The following is the transcript of a talk given on October 26, at California Lutheran University, hosted by the Steven and Susan Woskow Trust and co-sponsored by Students for Liberty, the World Can’t Wait, Ventura County Libertarian Party, and the Center for Equality & Justice. The text has been edited for publication.
The subject at hand, the anti-interventionist trend in American politics, is of more than academic interest. As I speak, American troops are engaged in two wars, and Washington is threatening a third. On the left, the prostration of the former antiwar movement is near total: the speed and abjectness of the capitulation before the cult of Obama has been astonishing. Never has a movement evaporated so quickly, and with such alacrity, the long tradition of left-wing anti-interventionism betrayed and forgotten. Eugene Victor Debs is spinning in his grave.
On the right, the exact opposite is occurring: conservatives are rediscovering an anti-imperialist tradition that has long been reviled by the former leftists who now “police” their movement. Once forgotten, the slogan of “America First” has been making a comeback in recent years, ever since Patrick J. Buchanan revived it back in the early 1990s, making it the leitmotif of his presidential campaigns. Indeed, it was Buchanan who, in response to the first Gulf war, raised the banner of a movement that had the courage to ask: “Why should a single American die for the Emir of Kuwait?” A decade later, when Bush Jr. invaded Iraq, he was not alone among conservatives in predicting disaster.
Now, in response to President Obama’s escalation of our endless “war on terrorism,” many conservatives are moving into opposition. Cynics may say that this is due entirely to political opportunism, but may I remind you that opportunism in the cause of peace is no vice – and if, in search of a rationale for this turnabout, conservatives care to reclaim their historical legacy, it is there for the taking.
Yet it is on the left that the anti-imperialist tradition is so deeply imprinted that there’s less chance of forgetting it, and no excuse for betraying it. A left shorn of its opposition to America’s wars of aggression is no longer the left in any recognizable sense of the term: and yet that is what seems to have happened to the so-called progressive movement in America, which has been largely subsumed by the Obama cult. As a liberal Democratic President wages two wars and threatens a third – Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – the great historical traditions of the left-wing movement in America are being trod underfoot.
Internationalism is – or was — the signature spirit of the socialist movement worldwide, and I don’t mean that in the contemporary sense of the word. Today, internationalism refers to the actions of states in regard to other states: a modern “internationalist” is one who advocates intervention in the affairs of other nations on the basis of some notion of “collective security,” or spreading “freedom,” or some such nonsense.
Back in the old days, however, at the birth of the socialist and left-wing tendencies in American politics, internationalism was understood in the individual sense, that is, as the solidarity of individual workers internationally against their own ruling classes – and against war, which, they believed, was generated by the very dynamics of the capitalist system. Imperialism, said the Communists, is the final stage of capitalism, when the crisis of overproduction forces the capitalists to turn to foreign markets, and the wars between capitalist nations were seen in this context – inter-imperialist rivalries over the spoils of capitalist exploitation. In these conflicts, the early socialists argued, the workers don’t take a side – they take their own side, which is for the abolition of capitalism and war.
This principle was sorely tested when World War I broke out, and the socialist parties in Germany, Russia, and all throughout Europe and the world were faced with a choice: support the war and go along to get along, or uphold the internationalist spirit and the platform of the Socialist International, which called on the workers of the world to oppose war. The Germans chose to go along, and so did the socialist parties of Western Europe and Russia. Only the followers of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the so-called Bolsheviks, not only opposed the war but called for the defeat of their own ruling class.
Amid the ruins of a devastated Western Europe, the pro-war wing of the Social Democracy lost the confidence and support of their formerly massive base. In the East, however, it was quite a different story: there the Bolshevik program of land, bread, and peace had gained popular support, even as the Russian armies fell back in retreat. The Czarist regime began to crumble, and, after a brief phase of democratic liberalism, the Bolsheviks and their allies gained the upper hand. The Russian Revolution was in full swing, and, in very short order, given the scale of the event, the Soviet state had replaced the rule of the Romanoffs. The so-called “workers’ fatherland” was an international fact of reality — and so was its distorting impact on the development of the international socialist movement.
The effects of that distortion didn’t kick in quite yet, however: the pristine purity of the original internationalist ideal was still intact, embodied by the nascent Communist or Third International. In America, the old Socialist Party split, with the pro-war right-wing capitulating before Woodrow Wilson’s witch hunt, and the more principled wing, led by Eugene Victor Debs, facing the full onslaught of government repression head on and virtually alone. Debs was jailed for making a speech against the war, and the Socialist press was closed down. The teaching of the German language was banned in all schools, and the music of Brahms and Beethoven was banished from the concert halls.
