Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Whitman College
Commencement Address
May 25, 2003

Members of the graduating class, parents, teachers, friends:

    I am honored to be invited to participate in this joyous ritual. Commencement day celebrates a grand transition in life: simultaneously a conclusion and a beginning. You have finished one chapter of your life and are about to turn over a page and commence a new chapter-hence, of course, the name of the occasion. Your families are here today, filled with pride in your achievement-and also filled with curiosity and some concern as to what will happen to you now that reality impends.

    As part of the ritual, you are required to submit to a commencement address. I do not have great confidence in the immortality of the words uttered on these occasions. The commencement address is not one of the more notable American art forms. Actually a charm of the occasion is that no one can remember in later years what a commencement speaker said, or, indeed, even who the speaker was. Ask your elders what eminent figure dispensed wisdom to them at their commencement, and I will be much surprised if they can conjure up the vaguest recollection out of the dark caverns of memory. I certainly cannot tell you who spoke at my commencement some sixty-five years ago.

    The fact that no one remembers what commencement speakers say gives us a certain license to say anything, so I might as well take advantage of the opportunity you are so kindly offering and speak my mind. Still, I will detain you no longer than necessary, representing, as I do, the last obstacle between you and your diplomas.

    You are unleashed on the world in one of its less propitious moments. These are grim days with terrorism still undeterred, and very likely intensified, by our victory in the Second Gulf War. Many Americans feel a sense of personal vulnerability they have never felt before. Even during the Second World War, a far more menacing conflict with far more dangerous foes, Americans did not feel personally threatened in the daily rounds of their lives. Terrorism has given a new and scary dimension to war.

    We agree-at least the vast majority of us-on the objective of eradicating international terrorism. We may sometimes disagree on the best means of attaining that objective. Given this unprecedented mood of personal vulnerability, the idea is spreading that, when mortal danger threatens, we must suspend discussion and debate, that the time has come for patriotic Americans to rally round the flag, that the president must be unquestioned as the single voice of a united nation. "What have we elected him for," observes one commentator, "if we are to act as if we expect our views to be treated as being of equal weight with his?"

    This raises a couple of questions-questions that history might help us to answer. The first question is whether a democratic people have a moral obligation to cease debate and dissent when the nation is at war. And the second question is whether, as a factual matter, our ancestors abstained from debate and dissent when their government took them into war. These two questions presuppose a third: what is the true nature of patriotism anyway?

    The answer to the first question is that going to war does not abrogate freedom of conscience, thought and speech. War does not abolish the Bill of Rights. Even when the republic faces mortal dangers, the First Amendment is still there.

    In the midst of the greatest war in American history, the Supreme Court in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette held that a law compelling kids in public schools to salute the flag and to recite the pledge of allegiance violated the First Amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. As Justice Robert H. Jackson said for the Court, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

    The decision was handed down on Flag Day 1943. Though young Americans were fighting and dying for the American flag on many fronts around the planet, the Court's decision outlawing compulsory flag salutes and compulsory pledges of allegiance was generally applauded. Most Americans in 1943 thought the decision a pretty good statement of what we were fighting for.

    The role of dissent in the run-up to war is of course crucial. Of all the decisions a free people must face, the question of war and peace is the most solemn. Before sending young Americans to kill and die in foreign lands, a democracy has a sacred obligation to permit full and searching discussion of the issues at stake. There is no obligation to bow down before a reloaded imperial presidency. The views of the American people should indeed have equal weight with those of the fellow they send to the White House.

    Nor does the actuality of war change the situation. As Theodore Roosevelt said in 1918 during the First World War, "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

    During the Second World War, within a fortnight after Pearl Harbor brought us into the war, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio took the same line as Theodore Roosevelt. Bob Taft, as your parents and grandparents will tell you, was Mr. Conservative and a much revered Republican leader. "I believe," Taft said, "there can be no doubt that criticism in time of war is essential to the maintenance of any kind of democratic government. . . . Too many people desire to suppress criticism simply because they think it will give some comfort to the enemy. . . . If that comfort makes the enemy feel better for a few moments, they are welcome to it as far as I am concerned, because the maintenance of the right of criticism in the long run will do the country maintaining it a great deal more good than it will do the enemy, and it will prevent mistakes which might otherwise occur."

