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The Truth, Mainly - 08/26/1996

What Lincoln, Clinton have in common: Anti-war protests

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I was greatly relieved during the Republican convention to hear that the GOP still considers itself "the party of Abraham Lincoln." Surely that means we won't be hearing any more of those self-congratulatory implied contrasts between Bob Dole's military record and Bill Clinton's lack of one.

It's not really Clinton's lack of a military record that gravels the easily-graveled Dole anyway. After all, the current Republican majority in Congress is full of men—Newt Gingrich comes to mind—who came of age during the sixties and, like Clinton, preferred not to go to Vietnam. Even Jack Kemp got a medical exemption from active duty while he was playing professional football.

What gravels the GOP is that Clinton spoke out against the Vietnam War. And speaking out against the war, especially after Richard Nixon was in the White House, suggested a Serious Lack of Patriotism.

But now that the convention reaffirmed the Lincoln connection, surely the critism of Clinton's antiwar past will stop.

Because how can the party of Lincoln criticise someone for doing what Honest Abe did when he spoke out against the Mexican War back in 1847? It would be inconsistent to invoke one president and condemn another for essentially the same act. Consistency, even in this political season, is desirable, at least until it becomes inconvenient.

The war with Mexico was our second most unpopular war, just behind Vietnam on the scale of disapproval. One measure of its unpopularity is that hardly anyone is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. Where are the parades?

We remember the war today chiefly for the opposition it generated. U.S. Grant (another early Republican hero) fought in the war as a young lieutenant, but in his memoirs called it "a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union." The war was, he wrote, "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

Thoreau spent a night in the Concord jail to protest the war—and wrote about it in "Civil Disobedience," one of the manuals of revolution protesters used in the sixties.

"When. . .a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel," Thoreau wrote. "What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army."

And Abraham Lincoln, as a 38-year-old freshman Congressman, challenged his president, James Polk, to show Americans the spot where the first American blood was shed. Was it in U.S. territory, as Polk argued, or was it it in Mexican territory, as Lincoln believed? Were we attacked or were we the attackers?

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From the floor of the House, Lincoln went on to call Polk's attempt to blame the war on Mexico "the half insane mumbling of a fever-dream," the product of "a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man" whose mind had been "tasked beyon d its power."

Not quite "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" but close enough that a newspaper back home in Illinois called it a "treasonable assault" on Polk and the war.

Abe Lincoln being treasonable. Imagine that.

And in case we'd forgotten just how inglorious the Vietnam War was, we were reminded this summer when the Senate finally got around to appropriating $40.000 in back pay for each of about 500 Vietnamese who were trained by the CIA and sent on commando missions to North Vietnam. Some were killed. Most were captured, but our government wrote them off as killed because it would have been inconvenient not to.

Retired Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, who was in charge of the operation, argued against the Senate appropriation—about $2,000 for each year in prison—, saying the "so-called Vietnamese special commandos" were "not the responsibility of the U. S. government." Each of them, he said, at the point of capture had been "declared a nonviable asset."

How would you like to be declared a nonviable asset?

Vietnam was a war in which we had to "destroy villages in order to save them" and "terminate with extreme prejudice" Vietcong suspects by pushing them out of helicoptors if they didn't tell us what we wanted to hear. And it was a war in which our allies became "nonviable assets" when they were captured.

Not only did we brutalize our enemies, our allies, and our own forces, we brutalized our language to cover up what we were doing.

Some wars need protesting.

So Republicans can bash the president for his inconstancy, for his Arkansas politics, for his theft of Republican ideas. But surely after acknowledging Mexican War-protestor Honest Abe as the party icon, they won't bash Wavering Willie for protesting the Vietnam War.

Surely they won't. Nosireebob. Bob? Isn't that right, Bob?


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage meaning from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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