The following article originally appeared in the May 26, 1972, issue of Commonweal
My text is Article II, Section 4, of the Constitution of the United States of America:
The President...shall be removed from office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
My plea is that all protests against the war be converted now and become concentrated in a fresh, insistent, specific, immediate, irresistible citizens' demand for the impeachment of the President of the United States.
Impeachment is an extraordinary remedy. In the American system it has origins in the twin doctrines of
the Declaration of Independence that incumbency does not in itself legitimatize rules, and that a people shall not indefinitely suffer arbitrary, capricious, vindictive, lawless or criminal authority but have means of removing unfit rulers. Impeachment, in America, is the Constitutional recourse which renders revolution needless.
Impeachment is an extraordinary remedy appropriate to the extraordinary circumstances in which Americans now live.
The fact is ordinary protest has been exhausted; verbal dissent is ignored; Congressional action has only prompted Presidential defiance; non-violent civil disobedience has become counterproductive; violence has never been either morally defensible or practically effectual and only further incites official violence; demonstrations and petitions, sit-ins and marches are redundant, ordinary protest will not stop the war. We have all beheld, within these few weeks, how the familiar forms of protest become, at the most, a kind of weeping and wailing--therapeutic, perhaps, for those who mourn, but no relief for the nation.
This is something which citizens have known, whether or not it has been admitted, for a long time. Some of us have realized this for as long as eight years, since we first voice dissent about the war. All of us have known this since the Nixon regime took power, which is to say, since opposition to the war became the convinced sentiment of the majority of Americans. Indeed, in the entire saga of the incumbent Administration, the single instance in which the President can be said, with complete confidence, to have been candid--to have been guilelessly, unambiguously, unequivocally, undeceptively truthful--was the day three years ago, when he told us that he would not heed any protests; when he, thus, pronounced the astonishing doctrine that the President is unaccountable to the American people.
This President has verified his intransigence ruthlessly, as his Administration has sought to obliterate dissent from his policy while muting the will of the majority of the people:
--by unconstitutionally making war.
--by enlargements of that illegal war in Asia, sometimes clandestine, often fantastic and brutal,
--by defying and frustrating the Constitutional prerogatives of Congress--by brazen misuse for war funds otherwise appropriated,
--by impugning the loyalty of Presidential candidates and other political opponents,
--by flaunting contempt for the First Amendment while seeking to intimidate and manipulate the
--by maliciously imputing violence to all protests,
--by unprecedented political abuse of due process of law through illegal surveillance of civilians, and similar harassments and the utterance of false, fake and defamatory charges,
--by sanctioning unconstitutional mass arrests and political detentions,
--by repeated attempts to demean and usurp the Courts and to publicly discredit their Constitutional
--by dishonoring command responsibility in seeking to suppress the scandal of the Mylai massacre,
--by dishonoring Vietnam veterans, rendering P.O.W.s pawns of the corrupt Saigon oligarchy, recklessly
endangering American troops by countenancing the complicity of so-called allies in the Indochina drug
traffic, and seeking punishment for the young in exile,
---by deliberately deceiving the people and failing the Presidential oath.
In all of this, for all these years, (to adapt a phrase) the message has been perfectly clear. We Americans suffer a regime which is essentially lawless, which acts as a law unto itself, whose conduct renders it illegitimate, which seeks to maintain its authority even if it must dismantle and destroy the Constitutional system, which has shown itself to be irrevocably beholden to violence and coercion, both physical and psychological, as much at home as abroad.
Two years ago, in the aftermath of the Cambodian "incursion," during the last widespread antiwar protests, we glimpsed the extremities of the violence which the Nixon rule sponsors in the infanticide at Kent State.
Subsequently, a quietism settled over the nation's campuses. (Quietism is a name with historic connotations, referring to the "quietist movement" in Nazi Germany through which acquiescence was practiced to the Nazi criminality. I am using the term here deliberately.) Some attribute high motives or esoteric reasons to explain the quietism of the past two years: the students had recovered a zeal for study, it has been said, or some desired to pursue mystical exercises. I find a much more straightforward explanation. Most students got the message that, with this government, protest provokes persecution. In the months immediately following Cambodia and Kent State, the federal authorities drastically cut aid for scholarships and research and other subsidies, withdrew guarantees for educational bank loans, stopped funding student employment. And students understood that message; dissent endangers survival. There has been quietism not because there has been approval of the government--and certainly not because very many have been so bemused as to believe the fraudulent official rhetoric about "winding down the war" while the war has been constantly spread geographically and, through
automation geometrically. There has been quietism because there has been fear--because the economic pressures for political conformity have been successful among the young just as inflation, unemployment, taxation and indebtedness have been manipulated to preoccupy, benight and neutralize so many older citizens.
Within these last weeks, the quietism on the campuses has been breached by the further mindless outrages in Indochina. If today's protests amount to no more than mourning, then let the students weep--let all citizens weep and wail--but never again must quietism be practiced in America.
Let it be emphatic that none of this has anything to do categorically with partisanship---with stereotypical party politics--with the Republican vs. Democratic thing. That has, long since, been surpassed by events. In those events, concentrated so much in the war, we ought by now to have learned something. We ought to have learned that the issue is not war, or that the issue is no longer the war. The war has become the grotesque symptom of the most rudimentary social issue—whether authority is subject to law, whether incumbency validates authority or whether authority can still be required to function Constitutionally--whether, in short, the President is accountable.
I am mindful, in these remarks, that the American crisis is one which transcends these events. America would be, now, in crisis even if we had been spared the Nixon Presidency. The profound issue of this country is whether a Constitutional system is feasible, at all, in an advanced technological society. What we confront is no mere regurgitated McCarthyism, nor an American neo-Nazism, but the threat of technological totalitarianism such as Orwell foretold. That issue has been with us, noticeably, since Hiroshima--since the Pentagon and the CIA and the famous military-industrial-scientific principality preempted foreign military policy, seized the budget, discounted domestic needs, virtually incapacitated the Congress, and captivated the Presidency.
But I am also mindful that we have not been spared the Nixon regime and that the Constitutional crisis can no longer be gainsaid or evaded. Any chance which the nation has of coping with these fundamental institutional issues requires the removal now of this President and the repudiation of his kind of regime.
Though Americans are much demoralized and feel impotent, I still think the system can be redeemed by utilizing the Constitution and so, I plead (in this day of heavy euphemism and coded language) that the present outcry to "stop the war" be translated "impeach the President."
If it is true, as has been said, that this war is not worth the sacrifice of one more American life, or if, as I would amend the statement, this war has never been worth the sacrifice of a single human being, then each day that Richard Nixon remains in office is an abomination to the Lord.
This address was delivered at the First Unitarian Church of Providence and at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Providence, in April 1972.
Related: Nathan Schneider's review of An Alien in a Strange Land: Theology in the Life of William Stringfellow