Antiwar Movement, History in United States

Although most famously active during the Vietnam War, the United States has harbored, if not effective, then loud, antiwar sentiment since its early national period. Both inside and outside the government proper, these voices have expressed disdain for both the target war and its methods. There has never been a war in the United States that did not have its internal enemies, although the support against the war often fluctuated based on battlefield successes, casualty counts, and longevity. The movements against the Mexican-American War, Civil War, First World War, and Vietnam War are perhaps the most famous, but there were many more, including the current War on Terror. Even World War II, which has since been remembered as a moment of national unity in support of the “good war,” had its opponents both in 1941 and in 1944. The antiwar movement has generally been a tenuous alliance among strict pacifists, nonintervenionalists, popular crusaders, and lifetime supporters. Because of the perceived threat to national security, state response to antiwar movements often creates threats to privacy, civil liberties, and freedom of movement in wartime. This entry investigates the early formation of the antiwar movement in the United States and examines the movement’s efforts in the 19th and early 20th centuries, during the Vietnam War, and during the 21st-century U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

The 19th-Century Antiwar Movements

As long as the United States has fought, or not fought, wars, popular opinion has come out both for and against governmental positions. While the long-term basis for the strict pacifist sect of the antiwar movement draws mostly from the mid-19th-century philosophical writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and to a lesser degree from religious teachings, the antiwar movement existed long before those writings. Even in the pre-national period and extending well into the 19th century, every time the state clashed with native populations, there were voices of discontent.

America’s first great national war, the War of 1812, initially was very controversial, with many being opposed to the conflict. By 1814, things had gotten so bad that New England Federalists, angered over the loss of trade revenue because of Republican policies, gathered in Hartford, Connecticut, to debate secession. In the West, the war was just as controversial. Years later, Illinois Whig politician Justin Butterfield famously sarcastically quipped, in reference to another controversial war, the Mexican-American War, “I opposed one war [The War of 1812]. That was enough for me. I am now perpetually in favor of war, pestilence and famine.” Butterfield Whig compatriot Abraham Lincoln, during his short period in the House of Representatives, famously called the legality of President James Polk’s war into question, a position that would cause Lincoln to lose his congressional seat.

Antiwar Sentiment in the Beginning of the 20th Century

The 20th century began with the United States engaged in a new type of conflict. Although in the previous century the nation had almost constantly been at war—whether against a foreign foe, itself, or natives—in the new century, the constabulary U.S. military would attempt to pacify nationalist forces in the areas it previously brought into its territorial empire, as well as in places in which its citizens had business interests. In a broader sense, this period, characterized by radical activity on many fronts, saw an adoption of broad antiwar planks by those on the outskirts of the political conversations as well as narrower ones by the establishment.

Although it may have been the Socialist Party of America, with members such as Eugene V. Debs and Helen Keller, that opposed war outright, President Woodrow Wilson, while using violence to deal with a problem involving Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border, ran on an antiwar platform in 1916. Famously, Wilson ran under the Democratic slogan “He kept us out of war,” with a promise to stay the course, a course he reversed in 1917. Wilson expected 1 million men to volunteer immediately following the declaration of war on April 6, 1917. However, in the first 6 months, only 75,000 men volunteered. Clearly, the American people opposed direct involvement in World War I on a massive scale, and the government could not afford such discontent.

The government used a massive propaganda machine to try to convince the American people to reverse course by utilizing posters; “dollar-a-year” speakers; music, including John Philips Sousa; and erecting monuments to the Franco-American alliance in the Revolution in the hope that it would convince the American people to support the conflict. The government passed the Espionage Act of 1917 as a way to deal with the war’s detractors and established a draft to deal with the manpower shortage. Under this act, the government jailed Debs for speaking out against the draft. A perceived threat to national security led to Debs’s continuing to serve out his sentence long after the war ended.

If Warren Harding’s successful presidential platform based on a “return to normalcy” indicates anything, it is that even after the First World War the American people at large preferred, rather than a Wilsonian policy of interventionalism on a massive scale, an antiwar policy of limited engagement. In the United States between the wars, the policy of anti-interventionalism held sway, despite calls to the contrary and those who decried any U.S. interventionalism at all. In response to the pro-business Banana Wars that the United States fought between the World Wars, the outright pacifist movement once again held power over the American antiwar discussion. Backed by former Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler’s description of the U.S. government’s use of force in his 1935 book War Is a Racket, the voice of the pacifist left enjoyed resurgence in a generally reactionist country.

By 1940, despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempts to the contrary, the American public still held a largely noninterventionist idea of foreign policy. Through movements like “American First,” people such as Charles Lindbergh argued for the United States to continue to pursue a noninterventionist policy. Even after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 thrust the United States into the Second World War, certain hard-core antiwar activists such as Pete Seeger kept the movement going; however, they quickly abandoned this pursuit in the wake of extremely popular support for the war.

The Antiwar Movement and Vietnam

Antiwar Activism in the 21st Century

The War on Terror created a new frontier of state-sponsored surveillance alongside an antiwar response to it. The antiwar movement has had a checkered experience in the 21st century. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the American public overwhelmingly supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, with the exception of a few pacifists on the extreme left. This led to a massive expansion of government surveillance powers under the USA PATRIOT Act and similar legislation. The George W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, backed by later unproven evidence of weapons of mass destruction and limited international support, however, lit a fire under the antiwar community. In large-scale protests not seen since Vietnam, a grassroots movement against the war arose and grew as the war dragged on and casualties mounted. The antiwar movement was largely responsible for the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and continues to pressure the federal government to minimize U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In addition, the antiwar movement has rallied, although less successfully, against potential U.S. intervention in Syria, Libya, and Iran and against non-U.S. wars like the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The antiwar movement has been less successful, however, in minimizing the government’s surveillance. Large, existential fears of a terrorist attack have led to massive electronic surveillance of average citizens by the government. Even small-scale opponents of unlimited war can find themselves on the government’s “no-fly” list. State surveillance may not be a child of war, but it can certainly grow under it.

Zachary Kopin

See also Antinuclear Movement ; Cold War ; Nuclear Treaties ; Nuclear War ; World War I and II

Further Readings

Kuznick, Peter, et al.Untold History of the United States. New York, NY: Gallery Books, 2012.

Butler, Smedley D. War Is a Racket. New York, NY: Round Table, 1935.