‘Politically Incorrect’ History Has Neocons Steamed

by , March 01, 2005

Thomas E. Woods Jr.’s Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, recently put out by Regnery, the venerable conservative publisher, has caused a storm of controversy, the outlines of which define the parameters of the politically permissible. In today’s constricted political “debate” – especially when it comes to foreign policy – only two flavors are allowed: right-wing neocon and left-wing neocon. A “right-wing” writer who opposes foreign interventionism, condemns World War I as the senseless slaughter it indubitably was, and shows how FDR (and the Brits) dragged us into a second world war is bound to come under attack from the battalions of the neoconized Right as well as the Left, and the frenzied response to the Woods volume has not disappointed.

I won’t spend much time on Adam Cohen’s editorial comment in the New York Times, except to say that his pairing of the Woods book with Michelle Malkin’s horrific In Defense of Internment is a drive-by smear that stupidly puts Woods in the same camp with a policy – the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II – that I know Woods abhors, and which he implicitly condemns in the book. There is a curious nitpicking quality to the Times piece, in which the author drags in all sorts of tangential items – e.g., the Bushian invocation of FDR in support of his Social Security “reform” plan – that have nothing whatsoever to do with Woods’ book or his actual views. Cohen clearly doesn’t know what to make of what he calls Woods’ “revisionism.” The “Old Right” view of American history – that is, the view held by conservatives in this country from the late 1930s up until around the mid-1960s – has been shut out of the national dialogue for so long that it’s enough to befuddle and even disorient an editorial writer for the New York Times, who only knows about prefixed “conservatism” of the sort offered up in the pages of Commentary and the Weekly Standard.

Speaking of the latter, the boys over at Bill Kristol’s flagship journal of “big government conservatism” and Empire are certainly all too familiar with the Old Right, their ancient enemy, and are less shocked than positively outraged that Woods and all he represents have dared to make the New York Times bestseller list. That’s where Max Boot saw mention of the Politically Incorrect Guide, noting that the Times described the book as “a neocon retelling of American history.”

Say, what?

If the neocons were going to issue their own retelling of American history, then surely Boot would know about it. To the clueless New York Times, which wouldn’t know a neocon from a paleocon from a red-breasted boobybird, all conservatives look alike: but Boot knows better. He decides to check it out – and it doesn’t make him happy.

Woods’ defense of the right of the states to defy the federal government – and even secede! – cuts too close to the bone in an era when the gulf between “red” and “blue” states is every bit as deep as the chasm that separated North from South in the run-up to the Civil War. And the Woodsian critique of Reconstruction – which looks, from here, every bit as merciless and stupid as the “de-Ba’athification” of Iraq in the wake of our “victory” – earns his ire, too. But there is a complete aversion to answering Woods’ arguments: that slavery, clearly an odious institution in the author’s eyes, would have withered on the vine without the Civil War; that Lincoln was a tyrant who closed newspapers, arrested his political opponents, and trampled on the Constitution; that the Civil War was as much about sectional pride and tariffs as about slavery – and that the slaughter of the war was a tragic and entirely avoidable event.

However, that isn’t what really motivates Boot’s brutish review, which is centered on Woods’ view of American foreign policy. Boot, you’ll remember, famously argued the case for creating an American Empire in the pages of the Standard and has since become the West Coast version of the now-retired William Safire: a reliable weathervane of neocon opinion, offered weekly by the Los Angeles Times. But Boot is far less affable than Safire: the latter, for example, would never have publicly bemoaned the lack of American casualties on the Middle Eastern battlefield, no matter what he thought privately. It just isn’t good form: but Boot has no compunctions about baring his teeth, no matter how pointed and yellowed they may be: “Woods’s sympathy extends not only to slave-owning rebels but also to German militarists,” he yelps. Confederates – and Germans! Oh my! His rendition of Woods’ account of a war that virtually everyone, left and right, agrees ushered in a century of mass murder and totalitarianism, is completely dishonest:

“The Kaiser wasn’t really such a bad guy for invading neutral Belgium in 1914. After all, the Germans had ‘agreed to compensate Belgians for any damage or for any victuals consumed along the way.’”

