Interventionism and the Elites

A recent Rasmussen poll has 51 percent of Americans favoring the pullout of all US troops from Europe – and yet not a single major American politician would even consider endorsing such a move. Why is that? I thought politicians were supposed to be consummate opportunists, whose weather vane-like views shift with the winds of public opinion. If so, then they should be jumping on the anti-NATO, anti-interventionist, “mind-our-own-business” bandwagon – right?


The great gulf between the American public and the elites when it comes to foreign policy is a constant source of irritation for the latter. The mandarins of the foreign policy establishment have long bemoaned the “isolationism” of the American people. It’s the natural inclination of a free people to leave others alone, and the Founders exemplified this sentiment when they decried the impulse to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” America “is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” declared John Quincy Adams in his famous 1821 Fourth of July speech, but:

She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, 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. 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.”

This was the consensus view of the American elite when our country was just out of its cradle, and no one thought to question it: the idea that America would impose its own system on foreigners, and that we had some kind of moral responsibility to save the world from itself, was alien to the American ethos. The example of Napoleonic France served as ample enough warning to any interventionists who would have had us succumb to the temptations of empire: as the French army “liberated” Europe, France itself morphed into a monarchy. When Napoleon crowned himself at Rheims it was an act of transfiguration foreseen by the founders when they warned against the threat of militarism to America’s republican legacy. The danger to the Constitution and the country, they realized, was internal – and it emanated from the imperialist impulse. As James Madison put it in his debate with the neo-royalist Alexander Hamilton:

Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.

War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.

In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.

The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

This anti-interventionist stance flowed from the Founders’ philosophy of governance, which was to strictly limit the power of the federal government and bind the hands of would-be tyrants with the chains of the Constitution. As these chains rusted over time, however, the imperialist impulse was unleashed.

It started with the Spanish-American war, and was exemplified by the windbag and warmonger Theodore Roosevelt, who saw military conflict as the road to the moral regeneration of the nation. While Roosevelt and his supporters made economic and political arguments in favor of their policy, theirs was essentially a case for war as moral rearmament. With the disappearance of the frontier, they averred, the nation has fallen into a state of “decadence,” and the only way to revive that frontier spirit is to extend the frontier beyond the seas and stake a claim for empire.

Teddy’s blustering imperialism was given much impetus by the religious revivalism that swept the country in the nineteenth century: a form of post-millennial pietism that insisted on “purifying” the country of “sin.” Although in the south and Midwest, this revivalism was personal – involving being “born again,” and dispensing with the denominationalism and focus on liturgical orthodoxy that had previously characterized American Protestantism – in the Yankee north it assumed the proportions of a political ideology in which government was seen as the agent of virtue. Theologically, the pietists held that the Second Coming was imminent, but that in order to pave the way for His arrival, it was necessary to first create the Kingdom of God on earth – this, they believed, would hasten the Second Coming.

It was but a short hop, skip, and a jump from “purifying” the country to “purifying” the rest of the world. While preachers at home excoriated “demon rum” and sought to uplift the masses of sinners with all sorts of government programs to inculcate in them the spirit of righteousness, on the foreign policy front Washington moved with dispatch to emulate the European empires by establishing an imperium of its own. However, it would be an empire with a difference. As President William McKinley put it:

When I next realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them…. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came:

(1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable;

(2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable;

(3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and

(4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.

And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!”

As the pietist ideology of our Yankee elites was secularized, the impulse to “uplift and civilize and Christianize” was transmuted into a crusade to uplift and civilize and democratize. “Democracy” had become the new civic religion, and the effort to export it to benighted foreigners was a useful rationale for expansionism. As usual, however, this official altruism masked mercenary motives: for example, in Hawaii, where the sugar barons cemented their monopoly and their profits by instigating a coup against the native rulers. As America extended its reach into Central and South America the long arm of Wall Street reached out to grab what it could.

