Getting Beyond ‘Left’ and ‘Right,’ Part Two

Editorial note: What follows is the transcript of a speech given in Danbury, Conn., and Boston, Mass., under the auspices of the Ridgefield Liberty Forum and the Boston chapter of, respectively. Part One dealt with the capitulation of the “progressive” left to Obama’s war agenda.

Well, then, where else can we turn? After all, there’s no tradition of opposition to war and imperialism on the right – is there?

As a matter of fact, there is.

This election season we’ve heard an awful lot from the tea partiers about the Constitution, and specifically about the Founding Fathers, who are held up as exemplars to be emulated. Now, that’s a good idea as far as I’m concerned, because if we hark back to the legacy of the Founders, and take it seriously, and apply it to the 21st century, there would be no PATRIOT Act, no spying on Americans by their own government, – and certainly no TSA agents poking and prodding American citizens every time they want to get on a plane! And there would be no American Empire, either.

You know, I have often found myself in the position of being called an “isolationist.” Now, of course, there is no such thing as an isolationist: humans naturally gather together in communities, and the only isolationists are those holy hermits of times past, who went out into the desert to commune with God. Yes, but they always came back, didn’t they – not least because they wanted to communicate their sacred visions to the people.

The international division of labor, the social and cultural benefits of free trade and easy emigration, the global flow of information made possible by the internet – these are all to the good. However, there are some things that we want to be isolated from: war, tyranny, social and economic turmoil – isolation from these negative phenomena is much to be desired.

The isolationist label was first used by the enemies of peace as an epithet that made war opponents out to be unrealistic cranks, and since it was repeated endlessly by the pro-war media, the word became common parlance. But what is today reviled as “isolationism” – which is simply a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other nations – is deeply rooted in American history.

As the anti-isolationist historian Selig Adler pointed out: “The American Revolution was in itself an act of isolation, for it cut the umbilical cord to the mother country.” Were the American revolutionists “isolationists” because they wanted to isolate themselves from the tyranny of the British king? And not only from him, but from all the crowned heads of Europe, who looked on the North America wilderness as fertile field for the growth of their empires. Not only England, but the Dutch, the Spaniards, and the French, whose revolutionary fervor devoured the revolutionaries, and finally turned its fury outward, as Napoleon rampaged across Europe and sought to export his revolution to the New World.

To no avail. The American Revolution, as the conservative writer Garet Garrett put it in 1956,

“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.”

This “revolution exemplary” gave birth to a New World bereft of the encrusted evils, the ancient hatreds, the convoluted obsessions of the old. This sense of the unique American character permeated the revolutionary propaganda of the rebellious patriots: freedom from European militarism was one of the great benefits of independence touted in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. In 1783, at the end of the Revolutionary War, Congress passed a resolution rejecting American entry into the European “League of Armed Neutrality,” declaring that the thirteen states “should be as little as possible engaged in the politics and controversies of the European nations.”

The classic statement of the Founders’ foreign policy is, of course, George Washington’s Farewell Address. Caught in the crossfire of radical Jeffersonians and the pro-British Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton, Washington sought to steer a middle course, warning against “permanent inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachment for others.” But he went further than this:

“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”

And we did stop. After the Treaty of Alliance with France that aided and speeded the victory of the American revolutionaries, the American government did not enter into another formal alliance with a foreign power until World War II – a course that ensured our independence, preserved our republican institutions, and avoided the growth of foreign influence in our internal politics. This was the policy of non-intervention, which all the Founders basically endorsed, most notably Thomas Jefferson who called for “entangling alliances with none” in his first inaugural address. This was in part because we were surrounded on all sides by the European powers, who were battling it out for world supremacy, with France on one side and the British on the other. So President Jefferson was determined to stay out of it, and not only because of the external danger the world conflict posed to us, but also because war would destroy the young American republic from within. As James Madison, Jefferson’s Secretary of State, put it:

“War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created, and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispose them. In war, the honours and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.”

The news that the Corsican corporal Napoleon had crowned himself at Rheims, and overthrown the French republic, was for the founders a negative lesson. There but for the peace go we.

While the French were a threat, Jefferson believed that the British were our true long-term enemies – because they had a lot of supporters right here in New England. Indeed, when the War of 1812 broke out, the Federalists in this part of the country supported the invaders. Jefferson’s bitter evaluation of the Federalists as traitors and closet royalists was confirmed, as was his belief that the main danger was internal – a royalists counterrevolution that would centralize all power in the hands of a new aristocracy.

