Southern Critics of Intervention: Part III

As noted in a previous column, Southerners have gotten a reputation for belligerence at home and abroad. To combat this unfortunate generalization, I continue my survey of Southerners who have been critics – to some degree or another – of interventionist foreign policy and empire. Tom Watson, whose views on the Spanish-American War and the First World War were aired last week, was not completely alone, as a Southerner, in his criticism of these wars.


Two Southern Senators – James K. Vardaman of Mississippi and William J. Stone of Missouri (if we may claim that state) – were among the six Senators who voted against entering World War I. During the final debate, Vardaman remarked that “I do not feel like sacrificing a million men…, in order to liberate Germany from the cruel domination of kings, without first consulting the people who are to be sacrificed for the deliverance.”1 He doubted that a majority of the American people wanted the war into which Congress was now dragging them. Senator Stone told a colleague why he opposed entry: “not because this war will cost billions, which these fools think will cost only millions; it’s not even because of the loss of American lives although I would not sacrifice one American boy for all the European belligerents. I won’t vote for this war because if we go into it, we will never again have this same old Republic.”2

In 1958, Donald Davidson, Southern Agrarian essayist, poet, and regionalist, wrote of the Spanish-American War, that the “North, it is true, watched for a moment with bated breath in 1898 to see whether the South would actually be loyal in a time of foreign war.” He noted, with evident regret, that – as one result of the patriotic exercise of 1898 – in the next war, “Blue and gray merged in indistinguished khaki, and we were going to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the first world war of our century to fight an alleged enemy for reasons that we had to take on faith.”3

Of course, if World War I is the original crime of the century (as it was) and if, as Pat Buchanan and others maintain, US entry into that war made a bad situation much worse, then a little attention now and then to the views of those Americans who opposed Wilson’s “idealism” is in order.


It is fairly unusual to find a Southern critic of World War II. In November 1941, historian B.B. Kendrick gave a speech in Atlanta on “The Colonial Status of the South,” which linked a number of Populist and “isolationist” themes. Discussing “the recent imperialist foreign policy of the New Deal,” he suggested that “that age-old mechanism of governments for escaping from domestic difficulties – a vigorous foreign policy” had “lurk[ed] more or less consciously in the minds of some New Dealers in case the three R’s [Recovery, Relief, and Reform] should fail them.” The economic downturn of 1937 was crucial in the New Deal’s change of front, symbolized by Roosevelt’s speech on “quarantining” aggressors (a point later made by William Appleman Williams in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy [1959]).

Concerned about German intentions and cheering FDR along, were “the national and international finance capitalists and imperialists,” “the Anglophiles,” “most ‘liberal’ journalists,” “moralists,” and “Communists” (“except during the… Hitler-Stalin pact”). The administration had thrown aside the sound US foreign policy of “American Continentalism and Pan-Americanism” in favor of crusading with Britain against Germany and Japan. As a Southerner, Kendrick wanted to know why “it was our own region which furnished the greatest amount of political power necessary” to make Roosevelt’s new turn possible. He suggested that it was the dominance of outside financial interests over Southern economic managers and politicians that explained the latters’ eagerness to go along.4

Now, one would have had to search far and wide in 1941 to find a Southerner who was “pro-German” or “pro-Nazi” – despite some recent whining in the Journal of Southern History to the effect that Southerners and Nazis had “the same ideology.” (The Southerners of 1941 didn’t see it that way, and they acted on their own views and not on what later critics would come to think about those views.) Kendrick’s views resembled those of Charles A. Beard, who was not bent on helping Germany, either. Whether they were right or wrong about the immediate situation, Kendrick and Beard were working within the framework of noninterventionist foreign policy and not on behalf of their favorite foreign state. This is more than could be said, in 1941, for certain interventionists.


Like Donald Davidson, Richard M. Weaver had his ties to the Southern Agrarian literary movement. He believed that US participation in World War II had been necessary but had reservations about the conduct of the war. These reservations carried over into the Cold War period and were the basis of Weaver’s cogent but careful critique of 20th-century Total War.

Weaver can be viewed as a leading light of the postwar “new conservative” movement associated with Russell Kirk. He gave himself over to making out a case against modernism and allied doctrines like nominalism, scientism, and behaviorism. He was never an opponent of the Cold War as such. For these reasons, his hard-hitting views on the conduct of war went largely unremarked by the conservative fraternity.

