No one questioned Douglas Peterson’s patriotism a war ago, when he resided in the successive squalor of two North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps. But the Democratic congressman’s anguished decision earlier this month to oppose the use of American military force against Iraq undammed a flood of telephone calls from his anxious Florida constituents.
And some of them pointedly rebuked Peterson for what they defined as a lack of patriotic will.
“There is a mind-set that if you’re not for war . . . then you’re not a patriot,” said Peterson, a former Air Force pilot. “If I haven’t proven my patriotism by now, I’m not going to try.”
Colliding again, as they did during the long and wrenching political debate over the Vietnam War, are the rush to patriotism and the right to dissent. At the vortex are politicians who chose up sides this month in one of the most heart-rending debates in recent history, men and women whose electoral futures may ride on the conduct of the Gulf War.
With the war riding a wave of popularity, the politicians who opposed initial military involvement are taking pains to define their dissent as patriotic. In private talks with constituents and lengthy addresses on the floor of Congress, they are emphasizing the soul-searching behind their decisions and their support of American troops--an effort that they say opponents of the Vietnam War neglected to make.
Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles delivered an impassioned rebuke of the Gulf War at a Westwood rally last weekend, and three days later rose on the floor of the House to advocate increased benefits for military veterans. Throughout the week, she scrambled to help organize a support center serving the families of soldiers on the new war’s front lines.
“It makes clear my patriotism,” Waters explained.
Proponents of the war are equally uneasy about the political implications of the conflict, mindful that public opinion could quickly whipsaw against them.
While the political debate over going to war has been less partisan than many expected, it has already begun to shape the 1992 elections.
On Jan. 18, less than two days after American bombs began raining on Baghdad, key Republican donors were sent a letter from the party’s senatorial campaign committee. It asked that they join the author, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, in supporting the President and American troops against “appeasement-before-country liberals.” A $1,000 donation was suggested.
Days later, the incoming chairman of the Republican National Committee, Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter, ignited a blaze of criticism when he said that those who opposed the use of force--largely Democrats--"picked the wrong side” and would be held accountable.
Democrats angrily denounced Yeutter’s words as divisive. But if war drags on and its popularity plummets, Democrats can be expected to wield it politically.
Some legislators have already been served warning. Democrat Mel Levine, the veteran Santa Monica congressman who is expected to run for the Senate in 1992, found himself the target of protests this month after he broke with his party leadership and came out in support of the use of military force.
“The political upshot of this, nobody knows,” said moderate Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, who joined the Bush Administration and GOP leaders in support of the successful military force resolution.
“Today, obviously . . . the President’s personal popularity is more impressive. If it is perceived not to work out as well a year from now, all (Republican) leaders will have to carry the baggage of their decisions.”
The national debate over war is so sensitive that all but a few legislators have put aside their ideology to rally behind President Bush. Uniformly, they describe their vote against the initial use of force as a matter of conscience, not political plotting, and say that they have been praised by constituents.
Because politics defines their future, they remain concerned about how Americans will define patriotism and dissent. Several noted with alarm what they see as a growing reluctance by the pro-war majority to tolerate anti-war protests.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa was the lone Republican to side with Senate Democrats in seeking a continuation of sanctions against the Iraqis rather than use of force. His vote came a day before a Des Moines Register poll showed Iowans supporting military action in the gulf 51% to 41%, and he expects to be punished by some voters.
“Dissent and patriotism are American,” Grassley said, “but I’m not sure that all people understand that at this point.”
His concerns notwithstanding, many who lived through the divisive Vietnam debate see a heightened maturity this time around, as though legislators and Americans alike are more willing to listen to opposing viewpoints. It is directly a result, they say, of the scars Vietnam left on the nation’s psyche.
“Going into the Vietnam experience, we were not used to being divided on major foreign policy issues,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic political consultant. “We don’t start from ground zero now in terms of dissenting. We start from where our collective experience left off in 1973.”
Others see additional differences in the political debate during Vietnam and now. Harvard University social scientist David Riesman describes the current debate as less complicated than that of a generation ago. Part of the great upheaval during Vietnam occurred because political discourse was caught in a wider, societal dispute.
“There was an enormous backlash against dissent and counterculture and in this case, there’s no counterculture involved,” he said. “There’s no bra-burning and little flag-burning.”
Riesman and others also suggest that in Saddam Hussein, Americans have a more repelling enemy than they did a generation ago, when some protesters found themselves attracted to the social objectives of the communists that America was fighting.
