Teacher's Parlor

Lincoln, Patriotism and Protest
Document Packet #2
Patriotism & Protest During the Gulf War
by Jennifer Erbach

1. "PROTEST: A VITAL PART OF DEMOCRACY" by Peter Brandon Bayer

The onset of war in the Middle East has inspired an outpouring of demonstrations. Adopting the stratagems of a generation ago, protesters are conducting rallies, sit-ins and, perhaps most provocative of all, flag burnings. Already, newspapers' letters columns are brimming with criticism excoriating and impugning the protesters. Labeling demonstrators contemptible, hateful or, most charitably, jerks, some people argue that the protests constitute dangerous and worthless speech, imperiling the solidarity of our commitment to wage war on Iraq and, thus, endangering our fighting men and women. In light of this harsh and furious disapproval - and before intolerance to dissent takes hold in the name of patriotism as it did two decades ago - it is vital to emphasize the significant value of these jarring forms of expression especially in times of war. Indeed, it is during national emergencies that America's fundamental commitment to free speech assumes its greatest importance while facing its greatest jeopardy. First and most obviously, we must not forget that our devotion to freedom, particularly free speech and expression, distinguishes us from our enemies now as well as in conflicts past. Granted, the war with Iraq is not about individual liberty. Rather this war apparently involves preserving the integrity of national borders and preventing a ruthless tyrant from acquiring too much oil wealth. Nevertheless, wherever America fights, it must represent those basic ideals of freedom and personal dignity that set us apart from our foes. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this nation's commitment to liberty is something a Saddam Hussein could never understand - the right of citizens to protest the very war in which their soldiers fight. Furthermore, a thriving democracy depends on continual informed debate. Protest acquaints us with viewpoints contrary to the prevailing opinion, prompting us to examine the strengths and weaknesses of national policies. Weighing the merits of protesters' anti-war arguments, we may reaffirm that the war with Iraq is nec essary and worthwhile. Or, as exemplified by the Vietnam War demonstrations, concerted protest eventually may discredit the legitimacy of this conflict. The educational role of protest, then, is indisputable. Some assert that free speech has its limits, particularly during war. They claim that protests insult and humiliate the soldiers sent to fight and, possibly to die, for this nation. More than that, some argue that protests give aid and comfort to the enemy, weaken our resolve to win and, consequently, endanger both the lives of our armed forces and the success of our foreign policy. These arguments misconceive what is required of a society committed to the principles of freedom and liberty. The right to protest is meaningless if it can be exercised only when it is ineffective or when no significant national interests are at stake. Clearly, free speech demands protection precisely when it challenges important governmental policies, thereby kindling impassioned and volatile reactions. Indeed, our recent experiences with provocative speech in times of war demonstrate that we must safeguard inflammatory protest particularly during national crisis. In the celebrated 1969 opinion, Tinker vs. Des Moines School District, the Supreme Court struck down the School District's ban prohibiting students from wearing black arm bands to denounce the Vietnam War. Although acknowledging that wearing arm bands is both controversial and an arguable breach of school decorum, the justices rejoined, ''Any departure from absolute regimentation may cause trouble. Any variation from the majority's opinion may inspire fear. . . . But our Constitution says we must take this risk . . . and our history says that is the sort of hazardous freedom - this kind of openness - that is the basis of our national strength.''

From St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 25, 1991, FRIDAY, FIVE STAR Edition, Editorial page 3C.
Copyright 1991 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc. 

2."SUPPORT, NOT PROTEST" by William Raspberry

I've just visited Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, trying to understand what motivates the drum-beating, chanting, sign-waving antiwar protesters camped out there.

I still don't get it.

A couple of weeks ago, it made sense to protest President Bush's apparent determination to launch a war against Iraq. Even many of those who accepted the notion of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as the embodiment of international evil still thought war was a bad idea, or at least thought it vital not to start shooting until every reasonable alternative had been exhausted.

