We Who Dared to Say No to War

American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now


By Murray Polner

By Thomas E. Woods

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We Who Dared to Say No to War uncovers some of the forgotten but compelling body of work from the American antiwar tradition — speeches, articles, poetry, book excerpts, political cartoons, and more — from people throughout our history who have opposed war. Beginning with the War of 1812, these selections cover every major American war up to the present and come from both the left and the right, from religious and secular viewpoints. There are many surprises, including a forgotten letter from a Christian theologian urging Confederate President Jefferson Davis to exempt Christians from the draft and a speech by Abraham Lincoln opposing the 1848 Mexican War. Among others, Daniel Webster, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, Grover Cleveland, Eugene Debs, Robert Taft, Paul Craig Roberts, Patrick Buchanan, and Country Joe and the Fish make an appearance. This first-ever anthology of American antiwar writing offers the full range of the subject’s richness and variety.


Murray Polner dedicates this book to his grandchildren—
Jesse, Rachel, Aliza, Cody, Molly, and Catherine—
and hope they will always be inspiredby those memorable words
“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
Thomas Woods dedicates this book to his daughters,
Regina, Veronica, and Amy.
May they inherit a world in which reason and truth
finally triumph against propaganda and hatred.

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?”
—Mohandas Gandhi, Non-Violence in Peace and War

We Who Dared to Say No to War brings together some of the most memorable, if largely neglected, writings and speeches by those Americans who have opposed our government’s addiction to war, from the War of 1812 to the present. Coedited by a man of the left (Murray Polner) and a man of the right (Thomas Woods), this cross-ideological book reveals how fascinatingly broad and diverse is the American antiwar tradition. We intend it as a surprising and welcome change from the misleading liberal-peace /conservative-war dichotomy that the media and even our educational establishment and popular culture have done so much to foster.
We have assembled some of the most compelling, vigorously argued, and just plain interesting speeches, articles, poetry, and book excerpts. We feature Daniel Webster, one of our history’s great orators, denouncing military conscription in 1814 as unconstitutional and immoral two years after President James Madison and congressional war hawks eager to grab Canada declared war against Great Britain. Our treatment of the Mexican-American War includes a forgotten speech by Abraham Lincoln opposing the war, together with remarks by others who feared the war would only help expand slavery into the newly conquered formerly Mexican lands. For the Civil War we include a letter by a southern Christian theologian to Confederate president Jefferson Davis urging that Christians be exempted from the draft, and an abolitionist assailing the resort to yet another war, which in the end cost hundreds of thousands of lives, not to mention those wounded in body and mind. After Appomattox, the victorious Union then turned its attention to slaughtering Indians.
Some of the most perceptive and significant, if now long-forgotten, antiwar writings in our history appeared in the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898 and especially as the savage Philippine-American War raged (and in which an estimated two hundred thousand Filipinos as well as some four thousand U.S. soldiers perished), Labor leaders, businessmen, clergymen, and freethinkers alike condemned these adventures. The American Anti-Imperialist League, a national organization that opposed the war and annexations, believed an expansive America was unfaithful to her finest traditions of peace, nonintervention, and anticolonialism. Among the most prominent of these dissenters were Jane Addams, Ambrose Bierce, William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, Eugene V. Debs, John Dewey, Emma Gold-man, William James, Helen Keller, Carl Schurz, William Graham Sumner, Mark Twain, and two former presidents, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. Shortly before Sumner—a carping critic, scholar, and Social Darwinist—died in 1910 after the rise of an American empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific, he sensedwhat lay ahead: “I have lived through the best years of this country’s history,” he wrote. “The next generations are going to see war and social calamities.”
How right he was, from the World War I to repeated interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America to the Korean War to the antidemocratic intrigues in Iran, Guatemala, and beyond. And while World War II was in the end a necessary war, we remind readers that (1) that war was but a continuation of the unnecessary World War I, and (2) there were always critics of the war—“noninterventionists” to its partisans and “isolationists” to its opponents—before and after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some of the most articulate opponents of the foreign-policy consensus, then and now, among Washington’s elite are those who recognize that American military power needs to be narrowly restricted to defense—specifically, an end to the stationing of U.S. troops throughout the world, a sharp reduction in military budgets, a restoration of constitutional parity between the three branches of government, and a refusal to inject the nation into conflicts without end, all over the world.
The Korean War (with nearly thirty-eight thousand Americans killed and many more wounded, some grievously, and several million Koreans killed) has received little or no attention—perhaps because it was only another abattoir in which no side could rightly claim victory.1 It was not so with the defeat in Vietnam; after the United States invaded Vietnam, some fifty-eight thousand GIs died in as pointless a war as has ever been fought by this country. “Had American leaders not thought that all international events were connected to the Cold War,” writes historian Robert D. Schulzinger, “there would have been no American war in Vietnam.” 2 As in the early stages of every war fought by this country, a majority of trusting and believing majorities rallied round the flag and their leaders. Even so, some of the writings we include in this book mention the fabricated Tonkin Gulf “assault” by North Vietnamese torpedo boats (much like the lie spread about Spaniards sinking the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor in 1898), including Senator Wayne Morse’s denunciation of the rush to war without the benefit of a congressional declaration of war. It was a war that millions protested and during which college students at Kent State and Jackson State universities were slain and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI repeatedly violated civil liberties. Nevertheless, the war dragged on until 1975, when U.S. helicopters were forced to rescue retreating escapees huddled atop the American embassy in Saigon.
Senator George McGovern’s memorable speech on the Senate floor during the Vietnam War in support of the McGovern-Hatfield amendment to end the war was perhaps the most trenchant denunciation of that failed war and its supporters. McGovern, a World War II Army Air Force combat pilot and recipient of a Silver Star and Distinguished Flying
Pictured here is a symbol for millions of Americans who have dared to say no to endless wars.
Cross, turned to his colleagues in the Senate and told them,”Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending fifty thousand young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood.”
Finally, and inevitably, we turn to Iraq, where impassioned supporters invoke a future consumed by “World War IV.” As usual, our present and future wars are aided and abetted by the intimate relationship between weapons manufacturers (which in the good old days were called “merchants of death”)3 and contractors and far too many policy makers and legislators. We offer here the testimonies of serious opponents of our government’s foreign policy as a rebuke to the limited and narrow debate that takes place among Washington’s elites, think tanks, and (with few exceptions) our servile and incurious mass media.
The conventional wisdom about the Iraq War is that it was begun under false pretenses, that a supine media drilled those falsehoods into Americans’ heads, and that this was all very unusual. Well, as they say, two out of three ain’t bad.
What the reader of this book will discover is that what we have endured over the past five years in the Iraq campaign is not unusual at all. The history of American wars is littered with propaganda, falsehoods, a compliant media, the manipulation of patriotic sentiment—everything we’ve seen recently, we’ve seen before. Time and again.
That’s not encouraging at all, of course. But we can at least be consoled that we are not alone, that for two centuries thoughtful Americans have struggled against the very things that confront us today. We belong to a noble lineage of thought and action—and it is that great tradition, in all its ideologically diverse glory, that we celebrate here.
—Murray Polner and Thomas Woods, Jr., Great Neck, New York, and Auburn, Alabama