What he doesn’t mention is Woods’ principal argument: that Belgium was not neutral, that it had agreements with both Britain and France and its forts dotted the border. “Tales of German atrocities he writes off as British propaganda (as some were – but not all).” Those bayoneted babies – is Boot telling us they were real? Yeah, about as real as those “weapons of mass destruction” Boot and his neocon compadres assured us we would find in Iraq. Just about as real as those Kuwaiti babies supposedly pulled from their incubators at the start of Gulf War I. You can hear the sneer in Boot’s authorial voice as he writes:

“The real atrocity, he thinks, was Britain’s naval blockade of Germany.”

After all, why should someone who eagerly anticipated more American casualties in Iraq flinch at the mass starvation of Germans – not a group favored by neocons – which cost some 763,000 lives and led to a bitterness that blossomed, by the 1930s, into the evil flower of National Socialism. It’s only Germans, after all. Boot rails on:

“In any case, whatever the merits of the European conflict, ‘No American interest was at stake, and American security was not threatened in the slightest.’ He seems to think that it was Woodrow Wilson’s fault that Germany began sinking American ships without warning, which led the United States into the war. No mention is made of the famous Zimmerman Telegram, another casus belli. This was the document in which Germany’s foreign minister offered Mexico the return of the American Southwest if it would declare war on the United States.”

By the time of the infamous Zimmerman telegram, however, President Wilson had already declared that American citizens had the “right” to sail into a war zone and claim special immunity from the effects of German submarine warfare – while Britain strangled the Germans with their odious blockade, a tactic that violated long-standing rules of war and interfered with American shipping. But these are mere details, quibbling, really, because what’s really shocking about this argument is Boot’s surprising (and very weak) attempt to justify a war long considered – by conservatives and classical liberals, as well as modern liberals – to be a towering tragedy, perhaps the great tragedy of the 20th century. Joseph Schumpeter averred that “capitalist society was on its way to creating a new civilization all its own when it was overtaken by the meaningless catastrophe of 1914-18, which put its world out of gear,” and the historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote:

“In 1914 Europe was a single civilized community. … A man could travel across the length and breadth of the Continent without a passport until he reached … Russia and the Ottoman empire. He could settle in a foreign country for work or leisure without legal formalities. … Every currency was as good as gold….”

As British Foreign Secretary (1905-16), Sir Edward Grey, put it: “The lamps went out all over Europe,” and the age of totalitarianism – of Fascism, Nazism, and Soviet Communism – was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. This is what Boot seeks to justify, and, yes, even celebrate. Oh, but he’s just getting started:

“Woods apparently thinks that American entry into World War II was as unjustified as its entry into World War I. One section is titled, ‘How FDR got Americans into war.’ (Silly me, thinking it was Hitler and Tojo who were to blame.) Another section is devoted to defending the isolationist America First Committee, which he claims was the victim of ‘FDR’s witch hunt.’ He actually shows great restraint by not repeating the old canard that Roosevelt knew about the Pearl Harbor raid and let it happen anyway. But he does pretty much accept the argument of Japanese militarists that they had no choice but to attack the United States because Roosevelt had imposed an economic embargo.”

The curious admixture of smugness and bloodthirstiness is hard to countenance. It is well known that FDR manipulated us into the war “by the back door,” and this is readily acknowledged even by liberal historians who routinely note that our farsighted leader had to do this in order to gradually overcome the stubborn “isolationism” of the American people. Similarly, the president’s orders to the FBI to infiltrate the America First Committee (and even prepare an indictment for “sedition”) are hardly mysterious – although, as Woods points out, these facts go unmentioned in textbooks.

I have to agree with Boot, however, that the omission of Roosevelt’s foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack – after all, we had broken the Japanese code, and were intercepting their communications – is, at least from my point of view, unacceptable. In any case, the historian Robert Stinnett has pretty much exposed this essential aspect of the unknown history of World War II – thanks to the release of U.S. government documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Maybe Woods couldn’t get it past Regnery.

Boot stands up for the “Truman Doctrine,” which consisted of a huge welfare program for Europe that delayed rather than helped its recovery: the real cause of the European “miracle” of rebirth was the miracle of free markets, as Woods points out. Boot even attacks Woods’ defense of poor old Joe McCarthy as “bombastic” – yeah, but was he as bombastic as Boot himself? I tend to doubt it. What’s even more surprising is that Boot resents what he calls “the author’s venom toward Bill Clinton”! No, we’re not talking about oral sex in the Oval Office, but Bill’s “forays abroad.” Boot quibbles over the number of American military interventions since 1948 – the number, he says, is much higher than Woods would have it. But so what? Well, anyway, Boot finds this sort of Clinton-bashing utterly intolerable:

“Woods is particularly indignant about the dispatch of U.S. troops to the Balkans, ‘an area of no strategic interest to the United States.’ ‘What did Clinton’s intervention achieve?’ he demands. Uhhh, it stopped genocide and ethnic cleansing? Not according to Woods, who writes that the ‘Balkans remain seething with violence and hatred.’ (So do some major American cities.)”