    Bob Taft was everlastingly right. Leaders are never infallible. They will not benefit from the cessation or suppression of dissent. They may even pick up a good idea or two from their critics. There is little more insolent or more despicable than public officials, like the attorney general of the United States, who cry that those who dare question their acts are giving aid and comfort to the terrorists. I commend Senator Taft's wise words to Attorney General Ashcroft whose attempt to outlaw legitimate debate is in the deepest sense un-American. Let us never forget Mr. Dooley's definition of a fanatic-a fanatic is a man who "does what he thinks th' Lord wud do if He only knew th' facts in th' case."

    As for the second question, the factual question, the historical record shows that Americans have never refrained from dissent and criticism in wartime. Even in the American Revolution, a third of the colonists, according to John Adams, opposed the drive toward independence. The war of 1812 provoked serious and strident dissent. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison called it "the most unpopular war that this country has ever waged, not even excepting the Vietnam conflict."

    President Madison's request for a declaration of war against Great Britain narrowly passed the Senate by 19 to 13 votes and the House of Representatives by 70 to 49. After war was declared, Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts proclaimed a public fast to atone for a needless war "against the nation from which we are descended." Most New England governors turned down presidential requests for state militia to reinforce the tiny federal army. "Mr. Madison's war" converted the Federalist party, heretofore the proud champion of a strong central government, into a party advocating state-rights and nullification. John Quincy Adams even thought that the anti-war Hartford convention was a secession movement aimed at a separate peace with Britain.

    The Mexican War was almost as unpopular. There was fierce opposition to the declaration of war. "People of the United States!", Horace Greeley wrote in the New York Tribune. "Your rulers are precipitating you into a fathomless abyss of crime and calamity! . . . Awake and arrest the work of butchery ere it shall be too late to preserve your souls from the guilt of wholesale slaughter!" The Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution declaring that the war, "so hateful in its objects, so wanton, unjust and unconstitutional in its origin and character, must be regarded as a war against freedom, against humanity, against justice, against the Union." Thoreau wrote his famous plea for "The Duty of Civil Disobedience," and James Russell Lowell condemned the war in his satiric long poem Biglow Papers. In the midterm election, held in wartime, the administration of James K. Polk lost 35 seats and control of the House of Representatives.

    The new House promptly resolved that the Mexican War had been "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States." Talk about giving aid and comfort to the enemy! A few days later a young congressman from Illinois attacked the presidential case for the war as "from beginning to end the sheerest deception." He described President Polk himself as "running hither and thither, like some tortured creature, on a burning surface, finding no position, on which it can settle down, and be at ease." The young congressman was named Abraham Lincoln."

    Thirteen years later, Abraham Lincoln, now president, faced a war of his own. The Civil War saw acute divisions even in the north. The Copperheads-pro-Confederate northerners-denounced Lincoln as a dictator and called for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy. In the midterm election of 1862, the opposition gained 32 seats in the House, and Lincoln had doubts about his own prospects for a second term. Ten weeks before the 1864 election he wrote, "It seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected." Fortunately for the future of the republic, he won, and the abolition of slavery was vindicated, though the opposition polled 45 percent of the vote.

    As the historical record indicated, wartime presidents have never enjoyed immunity from criticism and challenge. The Spanish-American War and especially the follow-up campaign against the Filipino insurrection provoked vigorous criticism of William McKinley, the Republican president. In the midterm election held three months after the smashing American victory over Spain, the Democrats scored impressive gains. As the McKinley administration pursued the war against the Filipinos, opposition mounted.

