What does it all mean? For what seems like an eternity, we’ve been telling our readers that this war is a turning point in the history of this country, a frankly imperial venture that puts us well on the road to becoming the New Rome. Now comes a voice from the past to say when and how we first took this dangerous route to our destiny.
The publication of Garet Garrett’s Defend America First: The Antiwar Editorials of the Saturday Evening Post, 1939-1942 (Caxton Press, 285 pages) just as the Iraq war ended, was serendipitous. It was as if someone History, perhaps had tapped us on the shoulder and reminded us that all of it has happened once before, as in a dream.
Garrett, chief editorial writer for the Saturday Evening Post go here, and here for some indication of his importance as an analyst of imperial decline and a revered figure of the Old Right was the journalistic voice of an America that had not yet been seduced into its global mission. To him, as to the overwhelming majority of ordinary Americans, circa 1940, the chief preoccupation of the public was the failure of the New Deal to lift them out of their domestic disaster. Yet it was at about that time that Garrett noted a peculiar shift in the political winds:
"Never was a stranger thing than that the American people should be inviting themselves to another world war before it happens. At frequent intervals those who sample the waters of public emotion heave their questionaires into the stream such as, ‘If England and France were attacked by the dictators, will this country have to do something about it?’ or, ‘Shall the democracies of the world at any cost stand together?’"
But what was behind this sudden focus on the overseas disaster, when an economic and social catastrophe was staring Americans in the face? That is the question the conservatives of the time raised, some meekly the Landons and the Wilkies and some boldly, like Garrett, whose idiosyncratic and artful prose skewered the New Deal week after week. The rush to war was, to him, suspicious, and he pondered who or what was behind it:
In October, 1937, the nation was sliding back into the depths of a killer economic contraction, known today as the Great Depression, when "suddenly, out of the blue," FDR made his famous "quarantine the aggressor" speech. Americans had thought that the chief aggression against them was the continuing collapse of the nation’s economy, hurried along by the brainier crackpots of the presidential Brain Trust. But they were wrong. The real enemy was not at home, but overseas, in Europe, and we had to strike preemptively, the President argued, because "let no one imagine that America will escape." The Western hemisphere would not be spared the world plague of lawlessness: "When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread," he declared, "the community approves and joins in a quarantine."
The virus, once germinated, began to take root. The idea of an American will to preemptively protect yes, and save the world can be traced back at least as far as the Great War, but FDR was the first to wield it with such aggressive alacrity. Yet not even this President who had, after all, aspired to overthrow the Supreme Court, and, in doing that and much else, threatened to overthrow the Constitution dared speak of war. He knew the inherently American aversion to foreign wars would not be so easily overthrown. It had to be done slowly, subtly awakening competing emotional currents, and with care not to alert the public to the real agenda behind the pollsters gentle probing. "But you do not need the statistics," Garrett wrote,
"You can feel it. There is all at once an intellectual cult of interventionists. The feet of many pacifists are running in the paths toward war. The American character is inhabited by a strong crusader spirit. Many voices, for different reasons, have been calling for it, and it responds."
Those words might have been written today, and that is what is so striking about much of Garrett’s work: its modernity. Though he died in 1955, warning that "we have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire," his prose has about it a prescient air that falls not too far short of supernatural. The antiwar editorials gathered together in this volume, all culled by editor Bruce Ramsey from the Saturday Evening Post, taken together tell a familiar story.
An updated version of the same story has just played out its first phase on the front pages of our newspapers some sixty years later. The long process of entangling us in the affairs of the Middle East, step by step, was begun well before Bin Laden struck New York, until, today, as former CIA chief James Woolsey calls for "World War IV" to begin on a plain called Armageddon, it all seems horribly ordinary.
Garrett traces the path of a pattern that is easily recognizable. FDR tried to fool the public by advocating "measures short of war" that were designed, in fact, to pull us in: his machinations resemble the stratagems of the current administration in principle if not in full particulars. The decision to take Baghdad had been made long before the UN charade began, and the "evidence" linking Saddam to 9/11 is about as credible as Roosevelt’s lie that the Germans would soon take Brazil, and move north to Texas. "He lied us into war" is how Clare Booth Luce described FDR’s course of calculated deception. The same might be said of the current occupant of the Oval Office, whose tall tales of Iraqi drones on their way to wreak havoc on our shores are in the same league, albeit cruder.