Uhhh, about that “genocide” – the top number cited for those killed in Kosovo’s civil war prior to the U.S. attack is well under 5,000 – and that includes both Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t genocide, wrote Daniel Pearl in the Wall Street Journal. And if Boot thinks that “some American cities” are no better than postwar Kosovo, then ethnic pogroms must be taking place in our midst and we just aren’t being told about it. When was the last time an entire ethnic group was driven out of an American city on account of their ethno-religious identity? Yet that is precisely what is happening in “liberated” Kosovo today.

Boot then goes on to attack Woods, not for what he wrote in his excellent book, but for belonging to an obscure group known as the League of the South. Now I have attended a couple of League meetings, and, as far as I could tell, there was not a hint of racism in the proceedings: it was and is a Southern heritage group that takes seriously the idea of a Southern “nation” that exists as a cultural phenomenon and deserves, in their view, some political recognition. Tom tells me that he is tangentially involved, and, as much as Boot seems to dislike Joe McCarthy, he seems all too eager to engage in a little McCarthyism himself by bringing up this utterly irrelevant point. And this seems to be the tack taken by various neoconish “bloggers,” who have made much of this association. Reason writer and Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young takes up this charge, adding her own attempt at a drive-by smearing in a truly disgraceful piece of literary thuggery:

“Conservatives often complain, with good cause, about America-hating left-wing radicals in academia. Yet in recent weeks, a college professor who co-founded an organization that refers to the United States as an ‘alien occupier’ in its manifesto – and whose 2001 essay blaming the ‘barbarism’ of American policies for Sept. 11 was picked up by Pravda, the Russian communist newspaper – has received gushing praise on the conservative media circuit.”

The Russian-born Ms. Young must be excused for having a perfect horror of Pravda: but she ought to be reassured that this is not the same Pravda founded by Lenin, nor is it a publication that has any compunctions about “picking up” an essay without asking the permission of the author. I very much doubt that they asked Tom’s permission to run his piece, just as they didn’t bother asking me. But, in any case, what argument does Woods make in his essay, anyway? Ms. Young cannot be bothered to cite it, so I will:

“One of the more frustrating aspects of the crisis so far has been the maddeningly monolithic news ‘analysis’ of the event. The liberals who ceaselessly urge us to consider the ‘root causes’ of crime are mysteriously silent in the wake of these attacks. No ‘root causes’ of terrorism, apparently. All they and their ‘conservative’ clones can come up with is that the terrorists must hate ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’

“But as one observer put it, I don’t see anyone flying planes into Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower.

“Pat Buchanan was the only person who warned that the barbarism of recent American foreign policy was bound to lead to a terrorist catastrophe on American soil. Consider Pat’s remarks two and a half years ago: ‘America is the only nation on Earth to claim a right to intervene militarily in every region of the world. But this foreign policy is not America’s tradition; it is an aberration. During our first 150 years, we renounced interventionism and threatened war on any foreign power that dared to intervene in our hemisphere. Can we, of all people, not understand why foreigners bitterly resent our intrusions?’

“With the Cold War over, why invite terrorist attacks on our citizens and country, ultimately with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons? No nation threatens us. But with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, America will inevitably be targeted. And the cataclysmic terror weapon is more likely to come by Ryder truck or container ship than by ICBM. And no SDI will stop it.

“Battling terrorism must go beyond discovering and disrupting it before it happens and deterring it with retaliation. We need to remove the motivation for it by extricating the United States from ethnic, religious, and historical quarrels that are not ours and which we cannot resolve with any finality.”

If this is treason, then so are the views of former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who says:

“I think the most basic thing for Americans to realize is that this war has nothing to do with who we are or what we believe, and everything to do with what we do in the Islamic world. Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush before Mr. Clinton – they all identified Islamic militancy as being based on the hatred of Western democracy and freedom, and that’s clearly not the case. They surely don’t like our way of life, but very few people are willing to die to keep us from having primary elections or because we have freedom of the press.