The Jeffersonian policy of non-intervention was continued and expanded by President James Monroe, and guided under the expert hand of his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. The idea was to create a continental Republic swept clear of European colonies, and in this Adams largely succeeded. Westward expansion Adams believed, was inevitable, as natural as the flow of a river. But the river must not be allowed to overflow its banks. He believed American dominion beyond the nation’s natural boundaries would be a mistake, and he opposed schemes to incorporate Cuba into the Union, argued against getting involved in Latin America, and talked President Monroe out of coming out in support of the Greek revolutionaries. His famous July 4th Address is the manifesto of a distinctively American foreign policy, one that is true to the Founders’ vision and the spirit of the Constitution. For fifty years, said Adams, America had

“Respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings… She has seen that, probably for centuries to come, all the contests of … the European world will be contests of inveterate power. … Whenever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be her heart, her benedictions and her prayers. But she does not go abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Like Jefferson, Adams believed that liberty could not be exported at the point of a bayonet: the attempt would come at the cost of betraying not only the national interest, but the cause of liberty itself. If America should ever betray and reverse the vision of the Founders’ foreign policy, warned Adams,

“She would involve herself beyond the power of extrication in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.”

Once embarked upon this course, said Adams,

“The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force … she might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

Adams’ words – uttered nearly two centuries ago – were prophetic, because if anything describes the tragic and bloody course of the last decade or so of American foreign policy, then surely this is it!

We are sunk in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan – “beyond the power of extrication,” as Adams would put it. And if these conflicts aren’t “wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition,” then I don’t know how else to describe them. George W. Bush did indeed “assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom” in proclaiming his mis-named “Freedom Agenda” – an agenda which led to the establishment of a theocracy in Iraq and a kleptocracy in Afghanistan.

The completion and consolidation of the continental project, and then the Civil War, occupied Americans for the next quarter century, during which time the nation enjoyed a blessed hiatus from foreign crises and entanglements. When newly-elected President Grover Cleveland addressed on the nation, on March 4, 1885, he declared that “the genius of our institutions” and the hope for their preservation dictates:

“Scrupulous avoidance of any departure from that foreign policy commended by the history, the traditions, and the prosperity of our Republic. It is the policy of independence favored by our position … and our power. … It is the policy of neutrality, rejecting any share in foreign broils and ambitions upon other continents and repelling their intrusion here. It is the policy of Monroe and of Washington and Jefferson – ‘Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.’”

This was not the policy of a particular party or faction: it was the settled policy of a nation. This was what Walter Russell Meade has called the Jeffersonian tradition or theory of foreign relations, and it was the general consensus not only among the elites, but also among the people at large. The twentieth century, however, was to witness many challenges to that consensus, which proved, however, remarkably enduring.

As the 19th century faded and the bloody twentieth dawned, the siren song of empire sounded throughout the land, and several among our elites answered the call. Convinced that America was falling into decadence and decline now that the frontier was gone, the so-called “progressives” under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt and the Eastern financial elites fixed their sights on the goal of carving out an overseas empire. Their eyes naturally fell upon Hawaii, Cuba, and the other Caribbean isles. The “frontier thesis” was highly influential, as were the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the author of Sea Power Upon History, which made the argument that a great navy was the signature of national greatness. This was grist for the mill of a growing pro-imperialist movement, which lobbied for a navy that would project American power across the Pacific and southward into Latin America.

When the sugar trust agitated for the annexation of Hawaii, then President Cleveland managed to derail the move, but the annexationists persisted and the issue soon became the subject of a national debate. On one side were the imperialists, who wanted to follow in the path of Great Britain and inherit the mantle of empire, and on the other were the heirs of Jefferson, and Washington, who upheld the policy of non-intervention because they saw it as the path to corruption, both moral and material.

While President Cleveland rejected the entreaties of the interventionists in regards to taking Hawaii, the empire-builders had more success with William McKinley, whose presidency saw the outbreak of the Spanish-American war. With Hawaii already flying the American flag Teddy Roosevelt and his allies in Congress moved quickly and aggressively to make the case for seizing Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Roosevelt and his fellow self-described “progressives” saw this as their chance to achieve national greatness for America and also to uplift the savage peoples of tropical lands – for their own good, of course. The imperialist impulse was the logical extension of the progressive doctrine that a more activist government than Americans were inclined to tolerate was a good thing abroad as well as at home. Government, they believed, could be the instrument of virtue overseas as well as on the home front – and what is more nakedly an instrument of government than its armed forces?