The War of 1812
Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly or the wickedness of Government may engage it?
—SENATOR DANIEL WEBSTER, December 1814, opposing a bill introduced by war hawks to enact a military draft with an eye to conquering Canada
Among the official rationales for the War of 1812 against Britain were her offenses on the high seas. Britain and France were both guilty of harassing neutral shipping during the Napoleonic Wars, and the British were additionally guilty of impressing sailors on American ships into service in the British navy. The men who were thus seized were said to be deserters, but in some cases they had never been in the British navy at all, or at the very least had become American citizens in the meantime (and thus were presumably no longer subject to British authority). Yet something else must have been at work, since New England, the part of the country most reliant on maritime concerns, was also the most opposed to war with Britain. The situation vis-à-vis international trade was undesirable, to be sure, but it would improve once the war concluded, and in the meantime ship captains could and did take out insurance against war-related troubles at sea. Another factor contributing to the drive for war was a desire to annex Canada—which, as a British possession, would be fair game in a war against Britain. As the war went on, in fact, much of New England became convinced that “Mr. Madison’s War” was really a war of conquest, and they refused to take part. The state of Connecticut declared that the president had no authority to call upon the militia of that state “to assist in carrying on an offensive war,” and that it would comply with the federal order only if New England should be threatened “by an actual invasion of any portion of our territory.”
Among the documents we reproduce here is the lengthy address against war that Representative Samuel Taggart drafted for delivery before Congress. Especially chilling, because it’s so eerily familiar to Americans who lived through the Bush years and the Iraq war, is Congressman Taggart’s discussion of the invasion of Canada, and the all the promises of an easy victory that its advocates put forth. It would, its supporters said, be just a matter of marching in and watching the Canadians, yearning for liberation at the hands of Americans, flock to our banner. We have, it has been said, nothing to do but to march an army into the country and display the standard of the United States, and the Canadians will immediately flock to it and place themselves under our protection. From another angle, supporters of invading Canada also proposed that if the Canadians should turn out to be “a debased race of poltroons” uninterested in American liberation, the “mere sight of an army of the United States would immediately put an end to all thoughts of resistance.”
There was to be no cakewalk in Canada, as it turned out.
Among the war’s domestic consequences was the Panic of 1819. With the New England banks unwilling to lend money for the war effort, financially unsound banks had popped up around the country, lending out notes with little if any backing in specie. When those banks inevitably collapsed, the result was an economic downturn that turned many people against fractional-reserve banking and even against banking itself.
The Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the war in December 1814, included not a single word about any of the grievances for which the U.S. government had allegedly fought. But just as war opponents predicted, with the return of peace the British stopped harassing Americans anyway.
The Draft Is Unconstitutional
Massachusetts congressman Daniel Webster (who later served as a U.S. senator and secretary of state) delivered this speech before the House of Representatives on December 9, 1814.
When the present generation of men shall be swept away, and that this government ever existed shall be a matter of history only, I desire that it may be known that you have not proceeded in your course unadmonished and unforewarned. Let it then be known, that there were those who would have stopped you, in the career of your measures, and held you back, as by the skirts of your garments, from the precipice over which you are now plunging and drawing after you the government of your country. . . .
It is time for Congress to examine and decide for itself. It has taken things on trust long enough. It has followed executive recommendation, ’til there remains no hope of finding safety in that path. What is there, sir, that makes it the duty of this people now to grant new confidence to the Administration, and to surrender their most important rights to its discretion? On what merits of its own does it rest this extraordinary claim? When it calls thus loudly for the treasure and lives of the people, what pledge does it offer that it will not waste all in the same preposterous pursuits which have hitherto engaged it? In the failure of all past promises, do we see any assurance of future performance? Are we to measure out our confidence in proportion to our disgrace and now at last to grant away everything, because all that we have heretofore granted has been wasted or misapplied? What is there in our condition that bespeaks a wise or an able government? What is the evidence that the protection of the country is the object principally regarded? In every quarter that protection has been more or less abandoned to the States. That every town on the coast is not now in possession of the enemy, or in ashes, is owing to the vigilance and exertions of the States themselves, and to no protection granted to them by those on whom the whole duty of their protection rested. . . .