Quarantine the aggressor: that’s what Roosevelt said. So, in his way, did Garrett. But the aggressor, to the conservatives of the time, was not just Hitler, but all the European ideologies of power. To enter the European maelstrom, again, would expose us to the continental contagion. The President had already mounted an assault on the Constitution and the American creed of limited government under cover of the economic emergency: war would be a lethal weapon in his hands, one that would cut down his domestic enemies long before the Axis powers were humbled. The "return to Europe" would mean the end of our old republic.
The President, in the very process of guile and undercover machinations, would subvert the foundations of the constitutional order. In the end, we might defeat national socialism in the trenches and witness its victory on the home front. This was the great fear of Garrett and his fellow America Firsters, and reading Defend America First is like receiving bulletins from the front lines of a war lost long ago, but no less breathless or dramatic for their antiquity:
"This is written on June tenth . With no notice to the American people or to the Congress that is supposed to interpret their will, this country entered the war four days ago," he wrote on hearing the news that the Navy had just announced the sale of fifty bombers to France. "Stranger than the fact was the passive acceptance of it." Garrett did not accept this seizure of power by the executive, and he called down damnation on the coup plotters, asking history to bear him witness:
"What we now write is to complete the record. We have no idea what the next consequences will be or what will have happened by the time these words appear. But as in time to come it may be bitterly remembered, so now be it said that in the one hundred and fifty years of its existence the house of constitutional republican government was betrayed, even as the builders feared. Unawares to the people, the exalted Executive principle could involve them in a war."
You have to remember that, back then, the Caesar principle had not been voiced, let alone generally accepted. The idea that the President has the power to single-handedly run the foreign policy of the United States, as an extension of his imperial will, was heresy, a doctrine advanced only by pure stealth. Aid to England "short of war," Garrett knew, meant that the U.S. had entered the war without the knowledge or consent of either the people or their representatives many months before Pearl Harbor.
"The people had not been told what was taking place," wrote Garrett on the occasion of the 1940 presidential election.
"The Congress has not been told. The President did it all by executive will, one thing at a time, and the news came afterward, not in any case, perhaps, all of the news, but as much only as was necessary for the people and the Congress to know."
The leftists of today think of Richard Nixon and Bush the Younger as not only incipient tyrants but pioneers in the presidential prerogative of obsessive secrecy and outright duplicity in wartime. On this score, however, FDR had both beat by a mile. Nixon, after all, openly proclaimed his intent on "regime change" in Hanoi, as did Bush 43 in Baghdad. On the other hand, FDR vowed not to get us into the European war, and
interpreted this as a license to get us into that war
through the Asian back door: he had secretly agreed to defend Britain’s Eastasian colonies, ensuring that Japan would become the third spoke in the wheel of the Axis. On the civil liberties front, it has to be said that Nixon never even considered locking up all Vietnamese-Americans in concentration camps, and there is probably no truth to the rumor that Susan Sarandon is about to be cast in the role of an "enemy combatant."
The literature of the Old Right is enjoying a renaissance such as I imagined but did not dare predict in my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement. "The history of the modern conservative movement in America is really the history of two movements," I wrote.
"The Old Right, the original Right, was nationalist, populist, and fundamentally libertarian. The cold war Right, dominated in large part by ex-leftist converts to conservatism, was militantly internationalist, increasingly elitist, and largely indifferent to free market economics indifferent, indeed, to virtually anything but the crusade against Communism."
The Old Right’s quarrel with the neoconservatives over Gulf War II has widened the gulf between these two streams of ostensibly conservative thought. While today the crusade against Communism has given way to the jihad against Islam, and the indifference to all the neoconservatives’ former goals (smaller government, fiscal sanity, domestic economic issues) is more obvious than ever, the lions of the Old Right, as Pat Buchanan called them, have much to say to the present day generation.