    William James, the great philosopher, explained why he decided to support the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan against McKinley in 1900. "There are worse things than financial troubles in a Nation's career," James said. "To puke up its ancient soul, and the only things that gave it eminence among other nations, in five minutes and without a wink of squeamishness, is worse; and that is what the Republicans would commit us to in the Philippines. Our conduct there has been one protracted infamy towards the Islanders, and one protracted lie towards ourselves." Mark Twain proposed a revision of the American flag with "the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones."

    The First World War was preceded by an intense national debate. And in the midterm election of 1918, eighteen months after the declaration of war against Germany, President Wilson lost control of both houses of Congress to the Republican opposition. The Second World War was preceded by even more intense debate-the most angry of my lifetime, angrier than the debate over communism in the 1940s, or than the debate over McCarthyism in the 1950s, or than the debate over Vietnam in the 1960s. And in the midterm election of 1942, FDR, though a compelling and highly popular leader, lost 50 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate.

    The pattern has continued-up to the midterm election of 2002. In 1950, five months after the start of the Korean War, the Republican opposition gained seats in both houses of Congress. So too in 1966, in the midst of the Vietnam War, the Republican opposition made gains in both houses. So too did the Democratic opposition in 1990 three months after the outbreak of the Gulf War. But in 2002, perhaps because of the new sense of personal vulnerability, the sitting administration for the first time scored gains in midterm elections held in wartime.

    History shows that there is nothing sacrosanct about presidents in wartime. Indeed no president has any right to send young Americans to kill and die in foreign lands without the most frank and uninhibited discussion and debate. This is all the more the case when a fundamental transformation in the strategy of national security promises a vista of presidential wars stretching far into the future.

    This transformation has taken place without the notice it deserves. For more than forty years after the Second World War, our national strategy was based on containment and deterrence. It was that strategy that enabled the democracies to win the Cold War against Soviet communism-and to win that war peacefully. From time to time voices rang out calling for preventive war against the Soviet Union, but those voices were regarded as emanating from what Theodore Roosevelt used to call the lunatic fringe. It was lucky for us all; for, had we resorted to preventive war, few of us would be here today.

    Now our president has proclaimed a new doctrine of 'anticipatory self-defense,' a fancy term for preventive war-the doctrine that has replaced containment and deterrence as the basis of our foreign policy. This is precisely the doctrine that the young congressman from Illinois challenged in 1848. "Allow the President," Abraham Lincoln said, "to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion . . . and you allow him to make war at pleasure. . . . If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us' but he will say to you 'be silent; I see it, if you don't.'" Lincoln added that the founding fathers in the constitutional convention "resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us."

    The policy of anticipatory self-defense is the policy that imperial Japan employed in its attack on Pearl Harbor on a date that, as an earlier American president said, would live in infamy. Franklin D. Roosevelt was right when he said this, and today it is we Americans who live in infamy. The global wave of sympathy that engulfed the United States after 9/11 has given way to a global wave of fear and hatred of American arrogance.

    The new doctrine converts us into the world's judge, jury and executioner-a self-appointed status that, however benign our motives, is bound to corrupt our leadership. John Quincy Adams foresaw all this in a speech he gave on July 4, 1821. "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled," Adams said, "there will [America's] heart, her benedictions and her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

    America well knows, Adams continued, that if she goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy, "the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit."

    America as the world's initiator of preventive war? as the world's self-appointed judge, jury and executioner? Is this a good idea? The decision is your generation's to make. But I would ask you to reflect on wise words uttered by a president whom I had the honor and the good luck to serve in the White House.

    "We must face the fact," President John F. Kennedy said 42 years ago in this state and the University of Washington's 100th anniversary, "that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient-that we are only 6% of the world's population-that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94% of mankind-that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity-and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem."

    I suggested early on that our first two questions-whether a free people is obliged in wartime to shut up and not question their government? and whether Americans had in fact done that in the past?-presupposed a third question: what is the nature of patriotism anyway?

    True patriotism, I would propose, consists of living up to the nation's highest ideals. Carl Schurz, who emigrated from Germany to become an influential figure in 19th century America, defined the true meaning of patriotism when he said: "Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right."

    Let this be the watchword for the class of 2003!