“Universally in the Muslim world, at least according to the most recent polling data, American foreign policy in several specific areas is hated by Muslims. Majorities of 85-90 percent are registered as hating or resenting American policies, toward our support for Israel, our ability to keep oil prices low, or low enough to satisfy Western consumers, our support for Arab tyrannies from Morocco to the Indian Ocean.”

If this be “treason,” then let Ms. Young make the most of it. The idea that bin Laden is helped, not hurt, by our foreign policy, that the widespread hatred of America in the Muslim world is because of what we do in their neighborhood, and not because of Desperate Housewives, is not “blaming America” or “hating America” – it is blaming (and, yes, hating) our interventionist and immoral foreign policy and the government that carries it out – a distinction that, curiously, seems lost on this supposedly “libertarian” columnist. I note, however, that, as of this writing, Reason magazine has wisely chosen not to run Ms. Young’s piece.

Young’s “review” is disgraceful because she purports to read the mind of the author, and can detect no “moral revulsion at the fact that some Americans … owned other human beings.” Yet what else can his statement that “no one mourns the passing of the slave system” mean? This is apparently not enough for Young, however, even though Woods makes his hatred of slavery – and racism – plain when he takes the North to task for having its own version of the “black codes,” as well as enforcing the fugitive slave laws. He cites the many racist remarks uttered by the sainted Abraham Lincoln, including Abe’s view that all blacks should be forcibly deported to set up their own state. What more could he have done?

Aside from that, where is the “revulsion” a normal person would be expected to express at the torching of Atlanta, the mass killing, looting, and rapine that were visited on the South by the victorious General Sherman and his fellow “liberators” of the Union Army in their infamous “march to the sea“? Ms. Young does not feel obligated to express any. Does that mean she thinks these atrocities were okay? Probably. (Hey, I get to mind-read, too!)

But what really gets her goat is what got Boot’s:

“Much of the book’s second half rails against the evils of American intervention abroad. As with the Civil War, the moral issues in World War II (Woods deplores US involvement) go virtually unmentioned. Woods rightly assails Franklin D. Roosevelt for his willingness to throw Eastern Europe to the Soviets – then slams Harry Truman’s strategy of assisting nations threatened by a communist takeover as more ‘big government’ liberalism. In one example of his selective approach to facts, he quotes an investigator’s assertion in 1999 that no mass graves of ethnic-cleansing victims were uncovered in Kosovo – without mentioning that the remains of at least 4,000 were found by 2001.”

This last comment really requires some explication. Woods mentions the previous inflated figures announced by the various NATO governments, claims of an “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” that amount to 100,000-plus deaths on the Kosovar Albanian side alone. And what she doesn’t tell us is that the 4,000 figure includes all deaths the causes of which are not known, including both Serbs and Kosovars, under conditions of an ongoing civil war. There are no mass graves in Kosovo – and that is a fact.

The rest of Young’s “review” is just a series of smears and epithets – she calls Woods an “ultra-reactionary,” the sort of thing we might have heard from … the old Pravda! – as she assumes the pose of a Grand Inquisitor:

“Woods has complained about being judged on his old writings; yet, in an e-mail exchange, he would not repudiate any of his past statements or his association with the League of the South.”

Confess, comrade! Confess! Sign on the dotted line – if you know what’s good for you. Sheesh! Is this woman for real?

The only proper answer to this is: go back to Russia, comrade Cathy. I hear Putin is cracking down and it’s almost like old times again. Perhaps you can get a job with the KGB.

This whole episode underscores two key points about the neocons, the first being that they can’t and won’t tolerate any dissent from the Grand Consensus, especially coming from the “ultra-reactionary” Right. The Woods book represents their worst nightmare: it is the voice of the Old Right, the limited-government, culturally conservative, and anti-imperialist Right of Robert A. Taft, John T. Flynn (pdf), and Garet Garrett. They stood for a foreign policy that put America first – not the abstract ideal of “freedom,” or the defense of our satraps and allies, or the idea of America’s alleged “global leadership.”

