A Call for Humanists to Again Address the Question of War: Part 1

By Paul Heffron

Humanist voices are currently addressing many major issues. I propose we add one more. Let’s once again turn our attention to war. I suggest discussing the following questions: For what purposes should we go to war? Should we continue our American empire and the military power to wage wars?  Should we continue to increase our military budget so we can enlarge and modernize our military establishment to deter Russia and China and be capable of engaging in a war with either of them? In short, is war still an acceptable means to protect or advance our interests?

First, a little about where I am coming from on this. In the last section of my PhD 1, I covered the writings of the prominent American historian and defense intellectual Walter Millis. Like virtually all of his peers, Millis had regarded war as the pursuit of policy by other means, as Clausewitz defined it. He could be very critical of some of the wars the United States resorted to in order to achieve its policy goals.

During the Cold War and the Vietnam War, Millis questioned whether war could any longer be used rationally to attain policy objectives. In his 1961 essay, “The Uselessness of Military Power,”2 he argued the answer was no. In the past, countries engaged in war until one prevailed and the parties went to the negotiating table and reached a settlement. Total war with the extreme power of modern weapons, especially nuclear, made that system obsolete.

Millis’ position was generally ignored. More influential was the view of Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr . — perhaps the most prominent defense intellectual in Millis’ time. He maintained that the U.S. should have gone to war against North Vietnam, but not the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam. That would have been more likely to end in an agreement achieving our policy goal of containing communism, he said. In view of the failure of that engagement, he maintained that we should deter war, but when undertaken as a last resort, it should be fought with a clear aim and a strategy that can be executed and terminated in a reasonable time. The purpose of war for him was a better peace.

After earning my PhD at the University of Minnesota in American Studies, I didn’t succeed in entering a teaching career nor keep up with, or contribute to, the literature on the debate over the use of war. But I regarded the outcome of subsequent wars, especially the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as confirmation of Millis’ provocative argument on the uselessness of war. As with fighting insurgencies, conventional wars did not help us achieve our policy goals, in these cases to fight terrorism.

Millis’ view should be considered and debated on the basis of the humanist values of reason, evidence, and a sense of humanity.

Another influence on my thinking about war was an essay by Senator J. W. Fulbright of Arkansas in 1967, “The Price of Empire.”3 Fulbright regarded the Vietnam War as the price we were paying for our pursuit of empire. He opposed the war and the type of imperial power the U.S. had pursued along with the huge military budget it required. I realized that war had to be seen in conjunction with the policy of global ambition. The essay’s final words were, “the price of empire is America’s soul and that price is too high.”

In Part Two of this essay, which will be published next month, I will report on how humanist leaders and authors addressed questions related to war in The Humanist and Free Inquiry magazines from the 1980s to the present. In Part Three, I will review the book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War by Samuel Moyn.

Paul Heffron is a founding member of HumanistsMN.

1. Paul Heffron, “The Antimilitarist Tradition of the Founding Fathers and Its Continuation in the Writings of Carl Schurz, Charles A. Beard, and Walter Millis,” University of Minnesota, March 1977, pp. 119-144.

2. In Robert A. Goldwin, ed., America Armed (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1961) pp.22-42.

3. In War: An Anthology, edited by Edward and Elizabeth Huberman, Washington Square Press, 1969, pp. 80-91.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.