March 19, 2008
It’s always dangerous to let your view of history get stuck in a single moment. For the neocons, it’s always September 1938, with a weak Hitler bluffing his way into bloodless conquests while building up his army. The English and French let him get away with this because they were still living in August 1914—when diplomatic blunders converted a Serbian terrorist strike into a needless and meaningless bloodbath that destroyed a continent. For neoliberals, every year is 1994 in Rwanda, or 1995 in Srebrenica. For antiwar libertarians, it’s pretty much always 1898, on the eve of our unprovoked attack on Spain, and I fear that for a generation at least, traditional conservatives will be stuck in spring 2003—when we sat, transfixed and helpless, as opportunists lied our countrymen into a futile and unjust war. Extending this metaphor, debate about foreign policy could be imagined as a bunch of Italians, each with a broken watch, sitting around a cafe table arguing about what time it is. Twice a day, each of them will be right.
Sometimes, the long-term defense of America’s interests will require an isolationist refusal of entangling alliances, as counseled by Washington’s farewell address. We are entering such a moment now—as our budget slides into a sinkhole of debt, our allies view us with mingled distrust and (mounting contempt), and our economy crumbles like a pyramid scheme. We will learn in the next 10 years what prudent parents have always taught their children—you can’t live beyond your means. With our manufacturing economy marching off to China, our service economy outsourced to India, and rising fuel prices that make suburban life untenable, the U.S. will simply not be able to afford to throw its weight around. Indeed, we soon will lack the weight to throw. Our current expenditures on Cold War-era weaponry cannot be sustained indefinitely, along with the yawning fiscal gap created by Social Security and Medicare. The money simply doesn’t exist, and soon the Chinese will tire of lending it to us—particularly if we pursue the neocon policy of confronting them. In the meantime, we face the hostility of about 1 billion Moslems, and insist on provoking Russia… all in support of a fantasy of our own power and righteousness. The historian Paul Kennedy once wisely observed that the U.S. empire is less like the British than the Spanish: heavily militarized, ruinously expensive, and predicated not on self-interest but ideology. Spain ruined itself by attempting to impose its worldview (a statist version of Counter-Reformation Catholicism) on unwilling populations. That’s how Spain lost the most valuable jewel in its crown—not the inflationary gold-mines of Mexico, but the thrifty, productive ports of the Netherlands. Our own ideology—libertine mass democracy—has proved equally impossible to export at gunpoint. We are wrecking ourselves in the effort—which doesn’t mean we will have the sense to stop. No one was able to arrest the decline of Spain, and I doubt that any political leader with the courage of a Ron Paul will ever gain the support needed to stop our suicidal course. We’re playing chicken with the rest of the world, and we aim to “win.”
All this to say that interventionism is an ideology like any other; it’s typically wrong, but occasionally the situation coincides with its prejudice. I think that this happened between 1940 and 1989. Isolationism had a much longer run—although you can hardly honestly call the career of the U.S. from 1783 to 1898 “peaceful.” We had a long string of wars—but most of them were fought against tribes of lightly armed hunter-gatherers whose continent we were conquering. We beat the disorganized Mexicans, and smashed the rotted shell of the Spanish empire. In between, we fought against ourselves, and in so doing destroyed our original, decentralist Constitution. A string of easy victories, and the bloody, bitter triumph of centralized nationalism in 1865, prepared us to embark on the course of empire. I wish we’d declined to do so, but it was never very likely. Look over the course of human history—and remember that whatever the Old Right might have tried to believe, we Americans are in no sense an “exception” to any of history’s dynamics, or to Original Sin. What happens when a loosely organized confederation of states expands to its natural borders, is whipped into unity by a centralizing ruler (e.g. King Abraham Lincoln), and attains enormous prosperity? Do its leaders and people typically proclaim “Enough!” and settle down to till their gardens? Did this happen in 16th century Britain? In 17th century France? In 19th century Germany? Of what magic pixie dust is American soil made that we would think it might happen here? Tragically, we were driven by the same power-lust as every other nation in history, whatever the wisdom of our original (long-defunct) Constitution.
So perhaps I am being naive in imagining that any American president would have avoided jumping in on the Entente side in World War I. But enough men at the time (such as William Jennings Bryan) knew that there was no moral case for our involvement, as historians have proved: British violations of our neutrality far outnumbered German incidents. We had a better case for declaring war on England. And no conceivable outcome of the war would have posed a serious threat to our security or trade. None of the antagonists were inclined to be antagonistic toward us, and none sought to conquer and subjugate the Continent. None of the fighting creeds on either side was a universalist ideology designed for export. The war was strictly irrelevant to us, and could have remained so.
Given that we fought in the war, and inadvertently helped lay the groundwork for not one but two powerful ideologies with aspirations to world domination, we faced in 1940 a very different situation than we had in 1917—even if popular opinion didn’t reflect that fact. In one of his responses to me, Daniel Larison corrected me. I had written: “The conquest of Europe…was a prospect unacceptable to a nation that was mostly descended from Europe…”
Larison responded: “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.” Here he is right. The public opposed U.S. involvement in the war—but not strongly enough, I’ll add, to stop President Roosevelt’s assistance to the Allies, or his embargo of Japanese oil. These were the factors that led to our involvement, and they happened under a free and democratic government. “But the people were fooled,” he might respond. “They never intended these measures to lead to war.”
Quite true. But sometimes leaders must step out ahead of the people, and hope that they will follow. None of the men who attended our Constitutional Convention had been authorized to write one. They’d been sent by the several states to revise the Articles of Confederation. Instead, they crafted our Constitution, in a kind of bloodless coup. The people, through their legislatures, could have refused to go along. Likewise, the American people from 1938-1941 could well have elected a different president, or congressmen who’d stick to strict neutrality in the war. But they didn’t. They allowed Roosevelt to cut off the oil supplies to Japan—which (contra Larison) was not an “act of war” that in any way necessitated or justified Pearl Harbor.
What is more, in the postwar years, the people rallied to the Cold War, precisely because they saw that a Europe united under a totalitarian government was a threat to the U.S.—and also because they were appalled by the atrocities committed by the Soviets against Christians, their spiritual brethren. Democratically elected American legislators voted for NATO, and the Marshall Plan, and supported a worldwide campaign against Communism. I for one am glad that they did. (Although our targeting of civilian populations with nuclear weapons could never have been justified, except as a massive bluff. It is never acceptable to murder the innocent, even in revenge. Here, Rothbard was right: Much better Red than dead.)
I’m not so sanguine that a Soviet or Nazi occupied Europe from Gibraltar to Vladivostok would have “withered away” in the absence of opposition—even with the hindsight of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989. Such an outcome was certainly not predictable at the time. While it’s true that collectivism is inherently less efficient than a free economy, that hasn’t prevented tyrannies from conquering free cities and republics over the centuries. Soviet armies at the gates of Switzerland might just have managed to ride over the “impossibility of economic calculation in a socialist commonwealth.”
That was the prospect we faced in 1940. We face no such prospect now, and it’s morally disgraceful for the warmongers of our time to dig up poor, murdered Anne Frank to justify “regime change” in Syria, or to conduct a seance and channel Cardinal Mindzenty on behalf of provoking Vladimir Putin.
Of course, none of the above is meant to justify the many moral outrages “our side” committed during World War II—the insistence on unconditional surrender, the bombing of civilians from Dresden to Hiroshima, the refusal to help von Stauffenberg, or the many needless sell-outs to Stalin. Even just wars can be fought unjustly… think of the Crusades.