Walter Karp (1934-1989): War Critic and Republican Theorist


It is best to clear up a few conceptual issues before looking at the thought of Walter Karp.   The first question is: What is republican theory?  We have to ask questions like that these days, in this country, because most people have lost the thread and have little idea what the American Revolution was all about or what ideas and interests motivated those who carried it out.

Republican theory has its roots in the republicanism of ancient Greece and Rome.  It equated citizenship (for males, obviously) with participation in defense of the city-state, and thus called for an armed citizenry organized into what we might think of as reserve units or "militias."   Much later, Nicolò Machiavelli and other Renaissance writers breathed new life into republicanism, providing an ideological foundation for the Italian city-states of the age. 

Thence, republican theory migrated to the British Isles, during and after the Puritan Revolution in the mid-17th century.  James Harrington’s Oceana (1656) was a full-scale application of republican ideas to English political life.  J.G.A. Pocock, the great titan of republican studies, holds that in the form of  "country ideology" republican thought became a common and persistent political language wielded by Anglo-American opposition movements from the 17th into the 19th century.  These ideas came into the American Revolution in a broad stream, which also included Locke’s liberalism, radical readings of English law, and Protestantism.


The American "synthesis" brought these traditions together in a new way.1  The republican theme of the independent, armed citizen on his own land was one source of the Second Amendment.  The republican concept of "corruption" as whatever "unbalances" the constitution (and not mere stealing of money) informed the political discourse of our founding era.


Whatever the merits of all that – and I cannot defend it here – Walter Karp viewed American history and politics through republican lenses.  He was interested in the specifically American form of republicanism. He did not think that republicanism meant that the people never get what they want.  On the contrary, he believed that modern "democracy," which neglected republican forms, came down to the disguised supremacy of two ruling oligarchies.  We call this the two-party system.  Heeding republican forms was actually the key to popular self-government.

Karp was for ten years a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine2 and wrote two important books on American history –  I begin with The Politics of War because it deals with war and intervention, specifically with the origins of two wars, "which forever altered the political life of the American republic" (title page): the Spanish-American War and World War I.3


Karp denied that one can usefully separate the history of domestic and foreign policy.  Already in the 1880s, he writes, James G. Blaine (R-Maine), "who never thought beyond the interests of party" (p. 8), clamored for an activist foreign policy which would redound to the benefit of the GOP.  The Democrats, who weren’t stupid, saw what was up, hence Cleveland’s unnecessary and risky posturing against Britain in 1895 over the Anglo-Venezuelan border dispute (pp. 39-48).  The British, fortunately were distracted by other matters – the Kaiser’s supportive telegram to Transvaal President Kruger, for one – but both parties had seen the light of an activist foreign policy which could shape a new order allowing them to bypass both people and constitution at will.  The looked-for "large policy" (as TR, Lodge, and Brooks Adams called it) was thus aimed as much at the American people as at the wider world.

Coming into office in early 1897, self-effacing President William McKinley (R-Ohio) was determined to find an occasion for the "large policy."  Cuban rebels duly provided one and McKinley spent months explaining to Spain how it should conduct itself in its last important American colony.  McKinley’s campaign outlived all possible Spanish compromises and concessions, suggesting – says Karp – that the "negotiations" were intended to fail (and compare George Bush’s negotiations in the run-up to the Gulf War).  Much of Wall Street had been opposed to war (pp. 74-75), by the way, suggesting that those who held with outright war for foreign markets were not a cross-section of American business.  For Karp, the President – supposedly pushed into war by reporters, noisy journalists, Congressmen, and do-gooders – was firmly in charge the whole way. 

It was an easy war and we got Hawaii by the same unconstitutional dodge that got us Texas and NAFTA: the joint resolution). Then we got the Philippines, a great coaling station and jumping-off point to future Asian commerce and an indefensible strategic anti-asset   if we ever had disagreements with an Asian power.  (We really needed an "India.")  We got a war to suppress Filipino "insurrectionists," our first overseas counterinsurgency.  We got closer relations with the British Empire.  We got protectorates, or informal colonies, Cuba, for example.  Not bad for such an allegedly "reluctant" President. 


Karp was even unhappier about Wilson’s crusade for overseas "democracy" and perpetual peace, the latter to be achieved by immediate catastrophic war.  He shows nothing but contempt for conventional historians’ emphasis on Wilson’s "idealism" and peaceful "intentions."  If Wilson did not want US entry in the European bloodbath, he should not have followed policies that made involvement inevitable.   This might be called Karp’s methodological rule #1: look at what they do, not what they say.   To people who see Wilson’s actions as reflecting his Presbyterianism, Karp retorts that it was precisely the unchristian sin of "vainglory" that drove the President on (p. 146). 

