The long view: of war and public opinion

Posted: Nov 01, 2006 12:01 AM
The long view: of war and public opinion

These are the times that try men's souls.

Tom Paine wrote that opening sentence of the popular pamphlet that came to be known as "Common Sense" even before there was a United States of America. At the time, his countrymen were still fighting for the rights of Š Englishmen. And still proclaiming allegiance to His Majesty George III.

The war that had had begun at Concord and Lexington in the spring of 1775 would only later become the war for American independence. The struggle was less than a year old when Tom Paine's stirring words appeared, and people were already war-weary.

Nor was the country united behind the Patriots' cause, In the glow of all the Fourth of July celebrations since, we forget how evenly, and bitterly, the country was divided before there was even a first Fourth of July.

We forget, too, how often the times that try men's souls keep returning in a national history entwined with so contentious and flammable an idea as freedom, or as Tom Paine would print it in his pamphlet, FREEDOM.

Instead, we tend to assume there is such a thing as Normalcy in the affairs of men and nations, and conclude that war is but a temporary aberration - and one we can avoid at that. All we need do is withdraw from the world's problems, the theory goes, and peace will reign.

Isolationism must be the most characteristic and enduring of American illusions, which is natural enough in a New World where the plagues of the Old were to be left safely behind.

But as an American general who fought in more than one terrible conflict - Douglas MacArthur - noted in his valedictory address, only the dead have seen the end of war.

Almost a century after Tom Paine, as another conflict threatened to divide the country, literally, another rhetorician urged an embattled president to avoid war at all costs, even if the price included the Union itself. "Let the erring sisters go in peace," Horace Greeley wrote in his influential New York Tribune.

Instead, Abraham Lincoln would accept war rather than let this one nation become two. And the most devastating war in American history was under way.

Almost immediately a joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War was formed to second-guess the president - and his generals - at every difficult turn.

Dissension grew on all sides; defeatism set in; unity eroded. In the next congressional elections, amid the chaos of civil war, Mr. Lincoln's party would drop 22 seats in the House.

As in any great war, the American Civil War's consequences were unseen when it began. Before it was over, the question at its root - slavery and its spread - would be rendered moot by the Emancipation Proclamation. Once he was sure of his political, moral and constitutional grounds, and after he and events had prepared public opinion, Mr. Lincoln issued his famous proclamation unilaterally. His justification? It was necessary exercise of his wartime powers.

Long before it was called the unitary theory of the executive, Abraham Lincoln was acting on it. He was able to abolish the shame and curse of American slavery by presidential decree because the Constitution had vested all executive power in a single President of the United States (Article II, Section 1) and made him commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

As commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln would endorse different tactics at different times. He would change commanding generals regularly, trying first one and then another, and one (George B. McClellan) twice, both times without satisfying results. But he would never give up - from the ill-fated shock-and-awe campaign of the war's first days ("On to Richmond!') to Grant's bloody war of attrition at the end. Through it all, neither the Union's overarching strategy nor Mr. Lincoln's paramount objective ever changed: The Union was saved.

In the next century, and in still another unpopular war, another president would persist in defending the hope of freedom, this time on a distant Asian peninsula. He would leave office with the conflict unresolved, and his poll numbers so abysmal that they would make today's president look wildly popular.

And yet Harry Truman, who could be called the first Cold Warrior, persevered even as his popularity plummeted. In the congressional elections of 1950, his party would lose five seats in the Senate, and 28 in the House.

Now again we are deeply divided over a struggle in which the national interest is deeply entwined with the fate of freedom in a faraway land.

Congressional elections impend, and there is little on which to base the old American hope in freedom's ultimate triumph except the faith of our fathers and the experience of our improbable history. As Abraham Lincoln told Congress and the nation in December of 1862: "The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion."

These are the times that try men's souls. Again. No great nation is ever tested just once. Contrary to a popular academic theory a few years back, history is far from over.