“They’re not antiwar—they’re just on the other side.” How many times have we heard this smear from the likes of blogger Glenn Reynolds and neocon hysteric David Horowitz? The problem with this rhetorical tack is that it is a page torn out of the playbook of the past. It fails to recognize that 9/11 did indeed change everything or at least accelerated a transformation already in the making—including in the arguments and constituency of the anti-interventionist movement in America.
The first mass organized antiwar movement in the U.S. was the Anti-Imperialist League, founded in 1898 by a group of New England intellectuals and Boston brahmins: the list of the League’s leaders, according to one historian, “reads like a combination of the Social Register and Who’s Who in America.” While the arguments advanced by league publicists usually revolved around the corrupting influence of empire-building and the danger posed to republican institutions, the Philippine rebels—led by the charismatic Emilio Aguinaldo—were valorized as heroic figures whose cause was just. Mark Twain compared Aguinaldo to George Washington and Joan of Arc. The narrative of a noble and selfless leader who dedicated himself wholly to the welfare of his people was avidly pushed by the league, and elaborated on by Twain with his characteristic passion, even when the facts—such as the payment Aguinaldo accepted from the U.S to go into exile, or his murder of a rival rebel leader—painted another, more ambiguous portrait.
World War I saw the antiwar movement arise from two sectors: German immigrants and socialist groupings, whose antiwar views were derived from abstract ideological considerations. Also included in this group were liberal intellectuals, such as Randolph Bourne, whose aphorism “war is the health of the state” has been a warning and an inspiration ever since. Bourne echoed the critique of the league, which had condemned imperialism as self-corrupting, yet unlike those earlier activists, there was little sympathy for the enemy and little love for the Kaiser outside of the German immigrant community. On the other hand, it was certainly true that leftist opponents of the war were not rooting for the Allies, either. They posited, instead, another side entirely, the side of the international working class.
World War II witnessed the upsurge of the largest antiwar movement in our history: the America First Committee, with over 800,000 dues-paying members and chapters in every state. In spite of a Communist-led smear campaign, America Firsters harbored no sympathy for the aims and ideologies of the Axis powers. Rather, their opposition to entering the war was anchored in the suspicion that “we would win the battle against national socialism in the trenches and lose it on the home front,” as novelist Rose Wilder Lane put it. Roosevelt, many if not most conservatives believed, was intent on making himself a dictator, and the court-packing scheme, the National Recovery Administration, and the pronouncements of his more radical henchmen did nothing to disabuse them of this notion. Just as important in framing their antiwar stance was their anti-Communism: when Hitler turned on his ally Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, American Communists were desperate to get us into the war in order to save the “workers’ fatherland.” American conservatives, such as newspaper magnate Robert R. McCormick, stiffened their antiwar stance: “Our war birds may try to welcome [the invasion] as reason for getting into war. To other Americans,” he wrote, “ to the majority of them, it presents the final reason for remaining out.”
This preoccupation with the unintended consequences of intervention—“Having helped [Stalin] win,” McCormick presciently inquired, “should we then have to rescue the continent from him?”—was the theme of “isolationist” opposition to the Korean War. Would we allow ourselves to be sucked into an unwinnable war on the Asian landmass? And while not even FDR dared send troops into battle without congressional approval, Truman did so with hardly a protest, setting a precedent that all of us are paying for today, in spades.
In Vietnam, it was another case of choosing sides, and again it was a Left-Right issue. “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win!” was a popular chant at antiwar demonstrations during the 1960s, and a small but very visible contingent invariably carried Viet Cong flags. Opponents of the war valorized the NLF and its leader just as the Anti-Imperialists of the 1890s turned Aguinaldo into an icon. The Communist Party, USA and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party played key roles in organizing the movement, along with the various Marxist factions of Students for a Democratic Society, and sympathy for the ideology of the enemy clearly predominated over the more thoughtful “self-corruption” arguments advanced by anti-imperialists of yore. Only the libertarians grouped around economist-philosopher Murray N. Rothbard and his journal Left & Right remembered the remonstrations of the Old Right warning that “we have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire.”
The implosion of Communism and the rise of “humanitarian interventionism” on the Clintonian model forever changed the character of subsequent antiwar movements, finally resolving the tension between foreign-policy realism and the valorization of the other side. There were very few people who glorified Slobodan Milosevic, a thuggish dullard without core convictions or even superficial charm. Opposition to the Kosovo War was instead centered entirely around a realist analysis that a war against the Yugoslav people was not in our interests and a suspicion that Clinton’s crusade was the beginning of a policy of “humanitarian” imperialism.
