The Progressive, May 2004 Issue
Opposing the War Party
by Howard Zinn
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 communism.
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
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 of man."
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 65,000 men declared themselves
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
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
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 world."
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
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
anti-law. 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
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
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 People's
History of the United States," is a columnist
for The Progressive.
FAIR USE NOTICE
site contains copyrighted material the
use of which has not always been specifically
authorized by the copyright owner. We
are making such material available in
our efforts to advance understanding of
environmental, political, human rights,
economic, democracy, scientific, and social
justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes
a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material
as provided for in section 107 of the
US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title
17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on
this site is distributed without profit
to those who have expressed a prior interest
in receiving the included information
for research and educational purposes.
For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml.
If you wish to use copyrighted material
from this site for purposes of your own
that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain
permission from the copyright owner.