The most surprising thing about former Congressman Ron Paul’s (R-TX) new Swords Into Plowshares is how long it took for Paul to devote an entire book to the topic of war. The Pittsburgh-born doctor who initially focused on monetary policy – the reason, in fact, for his first run for Congress – became more and more staunchly opposed to aggressive wars during his more than two decades in the House of Representatives. From his yes vote for the impeachment of Bill Clinton over bombing of Iraq, not adultry, to his rants against the war-on-terror during the 2008 and 2012 GOP debate season, Paul become less and less coy about his dislike of what he calls American empire over the years.
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Now Paul, 79, is mostly out of the political spotlight. He will never be president, and he says running for Congress again wouldn’t solve the country’s problems. He has his Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, and an Internet show.
He also has his son Rand, who is one of a comically large crop of Republicans vying for the nomination. Convention wisdom and polls both say Rand is in a slump, both it seems in terms of pure numbers and in terms of ideological support. The young eye doctor is neither good party fish nor radical, antiwar fowl, and so he is reduced to vainly insulting Donald Trump for attention. Now, on August 14 – after this interview took place – word appeared that Paul had finally officially endorsed Jr. Whether that will help or hurt Rand up for debate, but it unfortunately may be confirmation for people who assume Rand still can’t make up his mind about how much of a chip off the old block he wants to be.
I called up the elder Paul last month to ask about the new book, about war, and a little about his son. His Pittsburgh “Yinzer” accent was in full effect. He was friendly and grandfatherly, and even referenced one of my Antiwar.com headlines. (Yes, that was flattering!) He even said to say hi to my father, who interviewed him years before the doctor had a “revolution” of any kind. And finally, after all my questions had been exhausted, Paul turned things around and said “you asked me about Rand. What about your and your dad? Do you have 100 percent agreements?”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: I’m curious your upbringing, and your parents, and how you got to your antiwar position.
A: All through World War II, I remember listening to the radio, and my parents being very concerned about what was happening. That was my introduction, as well as relatives being sent overseas, and members of our church being sent overseas and not coming back. And that had an impact on me….we quickly morphed into more war – not many years later it was the Korean war, and then not long after that it was the Vietnam war. And as I explain in the book, it just seemed instinctively that these wars made no sense and I knew I wouldn’t be able to participate. It was a partial reason for my motivation to go into medicine, figuring at least in medicine you are not shooting or killing somebody….In World War II, we had cousins fighting in Germany and actually becoming prisoners of war over there at the same time my parents and grandparents were teaching us to say our prayers for our relatives in Germany so that their lives would be spared from the American bombs.
So that struck me as being so inconsistent, and when I… asked my grandmother a little bit about it, she says well, just remember that people don’t start wars, it’s the government that starts wars, and I thought that was such a profound statement.
Q: You talk a little about your time in Air Force, and you don’t sound particularly proud to have been a part of that institution. I don’t know if you can speak on whether that feels like a controversial viewpoint, especially for someone of your generation.
A: I think my perceptions of that changed over the years, because when I was drafted during the Cuban Missile Crisis I wasn’t very happy about it, but I also accepted it as something – I can’t do much about this, you know. Am I either going to go and do that or end up losing my license and never being able to practice medicine, that sort of thing….. I wasn’t contemplating what Muhammad Ali did. I considered him one of the heroes back then. By just refusing to go because he had nothing against the Vietnamese….
I did a lot of physicals – I was stationed in San Antonio, although I traveled around the world as a flight surgeon. In San Antonio, though, there were a lot of army warrant officers, which is an unusual distinction. They were wanting to become helicopter pilots. And so I did a lot of flight physicals on these young people who wanted to become a helicopter pilot because that’s what the big deal was going to Vietnam. To me it was more of a routine job, but later on I got to thinking, I wonder how many of those helicopter pilots that I did physicals on never came back again. They also had me doing physicals on potential draftees. And I did that without deep thought, because to me there wasn’t much choice. And yet later on, when I reflected on the stupidity of the war, and especially when I learned more about it from people like Daniel Ellsberg, who finally revealed that the war was based on a lie, it made me very alert to watching for these things. Especially when I went to Congress, because they’ll be lying to me again – and that certainly is what happened leading up to the Iraq war.
Q: You mention the Buffy Sainte-Marie song “Universal Soldier” repeatedly in your book. I’m curious if you think the attitude of “support the troops” is dangerous, or whether the troops still aren’t the point because they’re not the ones starting the wars.
A: I don’t think they deserve a special place in our hearts, that they are great people. And I resent it when people want to put me on a pedestal, or thank me for my service. As I reflect on what I did, it doesn’t deserve anything like that….