The immigrant German and Irish miners were caught up in this hysteria, much of it based on ethnicity, and came under particular scrutiny, on account of their alleged “subversive” sympathies. Union leaders were accused of sabotaging the war effort.
You’ve heard of “company towns”: well, in those days Montana was a company state, and that company was Anaconda Copper. The Montana Council of Defense, a group appointed by the Company-owned governor, assumed almost total power in the state – in the name of winning the war, of course.
There then arose a champion of freedom to defend the Germans, the Irish, and the unions against the War Party: Burton K. Wheeler, a longtime enemy of Anaconda, who, with the help of the liberal faction of the Democratic party, managed to get himself appointed state district attorney on the resignation of the incumbent. Wheeler, who had defended union organizers from Anaconda, now felt called on to defend a Non Partisan League organizer who was beaten and driven out of town by a pro-war mob: he searched (in vain) for the murderers who dragged Frank Little, an IWW organizer who spoke out against the war, from his bed and hanged him from a railroad trestle in Butte. More than 2500 mourners turned Little’s funeral procession into an antiwar protest. When the editor of the Butte Bulletin, Bill Dunn, thundered that "every man, woman and child knows that Company agents perpetrated this foulest of all crimes," he was accused of sedition. But Wheeler refused to prosecute him, just as he refused to prosecute all the other dissidents whose only crime was to take the US Constitution seriously.
The Council of Defense went on the warpath, and the newspapers joined in, demanding his resignation. Wheeler’s life was threatened. His friends crossed the street to avoid him. While his wife stood by his side, and his good friend, Senator Thomas Walsh, offered to reappoint him despite the tremendous political pressure to dump him, Wheeler resigned, and returned to the practice of law, sidelined for the moment – but with a bright future ahead of him as a US Senator, and one of the leading progressive opponents of interventionism in that august body. But we are getting ahead of ourselves….
The Wilsonian internationalism of the progressives, grouped around The New Republic magazine, was the exact opposite of the Marxist internationalism that motivated Debs to defy the sedition laws and energized the midwestern populists of the Non Partisan League, the Socialist party left wing, and the nascent Communist party. In Wilson’s vision, the US and a concert of nations would secure the peace and enforce the right of national self-determination, ending the enslavement of small nations and setting up an international league of states that would enforce the peace. It was to be a revolution from above, on an international scale.
The results were quite different: not universal peace, but the farce of the Versailles treaty, which divided up Europe (and the colonies of the defeated nations) among the victorious powers, imposed draconian conditions on prostrate Germany, and created the conditions for another world war. The disillusionment of the Wilsonian liberals, who had put their hearts into this campaign of international moral and political uplift, was complete, and led to a wave of revulsion which soured the public and the intellectuals on interventionism for many years afterwards. An entire generation grew up in the shadow of the Great War, a war many came to believe had been fought under false pretenses, and this gave rise to an entrenched national skepticism towards internationalism of the Wilsonian variety, or, indeed, any other variety.
The rise of the Soviet Union as the lodestar of the left, internationally and in this country, began to have its effect on the peace movement in the 1930s, as Hitler rose to power in Germany and the consequences of the Versailles “peace” settlement began to boil over. At first posing as the greatest enemies of fascism, the Communist parties in the West characterized Hitler as a danger that could only be faced by a Communist regime: refusing to join in an alliance with the Socialists and the moderate parties against the Nazi wave, the German Communists were crushed by Hitler’s legions and the Nazis rode into power in the last real elections Germany would hold until after the war.
The party line changed with each shift in the Kremlin’s international machinations: the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact, in 1939, meant that the Communists were busy organizing a plethora of “peace” groups. Their slogan was: “The Yanks Are Not Coming!” This lasted until June, 1941, when Hitler broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union: legend has it that a Communist party speaker, hectoring an audience in New York City’s Union Square, reportedly changed his line in mid-sentence after a note was passed to him relaying the news.
With robotic uniformity, Communists working in the peace movement completely changed their tune, as the party rushed to join the growing chorus for US intervention in the European war. Enslaved to the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, the Communists and their many fellow travelers in the United States switched gears without missing a beat. Overnight they became the vanguard of the War Party, and the most zealous in attacking the growing anti-interventionist movement.
