Common wisdom would purport that those on the so-called “right” are and have always been hawkish and pro-war, while those on the proverbial “left” have always been the tree-hugging, peacenik, anti-war folks. For many conservatives, unfortunately, this is more or less correct. However, progressives have once againairbrushed their own past, which is about as anti-war as, well, war.
Much of this perception is relatively recent and primarily boils down to the Iraq War. The neoconservative warmongering was in full swing and for his part, Barack Obama gave a ratherpleasant speech about his opposition to the war before it began. In his book, Obama elaborated,
What I sensed, though, was that the threat Saddam posed was not imminent, the Administration’s rationales for war were flimsy and ideologically driven, and the war in Afghanistan was far from complete.
Not terribly bad, at least for a politician.
Obama then proceeded to escalate the war in Afghanistan, go to war with Libya without Congressional approval, authorize airstrikes in Iraq as well as drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan while saber-rattling at Syria, Iran and the Ukraine. Even the American withdrawal from Iraq he oversaw —which is now being ballyhooed by clueless neoconservatives — was hardly different than the schedule George W. Bush had already agreed to.
Indeed, as far as Democratic, and ostensibly progressive, politicians were concerned, Obama was actually abnormal in his tepid opposition to the Iraq War. Senate Democrats voted in favor of letting George Bush go to war 25 to 20. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, and John Kerry all voted yes.
Furthermore, it wasn’t long ago that the supposedly conservative Republicans were the ones against war and the supposedly liberal Democrats in favor of it. The big difference seemed to be nothing more than which party’s politician was in office. For example, regarding the military action in Kosovo in 1999, Senate Republicans opposed the resolution giving Clinton authorization for military action 13 to 32 while the Democrats supported it 38 to 3. The 2000 Republican Party platform even criticized the Democrats for being too militaristic abroad. Only later, after almost unanimous support on both sides of the aisle for the war in Afghanistan, did the parties switch for Iraq. Well, sort of switched.
Progressive opposition to the Iraq War has been very much exaggerated. Both the left-liberal New York Times and Washington Post backed the war. Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Jacob Weisberg, George Packer and Jonathan Chait all supported the invasion. Current Senator and liberal-favorite Al Franken noted that “… I believed Colin Powell. I believed the presumption that the President is telling the truth. So I thought, ‘I guess we have to go to war.’” The popular liberal blogger Matt Yglesias explained his support for the war as having been because he “… adhered to the school of thought (popular at the time) which held that one major problem in the world was that the US government was unduly constrained in the use of force abroad by domestic politics.” In other words, progressives weren’t getting as much war in the 90’s as they would have preferred.
Sure, most of them eventually repudiated their former support (with the notable exception of Christopher Hitchens). But almost everyone outside of a few neoconservative perma-hawks have done the same. When Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher was asked in 2010 how many of his Republican colleagues thought the war was a mistake, he responded, “I will say that the decision to go in, in retrospect, almost all of us think that was a horrible mistake.” Being against the Iraq War now is kind of like being against slavery now. It’s certainly the correct moral position, but it’s not a particularly brave or impressive stance to take.
And while there were more on the Left who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, it must be noted that anti-war movement amongst progressives quickly dissipated as soon as Barack Obama was elected. And while some on the Left have opposed Obama’s many interventions (albeit quietly), you’ll find more support than opposition amongst progressives for Obama’s “kinetic military actions.” For example, Nancy Pelosi was pushing for a war with Syria while Progressive-favorite Elizabeth Warren wants to bomb Iraq. DNC Chair Michael Czin even channeled his inner-neoconservative by declaring that Rand Paul “blames America for all the problems in the world” because of Paul’s (unfortunately short-lived) criticism of intervening in Iraq once again.
Before airstrikes began in Libya, Slate ran articles titled “Don’t Let Qaddafi Win” and “ Why Obama Doesn’t Need to Ask Congress Before Attacking Libya.” And it was no different for Syria, as Slatewriter Fred Kaplan opined,
… [Obama’s} rationale for military strikes (which I agree with) puts him in a box. The organizations charged with enoforcing international law are not joining in the attack. The U.N. Security Council is “paralyzed.” … To gain some measure of legitmacy, Obama at least needs domestic support. And so, in addition to announcing that he’d decided to launch an attack on Syrian targets, he also announced that he would have Congress debate and vote on a resolution authorizing military force.
