This article appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet

On September 14, 2001, the U.S. Congress voted almost unanimously to hand President George W. Bush its constitutional power to declare war. Not a single senator and only one representative opposed a resolution that mentioned no enemy country and left it up to the president to fight anyone he decided had anything to do with the terror attacks of the 11th. He decided on Afghans.

The lone nay-sayer was Barbara Lee, the representative of California’s 9th Congressional District (including Berkeley and Oakland). She reminded colleagues on 9/14 that in 1964 Congress had allowed President Lyndon Johnson “to take all necessary measures” to repel any attack on U.S. forces. (The so-called Tonkin Gulf Resolution followed what later proved to be an imaginary attack by North Vietnamese boats on U.S. naval ships.) “In so doing,” she said, “this House abandoned its own constitutional responsibilities and launched our country into years of undeclared war in Vietnam.”

In 1964 Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, backed only by Senator Ernest Gruening of Alaska in opposing a blank check for presidential warmaking, said that “history will record that we have made a grave mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution….” Barbara Lee commented, “Senator Morse was correct, and I fear we make the same mistake today.”

Convinced that military action would not prevent further terrorism, she cautioned that it could spiral out of control to rush to judgment and respond to an unconventional attack in a conventional way. “If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that women, children, and other noncombatants will be caught in the crossfire.” In a further display of prescience, Representative Lee warned that it would repeat past mistakes “to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.” 

When she walked off the House floor that day, colleagues urged her to change her vote. Hostile mail arrived and threats against her life made security measures necessary.

A talk on war and peace

The action begun by Bush on Oct. 7, 2001, in Afghanistan and now expanded to Pakistan — though none of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers was either Afghan or Pakistani — bids to become the longest war in American history. (On October 18 it will exceed the length of the overt U.S. war in Indochina, counting from Johnson’s first bombing of Vietnam to Nixon’s last bombing of Cambodia.) 

Barbara Lee is no longer alone among members of Congress in opposition to the war. Last March a concurrent resolution by Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio to withdraw forces from Afghanistan drew 65 House votes (including five Republicans). Representative Lee’s stand has become a cause for honor more than hostility. She is in demand as a speaker and has acceded to the request of several local peace groups that she expound her views.

So at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 26, at Fellowship Hall, 1924 Cedar Street at Bonita Avenue in Berkeley, Barbara Lee will reflect on war and peace, the war power, and the congressional actions she has taken accordingly. Questions and answers will follow her main talk. Admission will be free. The hall is the meeting place of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists (BFUU).

In recognition of her work for peace, she will get an award from the East Bay branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The group is a joint sponsor of the event, along with BFUU, the Ecumenical Peace Institute, Grandmothers Against the War, Gray Panthers, and the War and Law League (which will hold its biennial meeting at the hall following the question period).

3 controversial women

As we review Congresswoman Lee’s record, it is a good time to celebrate the careers of two forerunners, women who figured prominently in war-and-peace controversies of the past:

September 6 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth in Illinois of Jane Addams, who lectured on peace, opposed U.S. entry into World War I, and was consequently attacked by the press. She helped found and then headed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, fed civilians in enemy nations, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Last June 11 was the 130th anniversary of the birth of Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan and Germany in 1941. She had voted against war on Germany in 1917 also, along with 50 representatives and six senators. She was the first woman in Congress, even before women won the right to vote in 1920.

Both women were pacifists. Barbara Lee, daughter of a veteran of two wars, says she is not a pacifist. But she has been a vocal opponent of the current Iraq war and was one of 133 representatives voting against the resolution of 2002 letting Bush Junior decide whether to start the war — which he had already decided. Twenty-three senators also opposed the measure.

Moreover, the East Bay representative has sponsored measures to deny funds for permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, to disavow the doctrine of preemptive war, and to bar any presidential pact with Iraq or other nation independent of Congress.

As for Afghanistan: Last year she introduced a bill to bar funding for additional troops. This year she voted for withdrawal of forces and against supplemental appropriations. Most recently, on July 30, Congresswoman Lee introduced H.R. 6045, legislation to begin to end the war by limiting funds for armed forces’ operations in Afghanistan to “the safe and orderly withdrawal” of all troops and military contractors that are there. 

And she does not believe in giving a president a blank check to wage war.

Paul W. Lovinger is secretary of the War and Law League, an author, and a journalist.