Politics & Policy

Today’s Defeatists

The 21st-century cut-and-run.

Observers of today’s fierce partisan conflict between those demanding immediate or rapid abandonment of the war in Iraq at any, or almost any, price, and others who refuse to give up the fight, might think this a rare event in American history, but it is not unprecedented. In the two World Wars of the 20th century, to be sure, the country was essentially united and fought on to victory without much dissension. In the Korean War, however, there was considerable division, and a new administration that itself had not begun the war accepted a draw — a draw that has demanded a commitment of troops ever since and presents a serious threat to this day. In the Vietnam War, deep and violent dissension at home was, perhaps, the major element in compelling the United States to accept a humiliating defeat. In neither war were the American military forces defeated and driven from the field. It was the political victory of enemies of the administration and the war it has undertaken that brought defeat.

Defining the Defeatist

The results of the recent change in leadership and strategy in Iraq have made it plain that the war there is not lost nor is defeat inevitable. And yet, the war’s opponents, even as the situation improves, have rushed to declare America defeated. They offer no plausible alternative to the current strategy and take no serious notice of the dreadful consequences of swift withdrawal. They seem to be panicked by the possibility of success and eager to bring about withdrawal and defeat before events make it too late.

In their embarrassment they, not their critics, have raised the question of their patriotism. However that question may be resolved, such people surely deserve to be called defeatists. My dictionary defines “defeatism” as “the attitude, policy or conduct of a person who admits, expects, or no longer resists defeat.” The term appears to have been invented during the First World War in France during a dark moment when victory seemed remote or impossible. It was also applied to some in Britain in 1940 who thought that Hitler’s forces were irresistible and argued for a negotiated peace with the Nazis. In light of the positive results of recent American efforts in Iraq, it seems an appropriate description of those who have already declared the war lost and their cooperators, even as it is clear that the military tide has turned.

Since the attacks of 2001 American and allied forces have driven out the Taliban regime that provided a haven for al Qaeda in Afghanistan. They have dethroned the murderous dictator Saddam Hussein from Iraq, from which he had launched wars against his neighbors, terrorized and brutalized his own people and threatened the security of the entire region. These were valuable and important steps, but they have not brought an end to the struggle. Both wars continue, and ultimate success still seems distant and difficult. The costs and length of the struggle, have made the war and the government conducting it unpopular. Opponents of the war in Iraq, as we have seen, have declared America already defeated and demand an immediate or early withdrawal of our forces, regardless of the horrendous consequences of such an irresponsible action.

In this they have been typical of citizens of democracies engaged in long painful wars that do not promise swift victory. For example, on the eve of the Peloponnesian War Pericles told the Athenians that “men are not moved by the same feeling when they are already at war as when they make the decision to fight but change their minds in the face of misfortunes,” and so it turned out. The Athenians were suffering and the strategy for victory was not working, so defeatists and those who had opposed the war from the first demanded peace at once. As Thucydides tells us, “they began to find fault with Pericles, as the author of the war and the cause of all their misfortunes, and became eager to come to terms with Sparta, and actually sent ambassadors there, who did not however succeed in their mission. Their despair was now complete and all vented itself upon Pericles.”

Thucydides, in response, called for patriotism in time of trouble: “Since a republic can support the misfortunes of private citizens, while they cannot support hers, it is surely the duty of everyone to be forward in her defense…. the apparent error of my policy lies in the infirmity of your resolution, since… your mind is too much depressed to persevere in your resolves…. Cease then to grieve for your private afflictions, and address yourselves instead to the safety of the republic.” Ultimately, the Athenians continued the fight, recovering from what seemed certain defeat until the enemy offered a peace they could accept.

American Precedent

So it was, too, in the midst of America’s Civil War. As late as 1864, after three years of fearful casualties, victory for the Union forces was not in sight. Lincoln was determined to continue the fight to restore the integrity of the Union and to abolish slavery. Original opponents of the war were joined by great numbers who were simply weary, and others who were ready to seek peace at any price, which was for some the persistence of slavery and for others the dissolution of the Union. One English friend of the Union cause expected such politicians to compromise with the South in order to take it back, slavery and all. Such an event would be shameful, he said, but still “it would leave the question to be settled by a similar process of blood by another generation.” (Civil War quotations are from Copperheads, by Jennifer L. Weber.)

