Book Review: We Who Dared to Say No to War

We Who Dared to Say No to War:  American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now 

“We Who Say No to War”

Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Basic Books, 2007, PB; 352 pages; $16.95

What do Abraham Lincoln, Pat Buchanan, Helen Keller, John Quincy Adams, George McGovern, and Daniel Webster have in common? All were anti-war advocates (at least Lincoln was at one point). Their opinions and more are among some 70 speeches, essays, letters, poetry, and even song lyrics in We Who Dared to Say No to War. 

This is not a collection of standard arguments by isolationists and “peace now” activists. Between the two covers is a wide assortment of positions in support of diplomacy versus confrontation and non-alignment over interventionism. Issues discussed involve the 1846 invasion of Mexico (by Henry Clay, Lincoln, and more) and the “Cold War” (including Senators Henry Wallace on the left and Robert Taft on the right). The “War on Terror” chapter contains commentary by former Reagan Administration official Paul Craig Roberts, a letter of resignation letter from career diplomat John Kiesling addressed to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and an article by Professor Camillo Bica, founder of the Veterans Self-Help Initiative.

The progressive Ralph Bourne coined the phrase “War is the health of the state.” A broad spectrum of politicians and others hold the belief that war empowers governments and enriches special interests. Along those lines, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 prescient speech warning of abuses by “the military-industrial complex” and a 1921 speech by Socialist Eugene Debs entitled “The Subject Class Always Fight the Battles” are included in this compendium.

Many submissions, whether they were written five or 105 years ago, reflect current news headlines. Representative Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) cast her first vote against war in 1917. She also opposed America’s entry into World War II—the only member of Congress to do so. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) cast the lone vote opposing the invasion of Iraq—four days after the 9-11 attack—with a prophetic speech to her colleagues: “We must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war [with] neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.” Lee’s entire statement, as well as an article by Rankin in which she reflects on her own anti-war votes, are reprinted in the book.

Some disparate entries can be read as a single statement. William Jennings Bryan’s speech to the 1900 Democratic National Convention opposing the Spanish American War (“The Paralizing Influence of Imperialism”) states: “There is no place in our system of government for the deposit of arbitrary and irresistible power.” A 2005 newspaper column by Pat Buchanan, ”Inaugurating Endless War,” (opposing the invasion of Iraq) asserts: “Wars are the death of republics.”

The thread of cui bono runs through the selections as well. Jeannette Rankin believed U.S. entry into World War I was propelled by the fears of American bankers: if the conflict ended in a stalemate, the money they lent to the allies would not be recovered (which indeed happened). The excerpt from an 1867 book by radical abolitionist Lysander Spooner blames the underlying cause of the Civil War on Northern bankers and industrialists. These special interests, he argues, were never opposed to slavery as long as the Southern plantation class accepted without question tariffs, loans for slaves, and other economic and political schemes. Only when the South resisted these policies did the Northern elite suddenly oppose slavery and promote war.

Although this anthology of American antiwar writing is unique, two other books might be considered companion volumes: Reclaiming the Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (ISI Books, 2008) and Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman (Metropolitan Books, 2008). Although the liberal side of antiwar arguments have long been published, antiwar arguments on the right are just coming into view.

In addition to an extensive bibliography, We Who Dared to Say No to War also includes an interesting appendix of antiwar films and documentaries. These range from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to the Australian movie “Breaker Morant” (which takes place during the Boer War), and “Slaughterhouse Five,” based on Kurt Vonnegut’s book on the World War II bombing of Dresden .

We Who Dared to Say No to War presents a diverse grouping of opinions from libertarians to liberals—all of whom are united in opposition to war but most for very different reasons. Such a comprehensive collection is good reason the book should have wide and lasting appeal.


This review appeared in the Fall, 2009 issue of The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

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