Do The American People Really Love War?

There has long been the perception throughout the world that Americans are an inherently militaristic nation constantly pining for armed conflict. Much of Europe believes that the average American cannot wait to send his or her children thousands of miles away to fight in foreign endeavors. This actually couldn’t be further from the truth.

For nearly 200 years, there has been a strong anti-war movement in America. This testifies that the majority of U.S. citizens are decidedly isolationist. Oftentimes, the American media and political leaders promote wars and foreign intervention. However, if you talked to the typical American, they would express their desire to take care of things at home instead of engaging a foreign enemy.

Now, it is true that when threatened, the American people do not hesitate to commit to foreign wars. But this does not make them dissimilar to the rest of the world’s population.

Let’s take a look at American anti-war sentiment throughout its history.

The Pre-Civil War Period

In 1828, the American Peace Society was founded. This group strongly opposed all foreign wars and even called for a “Congress and High Court of Nations” that would mediate disputes between nation-states. This was a revolutionary idea at the time, as it predated the League of Nations by nearly a century. The views of the American Peace Society were typical of most Americans at the time, who had just fought a war against British aggression in 1812 and had seen the horrors it brought about.

At the same time, some of America’s most popular and respected intellectuals were preaching pacifist ideals. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote essays and novels condemning foreign wars and promoting isolationism. Thoreau wrote:

The soldier who refuses to serve in an unjust war is applauded by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government, which makes the war.

Henry David Thoreau

The American Civil War

Most people assume that the American Civil War was full of willing combatants who were passionate about the North or the South and ready to fight without hesitation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The American Civil War polarized the population and led to a substantial antiwar movement. Sure, there were strong partisans on both sides who were eager for war, but most of these pro-war agitators were big business war profiteers or government officials. There is often a disconnect between the pro-war sentiments of the American elite and the reluctance of common Americans to trade their plowshares for swords.

the American Civil War

In 1864, General George McClellan won the Democratic Party’s nomination and challenged President Abraham Lincoln. The party’s platform was strongly antiwar. Antiwar sentiment was so strong that some historians argue that McClellan could have won the election had he been a more competent candidate.

McClellan was a much better general than he was a politician, however, and lost the election. Still, the antiwar Democratic Party’s nominee received 45 percent of the popular vote, which shows that the nation was basically evenly split on the issue of the Civil War.

Still, the antiwar Democratic Party’s nominee received 45 percent of the popular vote, which shows that the nation was basically evenly split on the issue of the Civil War.

World War I

Antiwar sentiment in the United States was probably at its most passionate level in the lead-up to the First World War. A vast majority of Americans opposed their country’s intervention in what they considered a European conflict. Presidential Woodrow Wilson used the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” to great effect in the election of 1916, as it mobilized large numbers of antiwar activists.

American Soldiers during World War I
American Soldiers during World War I

If the Germans had not engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare that threatened the U.S. homeland, American politicians desirous of intervention would have never been able to garner the public support to make a formal declaration of war. Even after the declaration, antiwar sentiment was quite strong. It was so widespread that the U.S. government actually passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which effectively outlawed antiwar speech.

Thousands of antiwar activists were arrested and incarcerated under this act. Perhaps the most famous case of the Espionage Act being used against an anti-war protester was the case of Eugene Vs Debs.

Eugene a one-time senator of Indiana and five-time presidential candidate was arrested for his anti-WWI speech and convicted under the Espionage Act to a ten-year sentence. He appealed the decision at the Supreme Court and lost, but his sentence was commuted three years into his term by the new President, Warren G Harding. 

Of Eugene’s five attempts to win the Presidency as a Socialist candidate, his best result was 5.99% of the popular vote in 1912. During the 1920 election, he managed to obtain 3.41% of the vote, an impressive feat for a candidate who was campaigning from within his jail cell.

World War II

The default position of most Americans in the lead-up to the Second World War was isolationism. On 4 September 1940, Yale Law School Student R. Douglas Stuart Jr. formed the America First Committee, which was a non-interventionist group designed to put pressure on the U.S. government to avoid entry into the conflict. The group’s membership swelled to over 800,000 at its peak, and there were over 450 chapters scattered throughout the U.S. Future president Gerald Ford was a participant, and JFK sent the group a $100 check with a note that read, “What you are all doing is vital.” 

