Vital Signs

The Dissenting Eagle

Few decisions require more prudence and judiciousness than when a country’s leaders determine whether to go to war.  They must weigh the cost in lives, national treasure, and security against the price of inaction.  Morality may enter their calculations through the application of just-war theory.  They will listen to, if not necessarily heed, diverse voices from the media, religious factions and ethnic constituencies, and assorted interest groups.

These interest groups often accuse one another of untoward behavior: Lack of patriotism is frequently the charge against those who resist America’s entry into war, while popular epithets for those who favor intervention have included “merchants of death,” “masters of war,” and “blood-thirsty warmongers.”  While these debates normally begin with a reasonable amount of mutual respect and fair argumentation between the parties, history shows that, eventually, ad hominem attacks, demagoguery, and extralegal measures become the preferred weapons.  The period leading up to our entry into World War II is a typical example of this pattern.  Unfortunately, historians have recorded this period’s exchange of ideas using much of the same vituperative language and demagogic indictments as did the participants.

By late 1940, proponents of American entry into World War II were denouncing their anti-intervention...

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