The neocons, with their domestic program of “big government conservatism” and their foreign policy of perpetual war, are politically vulnerable at their very base: they fear Tom Woods far more than Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and Naomi Klein combined. Because he represents a real threat to their claim to the mantle of conservatism, and that, above all, is something that cannot be tolerated. The viciousness of the attacks on Woods underscores neocon sensitivities on this subject: they, after all, were Scoop Jackson Democrats and errant Trotskyites not so long ago, and the Woods book is an unwelcome reminder that conservatism is, for them, an alien tradition – which is the second point to be made here.

In a post on the Reason blog, Reason staffer Tim Cavanaugh set down the most incisive definition of what it means to be a neocon that I have ever seen, one that sums up this whole controversy with admirable concision and yet pays careful attention to detail:

The genius of neoconservatism is that it’s exactly in step with the progressivist, middle-of-the-road, big state view of American history they teach in school: The Articles of Confederation resulted in a disaster that taught the founders the value of a strong central state; the Whiskey rebels were dangerous kooks, not unlike the Branch Davidians of our own time; ‘States’ Rights’ has always been a code word for slavery; President Woodrow Wilson was a man of vision but sadly was unable to achieve his goals for an international order; the America Firsters were even kookier and more marginal than the Whiskey rebels, and the best way to deal with one is to sock him in the jaw like in The Best Years of Our Lives; many well intentioned folks on the left underestimated the danger of the Soviet Union, but the anti-communist witch hunts of the fifties were a regrettable overreaction (the Left didn’t become dangerous until the late sixties and early seventies, when it embraced separatist and militant views that undermined the politics of consensus that made this country great); real civil rights progress only came when the federal government asserted its power over the refractory states; September 11 shocked America out of its isolationism and freed President George W. Bush (an excellent man, but distressingly shortsighted in some matters) from his naive opposition to nation-building. And so on.”

If we take the above ideological formulations and simply invert them, we come up with libertarianism – and, I would submit, true conservatism, or at least one more authentic than the revolutionary neo-Jacobinism of our world-conquering neocons.

The Woods book strikes a major blow for the Old Right in its ongoing battle against the War Party’s takeover of the conservative movement, but I have a few criticisms – aside from the one already voiced by Max Boot, who rightly complains that Woods left out FDR’s foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack.

I know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I think putting a Confederate soldier up there distorts the theme and focus of the book: I see here that this was not the original cover idea. In any case, an author has no control over the cover of his book, yet I expect this will help sales just on account of its sensational nature, and I have no doubt that was the publisher’s intent.

Operating within very tight length constraints, Woods does a great job of summarizing events in a condensed yet readable style, richly fact-packed and clear as a freshly washed windowpane. We peer into neglected and widely misunderstood episodes of American history and see them as if for the first time. But when it comes to the Vietnam war, the treatment is far too brief – and seems to imply that the problem wasn’t the war but that American soldiers were acting too much like “social workers.” That’s the phrase Woods uses.

I cannot agree that the My Lai massacre, the deadly Phoenix counter-insurgency program, and the merciless bombing campaign, not to mention the policy of torching the village in order to “save” it, amounted to “social work” of any sort that I ever heard of. I expect, knowing that the publisher is Regnery, that there were some ideological constraints in place here. Woods rightly points to the U.S.-approved assassination of Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem as the turning point in the war, but Diem was not exactly a good guy himself. In any event, the history of the Vietnam conflict is severely shortchanged, but then, again, I suspect that the author had little control in this area.

Aside from this drawback, and a rather abrupt ending – did American history really end at the close of the century? Has nothing happened since then? – The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History is a grand cavalcade of quintessentially conservative conceptions of how this country was founded and how it has fared. My liberal and radical lefty readers – not a few of you, I reckon – are not going to agree with a great deal of it. But I would only point out that the economic analysis is buttressed by reference, not just to Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, but also to Gabriel Kolko’s book on the corporate roots of the regulatory state, The Triumph of Conservatism. I would also underscore the principled anti-imperialism that permeates the text: of course, the neocons see this as evidence of “leftism.” Woods, says the clueless Cathy Young, hates America. But his opposition to a foreign policy of global militarism is rooted in Jefferson, Washington, and John Quincy Adams, not Marx, Engels, and Lenin. His is a profoundly American creed, one that sees the quest for Empire as a source of corruption, and won’t be so easily dismissed as “ultra-reactionary.” For its antiwar message alone – and its very readable layout, with little squibs and pull-quotes featured throughout – it is worth buying and reading no matter where you are coming from on the ideological spectrum.

Read more by Justin Raimondo