March 17, 2008

The most emotionally powerful argument John advances is that America was descended from Europe, shared in European civilization, and so could not have stood by while Europe was subjected to either German or Soviet control.  But he phrases this in an interesting way: “The conquest of Europe…was a prospect unacceptable to a nation that was mostly descended from Europe…”  Yet it isn’t clear that such a prospect was unacceptable to Americans at the time.  It was undesirable, and would have been very much regretted, but to say that it was unacceptable implies that there would have been some popular demand to do something to throw out the conqueror.  I don’t think this was likely to have happened, and I think the general lack of public enthusiasm for involvement in the European war bears this out.  Unlike the Pacific theater, the European war seemed to Americans at the time to be a distraction from the real fight that Americans viscerally felt they had with Japan after Pearl Harbor, and there was not much strong public sentiment that it was America’s responsibility to save Europe from itself.  I describe this as the most emotionally powerful argument, because it has the greatest potential to stir the feelings of anyone who admires and respects the legacy we have received from Europe, but it is precisely because of the emotional appeal of intervening to save Europe that I think we must remain steadfast in the adherence to the idea expressed in Washington’s Farewell Address, “Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.”  Even though we are speaking generally of Europe and of many nations, I fear that talk of a “mother Continent, ” while undoubtedly true in terms of our historical and cultural relationship with Europe, simply takes the place of the misguided Anglophilia that drew us into both wars on the grounds that we “could not” tolerate the endangerment of the Mother Country.  Monsters would have indeed been in control of Europe were it dominated by the Nazis or the Soviets, but we go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.  That is advice that served us well for over a century, and we possibly could have resumed following it but for the dishonesty and treachery of FDR.

Of all the points John raises, the last one sounds compelling at first but is actually the weakest of the five.  No Nazi-ruled state as vast as the Eurasian landmass, or even some sizeable portion of it, would have long remained united and would probably have splintered along national lines even sooner than the Soviet empire did.  Also, the Nazis were captivated by their Ostpolitik, were interested primarily in a colonial empire in the Old World, and would scarcely have threatened the United States.  The establishment of such a major German or Soviet power might have required the creation of a larger navy than we already possessed.  Yet it seems likely that a Soviet empire embracing all of Europe would have collapsed even more quickly from internal resistance and discontent.  How does it serve the American interest to adopt the mistaken British policy of balancing, which led them into so many senseless and fruitless conflicts on the Continent, and apply it to all of Eurasia?  Once having intervened to maintain some balance in one case, when, if ever, would we be able to withdraw and return to our former neutrality?  The experience in our own history shows us that intervention creates strong institutions that have vested interests in perpetuating policies contrary to the national interest, which means that once we open the door to intervention it is extremely difficult to close later. 

Perhaps more vexing than John’s endorsement of the interventionist case is the way that he sometimes expresses it.  He says that he is “glad” that FDR maneuvered the United States into the war.  But I am skeptical that he means this as stated.  He cannot really be “glad” that FDR violated the Constitution, engaged in illegal warfare in the Atlantic and actively misled the public about his intentions towards the war in Asia.

That brings me to my suggestion that John neglects the most powerful argument against intervention, namely the argument that intervention in foreign wars poses a threat to republican and constitutional government.  Besides the regrettable revolutionary effects the war had on American society in terms of the mass uprooting and relocation of populations, WWII fundamentally and perhaps forever after changed the government of the United States and consolidated power in relatively few hands more than at any time before that.  This is not something that we happen to know from hindsight, but was predictable and predicted at the time.  Men on the Old Right knew that war concentrated power in the state and particularly in the executive, and they foresaw the subversion of constitutional controls that was making the war possible and that the war would only increase.  At the price of losing much of our own constitutional inheritance, one of the best legacies we received from our English ancestors, we struggled to save a Europe whose civilization had already been substantially destroyed in the conflagration starting in 1914.  The monsters had already been unleashed on the Continent before we ever arrived, and the United States had the misfortune of joining in the slaughter that largely severed the Europe that had given birth to America from the Europe that emerged on the other side.        


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