Frank Chodorov: A Libertarian’s Libertarian


Frank Chodorov (1887-1966) could well be called a libertarian’s libertarian. The eleventh child of Russian immigrants on the Lower West Side of New York, he was named Fishel Chodorowsky but was "always known as Frank Chodorov."1 A 1907 graduate of Columbia University, he had a textile business, followed by a mail-order clothing business, which succumbed to the Great Depression. After this disaster, he went into saleswork, but came to be best known as a promoter of libertarian ideas.An important influence on Chodorov was the writings of Henry George, apostle of free trade, free markets, and – unfortunately, some would say – the "Single Tax" on land, which was supposed to alleviate the evils of rent and private land-ownership. Sometime in the ‘teens he read George’s Progress and Poverty, which had a profound impact on his world-outlook. In 1941 he wrote of George: "His is the philosophy of free enterprise, free trade, free men."2 Another important mentor to Chodorov was the renowned essayist Albert Jay Nock, himself an extreme libertarian – I do not mean the word "extreme" as a criticism – and Georgist.


In this space, I am of course most interested in Chodorov’s views on foreign policy. Along with that whole generation of libertarians, republicans, and conservatives we call the Old Right, Chodorov was strongly committed to nonintervention. As World War II took form, he wrote many antiwar editorials in the old Freeman, a publication of the Henry George School. For his pains, he was purged as editor in 1942. He founded his own broadsheet, analysis in 1944. In this little journal, he could truly write what he thought. (There is some resemblance between analysis and Dwight MacDonald’s Politics – in the latter’s left-wing pacifist phase.)

Financial difficulties led to the merger of analysis with another little journal, Human Events, in 1951. In 1954-1955, Chodorov edited the new Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Another outlet for Chodorov’s energies was the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, founded in 1950, later renamed the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (if I understand the institutional continuity correctly). The latter is still in existence.


Chodorov had opposed US entry into World War II. Like many on the Old Right who had had no illusions that the great crusade would produce a better world, he saw little reason to enlist in the sequel, the cold war. In early 1947, Congress debated the Truman Doctrine – US aid to any government anywhere, that claimed to be menaced by our erstwhile heroic allies, the communists – and, specifically, the proposal to aid Greece and Turkey. Chodorov foresaw "a Byzantine Empire of the West," if Truman’s policy prevailed. He warned that "poking into Europe’s business would directly impact American liberty: "Already there is a Red witchhunt afoot, and experience tells us that when the exigencies of the situation require it the definition of ‘Red’ will include every person who raises his voice against the going order." In the end, "when our imperialism comes to grips with the empire of the commissars, … our liberties will vanish into – communism."3

Of course that battle against the Greek-Turkish Aid Bill, like so many others, was lost. In "Misguided Patriotism" (March 1951), we find Chodorov questioning the role of big business in assisting the political establishment. The case of Charles Wilson of General Electric was "illustrative": "He was called by Mr. Truman when the Korean affair started…. Mr. Truman could think of no way out but the regimentation of private life – the only cure-all in the politician’s pharmacopia… He reached out into industry for help." This "mesalliance" between business and state could only strengthen the state at the expense of liberty. Chodorov wrote: "To put it bluntly: Communism will not be imported from Moscow; it will come out of Wall Street and Main Street" – if business itself failed to make the proper distinction between state and market.4


In the August 1954 Freeman there was something of a debate between young William F. Buckley, Jr., paladin of the interventionist new right, and Chodorov. Buckley wrote that "to beat the Soviet Union we must, to an extent, imitate the Soviet Union" – with conscription, higher taxes, and bureaucracy. He dismissed the non-interventionists’ fear that "we shall totalitarianize ourselves to a point where life in the United States would be indistinguishable from life in the Soviet Union, save possibly for an enduring folkway or two."5]

Chodorov "replied," in effect, that communism was an idea, that could not be killed by military means. All we could kill would be "natives" of other countries, who happened to believe in that unworkable idea – if, for example, we should ever be so foolish as to "send an army into Indochina." No, we should stand firm for the ideals of private property and freedom "and let all natives live."6 At this late date, I think it safe to say that Washington did what it could to make life here "indistinguishable from life in the Soviet Union" and, as for the "enduring folkway or two," the entrenched academic and bureaucratic left are bent on denying us even those.

