The Religion Called Americanism

Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion
David Gelernter
Doubleday, 2007
240 pp.

David Gelernter, the Yale University computer science professor known for surviving a bomb attack by the Unabomber, has written a fascinating book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. I should warn the readers of that I started off with a bias in favor of Gelernter, despite his militaristic brand of conservatism, because he didn’t let the Unabomber destroy his spirit and also because he doesn’t try to get points for his views by seeking his readers’ sympathy for the attack. You won’t find one mention of the Unabomber attack in his book. Gelernter got the Unabomber out of his system, to the extent one can, with his earlier book, Drawing Life. I was charmed by his passage in that book where he talks about the horror of waking up after the attack and seeing, hovering over his bed, Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker, the initiator of the 1991 income tax in Connecticut, formerly a state without a broad-based income tax. I understand the horror. I should also warn fans of Gelernter, if any of them read, that I am stunned by how an obviously smart, thoughtful man can leave out key historical facts that would likely lead to conclusions very different from some of those he reaches.

First, a note about Gelernter’s thesis that relates to war and peace. In conflicts around the world, argues Gelernter, the U.S. (he shares the typical failing of most Americans, including many of those who write on, of not distinguishing between the U.S. and the U.S. government) has been the good guy. Whether in World War I, World War II, the Cold War, or Vietnam, the U.S., Gelernter claims, has been on the side of justice and freedom. The lesson we should take from this, he writes, is that the U.S. should continue intervening in the affairs of other countries in order to promote freedom and justice in the world. Gelernter writes: "If there is to be justice in the world, America must create it. … We must pursue justice, help the suffering, and overthrow tyrants" (p. 205).

How does he reach this conclusion? Very simply. He talks about what he regards (and many would regard) as the good things various politicians have done and leaves out many key facts. In his chapter "Abraham Lincoln, America’s Last and Greatest Founding Father," he says that Lincoln is "the man to whom this book is dedicated." (Actually, though, the dedication reads, "For my Jane.") I, too, was once a fan of Lincoln – starting at age 13, when I began reading books about him, and ending at about age 30, when I read more books about him. Gelernter states correctly that Lincoln ended slavery. However, even Gelernter admits that Lincoln’s main goal in going to war with the Confederacy was to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. But as Washington commentators say about politicians who change their views once they have taken power, Lincoln "grew in office."

Yet Gelernter leaves out important facts about Lincoln, including the following. To end the enslavement of black people, Lincoln introduced the short-term enslavement of white people. By introducing conscription, Lincoln followed Napoleon, forcibly taking people from their homes and sending them hundreds of miles away to fight and die. Earlier, Lincoln had also suspended habeas corpus so that he could imprison some Maryland legislators who were about to vote to secede from the Union. So much for overthrowing tyrants: Lincoln was a tyrant.

Not surprisingly, another tyrant has recently cited Lincoln’s actions and justifications as support for his own suspension of civil liberties. That tyrant is Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf stated:

"I would at this time venture to read out an excerpt of President Abraham Lincoln, especially to all my listeners in the United States. As an idealist, Abraham Lincoln had one consuming passion during that time of crisis, and this was to preserve the Union … towards that end, he broke laws, he violated the Constitution, he usurped arbitrary power, he trampled individual liberties. His justification was necessity, and explaining his sweeping violation of Constitutional limits he wrote in a letter in 1864, and I quote, ‘My oath to preserve the Constitution imposed on me the duty of preserving by every indispensable means that government, that Nation of which the Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the Nation and yet preserve the Constitution?’"

Is it possible that Gelernter’s failure to cite Lincoln’s repression of freedom means that he, an American, knows less about American history than Musharraf does? Or does Gelernter think that repression is fine as long as it prevents people from using their freedom to vote against your cause?