Let us examine the nature and extent of the power which is assumed by the various military measures before us. In the present want of men and money, the Secretary of War has proposed to Congress a military conscription. For the conquest of Canada, the people will not enlist; and if they would, the treasury is exhausted, and they could not be paid. Conscription is chosen as the most promising instrument, both of overcoming reluctance to the service, and of subduing the difficulties of the exchequer. The Administration asserts the right to fill the ranks of the regular army by compulsion. It contends that it may now take one out of every twenty-five men, and any part, or the whole of the rest, whenever its occasions require. Persons thus taken by force, and put into an army, may be compelled to serve during the war, or for life. They may be put on any service, at home or abroad, for defense or for invasion, accordingly to the will and pleasure of the government. The power does not grow out of any invasion of the country, or even out of a state of war. It belongs to government at all times, in peace as well as in war, and it is to be exercised under all circumstances, according to its mere discretion. This, sir, is the amount of the principle contended for by the Secretary of War.
Is this, sir, consistent with the character of a free government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No, sir, indeed it is not. The Constitution is libeled. The people of this country have not established for themselves such a fabric of despotism. They have not purchased at a vast expense of their own treasure and their own blood a Magna Carta to be slaves. Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden which now for the first time comes forth, with a tremendous and baleful aspect, to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty? Who will show me any Constitutional injunction which makes it the duty of the American people to surrender everything valuable in life, and even life itself, not when the safety of their country and its liberties may demand the sacrifice, but whenever the purposes of an ambitious and mischievous government may require it? Sir, I almost disdain to go to quotations and references to prove that such an abominable doctrine has no foundation in the Constitution of the country. It is enough to know that that instrument was intended as the basis of a free government, and that the power contended for is incompatible with any notion of personal liberty. An attempt to maintain this doctrine upon the provisions of the Constitution is an exercise of perverse ingenuity to extract slavery from the substance of a free government. It is an attempt to show, by proof and argument, that we ourselves are subjects of despotism, and that we have a right to chains and bondage, firmly secured to us and our children by the provisions of our government. . . .
Congress having, by the Constitution, a power to raise armies, the Secretary [of War] contends that no restraint is to be imposed on the exercise of this power, except such as is expressly stated in the written letter of the instrument. In other words, that Congress may execute its powers, by any means it chooses, unless such means are particularly prohibited. But the general nature and object of the Constitution impose as rigid a restriction on the means of exercising power as could be done by the most explicit injunctions. It is the first principle applicable to such a case, that no construction shall be admitted which impairs the general nature and character of the instrument. A free constitution of government is to be construed upon free principles, and every branch of its provisions is to receive such an interpretation as is full of its general spirit. No means are to be taken by implication which would strike us absurdly if expressed. And what would have been more absurd than for this Constitution to have said that to secure the great blessings of liberty it gave to government uncontrolled power of military conscription? Yet such is the absurdity which it is made to exhibit, under the commentary of the Secretary of War.
But it is said that it might happen that an army could not be raised by voluntary enlistment, in which case the power to raise armies would be granted in vain, unless they might be raised by compulsion. If this reasoning could prove anything, it would equally show, that whenever the legitimate power of the Constitution should be so badly administered as to cease to answer the great ends intended by them, such new powers may be assumed or usurped, as any existing Administration may deem expedient. This is the result of his own reasoning, to which the Secretary does not profess to go. But it is a true result. For if it is to be assumed, that all powers were granted, which might by possibility become necessary, and that government itself is the judge of this possible necessity, then the powers of government are precisely what it choose they should be. Apply the same reasoning to any other power granted to Congress, and test its accuracy by the result. Congress has power to borrow money. How is it to exercise this power? Is it confined to voluntary loans? There is no express limitation to that effect, and, in the language of the secretary, it might happen, indeed it has happened, that persons could not be found willing to lend. Money might be borrowed then in any other mode. In other words, Congress might resort to a forced loan. It might take the money of any man by force, and give him in exchange exchequer notes or certificates of stock. Would this be quite constitutional, sir? It is entirely within the reasoning of the Secretary, and it is a result of his argument, outraging the rights of individuals in a far less degree than the practical consequences which he himself draws from it. A compulsory loan is not to be compared, in point of enormity, with a compulsory military service.
