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My Old (and Peaceful) Kentucky Home

Is it a coincidence that the GOP's most ardent doves all hail from the beautiful Bluegrass State?

You know those friendly Facebook arguments that are always breaking out over which state sends to Congress the most peace-loving delegation? (Or is it the chonkiest cats?)

Well, my face isn’t in Mr. Zuckerberg’s book, so I’ll have to chip in my two cents right here.

The New England states took the palm in the 19th century, their people and their representatives supplying much of the opposition to the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American War. In the bloody 20th century, populism-drenched North Dakota was magnificent in its isolation. The upper Mountain West sent to Washington such stalwart foes of military madness as William Borah (Idaho) and Burton K. Wheeler and Jeannette Rankin (Montana), though Wyoming drags down the regional grade for saddling us with Dick Cheney. Socialists of the City of New York, many of them Jewish, were the pith of the opposition to U.S. involvement in the First World War, while Chicago was headquarters of the antiwar America First Committee in the run-up to WWII. 

The South is the only region of the country that has been consistently hawkish, from the foreign wars of the 19th century through the two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, and on to today’s endless entanglements in the Middle East. 

Yet in Dixie’s northern tip doves coo, and the lamb lies down with the lion. 

Over the last three score years, one state, if judged by the men it has sent to the Imperial City, has established itself as the Peacenik Capital of America: Kentucky. And the Republican Party has been its vessel.

No, I’m not talking about Mitch McConnell—who ever wants to talk about Mitch McConnell?—but it is a curious fact that Kentucky Republicans have constituted the dominant peace strain in the GOP since the mid-1960s.

In the Vietnam years, as today, a small but not insignificant minority of Republican members of Congress stood for peace. Representative Eugene Siler, a Baptist lay preacher and attorney from Williamsburg, Kentucky, cast the only vote in the U.S. House of Representatives against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the blank check handed to Lyndon B. Johnson to prosecute the Vietnam war. (Siler was absent that day but “paired against” the measure.) 

In June 1964, Representative Siler, tongue in cheek but heart in the right place, announced his presidential candidacy on the floor of the House. “I am running with the understanding that I will resign after 24 hours in the White House,” he said. “What I propose to do in my one day as President is to call home our 15,000 troops in South Vietnam and cancel our part in that ill-fated, unnecessary, and un-American campaign in Southeast Asia.” Ignoring Siler, the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, who suggested that atomic bombs might be dropped on North Vietnam. 

Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), who called himself a “[Robert] Taft Republican” and flirted with libertarianism in the late ’60s, urged the GOP to become the “peace party” in 1968. Bookies would have given him long odds, but this was hardly a Detroit Lions-to-win-the-Super-Bowl bet. Hatfield had Senate Republican company: Chuck Percy of Illinois had defeated hawkish liberal warhorse Senator Paul Douglas in 1966; the wise and flinty George Aiken of Vermont was worried that like the Romans, Americans might become “so concerned with their own world prestige that they forgot what was going on at home”; and Kentucky’s Yale-educated duo of Thruston Morton and John Sherman Cooper made the Bluegrass State the epicenter of war-skeptic Republicanism.

Senator Morton, who blamed Democratic “militarists and their sycophants” for the U.S. quagmire in Vietnam, called in April 1968 for “the nomination by the Republican Party of a candidate who is not committed to wanton globalism”—whereupon the GOP crowned Richard Nixon, and wantonness held illimitable dominion over all. 

Morton’s Kentucky stablemate, Senator Cooper, teamed with Frank Church—the pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, antiwar, civil libertarian Idaho Democrat—on a pair of successful Church-Cooper amendments, the first of which prohibited the funding of U.S. military operations in Laos and Thailand, and the second extending that proscription to Cambodia.

Today, the most consistent and articulate congressional critics of U.S. military intervention (and defenders of the Bill of Rights) are Kentuckians: Representative Tom Massie and Senator Rand Paul. That Massie and Paul are regarded by their party’s leadership as eccentric renegades tells you all you need to know about the Republican Party. 

Bringing it all back home is Kentucky’s Wendell Berry, the decidedly non-Republican farmer and pacifist and our greatest living man of letters, whose Vietnam-era poem “February 2, 1968” remains an expression of hope in a discouraging time:

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover. 

Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.

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