Dissent During Wartime

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“On December 8, 1941, when President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin cast the single negative vote.
‘I want to stand by my country,’ she said, ‘but I cannot vote for war.’….”

Author: Larry Gara is a historian, teacher, and part-time activist, and his wife, Lenna Mae Gara, is a freelance writer and community activist
Published in: The Informed Constituent in New York
Date: January 17, 2008

For the full article:
Dissent During Wartime
(596 words)
by Larry and Lenna Mae Gara
On December 8, 1941, when President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, Montana Republican Jeannette Rankin cast the single negative vote.
“I want to stand by my country,” she said, “but I cannot vote for war.”
Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, was also there in 1917 when she joined forty-nine others in the House and six senators to cast “no” votes against declaring war on Germany. The lifelong pacifist was vilified and hanged in effigy, but years later, President Kennedy included her in his book, Profiles in Courage. Jeannette Rankin was part of a pacifist tradition in American history extending from its beginnings, when Pennsylvania was founded as a haven for Quakers.
Besides those citizens whose consciences led them to oppose all wars, some have questioned the validity of particular conflicts, causing rancorous public discourse. The American Revolution caused a split between colonists remaining loyal to the Crown and those wishing to found a new nation. Had the latter lost the war, the British would probably have tried them for treason, one reason the writers of the U.S. Constitution sharply narrowed the definition of treason.
The War of 1812 was especially divisive, causing a serious rift between seafaring New England and its sister states. The war’s consequences damaged New England’s economy so badly that some extremists threatened secession from the Union. Three dozen years later, the Mexican War was called “Mr. Polk’s War” by northern Whigs, who regarded it as a war to expand slave territory. On the floor of the U.S. Senate Ohio’s Senator Tom Corwin said:
“If I were a Mexican I would tell you: Have you not room in your own country to bury your dead men? If you come into mine we will greet you with bloody hand and welcome you to hospitable graves.”
In the House, Abraham Lincoln, questioning Polk’s contention that war resulted because American blood was spilled on American soil, demanded to know the spot where that had occurred.
Antiwar sentiment during World War I subsided under a savage, wartime nationalism, but returned later and continued through the thirties. During the Cold War, popular support for American military action in Vietnam dwindled as its horrors were reported daily by network television. Eventually many Americans concluded that the Vietnam War was not worth its toll in human life. Something similar is happening now, with many regarding the war in Iraq as a tragic mistake.
Seeking unity during wartime, the United States has restricted civil liberties in ways that some historians consider overreaction to perceived threats. During the Civil War President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and jailed thousands of his critics without trial. During World War I, conscientious objectors were involuntarily inducted, tried by military courts and beaten in prison. In 1917, Eugene V. Debs delivered an antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio that resulted in a sedition trial and ten-year prison sentence. While in Atlanta Prison, Debs ran for president as a Socialist, receiving nearly a million votes.
During World War II the government provided alternative civilian service for about 15,000 objectors while 6000 others, including Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused any service under conscription, were sent to prison. From 1942 to 1945, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, simply because of their ethnicity, were imprisoned in detention camps.
Democracy always means rule of the majority, but a vibrant democracy also takes care to protect the rights of minorities. All citizens have the right to express unpopular opinions. In the nuclear age, opposition to the institution of war itself is no longer utopian but an urgent necessity.

Larry Gara, Emeritus Professor of History at Wilmington College, is the author or editor of six books and numerous scholarly articles. Lenna Mae Gara is a homemaker, writer and editor.