Dissent in Wars

Russell F. Weigley, and

David S. Patterson

"These men are not being supported as we were supported in World War I." So the Vietnam War appeared in contrast to the crusade of 1917–1918 to a speaker addressing a reunion of the First Infantry Division in 1969 and reported by the military journalist Ward Just. American military men who fought in Vietnam widely believed that wartime dissent of unprecedented intensity uniquely denied them the support of their compatriots at home. Wartime dissent might never have become a lengthy subject had not the Vietnam War raised the issue to unaccustomed prominence and created a wider debate, ranging well beyond disgruntled military men, over the extent to which the threat of dissent against subsequent use of force might cripple American foreign policy. General Maxwell D. Taylor, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ambassador to South Vietnam, wrote in Swords and Plowshares (1972): "As I see the lesson, it is that our leaders of the future are faced with a dilemma which raises questions as to the continued feasibility of a limited war option for future presidents faced with a compelling need to use military force in support of a national interest."

Yet the intensity of dissent during the Vietnam War was not so unprecedented as many critics of homefront attitudes thought. An exceptionally perspicacious military man of an earlier generation, General George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff during World War II, said that the strategic planning for that supposedly popular war had to seek success in short order, because "a democracy cannot fight a Seven Years' War." More than those who saw uniqueness in the dissent that marked the Vietnam War, Marshall probably approached the heart of the issue of dissent in any democratic, and particularly American, war: because democratic public opinion is impatient, popular support of a war depends on the war not dragging on indefinitely. If not simply a short war, to minimize dissent a war should be distinguished by continuous visible progress toward achieving popularly understood and approved goals.

In a 1973 study of dissent during the Korean and Vietnam wars, as reflected in public opinion polls, John E. Mueller similarly concluded in more precise fashion that dissent against war tends to increase with the duration of the war, or more specifically, that it can be expressed by the logarithm of the duration of the war and the casualties of the war. Thus, Mueller found that despite the apparent evidence afforded by the uncommon noisiness of dissent against the Vietnam War, the Korean War received less public support than the Vietnam War—until the latter conflict surpassed it both in duration and in its toll of American casualties.

To be sure, Mueller did not have available to him public opinion polls concerning earlier prolonged wars, and both the Korean and the Vietnam wars differed from many earlier American wars in that they failed to produce results generally recognizable as victory for the American armed forces and the defeat of the enemy. The historian may suspect that if polls such as those cited by Mueller had been taken during the American Civil War, they would show that the war was more popular in the North in November 1864, at the time of Abraham Lincoln's second election to the presidency, than earlier in the same year, in May 1864, when Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was just beginning his slugging campaign in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania—despite the accumulation of weary months and horrifying casualties in the interval. The intervening months brought morale-building military victories, and especially the triumphs of Mobile Bay, Atlanta, and Cedar Creek not long before the presidential election. Korea and Vietnam never afforded any such satisfying battlefield successes. The historian therefore would suggest that the effects of time and casualties on the popularity of a war might be at least partially offset by military victories, and especially by military progress toward some readily comprehended goal—for example, the destruction of the enemy armed forces pursued by Grant and his lieutenants in 1864.

Still, while in the end dissent in the North during the American Civil War was largely drowned out by a tide of military victories, until nearly the end the prosecution of the Civil War was nevertheless plagued by more internal opposition than was the later waging of World War II. It was easier to rally public support for retaliation against the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor and for suppression of Adolf Hitler than to bind domestic political dissidents to the Union with the bayonet. The roots of opposition to a war can be found in the duration of the war, its casualties, and its measure of military success. But one cannot ignore the commonsense view that the war's political aims and circumstances have much to do with its popularity. Of course, the generation and expression of dissent even in wars of politically controversial origin are handicapped, because wars tend to appear as national crises so dramatically overpowering that they inherently require the whole nation to rally around the national standard.

Nevertheless, Mueller's analyses of recent wars and national emergencies tend to indicate— and the longer historical view would seem to confirm—that such a rally-round-the-flag phenomenon is fleeting. Even in the midst of wars, "politics as usual" soon tends to resume. The resumption of habitual political battles can then readily fuel dissent, especially because in the development of American partisan politics it has required a considerable accumulation of experience, and a considerable sophistication for partisan rivals of wartime administrations and congresses to learn to disentangle opposition to the incumbent political party from opposition to the war, and the process of disentanglement has never been complete. And as common sense would have it, the more politically controversial the origins of the war, the greater is likely to be the intensity of wartime dissent, especially if the political controversy involves conscientious opposition to the morality of the war, as in the Mexican and Vietnam wars.

Moreover, once initial patriotic enthusiasm subsides, the dissent fueled by partisan rivalries and the circumstances of the origins of a war can draw upon a still more fundamental source of restiveness, the traditional American hostility toward the armed forces and a traditional ambivalence, at the least, toward the very institution of war.