If the Secretary of War has proved the right of Congress to enact a law enforcing a draft of men out of the militia into the regular army, he will at any time be able to prove, quite as clearly, that Congress has power to create a Dictator. The arguments which have helped him in one case, will equally aid him in the other, the same reason of a supposed or possible state necessity, which is urged now, may be repeated then, with equal pertinency and effect.
Sir, in granting Congress the power to raise armies, the people have granted all the means which are ordinary and usual, and which are consistent with the liberties and security of the people themselves, and they have granted no others. To talk about the unlimited power of the government over the means to execute its authority, is to hold a language which is true only in regard to despotism. The tyranny of arbitrary government consists as much in its means as in its ends; and it would be a ridiculous and absurd constitution which should be less cautious to guard against abuses in the one case than in the other. All the means and instruments which a free government exercises, as well as the ends and objects which it pursues, are to partake of its own essential character, and to be conformed to its genuine spirit. A free government with arbitrarymeans to administer it is a contradiction; a free government without adequate provisions for personal security is an absurdity; a free government with an uncontrolled power of military conscription, is a solecism, at once the most ridiculous and abominable that ever entered into the head of man. . . .
Who shall describe to you the horror which your orders of conscription shall create in the once happy villages of this country? Who shall describe the distress and anguish which they will spread over those hills and valleys, where men have heretofore been accustomed to labor, and to rest in security and happiness? Anticipate the scene, sir, when the class shall assemble to stand its draft, and to throw the dice for blood. What a group of wives and mothers and sisters, of helpless age and helpless infancy, shall gather round the theatre of this horrible lottery, as if the stroke of death were to fall from heaven before their eyes on a father, a brother, a son, or a husband. And in a majority of cases, sir, it will be the stroke of death. Under present prospects of the continuance of the war, not one half of them on whom your conscription shall fall will ever return to tell the tale of their sufferings. They will perish of disease or pestilence or they will leave their bones to whiten in fields beyond the frontier. Does the lot fall on the father of a family? His children, already orphans, shall see his face no more. When they behold him for the last time, they shall see him lashed and fettered, and dragged away from his own threshold, like a felon and an outlaw. Does it fall on a son, the hope and the staff of aged parents? That hope shall fail them. On that staff they shall lean no longer. They shall not enjoy the happiness of dying before their children. They shall totter to their grave, bereft of their offspring and unwept by any who inherit their blood. Does it fall on a husband? The eyes which watch his parting steps may swim in tears forever. She is a wife no longer. There is no relation so tender or so sacred that by these accursed measures you do not propose to violate it. There is no happiness so perfect that you do not propose to destroy it. Into the paradise of domestic life you enter, not indeed by temptations and sorceries, but by open force and violence. . . .
Nor is it, sir, for the defense of his own house and home, that he who is the subject of military draft is to perform the task allotted to him. You will put him upon a service equally foreign to his interests and abhorrent to his feelings. With his aid you are to push your purposes of conquest. The battles which he is to fight are the battles of invasion—battles which he detests perhaps, and abhors, less from the danger and the death that gathers over them, and the blood with which they drench the plain, than from the principles in which they have their origin. Fresh from the peaceful pursuits of life, and yet a soldier but in name, he is to be opposed to veteran troops, hardened under every scene, inured to every privation, and disciplined in every service. If, sir, in this strife he fall—if, while ready to obey every rightful command of government, he is forced from his home against right, not to contend for the defense of his country, but to prosecute a miserable and detestable project of invasion, and in that strife he fall ’tis murder. It may stalk above the cognizance of human law, but in the sight of Heaven it is murder; and though millions of years may roll away, while his ashes and yours lie mingled together in the earth, the day will yet come when his spirit and the spirits of his children must be met at the bar of omnipotent justice. May God, in his compassion, shield me from any participation in the enormity of this guilt. . . .
The operation of measures thus unconstitutional and illegal ought to be prevented by a resort to other measures which are both constitutional and legal. It will be the solemn duty of the State governments to protect their own authority over their own militia, and to interpose between their citizensand arbitrary power. These are among the objects for which the State governments exist; and their highest obligations bind them to the preservation of their own rights and the liberties of their people. I express these sentiments here, sir, because I shall express them to my constituents. Both they and myself live under a constitution which teaches us that “the doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind”(New Hampshire Bill of Rights). With the same earnestness with which I now exhort you to forebear from these measures, I shall exhort them to exercise their unquestionable right of providing for the security of their own liberties. . . .
What Republicanism Is This?
December 10, 1811


