An Open Letter to Senator Bernie Sanders about the War in Ukraine

by Greg Evans


Dear Senator Sanders:

I am writing to you because I am quite frankly confused by your absolutist position on the Ukraine War, in which you have stated “Right now, we are in a global struggle between autocracy and democracy, with nothing less than the future of the planet at stake” and have voted, without criticism or qualification, to fully fund military aid for Ukraine.

The reason for my confusion stems, especially, from the fact that you have stated that you are a great admirer of Eugene Debs. You even, many years ago, produced and narrated a documentary titled Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary, 1855-1926And yet Debs, when faced with a situation in Europe remarkably similar to the one we face today, came out strongly against American involvement, or even taking sides, in World War I.

And Debs maintained this position throughout that war in spite of the fact that, in that war, Germany, an autocratic state led by Kaiser Wilhelm II (the “Beast of Berlin”), unilaterally attacked the constitutional monarchy of Belgium and democratic France and committed innumerable and horrific atrocities against the Belgian people (or so “the rape of Belgium” was reported in the newspapers of the time, though the most lurid and widely reported accounts were later shown to be false). He even maintained this position in the light of an additional and extremely politically unpalatable issue that you haven’t had to deal with: German U-boat attacks on American ships carrying supplies to the United Kingdom, including the sinking in May of 1915 of the British passenger liner Lusitania by a German submarine, which killed 128 Americans.

So it seems strange to me that your position instead mirrors that of Woodrow Wilson, the president whose government was to ultimately send Debs to prison for so openly opposing American involvement in the war. Just as you have done, Wilson, in his “War Message” to Congress of April 2, 1917, spoke of the conflict as being between “democracy” and “autocracy.” Indeed, this is where, quite famously, Wilson spoke of the need to defeat autocratic Germany so as to “make the world safe for democracy.”

One explanation that occurs to me for your aggressive “Wilsonian” position on this war is that you have forgotten the far-reaching reasoning behind Debs’ anti-war stand. You have, in a word, failed to do here that which Debs did not fail to do – to keep your “eye on the prize,” if I might borrow a phrase from the civil rights movement. For Debs realized the pitfalls present if the progressive movement threw their lot in on one side of a war between two ruling classes, even when one of them is autocratic and has initiated the violence. Thus, while Debs condemned the sinking of the Lusitania as a “fiendish crime” and proof that the German autocrats were “the deadliest menace that confronts the modern world,” he actually proposed that the United States, in response to it, should call for peace and lead by example by unilaterally disarming.

Which is not to say that Debs, and the Socialist Party, weren’t willing to back United States involvement in such a war – but only if the country were to declare war by way of a national referendum. There obviously was no such referendum and so when, in March 1917, the American ruling class declared war on Germany, Debs fervently opposed it. And he explained his reasoning in the famous speech he gave in Canton, Ohio the following year, the speech for which he was sent to prison by Woodrow Wilson’s justice department. And you, I believe, are more than familiar with Debs’ reasoning here, as you yourself read from, and inspirationally so, the following part of Debs’ speech in your documentary about him:

In the Middle Ages, the feudal lords and barons, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon each other and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. It hasn’t changed.

And yet, you now seem to be saying, war has changed. That in this case, it is for a higher good, that it is not about profit and glory but about higher ideals. That whereas Woodrow Wilson was promulgating a false dichotomy between “democracy” and “autocracy” as a reason to go to war, in this case it is a true dichotomy. And a true dichotomy so profound that it is additionally worth risking the end of humanity over it, since neither the autocrats nor the democrats of 100 years ago possessed nuclear weapons that they might be tempted to use in a drawn-out war.

But to me, Senator Sanders, and to many who have supported you in the past, it looks like the same old same old. The ruling elite of a global military empire (the United States), which already has 750 foreign military bases spread across 80 countries, strives to expand its sphere of influence right up to the borders of a rival power, Russia, by making Ukraine a member, real or de-facto, of American-led NATO (and you yourself, in a different time and place, have criticized the relentless expansion of NATO). The ruling elite of that rival, Russia, decides to resist this attempt to further diminish its regional political, military and economic hegemony (already much diminished from the time of the Soviet Union) by attacking the country being disputed, Ukraine. People in the countries directly involved in the fighting, Ukraine and Russia, then believe it “their patriotic duty to fall upon each other and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt” while we here in the United States are told it is necessary to give our full support, and risk nuclear war, to one of the sides to make the world “safe for democracy.”

Meanwhile, our ruling-elite, our modern-day “plutocrats”, make huge profits, especially in the realm of the military-industrial complex (as does the Russian version), and additionally use the war as a pretext to expropriate much of Ukraine’s wealth (for example, using the debt created by our “lend-lease” to force the privatization of Ukraine’s public assets). For the people of Russia and Ukraine, of course, there are astonishing levels of casualties on both sides, both military and civilian, economic dislocation and political oppression (such as increased authoritarianism in Russia and the banning of opposition political parties in Ukraine) and loss under the cover of war of many civil liberties and labor protections.