This movement – the biggest antiwar movement in American history, then or since – was the America First Committee, with hundreds of thousands of members and millions of supporters.
By the winter of 1940, as the war in Europe heated up, the interventionist chorus had become a deafening roar: every Anglophile, every left-wing "antifascist," every friend of the Soviet Union was raising his or her voice – America, they declared, must intervene and save the West from the dreaded Hun! American public opinion – up until this point decidedly and overwhelmingly opposed to US entry into the war – began to shift. In September of 1939 poll numbers revealed that Americans wanted to keep the peace above all: by November, 1940, however, they were telling the same pollsters that they preferred all-out war to a Nazi victory over England. It was time for the non-interventionists to speak, or forever hold their peace.
The America First Committee was the response of a disparate coalition to the propaganda blitz: founded on September 4, 1940, a mere 15 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it grew out of a student antiwar organization, led by R. Douglas Stuart, Jr., son of the first vice president of the Quaker Oats Company. After linking up with General Robert E. Wood, chairman of the board of Sears, Roebuck & Co., the AFC went national, set up a Chicago headquarters, and began running newspaper ads attacking provocative policies of the Administration. With a speakers bureau, a variety of publications, local chapters, and rallies in cities and towns all across America, the AFC eventually grew to 850,000 dues-paying members organized in 450 chapters.
It was a grand coalition, encompassing conservative Republicans, such as William R. Castle, Undersecretary of State in the Hoover administration, the liberal Chester Bowles, and the populist progressive Senators Phillip LaFollette and Wheeler, along with the Socialist leader Norman Thomas. Conservatives saw Roosevelt’s determination to get us into the war as part of his domestic strategy to impose socialism on American industry. The free enterprise system, as Americans had known it, would be the first casualty of the war: the economy would be militarized and a kind of NRA-plus created, in which wages and prices would be controlled. Democracy was in danger.
This was no gathering of sandal-wearing fruit-juice drinking pacifists – although prominent pacifists, such as Frederick J. Libby, of the National Council for the Prevention of War, could be found among its activists and fellow-travelers. It was, instead, a focal point for American nationalists who believed that we had nothing to gain and everything to lose by entering the war. America, they believed, could defend itself, without intervening in Europe or Asia.
The public pronouncements of the AFC expressed the three major themes of what is today called the Old Right, but what really ought to be called the Original Right: a movement dedicated to limited government at home and minimal overseas entanglements — a worldview that defined the conservative movement before Bill Buckley and the Kristol family got their hands on it.
First and foremost among these themes was anti-statism, as somewhat dramatically overstated by the Old Right pamphleteer and novelist Rose Wilder Lane, who declared that, by entering the European conflict, we’d win the war against national socialism in the trenches — and lose it on the home front. The conservative and libertarian opponents of the New Deal saw the war issue through the lens of a beleaguered political minority that had been backed into a corner. With the depression deepening, and the specter of a European-style collectivism — either socialism or corporatism — looming over the country, the embattled defenders of the free enterprise system had every reason to fear being swallowed up in the maelstrom of wars and revolutions sweeping the globe.
Roosevelt’s drive to war, in their view, was just another bid to consolidate power on the home front, like the court-packing scheme which had alienated progressives like Senators Wheeler and LaFollette. War would mean rationing, censorship, and the imposition of military discipline on the nation’s entrepreneurs, shopkeepers as well as titans of industry: FDR’s National Recovery Administration, which sought to cartelize the economy, appalled progressives of Wheeler’s sort as well as conservative businessmen like Henry Regnery, a top AFC donor. The President, they believed, aspired to become a dictator, and wartime conditions would fulfill his dream.
As a corollary to their anti-statism, anti-communism entered into the mix. The anti-interventionist movement gained a lot of traction in conservative circles when Hitler turned on Stalin, his former ally, and invaded the Soviet Union. Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, presciently warned that, if we entered the war, we’d wind up handing half of Europe over to the Kremlin: far better to let the Nazis and the Communists tear each other to pieces.
