient. Bourne anticipates Roosevelt’s machinations before WWII, the so-called good war. Also LBJ’s in the Gulf of Tonkin and George I’s before Persian Gulf. And, of course, Dubya’s before Iraq.

All of which received Congressional approbation.

If we have to back the president’s play no matter what, we are not a republic.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 30, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

Tragically, the flu epidemic was the pestilence that follows war and consumes those not already directly sacrificed in its meat cleaver. So many innocents lost whose further work developed to maturity that could have transformed our world hence from its present trajectory of state-sponsored violence; including my own great-grandfather consumed in Brooklyn. God save us from “humanitarian interventions,” from Wilson on, that are anything but, masking the deceit of financial advantage for the select few. War is not conservative; it is the act of wastrals.

#7 Comment By Neil Cordero On February 10, 2014 @ 10:59 pm

There are propaganda machines for war. The executive may be coerced into a bad war ala Geo Bush 2. Pat Buchanan’s Whose War was an eye opener for myself.
“We charge that a cabal of polemicists and public officials seek to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests. We charge them with colluding with Israel to ignite those wars and destroy the Oslo Accords.”

We had the NYTIMES Judith Miller warning us of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. We had Ann Coulter
” In the Iraq war so far, the U.S. military has deposed a dictator who had already used weapons of mass destruction and would have used them again. As we now know, Saddam Hussein was working with al-Qaida and was trying to acquire long-range missiles from North Korea and enriched uranium from Niger.”

None of this rubbish was true.

Yet our Iraq war was dictated to us by treasonous snakes who managed so far to escape criminal charges.

That is a problem. It has emboldened them to demand we bomb and invade Syria then onto Iran

This may sound harsh but charging Coulter with treason may be a step forward in putting out the flames of perpetual warfare.

And if we lack the back bone maybe they can be tried at the Hague. She can listen to the victims of her malice. The maimed, the widows , the orphans and our military men whom she slandered.

Kristol, Podhertz, Murdoch et al. can join her.