These were new and radical ideas, one which the conservatives of the time, mostly in the South, as well the classical liberals in the Northwest, found appalling. So these disparate opponents of empire gathered together in a movement founded not far from here, in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, in 1898. They had trouble getting the Hall, at first, for fear of being targeted by the pro-war mobs, but in the end they managed to secure it and held a meeting at which a number of prominent Bostonians spoke, and presided over by Gamaliel Bradford, known as America’s preeminent biographer, who declared:

“To seize any colony of Spain and hold it as our own, without the free consent of its people is a violation of the principles upon which this government rests, which we have preached to the world for a century, and which we pledged ourselves to respect when this war was declared…But the case does not end here. We not only abandoned the boasted Monroe Doctrine…We not only disregard that wise policy of non-intervention in European troubles, which Washington taught and until now we have followed. We become a military power, burdened with a standing army and an enormous navy, threatened with complications thousands of miles away, and exposed to constant apprehension…Our domestic difficulties will be neglected, for our attention will be divided. Our taxation must increase, our currency become more disordered, and worst of all, the corruption which threatens us cannot fail to spread.”

The Reverend Mr. Charles Ames, Unitarian clergyman of Dorchester, Massachusetts, rose to contend that “colonialism” threatened to poison the blood of all liberty-loving peoples, and to change their temper into a “permanent attitude of arrogance, testiness and defiance toward other nations,” which would end badly for the United States.

This founding meeting gave rise to a national organization, the Anti-Imperialist League, which spread Westward all the way to the central plains of the Midwest and further on to California, with 50,000 members enrolled. Gold Democrats, conservative businessmen, country farmers, and New England “mugwumps” joined together in a national movement to oppose the rise of an American empire. The views of these Jeffersonians, to use Walter Meade’s useful category, were summed up by Carl Schurz, a US Senator and a force in the Republican party of his day, when he argued:

“If we take these new regions, we shall be well entangled in that contest for territorial aggrandizement which distracts other nations and drives them far beyond their original design. So it will be inevitably with us. We shall want new conquests to protect that which we already possess. The greed of speculators working upon our government will push us from one point to another, and we shall have new conflicts upon our hands, almost without knowing how we got into them.”

His prophecy is our reality. Perhaps, then, we can draw some lessons from the movement he helped to found.

If we look at the political character of the anti-imperialists, and their pro-imperialist enemies, we can see that they did not adhere to traditional categories of left and right, or divide along party lines. Both major factions of the Democratic party – followers of William Jennings Bryan and the Cleveland “gold” Democrats – were generally opposed to the policy of imperialism, with the Bryanites more fervent in their opposition to overseas wars. On the Republican side, the party establishment and the so-called progressive wing led by Teddy Roosevelt were jingoists, while others, such as the New England mugwumps – among the original founders of the Republican party – made up an important part of the anti-imperialist coalition.

The heirs of Jefferson persisted in their critique of empire as the nation faced the bloody spectacle of the first world war – and the progressives of Teddy Roosevelt’s War Party took up their positions in favor of intervention. The latter launched a tremendous drive to prepare for war by expanding the navy, which was met by the anti-imperialists with arguments against militarism and interventionism that owed much to the rhetoric of their predecessors. President Woodrow Wilson, the quintessential “progressive,” backed the campaign for a bigger military, but it was an embarrassment to the President that much of the opposition to his program was coming from within the ranks of his own party. And certainly the country was completely opposed to getting into the European war. Among the Republicans, a band of Midwesterner were vocal in their opposition to war and preparations for war, and voted against Wilson’s “preparedness” campaign right down the line.

At this point, however, the mainstream factions of both parties were in favor of intervention, and they came together in a rather ominous-sounding organization: the League to Enforce Peace. The Peace-Enforcers, who carried the endorsement of big business and all the “progressive” intellectuals, envisioned a world organization of nations which would hear all international disputes and judge according to their version of “international law.” Force would be used against “outlaw” nations who refused to submit. The idea of “collective security” was born.

The program of the League to Enforce Peace prefigured the Wilsonian internationalism that would eventually get us into the war, and set the stage for the next world war. As America was slowly dragged into the European war, and German submarine warfare made travel on the high seas problematic, President Wilson began to come out of the closet as an advocate of open intervention. When the vote for and against war finally came, those who voted in the House of Representatives against the war resolution reflected the politics of the emerging anti-interventionist coalition, which would retain its essential character for the next 40 years. Fifty-four members of Congress voted against Wilson’s war: 35 Republicans, 18 Democrats, and one Socialist. Most of the Republican naysayers were Midwestern populists, who hated big business, the Eastern establishment, and the government-business partnership that was in the ascendant. Most of the antiwar Democrats were followers of William Jennings Bryan, Southern populists who remembered the party’s antipathy to militarism and overseas adventurism.