  • Library Journal
    “History repeats itself, and Polner and Woods remind us that both Leftist dissent against jingoism and Rightist opposition to governments swollen by war run throughout American history.”

    “Representing both sides of the ideological divide, editors Polner and Woods have collected a vast and varied array of speeches, essays, letters, poetry, even popular song lyrics, from our country?s greatest leaders and civilians to illustrate the indelible and instinctive response war-mongering and war evoke.... With current antiwar rhetoric...running at a fevered pitch, such historical documentation demonstrates, sadly, that it is also running true to course.”

    Scott McConnell, editor of The American Conservative
    “You don?t have to oppose all American wars to appreciate Tom Woods and Murray Polner?s masterful anthology. These essays vividly demonstrate why `dissent is patriotic? is no mere peacenik slogan.”

    Bob Keeler, Newsday Editorial Board
    “Standing up to the rhetoric of war is never easy. We Who Dared to Say No to War provides today?s private-citizen peacemakers and public officials with the valuable assurance that others have spoken prophetically against wars for most of our nation?s history. Polner and Woods deserve our deep gratitude for assembling these brave speeches from wars past.”

  • Texas Observer
    “Turns out strange bedfellows are common in the history of American anti-war sentiment, as evidenced in the new anthology We Who Dared to Say No To War.... Together [Polner and Woods have] assembled almost two centuries? worth of writing condemning American military actions from the War of 1812 to more recent misadventures in the Middle East, while celebrating the fact that the noble cause of peace in this country has often attracted wildly opposing un-likes.... Democracy and war, these pieces collectively suggest, may be the strangest, and worst, bedfellows of all.”

    “We stopped counting the number of wonderful advocates of peace in this book. It?s like finally finding a kindred group of like minds with whom you can feel at home.... This is an anthology well worth the read. It might also help you feel that peace is a battle worth waging, so to speak.”

    “Read it and weep ... and cheer. Weep because we?ve been lied into wars in very similar ways for two centuries and have had to discover the deception anew each time. Cheer because some people have been there to denounce the lies on the spot every time, and their ranks have steadily grown.”

On Sale
Oct 20, 2008
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

Murray Polner

About the Author

Murray Polner is a freelance editor and writer whose work has appeared in Washington Monthly, Commonweal, the Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, and the Jewish Week, among others. He lives in Great Neck, New York.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His numerous books include the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. Woods lives in Auburn, Alabama, with his wife and three daughters.

Learn more about this author