I had someone comment to me on Twitter to the effect of “Why don’t you stick to foreign policy?” It came from someone who disagreed with my piece on the Oregon stand off, a reader of this site who is apparently sympathetic to my anti-interventionist views but doesn’t get it when I apply the same principles to the American scene. There were also more than a few remarks in the comments section of that piece reflecting the same cluelessness: what does any of this have to do with Antiwar.com’s mission of abolishing the Empire?
Let’s start with the basics. In a normal country, it is entirely possible to separate domestic policy from foreign policy – because the latter is strictly limited to the goal of protecting its citizens from foreign invasion, which means, in large part, protecting the territorial integrity of the nation, i.e. its borders. But the United States isn’t a normal country. We haven’t been a normal country since World War II.
One could even go back farther and date our descent into abnormality to the end of the nineteenth century, when William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt first succumbed to the temptations of empire. The conquest of the Philippines, the subjugation of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and American incursions into Central and South America were driven by domestic factors: the investment bankers who successfully utilized the US military as their enforcers, the economic and political interests that fueled the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s doctrine of naval supremacy, and the millenarian spirit of the post-millennial pietism that energized the progressive movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although there was a brief respite in the interval between the two world wars, these domestic factors fueled the drive to establish the US as a global power, a world empire that would take the place of Britain as the alleged guarantor of “world order.” As a corollary to and in tandem with this we saw the rise on the home front of the American corporate state, the advent of crony capitalism, and the concomitant centralization of political authority and economic power. Imperialism and statism interacted symbiotically: the triumph of bigness at home created a dynamic that reinforced and celebrated gigantism abroad, especially the gigantism of ambition that imbued our leaders with a messianic certainty that they could solve the world’s problems. Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to “make the world safe for democracy” led us into the bloody slaughter of the Great War, which destroyed European civilization at the apex of its cultural flowering – and set the stage for an even greater slaughter to come.
Emerging from the Great War economically drained and spiritually disillusioned, the nation turned to Warren G. Harding, a Republican, for respite. Harding had campaigned for President promising a “return to normalcy,” and while the pundits criticized him for his supposed grammatical illiteracy, his rhetoric had a powerful effect on a citizenry exhausted by the war cries of the crisis-mongers:
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”
Although derided by modern historians, who favor more dramatic figures such as the warmonger FDR, the crusading Wilson, and the authoritarian Lincoln, Harding presided over a period of peace and prosperity. He repaired our relations with Latin America, where Wilson’s promiscuous interventions had alienated the natives, cut military spending, beat back the naval lobby, and energetically pursued disarmament initiatives. He rejected the meddlesome ambitions of the League of Nations, and kept the US focused on solving its problems on the home front rather than trying to export “democracy” to the farthest darkest corners of the globe.
His successor, Calvin Coolidge – another chief executive hated by liberal-left historians – pursued a similar policy of avoiding entanglements in overseas conflicts while cutting the power and scope of the federal government. It was under Herbert Hoover, however, that this post-Wilsonian interregnum began to unravel.
As Murray Rothbard pointed out in America’s Great Depression, it was Hoover who constructed the policy template later expanded by Franklin Roosevelt into the alphabet soup bureaucratization of the American economy. Hoover’s policies exacerbated a recession which morphed into a full-scale downturn, thus paving the way for the New Deal – and FDR’s march to war.
The ascension of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to four terms of the presidency marks the passing of our old republic and its replacement by an empire, a centralized state that seeks to expand its influence on every continent and into every American household. It meant the end of normalcy, the return of the eternal “crisis” that empowered Washington to act in the name of meeting the “emergency” – and from that day until the present, the “crisis” has been perpetual.
The economic “emergency” required that we surrender the very concept of economic freedom, the foreign “crisis” meant we had to mobilize the nation, impose conscription, institute rationing, and turn industry over to the cartels. The social and economic life of the country was militarized, and dissent was crushed, along with the Constitution: hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were interned, antiwar activists were prosecuted for “sedition,” and the Supreme Court itself was besieged by the enemies of liberty.
As the country stepped out on the world stage, it was a changed America that made its bid for empire. The forms of the old republic remained, but they were a dry husk ready to be discarded. The new “crisis” was the cold war, a face-off with our former ally, the Soviet Union, that inspired conservative leader William F. Buckley, Jr., to abandon the traditionalist stance on behalf of constitutionalism and embrace the Leviathan. In 1952 he wrote that the alleged threat posed by the ramshackle Russian empire required conservatives to endorse "the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy” because the "thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union imminently threatens U.S. security," and that therefore
"[W]e have got to accept Big Government for the duration – for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores."
This meant: “large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington – even with Truman at the reins of it all.”
The culture of crisis not only subverted the economic order, but also distorted the political culture, aborting the development of an effective conservative opposition that could stand up to the collectivist juggernaught pounding away at the last remnants of the constitutional order. The Buckleyized conservative movement, castrated at birth, could not reproduce the principled passion of its pre-New Deal forebears, only managing a seldom effective holding action not quite up to “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’”
And so it came to be that the Empire lorded over us all, invading the Middle East at the turn of the twenty-first century just as Teddy Roosevelt, the first of the empire-builders, had invaded the American West on behalf of the federal government, annexing practically all of Nevada, half of Utah, Oregon, California, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona, and at least thirty percent of Montana and Colorado. And, by the way, creating the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where today a brave band of dissenters are engaging in an act of civil disobedience against the depredations of the Empire.
An Empire, I would remind you, that slaughters foreigners and Americans with equal impunity, restrained only by the domestic political consequences of its murderous proclivities.
America hasn’t been a normal country since December 7, 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt finally succeeded in provoking the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. What is needed now is a return to normalcy, a rejection of the “generational conflict” that is the “war on terrorism” – and the kind of leadership capable of overthrowing the culture of perpetual crisis that has dominated our politics for seventy-five years.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.