January 09, 2008

The Betrayal of the American Right, by Murray N. Rothbard

By Murray N. Rothbard

Edited and with an introduction by Thomas E. Woods

Ludwig von Mises Institute, 231 pages, $20

Part II: The Rise of the Smearbund

Rothbard’s shift in viewpoint, from the objective to the personal, which occurs suddenly in the beginning of chapter 7, is nevertheless made to seem like a natural transition: he goes from describing the history of the Old Right standing outside the movement, to a partisan giving us the inside story, and the book really begins to pick up its emotional and narrative pace.

Here Rothbard details his first contacts with the nascent libertarian-conservative movement, notably the Foundation for Economic Education, led by Leonard E. Read, a former president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Another key institution of the Old Right movement at that time was the William Volker Fund, an early progenitor of libertarian and conservative scholarship. The Fund paid for academic positions held by Mises and Hayek throughout their careers: given the left-wing temper of the times, when Keynesianism in economics and statism in politics was the dominant paradigm, it was the only way these two pioneers of free market economics could obtain university posts.

It was through FEE that Rothbard came into contact with the small but intellectually energetic group of free-market and “isolationist” writers, academics, and activists who constituted the Old Right in the late 1940s. Rothbard talks about his early influences, including F. A. “Baldy” Harper, an economist with FEE whose emphasis on the philosophical rather than the purely economic aspect of libertarianism helped shape Rothbard’s own approach. Frank Chodorov, the writer, pamphleteer, and editor of the monthly analysis (yes, the lower-case is correct), had a profound effect on young Rothbard’s ideological evolution: as he puts it, “that noble, courageous, candid, and spontaneous giant of a man who compromised not one iota in his eloquent denunciations of our enemy the State … was my entrée to uncompromising libertarianism.”

Rothbard describes his first encounter with Chodorov’s work in his inimitable style, which gives us some idea of the underground nature of the libertarian movement of the day. He was looking around the Columbia University bookstore: it was 1947, and the racks were packed with “the usual Stalinist, Trotskyist, etc. leaflets,” but “one pamphlet was emblazoned in red letters, with its title, ‘Taxation Is Robbery,’ by Frank Chodorov,” which, for Rothbard, was “a true – and infinitely exhilarating – culture shock. Once seeing those shining and irrefutable words,” he relates, “my ideological outlook could never be the same again.”

While other groups dedicated to promoting “free enterprise,” however tentatively and apologetically, called for lowering taxes and relaxing regulations, Chodorov condemned all taxation as theft and called for its abolition: likewise with economic regulations. The State, in Chodorov’s view, was little more than an organized gang of highwaymen.

It was through Chodorov that young Rothbard was introduced to the works of Garrett, Flynn, Nock, Mencken, and the remnants of the Old Right movement that constituted a kind of intellectual and political underground, or counter-culture, in which he found kindred souls and began to flourish. I’ve told the essentials of this story in my biography of Rothbard – An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000) – but there are a few highlights here that I either didn’t touch on or that deserve to be doubly underscored.

The early days of FEE, which saw a struggle between anarchists and “minarchists,” the genesis of the William Volker Fund, which did so much to nurture a network of libertarian scholars, and Rothbard’s own intellectual evolution are all detailed here. Of some interest to readers of Taki’s Top Drawer, however, is the first smear attack on the slowly-reviving movement. Apostles of Discord: A Study of Organized Bigotry and Disruption on the Fringes of Protestantism, which devoted a chapter to the Spiritual Mobilization group, founded in 1935 by the Rev. James W. Fifield, pastor of the 4,500-member First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. The Spiritual Mobilizers put out the very libertarian magazine, Faith and Freedom, and Rothbard wrote for them under the pseudonym “Auberon Herbert” According to the author, Ralph Lord Roy, who devoted a chapter to “God and the ‘Libertarians,’” Fifield and “Herbert” were “apostles of discord” because they challenged and opposed all those Good Things that non –“extremists” embraced, like the Welfare State, the United Nations, and the liberal-collectivist shibboleths of the time, which were indeed held as sacred by both parties and all “respectable” commentators in 1953, the year the book was published.