World War I was the fulfillment of the secular pietism that had gripped the American elites, as Murray Rothbard shows in this essay, the culmination of religious and ideological trends that had long been in incubation. The war to “make the world safe for democracy” was hailed by progressive intellectuals from John Dewey to Herbert Croly as a crusade that would pave the way for “production for use, not for profit,” and “discipline” the population to achieve the desired “social ends.” Conscription was hailed as a social leveler. War collectivism – the control of industrial production in the name of “national security” – was applauded by the progressive intellectuals of the time as the advent of a new era, tragically cut short by the Armistice: “We were on the verge of having an international industrial machine when peace broke,” said Rexford Tugwell, who would go on to become the most radical of Franklin Roosevelt’s “brain trusters.” “Only the Armistice prevented a great experiment in control of production, control of prices, and control of consumption.”

It was a long way from the warnings of the Founders against the temptations of incessant militarism.

It has to be emphasized that the elites were the agents of this tragic transformation, while ordinary Americans, for the most part, were passive observers. The great machine of war propaganda was necessary to wind them up into a state of appropriately warlike ferocity, and when that great wind machine died down, so too did the public’s bloodlust. A vast propaganda apparatus sprang up that characterized the Germans as veritable agents of the Devil. The teaching of the German language was banned in all school and universities, and in America’s symphony halls there was a moratorium on the playing of music by German composers.

But measures had to be taken in case everyone failed to get the message. War dissenters were ruthlessly repressed, with Eugene Debs jailed for making speeches against the war: in towns across America, the “American Protective Association” – a semi-governmental organization that had the full approval of the White House – tarred and feathered war opponents. Socialist and antiwar newspapers were closed down.

As time went on, the machinery of repression and government propaganda – designed to keep a lid on the natural inclination of Americans to abjure the emoluments of empire – grew to gargantuan proportions. World War II was a Great Leap Forward in this regard. The war was the great furnace in which the modern Warfare State was forged, and out of FDR’s foundry came the finely-honed machinery of perpetual warfare we find ourselves saddled with today. Out of that horror came sedition trials, American citizens being herded into concentration camps, and what John T. Flynn called “the smear terror” – a shadowy network of interlocking interventionist organizations specializing in slandering prominent anti-interventionists as Nazis, fifth columnists, and saboteurs of democracy. In short, the modern War Party was born, one which functions pretty much the same today as it did in the Great Debate of the 1930s. As it turned out, most of these smear groups were directly funded and directed by British intelligence, which was frantically trying to maneuver us into the war.

World War II also laid the foundations of the cold war, which would provide a profitable rationale for the War Party in the postwar years. Again, the British played a key role in inaugurating the new policy, with Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” jeremiad. The cold war led to a new wave of repression on the home front, with anyone to the left of Harry Truman targeted as a “red”: the rise of “McCarthyism” led to the conversion of the formerly “isolationist” conservatives into enthusiasts for nuclear war.

The cold war was the occasion for the professionalization and streamlining of the national security state, its full elaboration into an ideological and managerial system in command of vast resources. A whole new profession sprang up, the “Kremlinologist,” whose job it was to glean changes in the Soviet leadership by interpreting the positions of the communist leaders as they stood on the Kremlin walls reviewing the Red Army on parade. The culture of expertise thrived, and learned essays were written and published in august scholarly journals interpreting the hidden meanings of obscure announcements in Pravda. This provided income and prestige for the new rising class of over-educated white people who would otherwise have been teaching high school civics – as well as political ballast for fake “conservatives” like Joe McCarthy, who had previously belonged to the moderate wing of his party. McCarthy jumped at the main chance and hitched a ride on the wings of the war hysteria that possessed Western elites and the major organs of public opinion.