When I had my Rally for the Republic during the ‘08 campaign in Minneapolis, I admitted I’m the “Universal Soldier.” I didn’t resist. It’s sort of a sad song…. As important as the song is, I’d like to refute the fact that people can’t wake up and resist. Most of the time, the people get tired of the wars. At the beginning, it’s all hype, and oh, excitement, and patriotism and all this kind of stuff…. If you look back at before they went into even the Persian Gulf War – any Iraq war – polling shows that people say no, we don’t need that. We don’t need that. And then when they can build up the hatred – direct the hatred towards an individual like Saddam Hussein or the Ayatollah, people do respond because they are bombarded with this war propaganda that gets people to change their minds and join in. Until the war – they get tired of the war, too many people get hurt, and right now we’re paying for the war….
The Founders tried their best to say that presidents can’t take us to war, but that didn’t work! They still take us!… And so I think that if you can’t find the right people, and the constitution doesn’t restrain them, the only thing left is for the “Universal Soldier” to say ‘why am I doing this?’ This is a tough sell because they’re 18 years old! I was older than 18! I didn’t do much resisting. But I think it’s going to take something like that if people want to eventually stop these wars.
Q: A criticism I have seen leveled at you and often at types like Glenn Greenwald is that you focus too much on the badness of America, and either explicitly or sort of implicitly you’re condoning Saddam Hussein – or Putin today you’ve gotten some accusations of being too soft on him. Do you specifically try to focus on the bad American can do?
A: I think the goal should be to pursue truth, and if the truth is that we are the aggressors now and troublemakers, you can’t say well, no, that isn’t the truth, the truth is that Saddam Hussein is the problem. If you have an empire – as I’ve said in my book, the truth is treason in an empire of lies – the empire is dependent on lies. Wars are dependent on lies, the federal reserve has to lie to us, economic statistics they lie to us, they lie to us through their teeth. So they can’t stand the truth, but if you tell the truth and it comes back and it’s self-criticism, it’s sort of like a doctor talking to a patient, oh you have this lump here, but it’s not too serious…. But you have to know the truth, if you want to change the world.
Q: There are a lot of people who can’t handle the criticism of American policy in a world where someone like Hussein or Assad exists at all. And they think that to criticize America in a world where these people exist is to suggest that America must therefore be worst.
A: There is a difference between our criticism of government policy versus criticizing the American spirit, the work ethic, and the greatness of America and the liberties that we have in spite of all the problems we have. When I travel around the world, I’m pretty glad to get back home. But things aren’t getting better, things are getting worse. It’s my love for America that makes me want to prevent it from deteriorating into some form of horrible dictatorship. And when you look at what our government is doing to us, it’s a serious problem. I think America has been an exceptional nation, and has done many great things, the people are great. But right now, the American exceptionalism of us thinking that we are the champions of liberty, and we promote democracy…. and we go around the world saying “you do it our way, or we’ll kill you.” That’s government at its worst.
Q: In Swords Into Plowshares, you write “Toeing the party line and giving up one’s independence is necessary to advance through the system. It’s called being a ‘team player’ and it is something in which I had no interest.” Did you have any compromises in Congress? I’m actually particularly interested in your vote for the Afghanistan Authorization for Use of Military Force, and whether you regret that at all knowing how it turned out.
A: Well I’m disturbed about it, but the disturbance is 25 percent me going along with trying to stop people who were bombing us. Sort of like what you do when Pearl Harbor is bombed. I looked at it more that way. But the real crime there that might prompt one to not have voted for it – even though you could morally justify defending the country – is the fact that it was totally abused. I mean they’ve been still using it! And if you read it, it’s pretty precise – go after the guys that perpetuated 9/11! They did exactly the opposite. They didn’t go to Saudi Arabia, they just allowed the Saudis to escape, then they got Bin Laden sort of trapped, and they allow him to get loose, and then they said we’re going to use this authority to start a war in Iraq. That’s where the real criminality is….
Q: So not a lot of regrets about your time in office?
A: I sometimes wonder about the length of time that I spent there. But my goals were so different. A lot of people who understand what I was up to would say “how could you stand
that – working with those people?” And I just said, well, my goals were different. I had low expectations for changing the world overnight. My goal was to talk about issues. The very first day I ran for office in 1974 was to talk about financial issues – what was going on then. I was sort of shocked to end up in Washington….
Q: You mention false flags in your book a few times, and certainly the Gulf of Tonkin and other provably events could qualify, but you even write “whether he was the chief planner or not” in respect to Bin Laden and 9/11. Are there any so-called conspiracy theories you believe? Or if there are certain aspects to wars, or 9/11 that maybe we haven’t been told yet?
A: Well, I sort of think everything is a conspiracy! Even the good guys conspire, you know, they talk and they plan. But when it comes down to the typical explanation of a conspiracy, I think that one thing is if you’re setting up a government commission – whether it’s the Kennedy commission, or the 9/11 commission – they will never tell you the truth. They will always cover up. They might not have planned everything specifically, but you will never find out the truth. It’s to protect the government officials who either screwed up or who participated. And there was a true conspiracy of ill-will. So sometimes I don’t get into it because there’s a lot of hypothetical arguments about whether somebody planned it.