Spiritual Mobilization was deemed a “threat to progress,” and “reactionary,” even meriting a blast from the socialist Reinhold Niebuhr. Roy hurled all the by-now-familiar “extremist”-baiting epithets, and then some: Fifield’s group represented “the Protestant priests of Mammon,” they were “benefactors of the rich and powerful, and allied with groups that “nestle on the fascist fringe.” Labor unions and The Nation magazine were particularly miffed that these “Neanderthals” dared raise their heads. Roy’s analysis, according to Rothbard, divided his targets “into two baleful groups: Apostles of Hate, and Apostles of Discord. In the slightly less menacing Ministry of Discord (along with pro-Communists and various rightists) was, in Chapter 12, “God and the ‘Libertarians,’” place for some reason in quotation marks. But, quotation marks or not, under attack or not, we had at least gained general attention, and I suppose we should have been grateful to be placed in the Discord rather than the Hate category.”

This should give you an idea of just how obscure and unsung these freedom-fighters of the Fifties were: a vicious attack was welcomed as recognition!

Yet there were advantages, if we look at it from our own perspective, in belonging to this beleaguered Remnant. Looking back on that bygone era, and Rothbard’s account of it, one can only wistfully pine for a conservative movement that wasn’t mired in warmongering demagoguery, that stood with the individual against the State, and that didn’t had yet to be co-opted and neutralized by an invasion of ex-Communists and right-wing Social Democrats [.pdf file]. Rothbard shows that the Old Right, which was, at that point, the mainstream of the conservative movement, was “staunchly and steadfastly opposed [to] both American imperialism and interventionism abroad, and its corollary in militarism at home.” Virtually the only opposition to conscription – extended until 1947, and reinstituted the next year – came from the “extreme right” Republicans in Congress, and such Old Right mainstays as Flynn and Chodorov. Furthermore, NATO and the Truman Doctrine were disdained by the Old Right Republicans, such as Nebraska Republican congressman Howard Buffett (yes, that’s right: the father of today’s famous billionaire), who attacked the Truman Doctrine on the floor of Congress:

“Even if it were desirable, America is not strong enough to police the world by military force. If that attempt is made, the blessings of liberty will be replaced by coercion and tyranny at home. Our Christian ideals cannot be exported to other lands by dollars and guns…. We cannot practice might and force abroad and retain freedom at home. We cannot talk world cooperation and practice power politics.”

Words that, if uttered today – by, say, Ron Paul – would need little if any emendation.

Robert A. Taft is portrayed, here, as a waffling albeit loveable and essentially sound politician, whose best instincts led him to oppose the world-saving, debt-creating, liberty-destroying foreign policy of the Truman Democrats and their internationalist Republican collaborators. Warning against our deepening intervention in Asia – which would eventually lead to the tragedy of Vietnam – Senator Taft denied that Korea fell within the American defense perimeter. He furthermore savaged Truman’s decision to send troops without congressional approval, setting a precedent that we all rue to this day: “If the President can intervene in Korea without congressional approval,” Taft warned, “he can go to war in Malaya, or Indonesia, or Iran, or South America.”

While the Old Right Republicans “valiantly opposed the war,” as Rothbard puts it, the Left completely capitulated to the war hysteria and the Cold War fever then enveloping the remnants of liberal opinion. Henry Wallace, most liberals, and even the Trotskyist followers of British “state capitalist” theoretician Tony Cliff, joined the pro-war chorus. Both The New Republic and The Nation jumped on board the Truman war-wagon, and together these two arbiters of American liberalism denounced “the Stalinist caucus” over in the Tribune Tower, where Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick, publisher of the staunchly “isolationist” Chicago Tribune, blazed away at the War Party. Rothbard offers a fascinating take on the debate by singling out the criticism of Taft by McGeorge Bundy, future architect of the Vietnam war, and rabid interventionist, who attacked the Senator for daring to question Truman’s authority to defy the Constitution and take the nation to war all by his lonesome. The President, he averred, must have the unimpeded authority to make war anywhere, at any time, if we were to win the global war on Communism. A decade or so later, the bitter fruits of Bundy-ism would be reaped in full.