However, when the anti-communist fanatics of the American right-wing finally got their fondest wish, and we were engaged in a shooting war with the reds in Southeast Asia, the War Party was dealt a major setback. Under the magnifying lens of modern technology, which gave us the ability to see and hear what was transpiring on the battlefield thousands of miles away, the propagandistic fantasy of America’s heroic anti-communist crusade was destroyed. Years of media hype about the looming commie menace were erased by the widely-disseminated images and horror stories generated by that war: the alleged communist “threat” was replaced, in the public’s imagination, with the very real threat of internal corruption as the consequence of our foreign policy.

This led to a backlash in which, for the second time in our history, a mass-based antiwar movement took center stage – and, this time, won the intellectual and political debate. For years the War Party griped about the “Vietnam Syndrome,” which prevented Washington from intervening militarily on the grand scale they fondly hoped for. They thought the 9/11 terrorist attacks would remove that obstacle from their path, but the advantage they gained didn’t last – because the real world consequences of their policy proved disastrous.

Public skepticism of interventionism is at an all-time high: a Pew poll taken a few years ago revealed the vast gulf between our interventionist elites and the “isolationist” public, who showed an overwhelming preference for a foreign policy of “minding our own business,” as the pollsters put it.

So why are we presently engaged in what seems like a policy of perpetual war, in spite of the wars’ unpopularity?

Because, for one thing, the making of foreign policy is entirely invested in one branch of government: the executive. The long process of undermining the Constitution has ended in the Imperial Presidency and the creation of a national security bureaucracy where decisions are made in secret, in consultation with a bevy of “experts.” The foreign policy of this country is decided, not by the people or their representatives, but by the inhabitants of think tanks, the leadership of special interest groups, and influential foreign lobbyists. Policy is made, in short, by the elites, centered in Washington and New York.

The media plays such a key role in this that we might as well start referring to the War Party as the military-industrial-media complex. A classic example is the “reporting” done by the New York Times in the run up to the invasion of Iraq: Judith Miller’s retailing of the Bush administration’s talking points in the form of “news” articles was an important part of the campaign to mobilize the elites in favor of intervention. Once they were on board, convincing the public was almost an afterthought.

Rachel Maddow makes a version of this point in her recent book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power: the American public, she argues, is distanced from the key foreign policy decisions that are now the exclusive domain of the elites, and hardly notice we’re in a state of constant warfare. Yet her pro-Big Government views prevent her from seeing this distancing effect is the inevitable result of the growth of centralized State power. We have drifted away from the Founders’ vision, she laments, when it comes to foreign policy – but that’s because we have drifted very far indeed from their minimalist ideology of governance, which is the polar opposite of Maddow’s governmental maximalism.

The military-industrial-media complex is a mighty Wurlitzer that is even now winding up its current campaign, which is to provoke a war with Iran. In action, it is an awesome thing to see: with perfect unanimity, all the Serious People in Washington converge and repeat the agreed-upon talking points, with the “mainstream” media acting as an echo chamber of voices singing war songs in perfect unison. A more effective propaganda campaign was never launched by any totalitarian regime.

Countering this noise level is much more than a full-time job, and do I have to remind you of the great disparity of resources between the War Party and the Good Guys?

You may have noticed that we’re a week into our quarterly fundraising drive – and the results have not been all that great. We’re raising less from fewer contributors, and we’re behind where we should be. Thankfully, a group of supporters has raised a lump sum – $31,000 – in matching funds: which means, they’ll match your contributions dollar-for-dollar. Which means: we don’t get a penny until you donate one.

Look, we’re David to the War Party’s Goliath, armed only with the equivalent of a slingshot. But if we don’t raise enough to pay for that slingshot, the story will have quite a non-Biblical ending. Slingshots don’t cost all that much, relatively speaking – not when you compare it to the huge sums spent by the War Party. They have access to the US Treasury, and we only have the voluntary contributions of our readers and supporters, i.e. you.

Please, help level the playing field. Thanks to the generosity of our “angels,” we have a chance to make this matching funds campaign take us to safer territory. So please – make your tax-deductible donation today.

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].