Secondly, the America First movement was an eruption of populism, a resistance movement of the majority against the elite’s determination to involve us in a war most ordinary Americans wanted nothing to do with. Right up until the attack on Pearl Harbor, 79 percent of the American people opposed getting into the war, and were skeptical of any measures, such as the Lend-Lease Act, that threatened to involve us. The America Firsters were visibly influenced by the direct democracy movement that swept the Midwest and California in the earlier part of the century, embodied in legislation allowing statewide referendums in much of the West. Anti-interventionists made a strong effort to pass the Ludlow Amendment to the Constitution, which would have submitted the question of whether to go to war to a national vote.
An enraged and newly empowered people rise up to smite a warmongering business and political elite – it was an image that set the populist imagination ablaze – and also inspired conservative opponents of the New Deal. In the heat of battle, the differences between progressive isolationists and their conservative allies melted away, as they embraced a common critique of the New Deal’s centralism, internationalism, and rampant militarism.
In the course of the struggle against war and the cult of FDR, the views of the progressives and old style liberals underwent a transformation. Or perhaps one could say their views matured under the pressure of events. Wheeler and others who identified with the “left” came upon the realization that, while big business (the so-called "war trust") manipulated the state to its own advantage, the expansion of government only further empowered the capitalists, especially under wartime conditions. The course of this evolution – or, as I would describe it, this awakening — describes the career of one of the most prominent America Firsters, head of the vital New York City chapter and a well-known liberal journalist and author: John T. Flynn [.pdf].
As a columnist for that paragon of enlightened liberalism, the New Republic, Flynn backed FDR in 1932 and devoted his journalistic energies to exposing the fraud and abuses then endemic in the financial markets. Like many progressives, he was shocked at the corporatist initiatives coming out of the Administration, especially the National Recovery Act. The deluge of unprecedented government spending led him to the conclusion that the New Deal would have to culminate in war. It would be politically impossible to maintain the level of spending the President required, and he would need conservatives – the internationalist wing of the Republican party – to get his program through Congress. By combining national defense with the need to employ and otherwise subsidize large numbers of people, the President could solve his political and economic troubles in one blow.
As the liberals gave up their noninterventionist principles and joined with the Stalinists in the Popular Front and FDR’s drive to war, Flynn’s New Republic column became controversial and was eventually discontinued after much public haggling. When Flynn attacked the President and his aide, Harry Hopkins, in an article for the Yale Review, FDR responded with a note to the editor in which he declared that Flynn had become "a destructive rather than a constructive force." The President opined that, in his opinion, Flynn "should be barred hereafter from the columns of any presentable daily paper, monthly magazine or national quarterly, such as the Yale Review."
That is precisely what happened, not only to Flynn but to a whole generation of old-fashioned liberals, assorted progressives, and conservatives who were victimized by the Smear Bund, their careers ruined or else seriously compromised. Garet Garrett, an editor at the Saturday Evening Post, was fired and exiled to the margins: Albert J. Nock, H. L. Mencken, Oswald Garrison Villard, and others met a similar fate.
We often hear of the alleged terrors of the McCarthy period, especially in Hollywood: a veritable army of second rate screenwriters, actors, and movie colony sycophants has for years been whining about the persecution of red subversives during the cold war. But the treatment they had to endure was a Sunday school picnic compared to the blacklisting of conservative and libertarian anti-interventionists in the fields of journalism, politics, and, yes, Hollywood, during the previous decade.
The actress Lillian Gish, who was a member of the national committee of America First and a frequent speaker at their rallies, privately told General Wood that she had been blacklisted by movie studios in Hollywood and the New York theater world and couldn’t find an acting job anywhere. After much effort on her behalf, her agent had finally gotten a commitment from a studio for a contract, but it came with the proviso that she must first resign from America First. Furthermore, she was forbidden from telling the truth about her resignation, on pain of losing the much-needed contract. While never wavering in her opposition to US intervention, Gish resigned from the committee, stopped giving speeches, and never said a word in public about the reasons for her sudden and seemingly inexplicable retreat.
Flynn suffered much, both financially and professionally, from the blacklisting. On the other hand, persecution only seemed to clarify his thought. His best book, As We Go Marching [.pdf], written during the war, integrates the progressive abhorrence of war and militarism with the conservative analysis of the dangers of socialism and economic centralization. Flynn saw the growth of state power under the New Deal and the President’s drive to war as dual aspects of a unitary system: war and preparations for war fueled the economic engine of the emerging welfare state, and provided the necessary political backing from conservatives.
The third, and perhaps most important, theme of the America First movement was an acute consciousness of a raft of common enemies: the Roosevelt administration, the British, and the Eastern financial elites. These antipathies had much to do with the regional character of the America First movement, which had its headquarters in Chicago and was particularly strong in the Midwest, where German and Irish immigrants formed a ready reservoir of anti-British sentiment.