As we watch the Democrats of today barely rustle up enough courage to propose meek modifications to the “surge” in Iraq, we should be inspired by the history of how the Republicans, led by Senators Taft and Wherry, boldly called for Truman to bring the troops home from Korea, and sought to deny him the funds to maintain permanent bases. As Herbert Hoover[.pdf file] joined the growing chorus of conservative Republican war critics, the liberal media was in a lather, with The Nation charging that “The line they [antiwar Republicans] are laying down for their country should set the bells ringing in the Kremlin as nothing has since the triumph of Stalingrad [!]. Actually, the line taken by Pravda is that the former President did not carry isolationism far enough.”

The Old Right was being red-baited! This would happen to Rothbard throughout his career, but, at this point, it was quite a shock for he and his fellow “extreme right” Republicans to read, in The New Republic, an editorial attacking conservative war opponents as an “opposition who saw nothing alarming in Hitler’s conquest of Europe,” and hardly raising an eyebrow as “Stalin, after raising the ante, as he did with Hitler, and sweeping over Asia, would move on until the Stalinist caucus in the Tribune tower would bring out in triumph the first Communist edition of the Chicago Tribune.”

McCormick, who was denouncing “reds” when The Nation and The New Republic were hailing Lenin’s “workers’ paradise” and defending the Moscow Trials, wasn’t “anti-Communist” enough for the neocons of yesteryear.

The fight against the conquest and occupation of South Korea was the last stand of the congressional “isolationists” in the GOP. There is an elegaic ring to a letter Rothbard wrote to a liberal friend, which he includes at the end of the Korea war chapter, that pretty much sums up the intellectual and political zeitgeist of the time, and the generally pessimistic outlook of the Old Right as the cold war began in earnest:

“In the last war, we were hampered by a few obstructionist, isolationist antediluvians, who resisted such salutary steps as a draft of all labor and capital, and total planning for mobilization by benevolent politicians, economists, and sociologists. But under our permanent war setup, we can easily push this program through. If anyone objects, we can accuse him of giving aid and comfort to the Commies ….

“Whoever the genius was who thought up the permanent war idea, you’ve got to hand it to him. We can look forward to periods of National Unity, of a quintupling of the National Income, etc. There is a little fly in the ointment that some obstructionists may mention – the boys actually doing the fighting may have some objections. But we can correct that with a $300 billion “Truth” campaign headed, say, by Archibald MacLeish, so they will know what they are fighting for. And, we’ve got to impose equivalent sacrifices on the home front, so our boys will know that things are almost as tough at home …”

The “swansong of the Old Right,” as Rothbard puts it, was Taft’s defeat at the 1952 Republican convention, where the nomination was stolen by the Wall Street wing of the party, in a repeat of the Wilkie coup of 1940. Part of the fascination of this book is that the author cites a number of writers and material I had never heard of until I read Rothbard’s manuscript, such as Garet Garrett, the muckraking journalism of the Chicago Tribune, and including the work of Chesly Manly, the Tribune’s longtime political correspondent, on the hijacking of the GOP by the Eisenhower forces:

“New York banks, connected with the country’s great corporations by financial ties and interlocking directorates, exerted their powerful influence on the large uncommitted delegations for Eisenhower. They did it more subtly, but no less effectively, than in 1940 when they captured the Republican convention for Wilkie. Having made enormous profits out of foreign aid and armaments orders, the bankers and corporation bosses understood each other perfectly.”

Another writer, who has long since gone out of fashion, was Louis Bromfield, whose 1954 polemic, A New Pattern for a Tired World, is cited by Rothbard as one of the last echoes of the Old Right: Bromfield’s call for free markets and his bitter denunciation of the new militarism “began to seem anachronistic and had almost no impact on the right wing of the day.”

One by one, the lions of the Old Right withdrew from the battlefield: Taft, McComick, Flynn, Garrett, the first two dead by the end of the decade and the latter two retired, worn out from a struggle in which they found hardly any reinforcements, and were particularly lacking an influx of youthful successors to take their place. A few, however, stepped forward, one of them a young Murray Rothbard, who took up the cudgels against all wings of the War Party, both its “rightist” faction and its social democratic manifestation, as we’ll see in the next installment ….


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