Essay: DIVIDED WE STAND: The Unpopularity of U.S. Wars

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There was little thought of prosecuting the anti-imperialist of 1898. But when the first of the 20th century's conflicts with the Germans began, President Woodrow Wilson, for all his liberal political philosophy, found it necessary to approve espionage and sedition laws designed to curb the scattered dissenters who opposed the idea of fighting Germany. Most of the protest was directed against military conscription. But the Socialist Party came out flatly against U.S. participation in the war. In all, some 1,500 dissenters were jailed; among them was Socialist Presidential Candidate Eugene V. Debs, who had praised draft dodgers and subtly tried to spread dissension in the Army.

But Debs and the others caused little stir. The Federal Government's Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel, whipped up pro-war sentiment so skillfully that Wilson, who had won re-election on the slogan "He kept us out of war," emerged relatively unscathed by his switch. Even so, he had his share of vocal critics. The rabidly pro-war Theodore Roosevelt damned the President as a "treacherous hypocrite," and pro-German Irish-Americans called him "the best President England ever had." Other enemies heaped scorn on his "messiah complex."

Once the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, World War II saw no such dissent. The last vestiges of isolationism dissolved in the face of enemy attack; by then, the Russo-German pact was an embarrassment of the past, and U.S. Communists were already calling for a fight against Hitler. The American people were united to an extent unique in their history. Japanese-American Nisei were unfairly herded into concentration camps as a precautionary measure, and several dozen pro-Nazis were rounded up, but the total of really dangerous cases never amounted to more than a handful.

Korean War

Nor was there much opposition in 1950 to President Harry Truman's decision to commit U.S. troops in a U.N. police action against the Communists in Korea. War-weariness did not develop until Chinese "volunteers" began streaming south and the fighting became a stalemate. And then politicians made much of the U.S. involvement. As the 1952 election approached, Republican leaders criticized the way the war was being conducted. Declared Senator Robert A. Taft on the Senate floor: "When American boys are being killed by Chinese armies, we might as well have a declared war." House Republican Leader Joseph Martin complained that "if we are not in Korea to win, then this Administration should be indicted for the murder of thousands of American boys." Relieved of his command, Douglas MacArthur came home to rap Truman's policy: "It seems to me to introduce a new concept into military operations—the concept of appeasement, the concept that when you use force, you can limit that force." From a nation increasingly tired of the whole affair, G.O.P. Nominee Dwight Eisenhower drew a grateful response with his pledge to go to Korea personally and "concentrate on the job of ending the war."

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