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Rebuilding Iraq

IDEAS

Advise and dissent

The tradition of antiwar protest and the riddles of the past

By James T. Kloppenberg, 4/6/2003

AS DISAGREEMENTS OVER the war in Iraq ignite public controversy, it's worth recalling that antiwar protest is not an artifact of the Vietnam era but a tradition as old and venerable as the United States itself. Throughout their history, Americans have typically gone to war reluctantly, and deep divisions have persisted throughout most of the wars they have fought.

When a long-simmering feud with Britain erupted into the nation's first full-scale conflict, the War of 1812, some New Englanders denounced ''Mr. Madison's war'' and sought to diminish the war-making power of the Southern states; others proposed secession. After the Mexican War broke out in 1846, antiwar sentiment-expressed most memorably in Henry David Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience-helped prompt US negotiators to accept the terms Mexico had offered before the war.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 established the United States as a world power; when the subsequent occupation of the Philippines provoked indigenous opposition, an American anti-imperialist campaign enlisted supporters from Grover Cleveland and Andrew Carnegie to Jane Addams and William James. In a passionate letter to the Boston Evening Transcript, James observed that Americans thought ''we could resume our permanent ideals and character when the fighting fit was done.'' The United States learned instead, he wrote, ''what an absolute savage'' is ''the passion of military conquest'' and that ''the only safeguard against the crimes to which it will infallibly drag the nation that gives way to it is to keep it chained forever.''

Few debates between advocates and opponents of war resonate more clearly today than those that occurred during World War I. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States was entering the war because ''the world must be made safe for democracy.'' The next year, after winning the war, he pledged to help establish a League of Nations. But Wilson's suppression of domestic dissent mocked the Bill of Rights, and his failure to secure American participation in the League doomed the world to a second, and even more deadly, conflict.

Ever since, critics of Wilson's noble-sounding rhetoric and ambitions have typically invoked the spirit of Randolph Bourne, a brilliant young writer who opposed US participation in the war and rebuked his mentor, the philosopher John Dewey, who had endorsed Wilson's war aims. Bourne admitted that the nation owed a deep debt to Dewey's philosophy of education, which stressed that a democratic culture can flourish only by enabling all individuals to develop their talents. But, like some critics of the war on Iraq today, Bourne worried that feeding the military would starve the social programs favored by Dewey and other progressives.

''It is not easyto see how, as we skate toward the bankruptcy of war-billions, there will be resources available for educational enterprise,'' Bourne wrote at the time. By backing war, Dewey and his pro-war allies had committed ''intellectual suicide.'' They had succumbed to ''hysteria of the mob'' and the ''allure of the technical,'' which tempts dispassionate professionals to privilege the calculation of means over the judgment of ends.

When Bourne died at age 32 in the influenza epidemic of 1918, he was elevated to the status of a martyr by his many admirers-and freed from facing the dilemmas confronting democratic intellectuals in succeeding years.

In the 1960s, Bourne's critique descended, in all its crystalline purity, to those of us who derided another generation of pitiless technocrats and cited the anti-imperialism of William James as we protested the war in Vietnam. Bourne's principles are appealing, but was he right at the time to argue that the United States shouldn't have entered the war? I once thought so, but I'm no longer so sure.

After all, if Wilson's self-righteousness, inspired by his deep religious convictions, had not made him so intransigent a diplomat (always risky with dealing with France), perhaps he might have had more success at Versailles and with the US Senate. If the United States had joined and the League of Nations had worked, perhaps the Weimar Republic might have survived, and Adolf Hitler might have died a failed architect. And if James's student Walter Lippmann-among those Wilson instructed to implement the ideal of ''the self-determination of peoples'' after the war-had succeeded in carving up the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires into viable nation-states, instead of fantasies bearing names such as Yugoslavia and Iraq, then perhaps democracy might now be flourishing in the Balkans and in Baghdad.

Was the failure of these men in their aspirations or their actions? Was there too much emphasis on ''the technical'' or too little? In 1917, when Dewey saw war as a means to achieve democracy, and Bourne saw Dewey as a traitor to American ideals, the outcome was not so clear.

Such questions are urgent once again. Many observers today, echoing Bourne, reason that although tyrants might deserve to be removed from power, succumbing to the ''sinister forces of war'' constitutes ''intellectual suicide.'' Others reason that 12 years of waiting constitutes sufficient delay, and that the UN resolutions authorizing disarmament must be enforced despite the cost.

But history never repeats itself, even though (as Mark Twain observed) it does sometimes rhyme. So we should be careful when tempted either to invoke the noble antiwar arguments of Thoreau, James, or Bourne, or to see in ''Operation Iraqi Freedom'' the second coming of World War II. Our situation now is too fluid, as it was in 1917-and as it always is. The outcome remains unclear. The historical assessment of our invasion of Iraq will be determined, not only by what has happened already, but by what happens next. If massive stores of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons are found, some will declare the war justified. If many Iraqis end up welcoming American and British forces and celebrating the end of Saddam Hussein's rule, others will be convinced.

Some will continue to contend, however, that any methods used to uncover weapons of mass destruction could have been made available to UN weapons inspectors. Had the United States been patient, they'll argue, regime change could have been achieved by vigilant containment and the simple passage of time. If the war eventually requires house-to-house fighting by soldiers and indiscriminate bombardment of residential districts, if combat continues for months or years, if the war destabilizes regimes from Pakistan to Egypt and unites the Islamic world in even deeper hatred of the United States, as I and many other skeptics fear, then the calculation will change.

The future is uncertain, and we Americans ought to temper our passions with the knowledge that things may turn out differently from our expectations. Even when we think we hear it rhyming, we should remember that history is unpredictable.

Such awareness should not prevent either critics or supporters from expressing their judgments. It might, however, help us listen to each other and avoid poisoning debate by assuming, as we so often do, that those who disagree with us are villains or traitors, rather than simply Americans honoring one of our oldest national traditions: democratic disagreement.

James T. Kloppenberg is a professor of history at Harvard University and the author of ''Uncertain Victory'' and ''The Virtues of Liberalism.''

For comments and suggestions, email ideas@globe.com

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 4/6/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.





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