The wartime hysteria that ensued is well-known, and there is no need to go into it in great detail here: suffice to say that the teaching of the German language was banned in the schools, just as Brahms and Beethoven were banned in the concert halls. Insanity ruled the day, and repression was everywhere. The Socialist press was banned from the mails, as were all antiwar materials. A vast domestic propaganda campaign was undertaken, but antiwar protests persisted – with the organizers being tarred and feathered, killed, or jailed.

As the nation began to emerge from the wartime darkness, however, and new light was thrown on the causes and consequences of the war, a wave of revulsion swept the nation. The Versailles treaty, which ended the war, set in stone the revenge of the allies, who redivided Europe and the colonies of the defeated Central Powers. Instead of a war to make the world safe for democracy, which is how Wilson had sold it, the Great War was revealed as a crusade to make the world safe for the British and French empires. Wilson’s League of Nations, which was just a watered down version of the League to Enforce Peace, was defeated in the Senate, and the nation turned in on itself, once again, happy in its splendid isolation – but not for long.

The run up to the second World War was a long and involved process that I don’t have the time to go into here in the kind of detail the subject deserves. I’ll confine myself, therefore, to the shifting political and ideological alliances that characterized the pro-war and anti-war factions.

These factions had all come to their respective positions in response to the overwhelming reality of that era: the Great Depression, which struck with a suddenness that shattered all the old assumptions and created new and dark forces that seemed to well up from the very depths of the human mind. All across Europe, the rise of totalitarian movements of the right and the left dominated the political atmosphere, and here in the US, too, the same dark shadows cast a pall over the political landscape.

Enveloped in the long dark night of Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked for a way out. At first, he sought to spend his way out, to stimulate the economy and prop up the employment rate by a vast public works program. But there were limits to what he could do: there were only so many projects that could be conceived, and funded, and besides that, there was the Supreme Court, which put a stop to his wildest schemes, such as the National Recovery Act. His legislative program at a near standstill, and the Depression deepening by the day, there was one sort of project – not exactly a public works project, but close enough – that could pull him out of the political trouble he found himself in – war.

As Hitler overran Europe, and the British empire called out to its fellow Anglos to save the day, the pressure for the US to intervene gathered strength. The war question became the pressing issue of the day, and the two sides squared off.

On the pro-war side were the New Dealers, starting with the White House, which nonetheless had to keep its support for intervention under wraps, or at least not quite out in the open. That’s because the American people were against intervention right up until the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. But the President’s supporters, his cabinet, and finally the President himself shortly revealed themselves, as international events brought the Germans closer to British shores.

Then there were the Anglophiles, including most of New England and the New York financial center, which was heavily invested in the British war debt, and had close cultural and personal ties to England. The WASP Establishment was not about to let the Motherland sink beneath the Nazi waves. Nor was British intelligence, which launched a covert operation in the United States on a scale never before attempted – not even during World War I. Hollywood was also enlisted in the march to war, with pro-British and pro-war movies being produced at a rapid pace, along with the immigrants from Europe who pined for the liberation of their homeland.

On the other side of the barricades were the opponents of the New Deal, conservative businessmen who saw the coming of socialism in FDR’s domestic program, and progressive Midwestern Republicans and Democrats, who saw the centralism of the New Deal as an insidious form of incipient authoritarianism, alien to America and the prelude to a dictatorship. The President, they feared, would use the enforced conformity and economic centralism necessary in wartime to overthrow the remnants of the Constitution and take the same road as Germany, Italy, and the Russians.

Speaking of the Russians, they posed a special problem for the anti-interventionist movement of the 1930s. During the last war, the Socialists had been in the forefront of antiwar activities, sponsoring rallies, speeches, and petitions, all of which got them thrown in jail, tarred and feathered, or else dead. Eugene Debs was thrown in jail, where he languished until a Republican president let him out.

This time, too, the left was in the forefront of the antiwar movement, but with a twist. Because now the Soviet Union, the so-called “workers fatherland,” was the lodestar of the socialist left, which followed the twists and turns of Soviet foreign policy like a weather vane spinning in the wind. This didn’t matter as long as the Soviets were allied with the Germans, but on June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union – and American Communists instantaneously became the most vocal and aggressive advocates of war with the Axis Powers. The traditional peace organizations of the left were thrown into disarray, sabotaged by the Communists and their fellow travelers.