For Weaver, total war was the result of giving into “irrationalism.” As he wrote in 1965: “Modern wars have tended increasingly to resemble lynching parties…. The object now is to pulverize the enemy completely, men, women, and children being lumped into one common target; it is to reduce a country to ‘atomic ashes,’ to recall a frightful phrase which I saw recently in a newspaper.”5

In past centuries, war had been in some measure civilized, subject to limitations. As long as these were upheld, war – however unfortunate it might be – was not a threat to civilization as such. “Only those people who have never emerged from barbarism – or those who have lapsed back into it – fight without regard to certain binding rules, which go deeper than the war itself and make it part of the pattern of civilization.”6

Modern war involved a race into Schrecklichkeit – terrorist atrocity – with each side seeing its opponent’s latest departure from the old rules of war as warranting further such steps on its own. In the end, we were “treated to the spectacle of young boys fresh out of Kansas and Texas turning nonmilitary Dresden into a holocaust which is said to have taken tens of thousands of lives, pulverizing ancient shrines like Monte Cassino and Nuremburg, and bringing atomic annihilation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” All reasoned discriminations between ends and means, and between acceptable and unacceptable means, were tossed aside. Among these lost discriminations was that between combatants and noncombatants. The argument from expedience – that these particular violations of the old rules will save lives and money – rested, in Weaver’s view, on the purely materialist and pragmatic assumptions held by an increasingly uncivilized American middle class. He asked why anyone would go to war in the first place if the primary object was to save lives? He noted: “The ontological order with reference to which one could say, ‘You should not bomb an open city’ has passed away. ‘Open’ is now only a factor in the engineering equation.”7


Embroiled in the exciting details of the Cold War, the young conservatives of my generation largely overlooked Weaver’s critique of modern war. Their successors – dedicated to conserving all our inherited institutions which go back as far as 1945 – can’t be bothered to read some guy who kept going on about the evils of modernism from the standpoint of Christian Platonism (or something like that). Those in between – “meso-conservatives”? – may not be interested either.

Yet Richard Weaver had an important “dialectical” analysis of the relationship between the philosophical failings of modernism – materialism, pragmatism, Deweyism – and the kind of public policies derived from them, at home and abroad. He understood, too, that that those peaceful chaps, the Liberals, were likely to start bombing folks – under the new rules – the minute something disappointed them. Many people forgot that until just recently. His treatment of these issues deserves a wider hearing, especially among libertarians and conservatives. It might actually be more important than launching a crusade to “conserve” high-modernist art as it existed circa 1950 in New York City.

Like many Southerners, Weaver believed that any “patriotism” worthy of the name is about something real, tangible, lasting, and local. Hence, his handling of culture, which he saw as regional and as arising from sundry properly cultivated “provincialisms.” It’s hard to get people rooted in a genuine way of life to go off on crusades to impose the central bureaucracy’s vision of the Good on unruly furriners – not that the elites won’t go to the necessary trouble. Southerners have had their faults historically, but often they are the ones who find out that the argument against centralized despotism at home has its analogies with the argument against world empire. Senator J. William Fulbright, the present Leader-of-the-Free-World’s former employer, was a Southerner who made just that connection. I guess that message didn’t pass on to some of the staff. But then it’s hard to get good help these days.

I postpone looking into whether “patriotism” and “nationalism” are the same thing to another day.

[1] Quoted in Walter Millis, Road to War: America, 1914-1917 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1935), p. 448.
[2] Quoted in Belle C. LaFollette and Fola LaFollette, Robert M. LaFollette, I (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1953), p. 654. (my emphasis)
[3] Donald Davidson, Southern Writers in the Modern World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1958), pp. 31, 34.
[4] B.B. Kendrick, “The Colonial Status of the South” in George B. Tindall, ed., The Pursuit of Southern History (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1964), pp. 102-104.
[5] Richard M. Weaver, Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1965), p. 151.
[6] George M. Curtis III and James J. Thompson, Jr., eds., The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1987), p. 164.
[7] Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order (Bryn Mawr: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995 [1964]), ch. 6, “A Dialectic on Total War,” pp. 98, 95.