It’s a little bit hard for me believe that the second the president heard of 9/11, his mind was “A-ha! Right on time.” But there’s so many things in that whole thing that makes you wonder “how did this thing come together.” And the Kennedy assassination! But what is great about this, it doesn’t have immediately – if some of us question these things immediately, we’re the nuts!
A: But if as time goes on, and the people learn. Now what is it, 80 percent of the people don’t believe the government’s explanation of the Kennedy assassination.
Q: It’s some high number, yeah.
A: And even the 9/11 commission. I bet you that’s a growing number of people, too, that are wondering about just exactly went on. It doesn’t take much to question things, when you think about how the Saudis were treated. Fifteen out of the 19 were Saudis, and they were ushered out two days before I was allowed to get on an airplane and fly out of Washington DC. They were long gone! So that’s pretty suspicious activities.
Q: Do you have any optimism about anyone in politics, or anything about the 2016 election in terms of non-interventionism, or even any kind of small government improvements?
A: I think the momentum is too great for big government. I’ve always said that you’re not going to elect enough people to put them in the Congress to gradually reverse the trends. That’s not going to happen…. And we still have a lot of people who are demanding a socialist. Socialism is on the short run very popular because the government hasn’t given them enough….that view has to be changed – the idea that the special interests, the military-industrial complex, and the banking industry – it has to be understood that they should not have this power.
Q: When you say socialist, I assume you mean Sanders. And unfortunately, Sanders seems more antiwar than a lot of potential candidates. More so than Hillary Clinton. Do you feel that’s an impossible trade – for you to advocate for someone who’s a self-proclaimed socialist?
A: Well he has a mixed thing. He has supported recent intervention. He’s a long way from a noninterventionist.
A: But I think he voted against the Iraq war. No, it’s all authoritarianism. It would be sort of like picking on something – what did Trump say? Oh, he was highly critical, I think, on the Vietnam war, but the next day he’s on another team. I wouldn’t want to concede anything to Trump, but on something he agreed with. Bernie deserve credit for being a principled person. He really believes in this. I worked with him a good bit when I was in Congress. On the anti-corporate stuff, he was very – of course, we did it because we both sort of saw fascism there. But that doesn’t that mean he’s approaching the nonaggression principle at all. He’s quite willing to use a lot of aggression for redistribution of wealth.
Q: I gotta ask, do you talk politics with your son at all? Are you going to be hands-off about this?
A: I mean, we’ve talked for a lifetime! And we don’t see each other that often, so we don’t about that specifically. We get together usually for family.
Q: Do you think you’ll endorse him, or just – ?
A: I think that’s academic. Everybody knows I support him, I’ll vote for him. To get people to think I didn’t endorse him, I’d have to announce “I’m not endorsing my son!” [laughs]
A: So how can you not be in support of endorsing your son’s efforts?
Q: I was going to ask you kind about what you think your legacy is, and the optimism about the Ron Paul Revolution that you talk about at the end of the book. In brief, then, what do you think your legacy is, and what do you hope it is?
A: Well, I think I should be the last person to determine that –
Q: That’s fair.
A: And say, you know, he did this, and he did that, and that was very helpful. But if I had to pick and choose a statement that might try to describe what I try to do, is something along the lines that I understood what true liberty is all about. And that I was able to motivate people to inquire and further gain an understanding of why liberty is so important….
Q: That sounds pretty good. More personally, I want to mention that I am always distressed that people – even libertarians, even friends – think that war is okay. War is the worst thing you can do to someone else: you can take their house, take their life, take their family – and most people seem to think that war is acceptable. My final question – I swear! – is why so many people assume that war is okay, in spite of the principle violation.
I’m also wondering whether you think any war is justified – including any US war in particular.
A: There’s always going to be good and evil. But I believe very strongly that people have a right and a moral obligation to defend one’s self. If somebody comes into my house and wants to hurt my family, it might not be done with ease, but I would be riled up enough that yes, I would use force to defend the house. I think it is part of human nature, it is the good and the evil argument. But I also think that war and the fighting and the killing has been dominant, I guess, throughout history…. It would have to be something that would evolve. Because you know, the evolution of scientific knowledge didn’t happen in one, or five, or ten years. It’s constant….
And so when we talk about the advances of human nature in two hundred years – even in one hundred years! I think I speak in the book about my dad, he was born in 1904, and he delivered milk in a horse and buggy, saw the radio come in, and automobiles come in, and just think of in my lifetime – your lifetime, what’s going on with computers…. why is it impossible that the human race might improve to change the attitude about government and change the attitude about the sanctity of war?… I think it can change. But we’ll probably not know about that for a long time to come. It’s a suggestion I’m making that people shouldn’t give up. It’s supposed to be a suggestion of optimism. People can change.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.