ONE REASON the coming war disturbs many Americans is that it seems optional. While the fight in Afghanistan was thrust upon us, this conflict is one our country enters by choice. It is a war we wouldn't be undertaking but for the conviction of our leaders--crucially, our president.
But in that, it is not unique in the American experience. If Afghanistan was like World War II in being a war of necessity, Iraq is like the Civil War in being a war of leadership and conviction.
It is easy to forget how optional the Civil War seemed to many at the time. Americans shrank from fratricide, and some Peace Democrats deemed it less terrible to see the country broken in two than to see it drenched in blood. When the Lincolns arrived in Washington in February 1861 for the inauguration and moved into the Willard Hotel, a freelance Peace Convention was going on there with delegations from a score of states. Its outcome was inconclusive. And, of course, war came.
Three years into the conflict, its toll was no longer hypothetical, and the peace camp had, if anything, an even stronger case. To all the carnage of the battlefield could be added civil strife. The draft riot in New York City in July 1863 is famous. Hundreds died in three days of arson, looting, and lynching. But there were draft riots in many other places, too, including the Ohio Valley, Boston, Newark, Albany, Troy; in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and New Hampshire; and in Milwaukee, where the governor called out the state militia to put down protests by immigrants from Belgium, Holland, and Germany who had come to America to escape such impositions of government.
Yet even then, knowing the price, Lincoln--and Jefferson Davis--held firm to the principles for which they were fighting, as they showed in their response to a pair of peace initiatives.
Shelby Foote's magisterial three-volume history of the Civil War recounts that in July 1864, Horace Greeley, antiwar editor of the New York Tribune, informed the president that Southern agents were in Canada ready to sue for peace. "I venture to remind you," Greeley wrote, "that our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country also longs for peace--shudders at the prospect of fresh conscription, of further wholesale devastation, and of new rivers of human blood."
Lincoln's reply was unequivocal: "If you can find any person anywhere professing to have any proposition of Jefferson Davis in writing, for peace, embracing the reconstruction of the Union and the abandonment of slavery, whatever else it endorses, say to him he may come to me with you." All was negotiable--save Union and emancipation.
Simultaneously, New York businessman J.R. Gilmore went to Richmond on an unofficial mission with Washington's knowledge to persuade the president of the Confederacy to stop the war; one proposal was a cease-fire followed by a referendum on Union. Gilmore appealed to Jefferson Davis's conscience: "Can you, Mr. Davis, as a Christian man, leave untried any means that may lead to peace?"
According to the transcript of the meeting made by Gilmore--and published with Lincoln's encouragement in the Atlantic Monthly--Davis responded, "We are fighting for Independence--and that, or extermination, we will have."
Because our leaders placed certain political principles higher than peace, we fought the Civil War. In retrospect, the survival of our democracy and the overthrow of slavery were worth the sacrifice.
Today, Americans who are following President Bush's lead in his determination to end the tyranny of Saddam Hussein are aware that we stand at a pivotal point in history. We should pray that someday our descendants may look back on this moment and see that firmness in the right helped number the days of Middle Eastern fascism, seedbed of costly misery and mischief.
Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.