By the time the America First Committee got off the ground, there were already two major interventionist groups going full blast. The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, headed by William Allen White, editor of the Kansas City Emporia Gazette, took a relatively moderate position: aid to England short of war. The "Fight for Freedom" group demanded an immediate declaration of war on the Axis powers. The White Committee served as a virtual propaganda arm of the US government, working openly and closely with the White House. Both groups, in tandem with a network of pundits, such as Dorothy Thompson, worked with British intelligence, as Thomas E. Mahl revealed in his book, Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44, and as Gore Vidal dramatized in his novel The Golden Age. As Professor Mahl puts it in his book,
"How does the historian avoid the charge that he is indulging in conspiracy history when he explores the activities of a thousand people, occupying two floors of Rockefeller Center, in their efforts to involve the United States in a major war?"
Then there were "the interests" – the big financial combines, the banks, and especially the Rockefeller and Morgan interests. As Murray N. Rothbard pointed out in his short book, Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy, the Rockefeller interests were pushing for war with Japan throughout the 1930s in order to grab control of rubber and oil resources in Southeast Asia, and their “cherished dreams of a mass ‘China market’ for petroleum products." The Morgan group, on the other hand, was "as usual, deeply committed to their financial ties with Britain and France,” and, on account of this, “once again plumbed early for war with Germany,” as they had in the run-up to World War I. World War II, says Rothbard, "might therefore be considered, from one point of view, as a coalition war: the Morgans got their war in Europe, the Rockefellers theirs in Asia."
And so the enemies of all these groups were banded together in the America First coalition. This new antiwar coalition – made up of disaffected liberals, conservative nationalists, Midwestern progressives, and a few scattered libertarians – faced opposition from two powerful groups. First there were what Selig Adler calls "the spiritual heirs of Theodore Roosevelt," who, "in league with the generals and admirals, fought for large military budgets." These Eastern internationalist Republicans, epitomized by Wendell Willkie, made sure that the GOP would fail to provide any real critique of FDR’s warmongering foreign policy.
Secondly, there was opposition from the Left, not only from the White House and the dominant Roosevelt wing of the Democratic party, but also from the Communists and their fellow travelers, who accounted for a small but influential and hyper-vocal minority. These were really the shock troops of the War Party, who did the dirty work and the hand-to-hand fighting in the battle for hearts and minds.
It is no exaggeration to say that, during the heyday of the Popular Front, an entire mini-industry grew up around the Communist-inspired campaign to link the anti-interventionist movement – and specifically the America First Committee – to the Nazis. This was the strategy of Roosevelt and his far-left allies, as the battle for the soul of a nation commenced.
The campaign against the so-called isolationist movement, coordinated out of the White House and conducted by a plethora of government agencies and private groups working in tandem, was an exercise in character assassination unparalleled in the history of this country. At the head of what John T. Flynn called “the Smear Bund “was the President himself, who did not lose any opportunity to link the AFC with the Nazis and their agents in America.
The President had plenty of helpers and enablers in this task, especially in the media and among the left-wing activists of the day. The most odious and unsavory of this bunch was undoubtedly "John Roy Carlson," a professional sneak and agent provocateur, whose real name was Avedis Derounian.
Carlson’s best-selling book, Under Cover [.pdf], purported to be an expose of the anti-interventionist movement as a Nazi fifth column in America, just as today’s antiwar movement is smeared as pro-terrorist – accusations that, both in Roosevelt’s America and our own, had legal consequences for the accused.
Carlson’s methods were those of the classic agent provocateur: he went “undercover,” invented a new identity, and started publishing a weekly mimeographed hate sheet he called the “Christian Defender,” which repeated every anti-Semitic canard and then some in the most offensive manner possible. Carlson’s book quoted obscure cranks, anti-Semites and American Nazis as if they represented America First. The book was relentlessly promoted in the interventionist media, especially by the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, and became a best-seller.
Aside from being in the employ of shadowy “anti-fascist” outfits, Carlson also worked for the FBI on a freelance basis at a time when Roosevelt’s secret political police were bugging the office of Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick, and had been ordered by the White House to find something incriminating on the America First Committee.