Karp believed that from the outbreak of war in Europe, Wilson had harbored the vision of settling the war himself and building a great new order of perpetual peace.  His unfortunate invasion of Mexico – to teach Mexicans good government – ought to have been a clue as to his methods.  To settle the European war, America would have to be in it, and Wilson accepted that logic, but with a great display of public reluctance and much peaceful blather.  Karp also notes Wilson’s strong Anglophile leanings as another reason for his conduct.   Critics "accused him openly of putting British interests ahead of American interests," which "had the misfortune of being true" (p 228).  Wilson’s policy was peaceful "only in the Wilsonian sense that entering the war meant ending war" (p. 274), but his rhetoric allowed Republican oligarchs, who had their own reasons for war fever, to attack him for terrible weakness and professorial ineptitude.

Thus, the election of 1916 was a choice between two war parties and the Democratic slogan “He kept us out of war” was so much hot air. As for the merits of “freedom of the seas” and other war pretexts, Ralph Raico4 has dealt with them ably – with the skepticism they merit – and I won’t pause here to review them. US intervention set up an incredible “great leap forward” in raw government power and interference in Americans’ lives,5 enforced by a federal reign of terror against dissenters and suspected “pro-Germans” and, later, “pro-Bolsheviks.” Wartime mobilization furthered state economic management (“war socialism”), whose alleged successes inspired the later New Dealers and their alphabetic agencies.


Thus, the two wars – 1898 and 1917-1918 – meant tremendous gains for post-constitutional, post-republican ways of governing.  This brings us to Karp’s Indispensable Enemies, subtitled "The Politics of Misrule in America."3   Karp’s reading of US history at home and abroad puts the politics back in and puts party-political oligarchies in the driver’s seat.  In his view, stable, self-perpetuating party oligarchies had formed by at least the 1890s, and from that time forward, American political reality had been precisely that echo, not a choice, whereof the Goldwater folk spoke, or that dime’s worth of difference (or less), which George Corley Wallace made famous.

Marxist-tinged historians who looked for underlying "economic" causation in everything were wholly unable to explain two-party oligarchic rule except as somehow reflecting the wants of big business and (sometimes) big labor – political power of the politicians, who, after all, were the ones dispensing the favors.   (The railroad politics of the 1850s comes to mind.)  Historians, by attributing control of the politicians to the public (liberals) or the interests (Marxists), acted as "apologists" and obscured the active role of the more-than-relatively-autonomous politicians and state in bringing about particular outcomes (p. 5). 

Each party fielded a "reformist" and an "obstructionist" wing – in a giant ballet meant to convince voters that something was going on besides oligarchic business as usual.  "Given the Hobson’s choice between New Deal liberalism and nothing, many voters have preferred nothing" (p. 84).  The GOP obligingly promises them nothing, and then fails to deliver even on that.   Faced with the results of oligarchic policies, many people decided that there is an "inherent alliance" of corrupt power and great wealth, which led them further to conclude that "the only real alternative to the status quo is taking people’s money away, that is, communism or socialism" (p. 158).  Actually, the parties had actively fostered a monopolistic economy in order to shake down interests beholden to them for campaign contributions.  In all this, ambition and the love of power had been more important than mere money, which talented people can obtain by other means.  The whole structure depended crucially on two-party collusion, since one party dispensing corrupt favors could be called to account by another, genuinely principled party.  In practice, oligarchs in either party would rather lose an election than lose control of the party machinery.  The Goldwater and McGovern campaigns may be examples of this.


Interventionist foreign policy serves the interest of the partyarchs as 1) a distraction from domestic affairs and 2) a source of unconstitutional and corrupt power.  LBJ no more believed that little short fellows in black pajamas menaced Texas than Wilson really thought the Kaiser’s soldiers would soon be in Princeton.   But where are our old friends the Open Door ideologists, public and private?  I think they are still there, but I also believe that Walter Karp did us a service by focusing on a neglected aspect of  corporate-government collusion – neo-mercantilism – at home and abroad.  As a republican theorist, Karp zeroed in on important motivations – ambition, lust for power – that transcend mere money and help explain politicians’ interest in both domestic and foreign intervention.   Unless we intend to take up Marxist orthodoxy in which all things reduce to economic motives and causation, we must be prepared to give power and ambition their places in the larger picture.  As Karp said, paraphrasing Aristotle, "no one aspires to become a tyrant in order to keep warm."6 For making connections of this sort, republican theory is not just useful; it is essential.  One more thing, however.  Don’t be fooled: republicanism in this sense has nothing at all to do with a large political organization of the same name.  That is merely a verbal coincidence or accident of history.


  1. See Joseph R. Stromberg, "Tensions in Early American Political Thought," The Freeman, 49, 5 (May 1999), 44-50.
  2. Clews H. Lapham, "Walter Karp," Harper’s Magazine, 279 (October 1989), 8-12.
  3. Walter Karp, Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974) and The Politics of War (New York: Harper Colophon, 1979).
  4. Ralph Raico, "World War I: The Turning Point" in John V. Denson, ed., The Costs of War (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1999), pp. 203-247.
  5. See the important essay by Murray N. Rothbard, "World War I as Fulfillment," also in Denson, ed., Costs of War.
  6. Walter Karp, "How to Think about Politicians," Horizon, 19, 1 (January 1977), p. 15.