Even a week ago, it made sense to communicate to Bush the idea that as bad as Saddam is, war is worse -- not merely because war kills but also because this particular war seemed certain to leave nothing settled in the Persian Gulf region and likely to make matters a good deal worse.

I understood the prewar protesters. And at least to some degree, I understand the pacifists among the few hundred demonstrators. What I don't understand -- even after talking to a number of them -- are the people who are protesting continued U.S. involvement in this particular war after the war has started…what is the goal of the antiwar protesters? What would they have the president do -- declare a cease-fire and quit the region?

The people I spoke with were unanimous in their view that peace is better than war, but not at all clear that their continuing protest offers no policy alternative that makes sense. They evinced no appreciation of the fact that to suspend military operations now would only help Saddam, who certainly would claim that he had defeated the alliance arrayed against him; that it would endanger our troops, our interests and the prospects for long-term peace.

Some compared the present situation -- inappropriately, I thought -- to Vietnam. Others said the conflict was only about oil or that the politics of the region were none of our business. Still others responded with "give peace a chance" and other '60s-style slogans. None seemed to notice that the Iraqi president had displayed even less interest than his American counterpart in proposals (from interests as varied as France and the PLO) for an international conference. America should just get out, they said.

I didn't argue, but it did seem to me that their position is more likely to prolong the fighting and endanger our fighting forces than to bring an end to the conflict. And it still seems to me that the time has come when protest must give way to support…

From The Washington Post, January 23, 1991, Wednesday, Final Edition, page A17.
Copyright 1991 The Washington Post

3. "NEVER SAW A PROTEST I DIDN'T LIKE BUT NOW…" DISSENT IS PATRIOTIC
To the Editor:

I am tired of hearing war protesters described as unpatriotic. It disturbs me to hear tearful relatives of soldiers in the gulf saying protesters will increase American casualties. It is time the American public wakes up to the fact that it isn't the protesters who are killing soldiers in the gulf, it is the politicians who put them there.

We protesters do support the soldiers, and unlike those who support the war, we want to see every one of them return to their homes and families in one piece, alive and healthy in both body and mind. My firm conviction is that the vast majority of Americans do not believe in this war, but are afraid of seeming unpatriotic or being accused of opposing the soldiers if they openly protest it.

A patriot is "a person who loves and loyally or zealously supports his own country."…By protesting, we are supporting the people of America and trying to keep the country and people intact…

KATHLEEN RYAN OPON
Covington, Ky., Jan. 18. 1991

From The New York Times, February 3, 1991, Sunday, Late Edition-Final, Section 4; Page 18; Column 4; Editorial Desk.
Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company

4. "NEVER SAW A PROTEST I DIDN'T LIKE, BUT NOW…" PRIDE IN AMERICA
To the Editor:

This week's unbelievable events are cause for reflection and retrospect. The fighting in the Persian Gulf is not similar to the Vietnam conflict, nor is Washington's current Administration similar to the Democratic Kennedy-Johnson Administration that so haplessly dragged us into Vietnam. The goals of the war with Iraq are clear, and we have a President and Cabinet fully committed to the swift, decisive resolution of this crisis. Far more is at stake than cheap oil; the balance of power in the Middle East and the preservation of the United Nations' power to prevent militarily strong nations from absorbing smaller ones will be the most important results of this conflict…

…It is with much anger and disgust that I see the so-called "peace movement" mobilizing to once again disgrace America by flag-burning, demonstrations and disrupting nonmilitary government operations. The way such "peace activists" treated soldiers who served in Vietnam when they returned home from torturous combat was and still is a national disgrace. This is a different time, a different cause and one hopes we are a different nation. The men and women of our armed forces deserve nothing less than our full support.  

CHRIS A. HARMON
White Plains, Jan. 18, 1991

From The New York Times, February 3, 1991, Sunday, Late Edition-Final, Section 4; Page 18; Column 4; Editorial Desk.
Copyright 1991 The New York Times Company

©Copyright 2002 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project