The President badgered J. Edgar Hoover to investigate the Committee’s income in an attempt to link them to the Nazis. FBI agents infiltrated the AFC, attended meetings, examined Committee records, and came up with nothing – much to the President’s chagrin.
The Carlson book was the first draft of the government’s indictment of alleged “seditionists.” Starting in 1941, federal prosecutors handed down a series of indictments against a wide variety of individuals, organizations, and publications, ranging from obscure cranks to sitting members of Congress, and initially including the America First Committee as well as the brilliant African-American intellectual and former diplomat, Lawrence Dennis.
In response to protests from Senator Wheeler, and others, the Justice Department narrowed the scope of its targets, and settled for indicting a number of minor figures, and Dennis, most of whom had neither the means nor the ability to defend themselves. One of them, Elmer J. "Pop" Garner, was in his 80s when taken into custody, and quite deaf. He died three weeks after the trial began, with 25 cents in his pocket, never having heard a single word uttered in the courtroom. They sent his body back to his widow in Wichita, with nary a stitch of clothing on his corpse.
Garner’s hearing problem was a disability many reporters assigned to cover the trial no doubt wished had been visited on them as they were forced to sit through weeks of what had been conceived as an exciting,media-friendly show trial and quickly descended into a relentlessly monotonous farce. The so-called “evidence” consisted of the prosecutor reading long boring passages from the defendants’ writings, and juxtaposing them with equally long boring citations from official Nazi propaganda.
In order to prove its case that the defendants were, together, conspiring to “undermine” the armed forces of the United States, government lawyers came up with a boldly authoritarian legal theory. They posited that the 30-odd prisoners sitting in the dock, although they had not necessarily met or known each other, had engaged in a conspiracy of ideas. The alleged similarity of their views, and those given expression by the propaganda outlets in Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo, constituted sedition. Their crime was a thought crime.
We see this same legal theory employed today, by Obama’s Justice Department, in their efforts to go after antiwar activists who recently had their homes and offices raided in Minneapolis and Chicago: like Attorney General Biddle in the Great Sedition Trial of 1944, the Attorney General [Eric] Holder argues that speech – the exercise of one’s First Amendment rights – amounts to giving “material support” to “terrorism.”
The trial dragged on for over two years. After the first few weeks, only reporters for the Daily Worker and the left-wing smear sheet PM were left in the press section. What had been intended as the American edition of the Moscow show trials turned into a public relations disaster. The farce was largely ended when judge, Edward Eicher, a former congressman and fervent New Dealer, suffered a heart attack and died. Prosecutors refiled the charges, but these were dismissed by judge Bolitha Laws, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who ruled that allowing the case to continue would be “a travesty of justice.”
The persecution of the Old Right at the hands of the pro-war left was a trauma for conservatives: the blacklist against the isolationists persisted long after the war ended, and it destroyed many careers. So when it came their turn to wield the whip, conservatives did not hold back. Joe McCarthy was unleashed on the nation, to the applause of most Old Rightists.
As the wartime alliance between the US and the Soviet Union frayed and broke up, and Winston Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, the veterans of the America First movement – or, I should say, the survivors – can hardly be blamed for their vindictiveness. After all, hadn’t Colonel McCormick predicted that we’d wind up giving half of Europe to Uncle Joe Stalin?
At the start of the war, leftists who had formerly been the loudest advocates of a peaceful foreign policy, suddenly switched over to the other side, formed an “anti-fascist” Popular Front, and openly agitated for war. And conservatives who had hardly been pacifists urged caution and warned against foreign entanglements. As the cold war dawned, the political polarities switched, once again, as conservatives embraced interventionism and globalism, while the left went “isolationist.” Some few veteran anti-interventionists of the right, such as Senator Robert A. Taft, John Flynn, and Lawrence Dennis, maintained their principles, but not many. On the home front, however, the entire American right united in support of Joe McCarthy: it was payback time.
The Old Right persisted into the early 1950s, with a few old isolationist Republicans warning against getting drawn into a protracted war on the Asian landmass: Korea split the Republican party, and the conservative movement, with the interventionists, however, gaining the upper hand. John Flynn predicted disaster if we aided the French against Ho Chi Minh in Indochina, while Taft and others campaigned against the Marshall Plan and questioned the need for NATO, but the floodtide of anti-Communism eventually overwhelmed them. The conservative movement was invaded and captured by a cadre of ex-leftists such as Frank Meyer, James Burnham, and others grouped around William F. Buckley’s magazine, the National Review.