For the United States, however, the war not only provides our ruling class with a pretext for funneling vast amounts more money to the military industrial complex, but to also then plead poverty when it comes to funding the social and economic development programs central to a progressive political program.

But, of course, you already know these things better than I possibly could. In a town hall discussion that you hosted on “The progressive response to the war in Ukraine” in the weeks after the war started – when you were still, albeit tepidly, calling for negotiations – you stated that “for some of my colleagues [in the Senate] what’s going on now almost brings forth a sigh of relief. You don’t have to talk about ending childhood poverty, you don’t have to talk about transforming our energy system, you don’t have to talk about taxing billionaires, or dealing with child care or education or creating universal healthcare, you don’t have to talk about that anymore, because we can go back to the good old cold war, we have people to hate, we can spend more money on the military and, after all, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. And I worry about that very much.” And you made the same, compelling point regarding our policy towards China in your June 2021 article in Foreign Affairs, “Washington’s Dangerous New Consensus on China: Don’t Start Another Cold War.”

And yet, since those early days of the war, you have fallen completely silent on the Ukraine war while uncritically supporting the vast expenditures for it, and said nothing about Nancy Pelosi’s dangerous and provocative trip to Taiwan last summer. This in spite of the fact that the trip was seemingly designed to start a new cold war and, indeed, you have remained silent even as a xenophobic, Cold War-style drumbeat to war was being whipped up while a Chinese balloon floated across our nation in late January.

The fact, however, that before you went silent on the issue of the Ukraine war you had been making these arguments suggests to me that it is not so much a matter of your having taken your “eyes off the prize,” or having forgotten Debs’ arguments. Instead, it seems to the result of your having made a political calculation that the vitriol that would result from your criticizing any part of the Biden administration’s Ukraine or Taiwan policy would do more damage to your standing and the (worthy) political agenda that you advocate.

But, if this is your reasoning, I believe that you are mistaken. And to illustrate this, I will point to a contemporary of Debs, Robert La Follette. For he, like you, was a senator and therefore also a member of “the world’s most exclusive club.” And yet he remained firmly opposed to any US involvement in the war, from the first shots being fired by the autocrat Wilhelm’s troops as they invaded Belgium to opposing the draft when war was declared and then insisting that the corporations and the wealthy pay the costs of a war that, in his opinion, mainly benefited them. Most dramatically, he led the 1917 filibuster against arming U.S. merchant ships against U-boat attack, arguing, among many other points, that we had no business sending war supplies to the United Kingdom in the first place, and if we were to do so, then the British should send their own ships to come and get them. There is no reason, he argued, to “hurl this country into the bottomless pit of the European horror” for the “commercial advantage and fat profits beneficial to a limited number of our dollar-scarred patriots.”

For leading this filibuster, Theodore Roosevelt called him a “skunk who ought to be hanged.” A few weeks later, when La Follette voted against the declaration of war against Germany by Congress, the Wisconsin State Journal, a paper formerly allied with him, claimed that La Follette was acting on behalf of German interests (that is, was actually a German agent) and that it was “nothing short of pathetic to witness a man like La Follette, whose many brave battles for democracy have endeared him to the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Americans, now lending himself to the encouragement of autocracy.” Indeed, a Senate committee even investigated him for treason.

Given the nervousness and fear with which you, and your fellow progressives in the Senate and House, have approached this issue (highlighted most pathetically by the rapid withdrawal of the Progressive Caucus’ letter in the fall calling for negotiations, a call that that you opposed, when the House Democratic leadership expressed its dismay), one might assume that these brave stands that I have just described destroyed La Follette’s and Debs’ political careers. But, instead, Debs, running for President in 1920 from his prison cell, received nearly a million votes, half again more votes than the Socialist Party candidate received in 1916, while La Follette was re-elected to the Senate in 1922 with 81 percent of the vote. Then, as the presidential candidate for the Progressive Party in 1924, La Follette received 17 percent of the popular vote, a third-party vote total since only exceeded by Ross Perot’s 19 percent in 1992.

So yes, Senator Sanders, if history is any lesson, there is much you can do to oppose the inexorable logic of the plutocrats, bankers, and war profiteers, above all their overweening logic of forever wars and cold wars. And you can do it without destroying your political career or the movement it serves.

And so I appeal to you, Senator Sanders, to truly take up the legacy of Eugene Debs, and the Senate role played by Robert La Follette, and speak out about and oppose this war. We need a prominent, well-positioned person to challenge the ceaselessly destructive agenda of the military-industrial complex. To paraphrase the conclusion of your statement cited earlier: “the fate of the progressive agenda hangs in the balance.”


Greg Evans


Photograph is of the cover of the CD for the 1979 documentary Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary, 1855-1926, Folkways Records, written and produced by Bernie Sanders.

Published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license: This license allows reusers to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, for noncommercial purposes only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator.

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