Here We Go Again

IT IS OFTEN SAID that war is simply a continuation of politics by other means. Unfortunately, the inverse is often true as well. Throughout its wartime history, the United States government has acted out the same script again and again on the domestic front. the executive branch centralizes power in its hands. Federal authorities crack down on dissent. Civil liberties are violated. And each time, politicians justify the measures as a temporary expediency, an unpleasant but necessary means of ensuring American victory.

At a time when the United States again finds itself involved in a war abroad, shades of these anti-democratic tendencies have already emerged at home. The FBI has been interviewing large numbers of Arab-Americans in an attempt to root out terrorists on American soil. Should a terrorist act actually take place here, law enforcement authorities are likely to embark on a counter-terrorism frenzy--and violate the civil liberties of thousands of people in the process.

The Pentagon has slapped the American press trying to cover the Gulf conflict with a stifling set of restrictions. Only a small pool of journalists have access to most military sites, they can travel only under military escort and the escorts censor all outgoing news dispatches. The White House has also lashed out at journalists who have not transmitted the unadorned Pentagon line to the public. Last week, presidential spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater accused veteran CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, one of a handful of Western correspondents remaining in Baghdad, of being a "conduit" for Iraqi propaganda because he reported that allied warplanes had bombed a milk factory.

Even the path to war was paved with troubling actions. President Bush single-handedly guided the country to the brink of battle and consulted Congress only when the legislative branch had no reasonable alternative but to go along. What was even more disturbing, however, was Bush's open admission that he would have committed American troops to fight even if Congress had explicitly forbidden him to do so. If the war goes badly and Congress votes to withdraw U.S. forces, Bush may provoke a Constitutional crisis by ignoring the legislative branch.

More likely, the United States will win the war, but in doing so may sacrifice its principles at home. These are not groundless fears--American history is littered with examples of wartime excesses.


EAGER TO FIGHT the "enemy in the rear," Abraham Lincoln took drastic steps to squelch opposition within the Union during the Civil War. Without consulting Congress, and over the objections of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the president in 1861 suspended the right of habeas corpus in parts of the country. Law enforcement officials jailed without due process those suspected of having Confederate sympathies. Lincoln expanded his edict in 1862, and then, with congressional authorization, applied it to the entire Union the following year. By the war's end, the government had imprisoned 13,000 Americans under the president's decree.

Lincoln also cracked down on the Northern press. He forced many newspapers--including the Chicago Times, the New York World and the Philadelphia Evening Journal--to stop printing several times during the war because of suspected disloyalty.

THE FAILINGS of the Lincoln Administration during the Civil War were minor compared to the wholesale abridgment of civil liberties during World War 1. The war effort started an ominous note: in his speech to Congress on April 2, 1917 asking for a declaration of war, Woodrow Wilson noted that most German-Americans were loyal to the U.S., but he cautioned that "if there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with with a firm hand of repression."

The extent of the sedition that actually took place is unclear, but the firm hand of repression was used as a club time and again to ensure unanimous support for the military. The trend started as mere peer pressure. When Republican Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska argued on the Senate floor that American involvement in the conflict would only benefit commercial interests ("I feel that we are about to put the dollar sign on the American flag"), the chamber echoed with cries of "Treason! Treason!"

The repression soon took more concrete form. The Espionage Act, which took effect on June 5, 1917, put unprecedented powers in the hands of the federal government. It forbade anyone from interfering with military operations (a provision that was interpreted quite liberally) and empowered Postmaster General Albert Burleson to close the mail system to groups deemed subversive. Under the act's provisions, Burleson prevented more than a dozen socialist journals from circulating and blocked individual issues of a number of other magazines.

Congress added amendments, called the Sedition Act, to the espionage law in 1918. The tighter rules banned a host of offenses, including "any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy."

In World War II, the federal government again came to fear that a "fifth column" in the United States would subvert the war effort. This time around it was easy to identify and isolate potential subversives, and the Army--backed by Congress, the Supreme Court and public opinion--began to imprison Japanese-Americans. By 1942, the "relocation" policy, which was originally supposed to cover only 40,000 non-citizen Japanese, had expanded to mandate the internment of 70,000 American citizens of Japanese descent living on the West Coast.

During the Vietnam War, the anti-democratic forces were present, albeit not as overt. There was no Sedition Act or widespread jailing of certain parts of the population. But intolerance and repression became part of the social fabric. Police violently ended student demonstrations at Columbia and Harvard. In 1970, National Guardsmen inexplicably killed four students at Kent State University. The injustice of the murders there is widely recognized now, but in a poll taken just after the incident, four out of five Americans backed the officers' actions.

It is no coincidence that civil liberties come under assault during wartime. The kind of discipline that war necessitates is alien to democratic principles. The challenge is to keep reasonable efforts to win a war from mushrooming into repression. The Gulf War cannot become an excuse to prostitute American democracy. If the only way we can defeat Iraq is to mimic its form of government, the war is not worth fighting.