As the battle for the soul of the right wing continued, Chodorov made related points. He noted that we now suffered increased public debt, high taxes, the "involuntary servitude"of peacetime conscription, and "a bureaucracy that compares favorably with in size with that of the Nazi regime." In the cold war, as in hot war, "the State acquires power… and because of its insatiable lust for power [it] is incapable of giving up any of it. The State never abdicates." (Congressional Republicans, take note.) Overseas, our rough-and-ready Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was leaning on France to join the European Defense Community. This reflected "a new kind of imperialism" based on bribery and manipulation.7

Now came William S. Schlamm, right-wing immigrant and former leftist, to argue the cold warrior’s case in The Freeman. Setting up the straw man of an "unarmed U.S., minding its own pleasant business of freedom," he asked how we "could avoid being overrun by a communist world monopoly of military power"? Evidently, the non-interventionists were relying on "hunches" that the communists weren’t serious, or that God would bail them out. But the commies were about to add "the gigantic industrial powerhouse of western Europe to the manpower and natural resources of Asia": against this terrible threat the "unarmed US" – again his ungrounded assumption – could never prevail. No, he would rather "pay with the recoverable loss of some of my liberties for a chance to avoid, for centuries, the total loss of freedom."8 Well, we can’t all plan so many centuries ahead, but it seems clear that if the commies had overrun western Europe and managed "the gigantic industrial powerhouse" according to their theory and praxis, they would have run it into the ground, quickly reducing their threat to manageable proportions. But, alas, word of the problem of economic calculation under socialism, as formulated by Ludwig von Mises, seems not to have come to Mr. Schlamm. As for "recoverable loss" of freedoms, I merely ask the names of those recovered in recent memory. There may be some, but I doubt the list is very long.

In reply, Chodorov went over the ground methodically. We were being told to be afraid, that war was inevitable (again). But as "the articulate fearers" admitted, their program required conscription. This suggested that they knew that Americans would never volunteer "to fight a war with Russia on foreign soil." Americans had been conscripted in 1917 and for World War II. This raised "the pertinent question: if Americans did not want these wars should they have been compelled to fight them?" (As often happens, here the right-wing anti-statist sounds rather more "democratic" than his opponent.) People who would compel Americans to fight Russia "have the dictator complex." Giving up our freedom to an American leviathan – in the name of stopping a hypothetical foreign leviathan – seemed a stacked deck to Chodorov. Either way, we got leviathan. Actually, US withdrawal into our own hemisphere would be advantageous by forcing the Soviets to lengthen their supply lines – if they really were bent on attacking us. As for Europe: "it would be hard on the Europeans if they fell into Soviet hands; but not any worse than if we precipitated a war in which their homes became the battlefield."9 Quite a few saved-by-being-destroyed villages later, I think we can see that Chodorov had a point.


Chodorov’s cause was the anti-interventionist and antistatist faith of the older right wing. In the hysteria of the high cold war – Truman doctrine, the "fall" of China, McCarthyism, Korea – the interventionist new rightists stampeded their constituents into another cosmic crusade, at the successful conclusion of which they would get their liberties back, no questions asked. I suppose it would be rude to ask for them now, even though the proximate justification for their surrender fell of its own weight – and lack of rational economic calculation – ten years ago.

In 1962, Chodorov summed up his foreign policy ideas in his autobiography. "Isolationism," he wrote, "is not a political policy, it is a natural attitude of a people." Left to their own devices, the people "do not feel any call to impose their own customs and values on strangers." But "interventionism is a conceit of the political leader" who finds too little for himself to do in just presiding over a self-regulating civil society. As a result of successful campaigns for intervention in the past, we had – not a better world – but "a monstrous bureaucracy with a vested interest in intervention" and a nation "committed to a program of interference in the affairs of every country in the world." Alexander had imposed Hellenism on western Asia, the Romans imposed the pax Romana wherever they could, and Napoleon imposed "liberty, equality, fraternity" on Europe. Hitler spread Aryanism. Britain gave "a taste of English civilization" to natives the world over. Chodorov saw folly in all these imperial forms. Since we all work now in the shadow of the fellow with the mustache, I hasten to add that I doubt Chodorov found each empire the exact moral equivalent of the other. What he did hope was that Americans would listen to a world tired of our overseas therapies and know-how and "return to that isolationism which for over a hundred years prospered the nation and gained for us the respect and admiration of the world."10

[1] Charles H. Hamilton, ed., Fugitive Essays: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov (Liberty Press: Indianapolis, 1980), "Introduction," p. 13.
[2] Ibid., p. 14.
[3] Frank Chodorov, "A Byzantine Empire of the West," analysis, April 1947 (placed in The Congressional Record, vol. 93, part II, pp. A2015-16, by Congressman Howard Buffett).
[4] Frank Chodorov, "Misguided Patriotism," Human Events, March 14, 1947, pp. 1-4.
[5] William F. Buckley, Jr., "A Dilemma of Conservatives," The Freeman, 5, 2 (August 1954), pp. 51-52.
[6] Frank Chodorov, "Reds Are Natives," ibid., pp. 45-46.
[7] Frank Chodorov, "The Return of 1940?", The Freeman, 5, 3 (September 1954), p. 81, and "The New Imperialism," ibid., 5,5 (November 1954), p. 162.
[8] William S. Schlamm, "But It Is Not 1940," ibid., pp. 169-171.
[9] Frank Chodorov, "A War to Communize America," ibid., 171-174 (my italics in the last quotation).
[10] Frank Chodorov, Out of Step (New York: Devin-Adair Co., 1962), Ch. XI, "Isolationism," pp. 113-123.