Charles Lindbergh was perhaps the most popular American alive in the pre-war period, and he was a strong supporter of isolationism. Lindbergh wrote:

“We talk about spreading democracy and freedom all over the world, but to us, they are words rather than conditions. We haven’t even got them here in America, and the farther we get into this war, the farther we get away from democracy and freedom. Where is it leading us to, and when will it end? The war might stop this winter, but that is improbable. It may go on for fifty years or more. That also is improbable. The elements are too conflicting and confused to form any accurate judgment of its length. There may be a series of wars, one after another, going on indefinitely.”

American opposition to the war continued until the attack on Pearl Harbor. After that, the American people were firmly behind the war effort, and the America First Committee disbanded.

The Vietnam War

Much has been written about the widespread opposition to the Vietnam War. Shortly after the conflict began, protests erupted on college campuses throughout the United States. The antiwar sentiment soon spread to other segments of the population until the war became one of the most unpopular issues in American history.

Opposition to the war was so passionate that President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968. His announcement that he would not be seeking or accepting re-election shocked the world. He felt the war issue had become so politically divisive it was causing a strain on the institution of the Presidency. The Full Speech is well worth a read. 

Less than a year into the Vietnam War, Gallup found that a majority of Americans disagreed with U.S. involvement in the conflict. By May 1971, 72 percent of Americans were decidedly against the war and wanted the troops to return home. Once again, the U.S. citizenry was firmly opposed to a war that its leader wanted to continue. It’s important for those outside America to recognize that US leaders, like many other countries, often do not speak for their citizens.

The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

These two wars are probably the ones you are most familiar with and the reason that much of the world views the American people as militaristic and pro-war. Granted, at the beginning of these wars, the American people were firmly behind the effort due to both the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the deceptive propaganda campaign launched by George W. Bush’s administration that exaggerated the threat Iraq posed to the United States.

If anything, the American people are guiltier of being prone to pro-war propaganda than being overly militaristic. Also, public opinion turned decidedly against the Iraq War once it was revealed that the American people had been misled. As it became clearer that the people had been misled, protests sprang up throughout the country. Although many of the protests in Europe were larger and possibly more passionate than their American counterparts, some of the protests in the U.S. were absolutely huge.

On 30 August 2004, over half a million people took to the streets of New York to protest the Bush Administration and the Iraq War. This historic event was organized by the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice, and the group’s leader, Leslie Cagan, issued this statement following the event:

What happened today was that people from all walks of life, from every community of New York and really from all around the country, gathered and said, for this day, we’re going to stand together, and in one voice, we’re going to say no to the Bush agenda.tice.

Leslie Cagan, leader of United for Peace and Justice

How has American public opinion on war changed over time?

Antiwar sentiment was evident not only in George W. Bush’s terrible poll numbers between 2005 and 2008 but also in the Presidential election of 2008. Barack Obama ran on the promise that he would end both wars, while Republican Nominee John McCain favored continuing interventionist policies in the Middle East. The war-weary and increasingly isolationist American people elected Obama in a landslide.

The American people do not love war. American political leaders and business people often passionately support it, however, as it aids in the military-industrial complex that gets politicians elected and makes war profiteers filthy rich. If you were to come to the U.S. and actually speak with regular Americans, I bet that you would find that the vast majority are opposed to the war of any kind unless they can be convinced that their way of life is directly threatened by a foreign actor.

Often, the loudest and most ignorant voices in America are the ones that receive the most attention. This is unfortunate because we are not all brash, materialistic warmongers, in spite of what the foreign press claims.

We have a long and storied antiwar movement in this country. Sure, we’ve made mistakes in the past, but what other country hasn’t engaged in foolish wars? All I’m asking is that you give us the benefit of the doubt and realize that the American people are generally peaceful and are much more concerned with internal issues than enforcing our will and ideals on foreign countries.

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