Opposing the War Party
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine,
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
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
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 15,000 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
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
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 antilaw.
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.
Howard Zinn, the author of '`A Peoples
History of the United States," is a columnist for The Progressive.