I like to think that my modest 1993 attempt to reexamine the legacy of the Old Right had something to do with the current revival of interest in figures such as Garrett, and John T. Flynn, although to be sure their brilliance and relevance would have recommended them to us in any event. The timeliness of this collection edited by Bruce Ramsey, a veteran newspaperman who writes a weekly opinion piece for the Seattle Times, couldn’t have been better.
Garrett’s editorial broadsides against the Rooseveltian effort to impose an American form of the collectivist systems that took hold in Germany, Italy, and Soviet Russia, have already been gathered together by Ramsey into a separate book, Salvos Against the New Deal. Together with Defending America First, Caxton Press has given us two bookends that, between them, summarize the history of the Old Right’s long war against the Welfare-Warfare State.
The renaissance of the Old Right revival owes a debt of gratitude to Bruce Ramsey, whose introduction to the present volume correctly fits Garrett’s life and ideas into the paradigm of an authentic American nationalism that manages to retain its libertarian core values without too much contradiction. Ramsey points to Buchanan and the paleoconservatives, as well as congressman Ron Paul and us libertarians, as Garrett’s heirs and legatees.
He also does us the very great favor of including, as an Appendix, Garrett’s stunning essay on "The Mortification of History" one of my top favorites which first appeared in the defiantly anti-interventionist Chicago Tribune in the autumn of 1943, wherein he answers the question of what is meant by the smear-word "isolationism." In his vivid and highly idiosyncratic prose, Garrett shows that the stereotypical troglodyte living in seclusion was never a part of the American character:
"If you say of this history that its intense character has been nationalistic, consistently so from the beginning until now, that is true. Therefore, the word in place of isolationism hat would make sense is nationalism. Why is the right word avoided?
"The explanation must be that the wrong one, for what it is intended to do, is the perfect political word. Since isolationism cannot be defined, those who attack it are not obliged to defend themselves. What are they? Anti-isolationists? But if you cannot say what isolationism is, neither can you say what anti-isolationism is, whereas nationalism, being definite, has a positive antithesis. One who attacks nationalism is an internationalist."
The decision to attack "isolationists" as the partisans of the Hermit Republic was tactical, and the result, for the internationalists, was that they would never have to openly state their own position and political goals:
"The use of the obscurity created by the false word is to conceal something. The thing to be concealed is the identity of what is speaking. Internationalism is speaking."
Yesterday, internationalism did not speak in its own name. Today, it does so fearlessly, at least among the intellectuals if not yet so quite boldly among their political camp followers. Garrett, if we are to name a school after his tradition, might be termed the exact opposite of the modern internationalist: a market nationalist, who championed American enterprise and national sovereignty as twin principles inextricably intertwined.
The reissue of these short editorials may, one hopes, lead to the republication of Garrett’s numerous other works, most especially the trilogy consisting of The Revolution Was, Ex America, and Rise of Empire, gathered together in the 1950s and published as The People’s Pottage. His book, The Wild Wheel, a paean to the entrepreneurial spirit that animated innovators like Henry Ford, and his early meditations on "the mechanical extension of mankind" are precursors of the libertarian techno-optimism links the tendency toward human freedom with the liberation of humankind from the tyranny of nature. He was a novelist, too, and his serials for the Saturday Evening Post are rich in possibilities for reprinting, especially for publishers of midwestern Americana like Caxton. And what about what is arguably Garrett’s best full-length book, The American Story? It is a history of the American Republic as seen through the eyes of a libertarian patriot whose view of it was summarized early in the text:
"The American revolution was a pilot flame that leaped the Atlantic and lighted holocaust in the Old World. But its character was misunderstood and could not have been reproduced by any other people. It was a revolution exemplary."
Surely, such a book has much to say to us today.
Caxton, by the way, is one of the oldest publishing houses in the country, and brought out many of the original editions of Garrett’s works, including the "People’s Pottage" trilogy. I look forward to the expansion of their political books in this mode, which might be termed Old Right Americana.