In 1864 Lincoln changed generals, and undertook a more aggressive strategy, but the war continued to drag on. A hostile newspaper, wrote, “that perhaps it is time to agree to a peace without victory.” Like Pericles, Lincoln was assailed by attacks on his policies and by personal vituperation. At the Democratic convention in August 1864 a speaker told a crowd in the streets that Lincoln and the Union armies had ‘‘Failed! Failed!! FAILED!!! FAILED!!!!” The loss of life ‘has never been seen since the destruction of Sennacherib by the breath of the Almighty and still the monster usurper wants more men for his slaughter pens.”

The Democratic convention was dominated by the anti-war faction whom the Republicans called “Copperheads,” after the poisonous snake. According to their best historian, they were “consistent and constant in their demand for an immediate peace settlement. At times they were willing to trade victory for peace. One persistent problem for [them] was their refusal or reluctance to offer a realistic and comprehensive plan for peace.” Pressed by the Copperheads, the Democrats nominated a rabidly antiwar candidate for vice president and adopted a platform that called the war a “failure,” and demanded “immediate efforts” to end hostilities….” Their platform statement would permit abandonment not only of emancipation, but of the most basic war aim, reunion. Even New York’s Republican Party boss declared that Lincoln’s reelection was widely regarded as an “impossibility…The People [were] wild for Peace.” At the end of August defeat for the Republicans and the Union cause seemed inevitable, but Lincoln refused to seek peace without victory, saying that he was not prepared, to “give up the Union for a peace which, so achieved, could not be of much duration.”

No one would have predicted that within a matter of months the war would end with a total victory for the Union forces, slavery abolished and the Union restored, but events took an unexpected turn. A series of Union military victories changed the course of the war. The Democrats, having declared or predicted defeat were, as one historian has written: “Tarred as traitors, regardless of their actual positions on the war, Democrats were … roundly thrashed in November. In fact, the stench of treason clung to the Democrats for years; nearly a generation would pass before another Democrat, Grover Cleveland, occupied the White House.”

Such an outcome would have seemed inconceivable in the summer of 1864. Before the change in military fortunes Lincoln was under siege, especially from northern Democrats, who had opposed the war from the beginning or turned against it when it did not bring swift and easy victory. By 1864 they had a powerful investment in defeat, for a Union victory would bring them political disaster, and their rhetoric reflected their anxiety. One New York Copperhead wrote, “There is death at the heart of this glory& greatness. This war is murder and nothing else. And every man who gives a dollar or moves his finger to aid is an aider & abettor of murder.” Northern military setbacks and casualties emboldened the Copperheads, the defeatists of that day. The Boston Pilot, a Copperhead paper, wrote, “It begins to look to many folks in the North that the Confederacy perhaps can never really be beaten, that the attempts to win might after all be too heavy a load to carry, and that perhaps it is time to agree to a peace without victory.”

Even some of the president’s supporters were ready to abandon him and his policies. Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times and chairman of the Republican party, wrote that throughout the country people were convinced “that we need a change, that the war languishes under Mr. Lincoln and that he cannot or will not give us peace…. The country is tired & sick of the war & is longing for peace.” Copperheads directed the most violent personal attacks on the man who stood in their way. “God’s curse is upon the land,” wrote a Pennsylvania publisher on the day Lincoln had designated for prayer. “Does it become us to acknowledge the truth, and pray for forgiveness of God for any and every part we may have taken in upholding the sins and abominations of this wicked administration to put on sack-cloth and retrace our steps[?]. . . Oh, God, give us Peace! . . . Stop this bloody hell-devised carnage.” Another Copperhead took to calling Lincoln the “widow maker” or the “orphan maker.” He said any man who voted for Lincoln was “a traitor and a murderer.” If Lincoln was reelected, “we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good.”

In the minds of the Copperheads, the abolitionists held the place now occupied in the minds of today’s defeatists by the neoconservatives. What prevented peace, the Copperheads insisted was the influence of that small but unduly powerful corps of ideologues known as the abolitionists. It was, they further insisted, “fanatical abolitionism” that started the war. Lincoln, they thought, had become its captive and deceived the people into an unnecessary and unwise war. Now he refused to abandon that war, ostensibly fought to preserve the Union, but really the result of an abolitionist plot to end slavery. In the summer of 1864 the defeatists gained control of the Democratic convention and adopted a platform that charged the Republican administration with violating the Constitution, claiming that it had been “disregarded in every part, and public liberty and private right alike trodden down [and] the material prosperity of the country essentially impaired.” “It accused them of using “extraordinary and dangerous powers” “not found in the Constitution. They called the war a “failure,” and for “immediate efforts” “to end hostilities.”

The administration’s political troubles did not escape the enemies of the Union. Many Confederates looked forward to a Democratic victory in November, expecting that it would bring them what they wanted. A clerk in the Confederate War Department wrote: “everything depends upon the result of the Presidential election in the United States. We rely some little on the success of the peace party.” When the Democrats disbanded on the last day of August there was good reason to believe that the Copperheads had won the day, that the administration of Lincoln would be out of office and that the victorious Democrats would agree to a peace that might leave the enemies of the Union in control of an independent, slave-holding Confederacy.

In November, however, Lincoln crushed his opponent, winning the Electoral College by a count of 212 to 21 and losing only three states. Who could believe that only two months earlier nearly everyone, including Lincoln himself, was sure he would lose? The change in strategy and in the leadership of the army had snatched victory from what had seemed certain defeat, and military success brought a political revolution.

Paying the Political Price

Perhaps it is fear of a similar outcome that explains recent comments by antiwar Democrats. Rep. James Clyburn, said that a positive report on developments in Iraq from Petraeus might divide the Democrats in Congress, who would “want to stay the course, and if the Republicans were to stay united as they have been, then it would be a problem for us,” and Rep. Nancy Boyda, shaken by the optimistic testimony of Gen. Jack Keane, just returned from a visit to Iraq, said: “And I just will make some statements more for the record based on what I heard from — mainly from General Keane. As many of us — there was only so much that you could take until we in fact had to leave the room for a while. So I think I am back and maybe can articulate some things — after so much of the frustration of having to listen to what we listened to.”

Lincoln remains an American icon and hero for many reasons, not the least of which is his steadfastness and determination in the face of difficulty. Threatened with political defeat and personal humiliation, he would not abandon the integrity and security of his country nor would he abandon its most treasured principle, freedom, to escape his troubles.

The high price paid by the Democrats after the Civil War, on the other hand, is not surprising, since they failed to end the war they opposed, and their predictions of defeat were overwhelmed and discredited by military victory. But the war in Vietnam shows that even when it is successful, defeatism may have its dangers. The armed forces of the United States did not lose the war in Vietnam. The homefront gave way just when a new strategy and new leadership was turning the tide of battle in favor of the U.S. Defeatists and the media depicted military victories as defeats. Defeatists, inside and outside the government, had prevented the employment of all necessary means for victory, as the Copperheads of the 1860s could not. Finally, they were able to cause so much disruption and disaffection at home as to force a disgraceful and dishonorable defeat that failed to achieve the primary goal of the war — self-determination and freedom from brutal Communist rule for the South Vietnamese — and left America’s friends and allies to be butchered and enslaved.

Although Americans were tired of and disgusted with the war and eager to end it, they were not pleased by its outcome and its consequences. Their distrust of the Democratic Party, seen as the home of the defeatists who were unwilling to defend American interests, was a major factor in the victories of seven out of ten Republican presidents in the elections beginning in 1968. Even the two Democrats who won in that period, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were perceived as distinct from the defeatists, and one of them ran to the right of his Republican opponent on defense and foreign affairs.

Victory in the war Americans confront today is not certain. If it comes it will arrive only after long and hard effort, but it is well to remember that the United States has lost war only when it has chosen to fight no longer. There are defeatists aplenty among us today, and they too, shout that the war has been lost, that the government that conducts it is stupid and incompetent, that the war is not necessary and that our leaders lied to us in bringing it on, that nothing terrible will ensue if we abandon the fighting. They, too, bewail the casualties incurred in the war and proclaim their support for the troops even as they delay voting a budget to sustain the military. Such stratagems may work so long as a war goes badly. But what if the current president has found his Grant and a better strategy?

Like the Copperheads of the Civil War, today’s defeatists have a huge investment in defeat and live in dread of success in the field, which could turn into disaster at the polls. In this, they would do well to understand that they are at odds with most of the American people, who are tired of the war and deplore the casualties and expense that goes with it. They want peace, but not one that is an illusion and will not last. Nor do they want a peace at any price that will bring fearful consequences and disgrace. If the defeatists have their way that is the kind of peace we will get; the American people will know whom to blame and will not quickly forget.

– Donald Kagan is the Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University.


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