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The War Within: Dissent During Crisis in America

Freedom of speech, embodied in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is a cornerstone of our existence as a free society, and to many Americans, it is the most valued of our freedoms. The right to express opinions publicly and openly on all sides of an issue is central to our way of life. Yet despite the continuing strength of our democratic government, the right to free speech and other civil liberties have repeatedly been put to the test in times of war and other crises.

During such times the line between dissent and disloyalty is not always clear, and those who raise their voices against the government or majority opinion can find themselves under serious threat. The War Within: Dissent during Crisis in America presents a sampling of such voices, focusing on four wartime contexts in the 20th century when dissenters were criticized or punished, or when free speech and the civil liberties of American citizens were significantly affected:

In each of these circumstances, our government faced significant pressures to act forcefully in the belief that its actions were in the best interests of national security and public safety. In response, some Americans braved both the scorn of public opinion and potential curbs on their own freedom to speak in opposition.

The history of significant organized opposition to war in America dates from the early 19th century. Before then, pacifism and war protest were almost exclusively based in traditional religious groups such as the Mennonites, Brethren and the Quakers, but after 1814 various pacifist and internationalist movements expanded beyond this. Based on the beliefs of early pacifist organizations in England, new groups formed in Europe and the United States. During the two World Wars, peace movements formed in America, with varying degrees of success.

The Vietnam War divided public opinion in this country like no other conflict since the Civil War, and organized dissent played a central role in ending the war. This was the most effective war protest in U.S. history. Subsequent wars, including the current Iraq War, have also met with opposition and cries for peace.

The exhibit opens with works created by eight artists in response to war and its consequences. Often working outside the normal framework of society, their perspectives can inspire emotion, questioning, and reflection in a manner quite different from those who express political views in words alone.

The exhibit then presents the sometimes conflicting perspectives of writers, students, radical groups, political and labor leaders, clergy, and others in a variety of political pamphlets, books, flyers, handbills, and other materials. The items shown clearly demonstrate that opposing viewpoints on such issues are expressed with strong conviction and passion, sometimes with a clear intent to be inflammatory. The voices range from the extreme left to the extreme right: from the Students for a Democratic Society to the John Birch Society; from the Communist Party U.S.A to the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade; from the National Committee to Win Amnesty for Smith Act Victims to Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Wars and other crises inherently threaten national security, which inherently leads the government to take a conservative stance. As a result, the story of dissent is often that of the left in opposition—and voices from the left are definitely in the majority in this exhibit. Opposing perspectives from the right are also represented, as they tell an equally important side of the story of political struggles to balance freedom and security.

History eventually judges these various perspectives and voices, and dissenters who were once considered dangerous radicals are sometimes—but not always—later exonerated as heroic protectors of our cherished liberties.

Once again, we live in difficult times in which fear is in the air and freedoms are threatened. What can these past events teach us about meaningful citizenship? For example, what does the McCarthy era teach us about our current post-9/11 environment and issues such as the Patriot Act? What does the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII suggest about how Arabs and Muslims are viewed in America today? Does the conviction of the students who protested against the Vietnam War at UCI influence how today’s students express their opinions on world events? We hope those viewing this exhibit will consider such questions thoughtfully and discuss them with others.