I was going through some old boxes last year, uncovering the detritus and memories of times past, when I came upon a folder marked “Rothbard manuscript.” What I discovered inside has recently been published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute under the title Never a Dull Moment: A Libertarian Look at the Sixties. As I hold the book in my hands today, a welter of emotions rise up to the surface of consciousness: first of all, and strongest, is sadness that Murray Rothbard – the founder of the modern libertarian movement, whom I had the great privilege of knowing – is no longer with us. How he would have loved to be alive at this point in history, when so much is happening – it’s the 1960s all over again, albeit with a surrealistic twist.
For those of us who lived through that era – the Vietnam war, the cold war, the riots, the New Left, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the cultural turmoil of a civilization that often seemed to be imploding – today’s headlines evoke a very strong sense of deja-vu. I keep thinking: This has all happened before! Only this time, instead of tragedy what we’re witnessing is tragi-comedy. It’s as if we learned nothing from those years, and we are stupidly – and comically – repeating the same errors, albeit on a larger scale. That’s why Never a Dull Moment is so relevant, and why Rothbard’s incisive polemics – fifty-eight columns written in 1967-68, plus three additional essays – hit home.
Rothbard’s writings on the Vietnam war underscore how little has changed. Here he is in 1968 writing about the latest “surge” of American forces and Washington’s claims that, at last, “victory” is in sight:
“Typically, all the great U.S. offensives have taken place upon the beginning of each dry season, as the US forces have launched Operation This, That, and the Other, with various plans to establish interior forts, coastal enclaves, to ‘hold and clear,’ or to ‘search and destroy.’ At the beginning of every dry season, the US has launched these offensives with a great deal of fanfare, claiming that now indeed the war is almost won, that now the tide has turned, etc.”
Even the military jargon is the same! Remember the great “innovation” of Gen. David Petraeus and his “COIN” doctrine? The slogan of the COINdistas was “clear, hold, build” – precisely the same “strategy” that failed so miserably in Vietnam.
As the Vietnam war was reaching its tragic climax, and the realization that we were not only losing but couldn’t win began to dawn on the political class, Rothbard wrote this:
“A lot of people throughout the country are beginning to realize that getting into the Vietnam war was a disastrous mistake. In fact, hardly anyone makes so bold as to justify America’s entrance into, and generation of, that perpetual war. And so the last line of defense for the war’s proponents is: Well, maybe it was a mistake to get into the war, but now that we’re there, we’re committed, so we have to carry on.
“A curious argument. Usually, in life, if we find out that a course of action has been a mistake, we abandon that course and try something else. This is supposed to be the time-honored principle of “trial and error.” Or if a business project or investment turns out to be an unprofitable venture, we abandon it and try investing elsewhere. Only in the Vietnam war do we suddenly find that, having launched a disaster, we are stuck with it forevermore and must continue to pour in blood and treasure until eternity.”
Just substitute “war in Iraq” for “Vietnam war,” and, as Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, it’s deja-vu all over again. “Perpetual war” is surely what we’ve experienced in the post-9/11 era, and what Rothbard was saying back then is precisely what we libertarians are saying today, and will continue to say as long as we have a voice:
“But how can we get out of Vietnam? Johnson, too, claims to be for peace, but he complains that in all the morass of negotiations or would-be negotiations, he can’t find a way. Well, the way is mere child’s play: the way to get out of Vietnam is to get out. Period. Leave. Withdraw. Scram.”
That’s right: scram! Rothbardian bluntness, characteristically expressed in the vernacular, is bracing and it’s something we should emulate. There was something almost Trumpian about it, and I can’t help but think that Rothbard would’ve been rooting for The Donald, on stylistic grounds alone, if not always agreeing with his policy prescriptions.
Speaking of Trump, who has revived the old Nixonian slogan of “the Silent Majority,” here is Rothbard on the Nixon-Hubert Humphrey election, which surely conjures our present electoral conundrum:
“It is also more evident than ever before that there is hardly a smidgin of difference between the two major party candidates. Both Humphrey and Nixon are pre-eminently the spokesmen of hawkishness and aggression abroad and of the welfare-warfare corporate state at home: Both want to continue the New Deal-Fair Deal and both want to combine the carrot of federal funds with the stick of armed suppression to deal with the urban ghettoes. The fact that Humphrey’s rhetoric is slightly more progressive-statist and Nixon’s more conservative-statist is purely a function of their respective constituencies within the broad Corporate State consensus. The difference is purely that: a matter of rhetoric only.”
Well, yes, I’ve argued in this space that Trump does prefigure a sea change in the foreign policy realm for the GOP, what with his challenge to NATO and his denunciation of the Iraq war, but the key word here is prefigure: as I pointed out in my last column, Trump is still telling us we have to stay in the Middle East and achieve “victory,” without, of course, telling us precisely how he intends to bring that about.
It’s just like old times again when we come upon Rothbard’s column on the “Six Day War,” a conflict pitting Israel against the bordering Arab states:
“Why the wave of adulation and admiration that greeted the blitzkrieg war of conquest by Israel against the Arab countries? That greeted the conquest, that is, in the United States; most of the rest of the world was stunned and appalled. Has a sickness eaten its way deep into the American soul? Do we all simply love a winner – even if he wins by means of fire-power, surprise attack, and mobile blitzkrieg tactics? Even if he wins, as Israel did, by napalming innocent women and children in Arab villages? Have we lost all sense of moral principle, all sense of justice?”
If I didn’t know better, I’d think Rothbard was describing the reaction to Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, which was greeted in the media and in the halls of Congress (and in the White House) by hosannas of praise – even as the Israelis gunned down children playing on a beach.
I have space here to just give you a taste of Rothbard’s razor-sharp commentary, but there’s a lot more where that came from. His analyses of everything from the urban riots that shook the nation to the student rebellion and the ominous warning signs of economic crisis that were to culminate in the 1970s are all strangely evocative of our own era.
History has indeed become a recurring nightmare. When oh when are we going to wake up?
We here at Antiwar.com have been inspired by Rothbard – his emphasis on the centrality of a noninterventionist foreign policy to the libertarian canon lives on in these pages. He didn’t just tack on opposition to war as just another aspect of libertarianism: he recognized that we’re never going to roll back State power as long as America sees itself as the policeman of the world. This isn’t just an afterthought: in terms of setting libertarian priorities: the battle against imperialism comes first.
That’s why I’m so proud to have edited and written an Introduction to this new collection of Rothbard’s writings, and it’s also why I’m so jazzed that we’re offering it as a premium in our current ongoing fundraising campaign.
Yes, that’s right – you get a free copy of this important book when you donate $100 to Antiwar.com.
This web site is carrying on the fight Rothbard began so long ago – although, from my perspective, it doesn’t feel all that long ago. But then again, that’s just me showing my age. Because it seems like only yesterday that I was talking to Murray on the phone – listening to him complaining about whatever “monstrous” turn of events had captured his attention at that moment, benefiting from his enormous store of knowledge, and enjoying his unlimited capacity for joyous wonder at the cavalcade of human folly and aspiration.
I know he’s up there, somewhere, cheering us on. And I know there are many of you, out there, also cheering us on. Your support is greatly appreciated, and I want to thank the many people who have stepped up and contributed to our fundraising campaign. Now I’m asking the rest of you to come forward and help us make our fundraising goal. With the arrival of matching funds, made possible by the generosity of our more well-heeled supporters, you double the impact of your donation – so now is the time to contribute.
Help us carry on the legacy of liberty and peace – make your tax-deductible donation today.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.