2009/04/01:Capital Times: Campaign aims to 'Bring the Guard Home!' - WI Bring the Guard Home Campaign

John Nichols: Campaign aims to 'Bring the Guard Home!'
The Capital Times
John Nichols  —  3/31/2009 1:20 pm

Eighty-six years ago, back when states took their roles in setting national policy a tad more seriously than they do today, Wisconsin legislators voted to abolish the state National Guard.

Milwaukee Assemblyman John Polakowski led the charge, according media reports from 1923, arguing that "the National Guard was a standing provocation to take part in foreign wars and was not necessary to the police power of the state; that it cost the taxpayers a great deal of money; and that several (other) states had allowed their National Guards to run down before the World War and even to become a nominal force" without damage to the states or the republic.

Polakowski's measure passed the Assembly by an overwhelming margin.

The New York Times condemned the vote as "sinister," worrying that "in Wisconsin there is a combination of socialists and labor agitators bent upon the disbandment of the National Guard."

Yes, they went by the name "Republican." Polakowski's bill was approved on the strength of votes from the Assembly's Republican majority (which included a substantial progressive bloc that had joined U.S. Sen. Bob La Follette in opposing World War I) and the chamber's second-largest political group, the Socialists.

Gov. John Blaine eventually talked legislators out of sending the bill to his desk and the Guard remained. But a year later Blaine refused to muster the state's Guard units for a National Defense Day exercise proposed by President Calvin Coolidge, with the Wisconsinite complaining that the simulation of a national military movement could be taken as a militaristic provocation by foreign governments.

State Adj. Gen. Ralph Immell notified military commanders that Wisconsin officials believed, "It is inadvisable for the American government through propaganda and demonstration to simulate a national military movement. It would be better to hold a demonstration that would lead the way for foreign nations to universal peace."

Immell continued, "It is the opinion of the governor that a patriotic demonstration in Wisconsin is unnecessary. Wisconsin, the state that sent 94,000 men to the Civil War, 5,469 to the Spanish-American War and 125,814 men to the World War, needs no patriotic lesson."

These days, as with so many constitutional concerns, Wisconsinites are far more cautious and compromising than they once were with regard to directing the Guard.

But a modest proposal is being advanced in the Assembly by state Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, who has prepared legislation that would require Wisconsin's governors to evaluate the legality of orders for future Guard deployments. Black's legislation, which would afford governors a legal vehicle to challenge deployment orders deemed to be illegal or inappropriate, mirrors similar efforts in 20 states.

It's all part of the "Bring the Guard Home! It's the Law" campaign coordinated by Ben Manski, an attorney and the executive director of the Madison-based Liberty Tree Foundation, which seeks to end the overseas deployment of National Guard units in wars that lack the sort of congressional authorization or defensive purpose that the founders intended.

Benson Scotch, the senior legal counsel to the national "Bring the Guard Home!" campaign, will be in Madison for several forums and events organized to highlight the movement. This writer will participate with Scotch in a discussion on the constitutional issues related to the proposal at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 2, in Room 121 of the Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St. For a full list of events, visit www.bringtheguardhome.org.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times.