Retired General Responds to Sen. Tom Cotton’s Threat of Force on Civilians

sen. cotton recently suggested using military force against protesters and rioters

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

In an interview with CNN, General Wesley Clark, U.S. Army (Ret.), rebuked a call to deploy troops to quell recent protests. The suggestion was made by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) in an editorial published in The New York Times. The Newburgh Conspiracy suggested similar measures.

Old American flag
One of the most notable threats of excessive military force in the United States occurred before George Washington’s presidency. Photo by David Smart / Shutterstock

In a controversial editorial piece published on June 3 in The New York Times, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) called for the military to intervene in riots stemming from the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “In some cases, the rioters still outnumber the police and the [National] Guard combined,” Cotton said in his column. “In these circumstances, the Insurrection Act authorizes the president to employ the military ‘or any other means’ in ‘cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws.'”

The editorial was met with strong and opposing reactions. Most recently, New York Times Opinion Editor James Bennet resigned Sunday after the criticism the article received. Before that, however, General Wesley Clark, U.S. Army (Ret.), told CNN that Cotton “just couldn’t be more wrong.”

“He’s my senator from my state, and I’ve spoken with him; I’ve been to his office and we’ve talked about things,” General Clark said. “In this case, he just doesn’t understand what the situation is.”

One of the most notable threats of excessive military force in the United States occurred before George Washington’s presidency—the Newburgh Conspiracy.

The American Cincinnatus

“While the army was encamped at Newburgh, New York, during the winter of 1782-1783, officers upset over the Continental Congress’s refusal to fulfill past promises regarding pay circulated documents that denounced Congress, that threatened its supremacy over the military, and that called for a meeting to discuss how to proceed,” said Dr. Mark Stoler, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont.

According to Dr. Stoler, the officers of the Continental Army who pursued this uprising did so with the encouragement of political figures who hoped to intimidate Congress into passing a tax on imports. This tax would be used to pay the officers as well as strengthen the federal government. In response, General Washington performed two stunning actions. First, he held a meeting with the officers and reminded them what they had fought for. In this meeting, he produced a pair of reading glasses to read a document to them—none had seen his vision falter before, but here he showed vulnerability and constitution. Second, he soon after resigned as General and Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.

“This formal renunciation of military power, as well as the refusal to seize power earlier when he easily could have, made him the American Cincinnatus, the ancient hero who had abandoned his farm to save the republic of Rome when it was in a military crisis,” Dr. Stoler said. “Cincinnatus had been granted absolute power; he had defeated the enemy, but he had then given up the power voluntarily and returned to his farm.”

When Washington squelched the Newburgh Conspiracy, he set a powerful example. He refused to utilize excessive militaristic force to achieve a political goal. Had he sided with the officers and seized what power he could have, Washington could have set a dangerous precedent of using the military to strong-arm and bully others to get what he wanted.

Dr. Mark Stoler contributed to this article. Dr. Stoler, who holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin, is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont.