Saddam Hussein and Abraham Lincoln
December 30, 2006
by William P. Meyers

The brutal former dictator of Iraq was executed a few hours ago. Though I am against the death penalty (see why), if I were making exceptions Saddam could easily be one of them.

But how bad was Saddam compared to other leaders? If there was a basis in law for trying and executing Mr. Hussein, who else should be on trial now, and who in history would qualify?

Most American's are so blinded by nationalism that we can't think fairly when it comes to our leaders or historical figures. I could take an easy mark like Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, presidents who became unpopular and were outstanding war criminals, but I'm going to start with Lincoln. He's on a higher pedestal for most Americans than any other ex-President except for George Washington. And his case is remarkably like Saddam Hussein's.

In case you missed it, or are reading this essay decades from now, Saddam Hussein was accused of many crimes against humanity but convicted of only one, the execution without trial of 148 persons in Dujail in 1982. Some other accusations included killing 50,000 Kurdish Iraqis. On the war crime front he is accused of invading Iran and Kuwait. It should be noted that the U.S. encouraged him to invade Iran and gave him permission to invade Kuwait as reward for his services, but then turned on him.

What of Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President of the United States, the man who freed the slaves? There was only one event to worry about in Lincoln's Presidency, called the Civil War or the War Between the States. Essentially a number of states that had voluntarily joined the United States of America decided to voluntarily leave the U.S.A. and then formed a confederation of their own, the Confederate States of America (C.S.A.). Abraham Lincoln did not believe in freedom of association or diplomacy. He launched a brutal war in which the USA invaded the C.S.A. Over 600,000 soldiers died, with the U.S.A. probably having a higher number of deaths. In addition the union (US) army engaged in brutal tactics against civilians, most notably in General Sherman's "march through Georgia."

Generally Lincoln's behavior is rationalized by the ending of slavery. But this was a secondary effect of the war. Lincoln offered the CSA states that they would be allowed slavery forever if they would stay in the union. The later Emancipation Proclamation freed only the slaves in the CSA, not in the slave states that remained in the USA. Slaves in general were freed only after Lincoln's death.

How appropriate is it to kill people who are opposed to your government? Internally, Saddam Hussein killed less people to keep his government and Iraq intact than Abraham Lincoln did.

Sure, I like Abraham Lincoln much better than I like Saddam Hussein. Lincoln had more redeeming qualities.

It is hard to find anyone who ruled for very long who did not have to kill a few, or a lot, of people to stay in power. George Washington killed Indians, Frenchmen, and British Troops; after being elected President he marched against rebels in Pennsylvania and would have killed them if they had not ended their rebellion (Whiskey Rebellion of 1794). The Catholics have a Saint, Constantine, who was as bloody as any Roman Emperor (they made him a saint because he made their religion an official state religion). Throughout the 1960s and 1970s leftists in the U.S.A. were murdered for rebelling against the U.S. government. No President of the U.S. was ever indicted for these killings.

So don't mourn for Saddam Hussein, but apply the same ethical standards to American Presidents as you do to foreign leaders. Were the Nazi leaders hung for invading Poland? Then U.S. leaders should be hung for invading countries like Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Iraq and Afghanistan.