Politicization of war didn't start with Iraq

October 18, 2006|By Michael J. Korzi

A president and his supporters suggest that their political opponents' criticisms give strength and encouragement to the enemy. An opposition party is irate in the face of an administration that effectively taps patriotism for political victory.

Sound familiar? It may come as a surprise that I am not referring to the Bush administration and its political battles with Democrats over the Iraq war. Rather, I am speaking of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration and its sparring with opposition Republican leaders in the midst of World War II, with the 1944 elections on the horizon.

In a series of speeches in 1943 and 1944, FDR and his partisans effectively wielded the war for political gain. Mr. Roosevelt skewered those "Americans whose words and writings are trumpeted by our enemies to persuade [their people] that America is disunited - that America will be guilty of faithlessness in their war and will thus enable the Axis powers to control the earth." He even directly compared his Republican opponents to Hitler's propaganda minister, saying of Republican criticisms of his administration that "I doubt whether even Goebbels would have tried that one."

Perhaps most savvy, Mr. Roosevelt accepted his party's renomination in 1944 with these words: He would run as "a good soldier" in deference to the "commander in chief of us all - the sovereign people of the United States." President Roosevelt's supporters were even more heavy-handed. Vice President Henry A. Wallace said of critics of Mr. Roosevelt that the "only people who hate Mr. Roosevelt [are] Germans, Japs and certain American troglodytes." Democratic Sen. Samuel D. Jackson warned that a "change in administration in time of war, even when surrounded by promising circumstances, is frightening to contemplate."

Republicans were beside themselves throughout the election season. Republican Rep. Hamilton Fish III astutely recognized that Mr. Roosevelt possessed the "war ball," and that just as it "is impossible to score a touchdown in football without possession of the ball ... in the political field, it would be impossible to defeat President Roosevelt if he continues in possession of the `war ball.'"

Mr. Roosevelt's use of the "soldier" metaphor in accepting renomination would greatly irk Republicans, with GOP official Herbert Brownell Jr. saying, "Mr. Roosevelt is the first of thirty-two presidents of the United States to claim that the title of commander in chief makes him a soldier and to use that title as a pretext to perpetuate himself in political office."

So, why recall these political battles from the 1940s? It is not to suggest a moral equivalency between World War II and the Iraq war, nor is it to defend current Republican actions. Rather, the example suggests that exploiting war for political gain knows no political or partisan boundaries. Democrats have exploited war for their own gain in the past and likely will in the future (as will Republicans, of course).

Moreover, for those who think our politics have never been so partisan, the years 1943 and 1944 are instructive. Even in World War II, politics did not "stop at the water's edge," as the old slogan goes. Here, a beloved and deservedly respected American president is revealed as cunningly tapping patriotic sentiment to further his political career (as well as win the war). Indeed, in some ways, his rhetoric is even more extreme than what we might expect to hear today.

War has been and will continue to be a subject of sometimes incendiary political debate. It is probably impossible to delineate between speech that is solely about our progress or tactics in a war (speech we should encourage) and speech that is solely for political advantage. In fact, much discourse on war during election time is apt to contain both motivations.

Of course, we can disagree about the mixture - that is, whether a particular speech is predominantly disinterested or predominantly partisan - but we should neither expect nor desire war to be beyond the pale in political debate. History suggests that this kind of thinking is folly.

Michael J. Korzi is associate professor of political science at Towson University. His e-mail is mkorzi@towson.edu.

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