The antiwar forces soldiered on, however, and organized themselves under the banner of the America First Committee, which eventually grew into a national organization with 850,000 members and hundreds of chapters across the country. It was an alliance that spanned the political spectrum, with former liberals, such as John T. Flynn, the financial writer, joining hands with conservative businessmen from the Midwest, such as Henry Regnery and Howard J. Pew, to oppose US entry into the European war. Most Republicans, and virtually all conservatives, were antiwar; on the other hand, most of the left, excepting the Trotskyites, were fanatically determined to get the US involved. It was the Popular Front, extending from the conservative Southern Democrats to the Communist Party, that constituted the War Party in those days. The peace party was made up of the Republicans, except for the bellicose Eastern wing, and the conservative Midwest, which feared and hated Roosevelt and all he stood for.

The battle for the hearts and minds of the American people continued right up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with the pro-war left slowly but steadily gaining the upper hand. The War Party launched a propaganda campaign without precedent in this country, a smear campaign that labeled anti-interventionists as “isolationists” and accused the America Firsters of being in the pay of Hitler. “Hitler’s fifth column in America!” screamed the headlines in the Daily Worker, and the New York Post and the New York Times took up the cry.

When war finally came, the dictatorship the conservatives feared looked as if it had come to pass, with the rounding up of Japanese-Americans, wartime censorship, rationing, and an atmosphere of fear-mongering and political conformity rivaled only by that of the European despotisms. Certainly in wartime conditions, with rationing instituted everywhere, the sting of economic depression was nearly gone. And the smear campaign, along with a well-publicized sedition trial, took care of FDR’s political enemies, who were either silenced, or went underground.

So what lessons can we draw from this complicated history? What kind of examples should we look to, what heroes do we find here, what villains have been uncovered? Well, we can detect a certain pattern, I think, if we go a bit further along in the historical record. For we find that, in the postwar period, the left once again regained its anti-interventionist footing, and once again took its place in the antiwar movement. That’s because the cold war began, in earnest, and the Soviet Union called on its American fifth column to take up the banner of peace. And the conservatives turned in the opposite direction, with the founding of the modern conservative movement centered around William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review magazine: the formerly isolationist conservative Republicans became rabid interventionists, whose hatred of communism blinded them to all their old arguments against global interventionism as basically antithetical to conservative principles of limited government.

So the left led a mass antiwar movement in the 1960s, while the right plumbed for a policy of “rolling back” the Soviet empire by military means. However, both left and right were caught unawares when the Soviet Union and its allies suddenly imploded, at which point all bets were off. After a decade or so of ideological confusion, the conservatives were drifting back into what is today called “isolationism,” while the left was reverting back to Wilsonian internationalism – until the whole thing was blown apart by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The consequences of this were that the left, after a marked retreat, rediscovered the its old anti-interventionist principles – spurred, to be sure, by hatred of what they called the “Bush regime.” The run-up to the invasion and conquest of Iraq was marked by a huge antiwar movement, with millions taking to the streets all over the world, and then, when the Republicans were turned out of office – the Republicans who had forgotten and buried their anti-interventionist past, for the most part – the tide turned once again, with the sorry events I chronicled in the beginning of this talk.

So, again, what lessons are to be drawn from all this? The principal lesson, I would contend, is that consistent opposition to interventionism is a rare thing indeed: one’s attitude to war is largely conditioned by who is fighting the war, and what party is in power. This isn’t always true, but it is true enough to take the lesson that international politics is dependent on domestic politics, and that the latter usually determines one’s attitude towards the former. Thus, today, supporters of President Obama are not too eager to protest the two wars we are currently fighting – and we are beginning to see conservatives at least question the value of intervention and perpetual war, with Ron Paul and the libertarians openly challenging the hegemony of the neoconservatives in the foreign policy realm.

The second lesson we can draw from this history is that the conventional labels of “right” and “left” are almost meaningless when applied to the foreign policy realm. We’ve seen how conservatives went from isolationist to interventionist and back again, and we’ve also seen how the left went from leading the peace movement to sabotaging it at several points along the line.

Which brings us to the third, and final, lesson of this rich and complicated history, and it is this: without a united front against war, a union of the left and the right, no effective opposition to the War Party is possible. No party or faction, be it conservative or progressive, liberal or reactionary, has a monopoly on the banner of peace. At one time or another, both right and left have been on different sides of that divide, and if the goal of the peace movement is to be reached it must transcend and stand above this kind of partisanship. Yes, it’s true, I come from a very different political tradition from, say, a socialist who opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but who is to say whose tradition is truer to the cause of peace? We can reach back in history and each find our separate inspirations, our heroes, our villains, our own partisan narratives. As long as they lead us to the same conclusion – that we cannot continue along the path of world conquest without bankrupting ourselves materially and morally – then to each his or her own.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].