So Slate, the popular, progressive online magazine, supports the President asking Congress for authorization to go to war, but only when it is not practical or possible for the President to go to war on his own accord. Now that is a peace-loving position if there ever was one!
Democratic voters haven’t been much better. According to a Pew Study, Democrats were slightly more likely (47 percent to 45 percent) to support “conducting airstrikes in Libya” than Republicans. Furthermore, again according to Pew, only 19 percent of Democrats were opposed to taking military action against Iraq in January 2002. When the war began, it was only 37 percent and that number didn’t cross the half way mark until 2004.
It is important to note that Democrat is not a synonym for Progressive, and the party of old cannot be directly compared to the party of today. Still, generally speaking, the Democrats have supported greater economic control and redistribution by the federal government, at least since the New Deal. In other words, the Democrats have, generally speaking, been the party of the progressives. Thereby, it is not insignificant to point out that the United States became involved in all four major American wars in the twentieth century with Democratic Presidents in office. (Woodrow Wilson in World War I, Franklin Roosevelt in World War II, Harry Truman in the Korean War and Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War). Indeed, in an interesting piece of research, Gallup found that the partisan difference regarding Iraq didn’t exist for Vietnam. In 1965, more Republicans were opposed to military action in Vietnam than Democrats (28 percent to 22 percent). The sides didn’t switch until about 1970 and remained close throughout the war.
Of course, many on the Left have been consistently opposed to war. The socialist Eugene Debs was even imprisoned during World War I for denouncing America’s participation in the conflict. And sometimes, unfortunately, it appears that such leftists are not so much anti-war, but simply on the other side. For example, while the American involvement in Vietnam was an abomination, that doesn’t mean Ho-Chi Minh’s communist regime was something to celebrate. And it’s hard to make that the case that Jane Fonda was being “anti-war” when she was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun or that Noam Chomsky was pushing for peace while shilling for Pol Pot and Khmer Rogue during the Killing Fields in Cambodia.
And in general, the mainstream progressives of old were even more pro-war than the conservatives. For instance, the staunch progressive William Jennings Bryan was an adamant supporter of the Spanish-American War. In the words of historian William Leuchtenburg, “few political figures exceeded the enthusiasm of William Jennings Bryan for the Spanish War. Thomas Woods further observes,
The humanitarian aspect of the war — namely, liberating Cuba from Spanish rule — appealed to Progressives. The response of feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton was typical: “Though I hate war per se,” she wrote, “I am glad that it has come in this instance. I would like to see Spain … swept from the face of the earth.”
World War I was even worse. Theodore Roosevelt, who started the explicitly progressive Bull Moose Party, was more adamant then anyone about getting the United States involved in World War I. In fact, most progressives were in favor of the First World War, including Walter Lippmann, Herbert Croly and John Dewey. Murray Rothbard described Dewey’s activism on the matter as follows,
… John Dewey prepared himself to lead the parade for war as America drew nearer to armed intervention in the European struggle. First, in January 1916 in the New Republic, Dewey attacked the “professional pacifist’s” outright condemnation of war as a “sentimental phantasy,” a confusion of means and ends. Force, he declared, was simply “a means of getting results,” and therefore could neither be lauded or condemned per se.
And the progressives’ support for war continued through World War II to the Korean War. Opposition to the war in Korea was scarce, but the little that was found was mostly on the Old Right, led by Robert Taft. It wasn’t until the Vietnam War was well under way that any real anti-war movement could be found on the Left. And as the politics of today show, a consistent anti-war sentiment is a minority opinion on the Left.
History is crystal clear that progressives have not been universally or even mostly opposed to war. Conservatives are in general no better, and of recent, they are somehow even worse. Thereby, it’s quite unlikely that a cure for the festering rot known as the warfare state will come from the right. But given its history, such a cure will probably not come from the left either.
 Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (Vintage Books, 2006) Pg. 347
 William E. Leuchtenburg, Progressives and Imperialism (Mississippi Valley Historical Review 39, 1952), Pg. 485
 Thomas E. Woods, 33 Questions About American History You Are Not Supposed to Ask (New York: Random House, 2007), Pg. 53
 Murray Rothbard, World War I as Fulfillment (The Journal of Libertarian Studies Volume IX, NO 1, 1989), Pg. 96-97
This article first appeared at Mises Daily.