‘Remember the Maine!’: On Syria, We Should

 

Dorset, VT:  1957 Thunderbird 9/8/13
Dorset, VT: 1957 Thunderbird 9/8/13

Presidents have often sought Congress’s blessing for foreign adventures using rationales that seemed dubious at the time:  Iraq and weapons of mass destruction; Afghanistan and al Qaeda; North Vietnam and gunboat attacks on American ships.

           Syria seems to fit this category, and the Administration’s lame advocacy makes the shoe look an even better fit.

           With so little support in the country – though more in Washington – one wonders if President Obama hopes Congress will free him from the box he built around himself by failing to approve a resolution approving strikes on Syria.

           Since the Constitution places the power to declare war with Congress, let it take responsibility for Syria.  This is not the way we usually do things.

 ***

           Friday’s New York Times email headlines included this:  On September 6, 1901, an assassin fatally wounded President William McKinley.  He was six months into his fifth year as president.

           He embodied both the end of an era – he was the last Civil War veteran (and hero) to lead the country – and the rapid dawn of another – he was the first to assert an American presence in the great 1890s race for colonies.

           For much of that decade, a few newspapers and politicians had urged – to little effect – the US to free Cuba, one of Spain’s last colonies in this hemisphere.  Unexpectedly, they got the country’s attention and support.

           On Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine had blown up in Havana harbor killing 266 Americans.  Why – a mine? spontaneous combustion in its coal lockers? – remains unclear.  But ‘Remember the Maine!’ rallied the country and Congress into war two months later.

           Spain’s principal possessions outside Africa — Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines — quickly fell to US forces.  The war lasted a bit more than three-and-a-half months. 

           It was over when in September US Sen. Alfred J. Beveridge (R-Ind.) urged voters in the 1898 midterms to support the McKinley Administration.  His terms would become trite in later mouths.  And, he offered a reason those same mouths would not speak:

But a war has marked it, the most holy ever waged by one nation against another — a war for civilization, a war for permanent peace, a war which, under God, although we knew it not, swung open to the republic the portals of the commerce of the world. And the first question you must answer with your vote is whether you endorse that war.[1]

 ***

          By 1898’s end, McKinley presided over an empire because he had decided the war to liberate Spanish possessions would have a different result:

And one night late it came to me this way — I don’t know how it was, but it came….  There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.  Then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly.[2]

           McKinley’s ambassador to France, Civil War hero Horace Porter, had exclaimed in triumph, ‘No war in history has accomplished so much in so short a time with so little loss.’[3]  The subsequent 47 years of insurrections, torture and war in the Philippines led to losses incalculable for Americans, Filipinos and Japanese.

           But on his other two points, Porter was right although not in the way he intended.

 ***

           The astonishingly easy, relatively costless, victories in the Spanish-American War have burnt into the national psyche a standard for all incursions – 115 years of experience to the contrary notwithstanding.

           Does Syria mark a turning point in America’s view of remedial military actions?

           Americans have never stomached long wars, as all such from the Revolution onwards reveal.  The well-founded fears of the Lincoln and Roosevelt administrations in the election seasons of 1864 and 1944, respectively, show how little taste the country has even for ‘good wars’.

           We’ve now been at war – against terror, Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, all intertwined with the War on Drugs – for twelve years.  This time – a Syrian adventure – may be different.

 ***

           This post started out to be my second on President Calvin Coolidge’s speech to the American Legion national convention in October 6, 1925.  (The first piece is here.)

           In it, Coolidge made comments on controlling the military that echo, peculiarly, the Obama administration’s Syria dilemma.  But, first, some background.

           In just six years, the Legion had become the country’s most important veterans organisation.  Like the Grand Army of the Republic (Aug. 22, 2011) before it, the Legion lobbied Congress on benefits for veterans.

           Indeed, they had given Coolidge a public hiding on one benefits issue and come within a single vote in the Senate of inflicting another.  The president was delivering a defiant message to the Legionnaires on their demands versus budget realities – of which, more another day.

          Coolidge’s comment began:

In dealing with our military problems there is one principle that is exceedingly important. Our institutions are founded not on military power but on civil authority. We are irrevocably committed to the theory of a government by the people. We have our constitutions and our laws, our executives, our legislatures, and our courts, but ultimately we are governed by public opinion.

           On Syria, America’s public opinion is not yet Britain’s.  Today’s Telegraph, a Conservative paper, headlines, ‘No attack on Syria, no matter what, say voters’ – a message PM David Cameron got from Parliament last week.[4]  But the trend follows the British.

           From this Progressive’s perspective, American public opinion has proven malleable by civilian leaders who want to put armed force to work: …Vietnam, Grenada(!), Lebanon, Iraq I, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq II….

          Has the post 9/11 high point of public enthusiasm for deploying armed force troughed in response to its disastrous results from Libya to Turkey?  The near silence from the politicians and think tanks that argued for a forward American policy hints that it has.

           Still, the false dawns of public opinion on Vietnam, for instance, point to the limits of its power against government policy makers.  On this, Coolidge had to fudge, because he’d been the policy maker opposing (wrongly, I think) public opinion.  And so follows a curious passage on militarism:

Our forefathers … believed … the military power should be subordinate to and governed by the civil authority. …[A]ny organization of men in the military service bent on inflaming the public mind for the purpose of forcing Government action through the pressure of public opinion is an exceedingly dangerous undertaking and precedent….  It is for the civil authority to determine what appropriations shall be granted, what appointments shall be made, and what rules shall be adopted for the conduct of its armed forces. Whenever the military power starts dictating to the civil authority, by whatsoever means adopted, the liberties of the country are beginning to end….

           Cursory research hasn’t suggested a concerted effort by the military on benefits of the sort the American Legion and the Grand Army of the Republic had mobilised.

           I think Coolidge used the militarism argument to assert the primacy of government policy makers over the public opinion represented by veterans – now civilians – and their dependents and supporters.  It is the ‘we know better’ argument with which my generation has become so familiar, so yearningly fond.

           Oddly, this passage is also inconsistent, as a still later post will describe, with his plea to the American Legion for a country based on tolerance and understanding of social, political and religious differences.

           That plea is as timely, as vital, today as it was in 1925.

 ***

           This misty early fall morning, my mind turns to a favorite verse from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘A Pilgrim’s Way’ (1918):

But when I meet with frantic folk who sinfully declare
There is no pardon for their sin, the same I will not spare
Till I have proved that Heaven and Hell which in our hearts we have
Show nothing irredeemable on either side the grave
For as we live and as we die – if utter Death there be
The people, lord, Thy people, are good enough for me.

          Nonetheless, ‘Remember the Maine’ and what it proves about the ‘Heaven and Hell … in our hearts’.

 

Notes

           1.  Alfred J. Beveridge, “The New American Empire,” Speech, Indianapolis, Indiana, September 16, 1898, as printed in Annals of America (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968), pp. 198-202.  Beveridge is a fascinating figure in the debate over American empire.

         2.  Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America [2003] (New York:  Hill & Wang, 2004), p. 7.

           3.  Kevin Phillips, William McKinley (New York:  Times Books, 2003), p. 86.

           4.   H/T: HuffPost’s always informative Mehdi’s Morning Memo for Sept. 8.

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