Why Dad Voted Republican

by Berry Friesen (March 12, 2016)

“Fried rats, pickled cats, good enough for the Democrats!”

That school-yard taunt introduced me to the world of American politics.  It was 1956, I was in the third grade and unfamiliar names—Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson— inexplicably entered our school-day conversations.

I was bewildered. “Who do we support for President?”  I asked my father.

“General Eisenhower,” he replied.

“Why?”

“Because the Democrats get us into wars.”

Through my school years and into college, I tested my father’s words.  Sure enough, Democrat Woodrow Wilson had been elected in 1916 on a promise to keep America out of the European war, only to betray that promise soon after winning the vote. Republican Herbert Hoover had ended the Marine occupation of Nicaragua and Haiti and turned away the requests of corporations that wanted him to send the Marines into Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama and Peru. Republicans such as Robert A. Taft, Gerald Nye and Arthur Vandenberg had led the opposition to Democrat FDR’s long preparation for entry into World War 2.  Republican Dwight Eisenhower had ended the misguided and futile war in Korea that Democrat Harry Truman took our country into.

When at last I could vote for President, I adopted my father’s frame of reference and voted for a former bomber pilot named George McGovern.  He was the candidate most likely to end the war in Vietnam.

Yes, McGovern was a Democrat, the exception who proved the rule.  But in 1980, my father’s wisdom took me to John Anderson, a Republican whose biggest regret was his vote for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.  And in 1996, it took me to Bob Dole, even though there appeared to be little difference between Dole and Bill Clinton in regard to their support for U.S. interventionism.

My father would have been shocked by the roster of Republican candidates for 2016. Rand Paul may have attracted his attention (as he did mine), but Paul’s credibility as a non-interventionist evaporated when he joined the Israel-first lobby’s call for continued hostility toward Iran.  The other Republican candidates show much enthusiasm for U.S. intervention in other countries’ affairs, the very trait my father scorned in the Democrats of his lifetime.

Today’s Democrats, meanwhile, are like the proverbial leopard that can’t change its spots. Bernie Sanders doesn’t trumpet his party’s warring tradition like Hillary Rodham Clinton does, but he doesn't criticize it either.  Neither Sanders nor Clinton will reverse the Bush-Obama trajectory of endless war.  So if Green Party candidate Jill Stein in on the ticket, I expect to vote for her, as I did in 2012.

I’m well aware most opinion leaders hold the view that a stance of non-interventionism is ignorant and uncomprehending of modern global realities.  That view was already strong in the 1950s; it came along with the U.S. ascension to imperial power at the end of World War 2.  Today, the necessity of an interventionist foreign policy is dogma: America has no choice but to intervene and "do something."

We see this sense of privilege routinely displayed by the columnists of the leading establishment newspapers. They write regretfully about the intractable ethnic and sectarian division of troubled societies, the corruption and cruelty of their leaders, the extremism of their disaffected, the irrationality of their violence.   As any dolt is supposed to understand, U.S. interventionism (i.e., endless war) is an inescapable responsibility, a moral duty, an honorable response to the tragedy of life.  The world is dreadfully difficult to manage, but for grown-ups, what other choice is there?

Thankfully, my father resisted this virus of imperial condescension. He knew the “necessity” of war is the desire for wealth and power.  He also knew war entails the breaking of all the rules, whether having to do with the Bible, the Constitution or simple human decency.  

His wisdom, so widely shared among the American people in the '20s and the '30s, can be simply summarized.  Military intervention in the affairs of other nations almost always makes matters worse. A few will find great profit in such interventions, and those few will dominate national electoral politics.  But their ambitions will only be legitimized by our support, and because we aren’t fools, we won’t give it to them.

(A version of this essay first appeared in LNP, the daily newspaper in Lancaster PA)