The Left’s Dubious Antiwar History

The media narrative today would have you believe the simple dichotomy that Republicans are pro-war and Democrats are anti-war. Or more over, that conservatives are pro-war and liberals are antiwar Well, they got the first half right, unfortunately; conservativesparticularly since the neo-conservative movement took hold – have been very pro-war. But the Left doesn’t have much to show for itself either.

Going back all the way to the Spanish-American War, progressives were the chief proponents of it. Historian William Leuchtenburg described arch-progressive William Jennings Bryan by saying “…few political figures exceeded the enthusiasm of William Jennings Bryan for the Spanish War. Tom Woods quoted the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton as saying, “Though I hate war per se, I am glad that it has come in this instance. I would like to see Spain … swept from the face of the earth.”

It was the humanitarian aspect that appealed to progressives; the idea that we should “make the world safe for democracy” in the words of Woodrow Wilson. So it’s not surprising that the progressive support for World War I was quite strong as well. Progressives such as the aforementioned Wilson, along with Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Croley, Walter Lippman and John Dewey all supported the American involvement in that pointless war. Murray Rothbard describes Dewey’s support 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.”

Indeed, while the parties have changed platforms over the years, the Democrats have generally been the party of the Left over the twentieth and twenty first century. And it should be noted that the American participation in all four major wars during the twentieth century were started by Democratic presidents (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).

In fact, the only real opposition to the Korean War came from “Mr. Conservative” himself Robert Taft and the small remnants of the Old Right.

A vibrant, antiwar Left didn’t really begin to spring up until the Vietnam War. And even then, the normal Democratic voter was not particularly antiwar In an old survey, Gallup found that in 1965, more Republicans were opposed to military action in Vietnam than Democrats (28 percent to 22 percent). The sides didn’t switch until around 1970 and remained close through the duration of the war.

During the 1990’s, it was actually the Republican Party that was complaining about the how much foreign intervention was going on. 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 platform even read,

“In the last eight years the administration has squandered the opportunity granted to the United States by the courage and sacrifice of previous generations:

  • “A humanitarian intervention in Somalia was escalated thoughtlessly into nation-building at the cost of the lives of courageous Americans.
  • “A military intervention in Haiti displayed administration indecision and incoherence and, after billions of dollars had been spent, accomplished nothing of lasting value”

Not a particularly strong antiwar statement, but it was at least a meager call for restraint.

The Republicans betrayal of even that inadequate caution regarding foreign interventionism is the subject of another article. What’s important here is that it was the Democrats that were the more pro-war party in the 1990’s. And even their opposition to the Iraq War has been quite overstated indeed.

Senate Democrats voted in favor of going to war 25 to 20. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry and Dianne Feinstein all voted yes. According to Pew, only 19 percent of Democrats were opposed to going to war with Iraq in January 2002. When the war began, it was only 37 percent and that number didn’t cross half way until 2004.

Both the liberal New York Times and Washington Post backed the invasion. Christopher Hitchens Thomas Friedman, Jacob Weisberg, George Packer,and Jonathan Chait all supported the war.  One of the hard-left’s favorite senator’s, 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.’” Progressive blogger Matthew Yglesias rationalized 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.” Perhaps the Left wasn’t getting as much was as it wanted?

And while almost all of those people eventually renounced the war in Iraq, it hasn’t changed their perceptions regarding new wars. For example, Nancy Pelosi was in favor of going to war with Syria while progressive-favorite Elizabeth Warren wanted to bomb Iraq. DNC Chair Michael Czin even went so far as to criticize Rand Paul’s short-lived restraint on ISIS because Paul “…blames America for all the problems in the world.” According to a Pew Study, Democratic voters were even slightly more likely (47 percent to 45 percent) to support “conducting airstrikes in Libya” than Republicans.

Before airstrikes began in Libya, Slate ran articles titled and “Why Obama Doesn’t Need to Ask Congress Before Attacking Libya” and “Don’t Let Qaddafi Win.” And it was no different for Syria, as Slate writer Fred Kaplan wrote,

“… [Obama’s] rationale for military strikes (which I agree with) puts him in a box. The organizations charged with enforcing international law are not joining in the attack. The U.N. Security Council is “paralyzed.” … To gain some measure of legitimacy, 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 website, wants war so badly that it only supports Obama asking for permission from Congress when he can’t go to war on his own.

Of course, there have been those on the Left that have been anti-war. And overall, of late, the Left has been better on the issue of war than the Right. But that doesn’t mean the Left is the answer to the warfare state. Being antiwar is a bipartisan issue. And unfortunately, being pro-war has been the bipartisan consensus.

Andrew Syrios is a partner with the real estate investment firm Stewardship Properties. He has written for also blogs about economics at He currently lives in Kansas City, MO.