In his next chapter, Gelernter moves from praising Lincoln to praising that other great American president who did so much for world peace, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, he writes, "worked hard to keep America out of the first World War." Gelernter’s claim would come as a surprise to historians who have examined Wilson’s record carefully. Historians have documented Wilson’s lukewarm slaps on the British government’s hand when that government violated international law during World War I. They also have contrasted those mild reprimands with the stern and ominous warnings to the German government when that government carried out the traditional activities governments do in time of war. I could cite many examples, but, in the interest of space, I’ll settle for two about Britain and one about Germany.

In 1914, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, tried to cut off food supplies to Germany, stating that his goal was to "starve the whole population [of Germany] – men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound – into submission" (quoted in Ralph Raico, "World War I: The Turning Point," in John V. Denson, ed., The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, p. 222). This violated international law. And although U.S. State Department lawyers wrote a strong protest, Wilson’s administration never sent it. Later in 1914, the British government announced that it would mine the North Sea, putting neutral countries’ ships, including U.S. ships, at risk of being blown up. As historian Ralph Raico points out, this effectively ended U.S. commerce with Germany. The U.S. government, though, "refused to join the Scandinavian neutrals in objecting to the closing of the North Sea, nor did it send a protest of its own" (Raico, "World War I," p. 223). In March 1915, by contrast, when the German government torpedoed the British steamship Falaba, which carried munitions but also carried one American, the U.S. government protested to the German government, claiming that the U.S. had the right and duty to protect Americans who were foolish enough to sail on ships that flew a flag of a belligerent country (Raico, p. 223). And this just skims the surface of Wilson’s diabolical scheme to violate his own country’s neutrality and take sides in the European war.

All of this raises the question: does Gelernter not know these facts, or did he just decide not to inform his readers because the truth does not support his views? If the former, why is he writing a book without checking the facts? Gelernter, remember, is not some hayseed who doesn’t know about research. Instead, he is an accomplished academic at one of America’s leading universities. Gelernter claims that "Wilsonian Americanism requires finely balanced decision-making." Really, though, how balanced was Wilson’s decision-making when a little real neutrality and a little political courage might have caused Churchill to lighten up on his efforts to murder German civilians? Or would Gelernter claim that these German civilians don’t count because the German government was oppressing them too, making them fair game for the double whammy of starvation by Britain’s government?

Toward the end of his book, Gelernter claims that Franklin D. Roosevelt "did not take America into the Second World War" (emphasis his). Gelernter writes, "By helping Britain against Germany and China against Japan, he went right to the brink but did not cross over it." Harry Truman, by contrast, gets more points from Gelernter because he "accepted the Soviet challenge and took the United States into the Cold War."

Although Gelernter has correctly given Truman the responsibility for starting the Cold War, he doesn’t show the same understanding of Roosevelt. Roosevelt wanted in the worst way to take the United States to war, but he had a problem: Americans didn’t want another foreign war. Roosevelt, knowing this, became a peace candidate in 1940, promising, in a famous speech in Boston, that "your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." FDR knew that the only way to get the U.S. into the war was to provoke the German and Japanese governments. That’s why FDR started "neutrality patrols" in May 1941, designed, of course, to violate neutrality. The aforementioned historian, Ralph Raico, in "On the Brink of World War II," (in Robert Higgs and Carl P. Close, eds., Opposing the Crusader State), his review of Justus Doenecke’s Storm on the Horizon, quotes Doenecke as follows: "By flashing locations of German U-boats, the patrol would alert British merchantmen to veer away while inviting British cruisers and destroyers to attack" (quoted in Raico, p. 100). And FDR successfully provoked the Japanese government by imposing embargoes on key resources, the one on oil being the last straw. Maybe FDR would have earned more points with Gelernter if he had declared war on Japan and Germany without the provocation of Pearl Harbor and without a vote by Congress. Or maybe Gelernter would have wanted FDR to persuade Congress to declare war and, if he failed, threaten to suspend habeas corpus for those whom he feared would vote against war. After all, in a book devoted to Abraham Lincoln, would this repression of peace-loving Americans be too much to ask for?

Copyright © 2007 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

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Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Hendersonis a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and a professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life (Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008).

He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Visit his Web site.