Once these persistent sources of dissent against war interact in wartime with the hardships, inconveniences, and simple nuisances inevitably attendant upon any war, and with the more or less severe political controversies of any war, the rise and expression of dissent become so likely, and in most wars have become troublesome enough, that wartime administrations have been perennially tempted to suppress dissent by the use of law and armed force, diluting the constitutional guarantees of free expression of dissent on the plea that the national crisis demands it. Supporters of wars have also been tempted to use informal extralegal means to eliminate dissent. Thus the record of such temptation and of consequent actions against dissent forms part of the history of dissent in American wars, although on the whole the ability of administrations and populace to resist these temptations is fairly heartening to believers in the American constitutional system.


Alexander, Thomas B., and Richard E. Baringer. The Anatomy of the Confederate Congress: A Study of the Influences of Member Characteristics on Legislative Voting Behavior, 1861–1865. Nashville, 1972. Approaches the subject indirectly but provides as satisfactory an index to dissent in the Confederacy as can be found.

Banner, James M., Jr. To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1815. New York, 1970. Despite its very local emphasis, the best study of New England dissent in the War of 1812.

Bauer, K. Jack. The Mexican War, 1846–1848. New York, 1974. This full-scale study of the Mexican War is based on primary sources, and includes a good brief treatment of partisanship and dissent.

Bennis, Phyllis, and Michel Moushabeck, eds. Beyond the Storm: A Gulf Crisis Reader. Brooklyn, N.Y., 1991. A collection of articles by area specialists and journalists on the Gulf War, several of which are critical of and document opposition to U.S. policies in the region.

Blum, John Morton. V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II. New York, 1976. The best survey of the American home front in World War II.

Brune, Lester H. America and the Iraqi Crisis, 1990–1992: Origins and Aftermath. Claremont, Calif., 1993.

——. The United States and Post-Cold War Interventions: Bush and Clinton in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, 1992–1998. Claremont, Calif., 1998. Both this and the previous entry provide useful surveys and contemporary analyses of U.S. foreign policy crises in the 1990s. They also contain extensive bibliographies of the monographs, articles, and memoirs dealing with these foreign policy issues of that decade.

Buzzanco, Robert. Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era. New York, 1996. A comprehensive work on opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Calhoon, Robert McCluer. The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, 1760–1781. New York, 1973. Examines the Loyalists less in isolation and more in the whole context of the Revolution than do other works, therefore comes closest to treating the problem of Loyalism as a problem of dissent in war.

Curry, Richard O. "The Union As It Was: A Critique of Recent Interpretations of the 'Copperheads.'" Civil War History 13 (1967). An introduction to Civil War dissent by way of a survey of the relevant literature.

DeBenedetti, Charles, and Charles Chatfield. An American Ordeal: The Anti-War Movement of the Vietnam Era. Syracuse, N.Y., 1990. A comprehensive work on opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War.

DeConde, Alexander. The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War With France, 1797–1801. New York, 1966. Concerns a small war, but a formative one in shaping the limits and acceptability of dissent.

Jensen, Joan M. The Price of Vigilance. Chicago, 1968. A history of the American Protective League of World War I.

Just, Ward. Military Men. New York, 1970. Includes profiles of American soldiers during the Vietnam War and is useful for its portrayal of how the military perceived dissent.

Kurtz, Stephen G. The Presidency of John Adams: The Collapse of Federalism, 1795–1800. Philadelphia, 1957. Another study of the Quasi-War, with grim implications that the legitimacy of dissent in war might have failed to become an American tradition.

Kurtz, Stephen G., and James H. Hutson, eds. Essays on the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1973. Includes a number of the essays that touch on dissent. (John Shy's essay on the conflict as a "revolutionary war" especially has pertinent passages.)

Morison, Samuel Eliot, Frederick Merk, and Frank Freidel. Dissent in Three American Wars. Cambridge, Mass., 1970. In the perspective of the Vietnam War, Morison examines the War of 1812, Merk the Mexican War, and Freidel the Spanish-American War and imperialism.

Mueller, John E. War, Presidents and Public Opinion. New York, 1973. The most valuable effort to use public opinion polls to analyze the extent and nature of dissent in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Peterson, H. C., and Gilbert C. Fite. Opponents of War, 1917–1918. Madison, Wis., 1957. A standard work.

Polenberg, Richard. War and Society: The United States, 1941–1945. Philadelphia, 1972. Offers a good introduction to issues of dissent and personal liberty.

Rees, David. Korea: The Limited War. New York, 1964. Written from the perspective of a British journalist applied to dissent in what Americans saw as a new kind of war.

Schirmer, Daniel B. Republic or Empire: American Resistance to the Philippine War. Cambridge, 1972. The fullest study of dissent during the Filipino insurrection, despite a perhaps inordinate focus on Massachusetts.

Schroeder, John H. Mr. Polk's War: American Opposition and Dissent, 1846–1848. Madison, Wisc., 1973. Offers the most comprehensive study of Mexican War dissent.

Small, Melvin, and William D. Hoover, eds. Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. Essays from the Charles DeBenedetti Memorial Conference. Syracuse, N.Y., 1992. A comprehensive work on opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War.

See also Anti-Imperialism ; Bipartisanship ; Congressional Power ; Elitism ; Imperialism ; Isolationism ; Judiciary Power and Practice ; Pacifism ; Peace Movements ; Presidential Power ; Public Opinion ; The Vietnam War .

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