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News Link • WAR: About that War

Why Do Anti-War Movements Fail?


David Lorenzo, a professor of international affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, has undertaken an ambitious task. America has engaged in many wars throughout its history, and all of them have encountered opposition. Lorenzo in this excellent book endeavors to classify the principal types of argument that have been raised by those who challenged the path of war.

Readers will come away from Lorenzo's extensive survey with an indelible impression. The same debates recur again and again. If for example, we look at the debate over the War of 1812, it might be Ron Paul speaking about the invasion of Iraq in 2003:

Responding to Madison's war message, [Representative Samuel] Teggart also argued that the war was illegitimate because it had been avoidable. Despite its assertions to the contrary, the administration and its backers were predisposed to engage in hostilities, themselves being caught up in war fever. … This fever created a psychological atmosphere which not only contaminated internal processes; it also affected external relations. … Key decision-makers and those in Congress who backed them, Teggart implied, were not in their right minds.

Another familiar theme emerges in the debate over the Mexican War:

The Whigs first attacked the decision to go to war by deploying a deligitimating Constitutional argument. The actions leading up to the war added up to an unconstitutional presidential grab for power, they held. By positioning the military in what was at best disputed territory along the Rio Grande, the president precipitated a war without Congressional approval. To allow presidents to place the military in harm's way … is to allow executives to politically manipulate Congress with impunity.

The Anti-War Case Is Often About Prudence, Not Pacifism

Opponents of war must confront an objection. Granted that war fever and presidential usurpation of power may sometimes result in unnecessary wars, does this totally invalidate the case for war? Is not America sometimes really in danger? In the case most often cited by those who criticize noninterventionists, were not the pre-World War II "isolationists" willfully blind to the danger that Hitler posed to America?

It is a great strength of Lorenzo's book that, having seriously studied the opponents of Franklin Roosevelt's belligerent policies, he realizes that the answer to our question is "no."  To the contrary, "isolationists" like William Borah, Herbert Hoover, and Charles Lindbergh feared that commitments to foreign powers would weaken America. Only the direct prospect of an invasion of the homeland would justify war.

The practical problem with actions that he [Lindbergh] thought would lead to US involvement in the war was not that they were too militaristic … but that they would provoke an unnecessary war and in so doing divert attention and resources from national security needs. … The US should stay out of the affairs of other countries because such activism constitutes an unnecessary distraction from tending to its own security needs.

War Undermines Domestic Opposition to State Power

Another argument constantly recurs in the arguments of war's opponents. Wars will result in an American empire, destroying our republican institutions.

John C. Calhoun used exactly this argument in challenging the Mexican War.

Calhoun held that aggressive foreign policies [toward Mexico] are not worth it from a purely material and utilitarian viewpoint. Calhoun then embarked on a different, delegitimizing discussion when considering what could be done with any territory taken from Mexico. … The bounty of Mexico would prove to be a poisonous fruit, ironically destroying the form of government and civilization that some were attempting to extend by means of war.

Garet Garett, one of the foremost twentieth-century figures of the Old Right, used a similar strategy one hundred years later to oppose the Korean War.

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