This ostensibly realist stance, however, took on a decidedly partisan cast in the post-Cold War era. When George Bush went to war against Iraq to establish a New World Order, many conservatives dissented on grounds of principled opposition to Wilsonianism, but Democrats protested largely because this was “Bush’s war.” A few years later, when Clinton bombed Baghdad, hardly a peep was raised in these quarters. By the time he struck at Belgrade, a Democratic secretary of state was proclaiming the hegemony of America—“the indispensable nation”—and complaining to Colin Powell, when he balked at sending troops to the Balkans: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
In the post-9/11 world, the realism of the antiwar camp was accentuated to the exclusion of all other factors. There is no one, short of a few isolated figures, who considers bin Laden to be another Aguinaldo nor, in spite of the War Party’s propaganda, is anybody rooting for him. The critique of the Iraq War proffered by most critics is realism narrowly conceived: the invasion and conquest of Iraq is seen as the greatest boon bin Laden could have wished for, so much so that Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, now characterizes the U.S. as al-Qaeda’s “indispensable ally.”
What is striking about the rising tide against the war in Iraq is its broadness and its disdain for ideological labels. While there is a certain partisan edge to war critics’ polemics, Republicans Walter B. Jones and Chuck Hagel are not alone on the Right in their rejection of the neoconservatives’ delusions. As the war gains unpopularity, this new movement threatens to upend the political landscape and effect the kind of sea-change that only occurs once every few generations.
While previous demonstrations against the Iraq War have been largely put together by a group known as “International ANSWER,” dominated by the Workers World Party, a neo-Trotskyist sect, ANSWER has been in disarray of late on account of a split between their West and East Coast cadres.
United for Peace has taken center stage with a strategy of outreach to independent and non-leftist elements who are also inclined to oppose the war. While ANSWER typically attaches an entire laundry list of leftist causes to its antiwar activities—raising slogans such as “Money for Jobs, Not for War” and “Free Mumia Abu Jamal”—United for Peace has abjured such sectarian tactics and taken a consciously broader approach to antiwar organizing. When United for Peace issued its call for a September action, International ANSWER called a demonstration for the same day, and, in explaining their initial decision not to merge the two actions, a United for Peace statement explained:
If we organize in an inclusive way, with broad demands, accessible language, and an inviting style, we have the potential to organize the largest and most diverse demonstration against the war to date, with people from all walks of life coming together in a clear call to bring our troops home now. If we are willing to go outside our comfort zones and speak to people our movements don’t typically reach, we have the potential to mobilize large numbers of people from outside the usual activist circles … .
This is light-years from the leftist verbiage that we are used to from antiwar circles, and in spite of the pressure from the antiwar rank-and-file that effected a merger of the ANSWER efforts with the United for Peace event, this clear-headed strategy is increasingly predominant.
Opponents of this war see their chance to end it and are increasingly focused on the legislative arena. A bipartisan Out of Iraq Caucus has formed, and House Democrats, led by Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters of California, are in open rebellion against pro-war Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who did everything she could to quash Woolsey’s resolution calling for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that nevertheless managed to garner 128 co-sponsors.
The bitter irony of the neocon Right’s charge that the war’s opponents are engaging in a “stab in the back” directed at our soldiers in Iraq is underscored by the movement’s military focus. Such groups as Military Families Speak Out and Iraq Veterans Against the War are among the brightest stars in the antiwar firmament. They glow the fiercest, perhaps because their passion is personal rather than merely ideological.
That’s why Cindy Sheehan’s protest galvanized antiwar sentiment and proved to be such a resonant symbol of American antipathy to empire. One has only to recall that much of the early opposition to George W. Bush’s excellent adventure came from top military leaders, both active and retired, to understand why one major source of the antiwar opposition springs directly from the military and their families.
Linda Waste’s voice quavered as she told the crowd on the steps of the Alabama state capitol about her three sons and two grandchildren currently serving in Iraq. She and her husband, Philip, were part of the antiwar caravan that rose into town with the “Bring Them Home Tour,” a mobile antiwar rally initiated by Cindy Sheehan in cooperation with MFSO and other groups, which is winding its way to Washington, D.C. For 58 months, says Waste, her children and grandchildren have served their country in Iraq: “We have given enough,” Waste said. “We keep hearing about the ‘noble sacrifice.’ There is nothing noble about this unjust war.”
In the beginning, it was “treason” to oppose the war, and war opponents were derided as anti-patriots: today an increasing number of military families see it as their patriotic duty to speak out against a conflict that doesn’t serve American interests and never did. The antiwar movement of the new millennium isn’t leftist, it isn’t rightist—it is simply the voice of reason and realism. Americans from all points on the political spectrum, including ordinary citizens with no ideological axe to grind, are wondering what we’re fighting for in Iraq and where the War Party is headed next.
Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com.
If you enjoyed this article, support us by making a tax-deductible donation.
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org