“There’s no one cheering for the Ho Chi Minh of Iraq,” Riesman said.
The heartfelt nature of the congressional debate over the use of force may also serve to mute criticism, politicians on both sides of the issue predict. The debate split Republicans, Democrats, even former war protesters, creating unusual alliances. In its wake, there already are indications that elected officials are going to extraordinary lengths to accommodate dissent.
Firebrand Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) wasted no time castigating street protesters, whom he called “malcontents, pacifists, street people who have got nothing else to do and high school and college students stirred up by their Marxist teachers.”
Before the congressional vote on war, he stood on the House floor and applauded Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), among others, who directly disagreed with Dornan on the vote. Dornan said he drew the distinction between those with well-reasoned opposition to war and those whom he considers to be criticizing America. He vowed to pressure his fellow Republicans not to use the issue politically.
“It would be a distasteful and a rotten thing to use it . . . against anybody who takes a thoughtful stance against war,” he said. “And it would backfire.”
But politics in America, dependent on enticing television sound bites and simplistic bumper-sticker slogans, frequently is more distasteful than thoughtful. With that in mind, many politicians on both sides of the war debate have tried to broaden beyond mere slogans the understanding of their positions.
“Most people either reduce this to for or against the President, for or against the troops, and that is just wrong,” said Rep. Peterson. The former POW said he opposed the congressional use of force resolution because he vowed after Vietnam that the country should never go into a war before Americans have thoroughly debated--and come to support--the military effort. That public debate, he believes, is ongoing.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) has gone further than most to try to explain her position to her Toledo constituency. Several times since the congressional debate began, she has reserved one-hour chunks of speaking time on the House floor. Her speeches have been beamed into the nation’s living rooms via C-SPAN and public television--and she said she has received an extraordinarily touching response.
“I couldn’t do it in a sound bite,” she said. “I am still trying to answer the ‘Why?’ question. People are not satisfied. They are in a thoughtful mood.”
Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, a Democrat who opposed the use of force initially, believes that the long debate has given Americans a chance to see the grief behind each member’s decision--and perhaps set the stage for a willingness to respect differing views.
“That debate was at a high enough level and thoughtful enough that people listened to it and weighed the factors we had to consider at that time,” he said. “People were thoughtful, anguished, wanted to do the right thing. And none of us had the benefit of knowing what the future might bring.”
Politicians from both sides offer few predictions how the course of the debate might develop.
Waters said she plans to continue to speak out against Bush and the Administration’s handling of the war effort, while simultaneously supporting the troops.
“People are comfortable in my opposition to President Bush as long as there is unstinting support of families and soldiers,” she said. She predicts that she will have more company if the war proves lengthy.
“We have a lot of people who are opposed to this war, who are elected officials, who are members of Congress, who don’t want to run afoul of the public. They don’t know exactly what to do; they are in a wait-and-see posture,” she said. “As the dissent grows, many will feel more comfortable.”
Waters’ peers suggest that she will have far more latitude than most representatives because she is immensely popular in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.
Others, in less comfortable political positions, say that they have no idea how the war will cut politically. Nor do some of them worry.
“I really don’t know and I really don’t care,” Peterson said.
“I really didn’t do this . . . on the basis of whether it would get me reelected. I never considered it. I figured if I was going to make this a political decision, based on whether I would be reelected, I should pack my bags and go home.”
Many politicians and observers believe that if the war proves to be a relatively short exercise--though no one can yet define that--it might give Republicans more fodder for their traditional bashing of Democrats as being weak on foreign policy and national security.
Yeutter’s comments--and the letter sent to GOP fund-raisers by the senatorial committee--are seen as early signals of that intent. But party members already are queasy about whether the move will alienate more voters than it attracts.
Wendy Burnley, speaking for the senatorial committee that sent the letter, denied that it “in any way” sought to make the war a partisan issue. At the White House, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, “We don’t believe the war should be partisan.”
As the nation nervously awaits the outcome of war, it also remains to be seen whether members will have the stomach to toughly press the war issue.
Grassley could find himself in an advantageous political position in 1992, if the war drags on into his reelection year. Not only will he have voted against the war, but he will have done so in a state where the peace movement usually sides with the Democratic candidate.
Grassley had little optimism as he contemplated the stakes.
“If things go bad, it means thousands of Americans died,” he said. “Who wants to be on the right side then?”