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War May Raise Serious Issues at Home

by Sherman Dorn on Sep 19, 2001

If we truly are in a war against violent religious fanatics now, we should expect domestic debates about how to achieve moral consistency in the fight and where to use federal government powers.

A common myth about wartime is that everyone bands together in a common cause. Yet in the past, U.S. wars have often opened debates around recurring issues, from questioning the loyalty of immigrants to criticizing war profiteers. Popular support for a war has been just one facet of domestic debate.

Two themes in particular from past wars seem likely to recur if the government’s efforts against terrorism are protracted and bloody: moral consistency and the scope of federal powers. The core American ideals invoked as a cause for retaliation will also bring us heated debate.

In World War II, the fight against the Nazis raised questions about racial tensions and Southern segregation. How can we fight for democracy, it was asked, when we treat so many Americans as second-class citizens? The achievements of wartime civil rights activists planted the seeds of the modern civil-rights movement.

In 1941, for example, labor leader A. Philip Randolph organized a march on Washington to protest racial discrimination by defense contractors. The threatened march pushed President Franklin D. Roosevelt into signing the first executive order forbidding job discrimination in defense firms. Randolph called off the march after Roosevelt acted.

During the war, Mexican-American veterans formed the GI Forum to push for Latino civil rights. At the end of the war, the League of United Latin American Citizens supported the first successful lawsuit against elementary and secondary segregation, almost a decade before Brown v. Board of Education.

These wartime efforts, together, were informal precedents for both legal cases and direct action to come. Within a decade of war’s end, the Supreme Court had struck down segregation laws. Another two years and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had emerged as a civil rights leader through the Montgomery bus boycott.

Today, we will be fighting against violent fanatics while religious militants are in our midst. The Bush administration has benefited politically from its ties to members of the religious right. Last week, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson suggested that civil-rights organizations and abortion-rights activists are somehow to blame for the murderous attacks of Sept. 11. The president quickly distanced himself from those claims, and one must wonder: Will the president consistently confront religious extremists at home lest they make the country appear hypocritical?

Besides moral consistency, we are likely to debate the proper role of the federal government. This issue, too, has many precedents. The Civil War, to use just one example, turned Washington from a sleepy town with few ties to most Americans into the seat of a much more powerful central government.

The most obvious examples of growing federal powers in the 1860s were military: Lincoln called for states to send troops; when the Army needed more, Congress passed a draft law. He suspended habeas corpus (the right of prisoners to seek release from the courts). These measures were highly controversial. The 1863 draft law provoked riots in New York City, among other places, and critics in the North sometimes called Lincoln a tyrant for his assertion of federal and presidential powers.

Congress expanded the role of the federal government in other areas during and after the Civil War. It gave land to states for higher education. It gave pensions to war widows and constructed homes for veterans. It passed the first federal civil rights law in 1866, so bitterly opposed that it remained unenforced and empty until the modern civil rights movement.

Today, Congress and the White House are confronting possibilities that would have been anathema to the president just a month ago. The federal government may bail out the commercial airline industry and may control airport screening facilities, replacing the private companies that failed so catastrophically at three airports.

Debate over federal power will extend beyond balancing security against civil liberties. Giving states more freedom to make policy (a Republican priority) may conflict with efforts to create a network for security-related communications. Privatization and free-market policies, championed by candidate Bush, may no longer seem so sensible to a President Bush leading a new and complex struggle.

War may not be the right term for our current situation. But the summons to arms and public sacrifice will surely produce public debates that challenge us to be consistent with the goals of this effort and that will redefine, once again, the purpose of our federal government.


Sherman Dorn teaches history at the University of South Florida and is a writer for the History News Service.