As the mid-fifties dawned, the surviving lions of the Old Right looked about them at the Welfare-Warfare State that had displaced the American republic, and roared their disapproval – but there was a note of keening sadness in their defiance. They knew they had lost the fight: Garet Garrett, a former editor of the Saturday Evening Post and a prose stylist with few equals, put it this way:
“There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.”
On the foreign policy front, too, the old conservative cause of a Fortress America, at peace and free, was beleaguered if not entirely lost. As Garrett put it:
“We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night: the precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: ‘You are now entering Imperium.’ Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: ‘Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.’ And now, not far ahead, is a sign that reads: ‘No U-turns.’”
Suffice to say that the right, by this time, had become almost completely interventionist, with the crew at National Review threatening to go to war with the Soviet Union, and putting forward a strategy of “rollback.” The liberals went interventionist, too, or, rather, stayed interventionist, with only the remnants of the far left advocating anything close to a foreign policy that made any sense.
Yet, in the midst of this ideological darkness, in which the War Party presided over both the right and left wings of “respectable” opinion, a light began to emerge. It was a small light, granted, but it grew brighter as the sixties turned into the seventies. It was the light of libertarianism, which, by that time, had hived off from the main body of the conservative movement and established a good degree of organizational independence.
The history of the antiwar movement in the 1960s – the Vietnam era – is too well known to go into here in much detail. While the cold war liberals, such as Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Hubert Humphrey, and of course Lyndon Baines Johnson were gung ho to stop the commies in Southeast Asia, the emerging youth culture and a burgeoning mass left-wing movement mobilized people in the streets against the war, the draft, and the whole rotten state-capitalist system.
Libertarians sided with the left on the two key issues of the day – opposition to the war and the draft – and after the split with conservatives the new movement flourished as never before. Now I won’t go into the details of this history too much – you can look it up in Brian Doherty’s excellent book, Radicals for Capitalism – but suffice to say here that opposition to the American empire was and is a founding principle of the modern libertarian movement.
That devotion to principle was sorely tested in the days and months after 9/11, and a few didn’t pass the test. But the movement as a whole retained its ideological bearings, weathered the storm, and emerged from the Bush years stronger than ever – thanks to Ron Paul.
What I love about Ron is that he’s gotten more radical as he’s gotten older. Here is a politician who, in the midst of talking about some issue such as the Federal Reserve, monetary policy, tax policy, or whatever, will invariably tie it into a larger critique, one that always emphasizes the financial and moral costliness of our interventionist foreign policy. He did it in the Republican presidential primaries, took on Rudy “the thug” Giuliani, and has brought the anti-interventionist message to tea party rallies and campuses all across the country.
He is the reincarnation of the Old Right, and the movement that has gathered around him has sparked a revival of Old Right activism such as hasn’t been seen since 1940. And he has had to endure much of what the Old Right had to put up with, including especially the smears of the contemporary John Roy Carlsons, who have done their best to discredit and marginalize him and his movement. Their fear-and-smear campaign hasn’t worked. Instead, it has backfired on the smear merchants, and today Ron stands at the head of a rising populist libertarian movement that is anti-interventionist at its very core.
That the Old Right is rising while a liberal Democratic President is waging three wars at once is a sign that the political polarities are getting ready, once more, to make the big switch. On the war question, the moderate-to-“progressive” left is to a large degree silent in the face of Obama’s wars and the crimes of US imperialism. And we are beginning to see the rise of an ugly form of left-wing nationalism amongst so-called “liberals.” Notice that the Obama administration has begun blaming “foreigners,” such as the Chinese, for our economic problems, and this is being done in tandem with attacks on Republicans for supposedly using “foreign money” in the current election campaign – a charge, I might add, that comes without any evidence whatsoever. We are also seeing an effort to translate political correctness – support for feminism, gay rights, etc. – into support for the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So that is a definite retrogression, and one that I’m sure we’ll see more of.
On the other hand, conservatives are beginning to question the assumptions and premises of global interventionism – the key connections between the so-called progressive program of social engineering, international do-goodism, and war in the modern age. The neoconservative agenda is being called into question and that’s a very good thing. Defense cuts are on the table, and so is the foreign policy that requires outrageous expenditures on the military. Antiwar.com has always put a special emphasis on outreach to conservatives, making the point that you can’t have limited government at home and still maintain an empire abroad, and I am very gratified to see that we are finally seeing some results.