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Mere “Isolationism”: The Foreign Policy of the “Old Right”


One of the “lost causes” to which libertarians are attached—and one of the most important—is that of the “isolationist” Old Right. As used by the late Murray Rothbard, among others, the term “Old Right” refers to a loose coalition opposed to the New Deal in both its domestic and foreign aspects. While not following a strict party line, “Old Rightists” largely spoke from the ground of classical liberalism and classical republicanism. This earned them epithets like “conservative” and “reactionary” since those two outlooks were rooted in actual American life. Having something to conserve made them “conservatives”—a terrible thing from the standpoint of the Party of Progress. This was a label that many on the Old Right rejected, arguing with a certain dogged futility that they were the real American “liberals.”1

The Old Right was effectively dead by 1955 with the death, electoral defeat, or retirement of many of its prominent figures. More important, the Right was undergoing an ideological makeover as new spokesmen (hereafter called the “New Right”) rushed headlong into interventionism and overseas empire under Cold War slogans and policies largely invented by Establishment Liberals.2 In an interesting case of cultural lag, the American press continued to refer to the “conservatives” or whatever as “isolationists” well into the later 1950s. They didn’t fully take on board the transformation of the Right until 1964, when they had to denounce Barry Goldwater as an inhumane, trigger-happy fellow who wanted to immolate poor flower-picking little girls in nuclear Armageddon, unlike Ole LBJ, who would never, never get us into a wider war anywhere. But at least they finally noticed the existence of the New Right. As Carl Oglesby pointed out (speaking of Vietnam), the Goldwaterite New Right “accepts the political description [of the war] and therefore wants the war to be more fiercely waged”3—a point that applies to the entire Cold War. For the Goldwaterites, far more active policies were necessary to “win” that great cosmic struggle than those undertaken by the inept Liberals.

Problematic Premises

The problem was in the premises, and this brings me back to the Old Right’s distinctive take on foreign policies. It was hard to stampede the Old Right into futile crusades involving Total Good vs. Total Evil. As critics of our intervention in World War I, they were aware of the costs of grand ideological crusades and of war itself. This—rather than some unexplained fondness for foreign governments known for big parades and funny salutes—accounts for their participation in the America First movement.4 Actually, the Liberals “explained” it on the view that everyone to their Right has bad motives (fascists! Nazis!), whereas those to their Left—he Stalinists come to mind—are basically good but in too much of a hurry. (I think we can reject this construct.) For some Old Rightists the aversion to intervention and world-saviorhood continued into the early Cold War period.

These so-called “isolationists” (to use the term foisted on them by their interventionist enemies) worried about the risk of war, the costs of war, and the domestic consequences of imperial policy. They well understood Randolph Bourne’s statement that “war is the health of the state.” Permanent mobilization in time of peace—the essence of the Cold War—fostered many undesirable policies. Conscription was especially evil. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio called it “essentially totalitarian” and added, “it is the most extreme test of our whole philosophy. . . . We shall have fought to abolish totalitarianism in the world, only to set it up in the United States.” When the Truman administration brought in legislation for peacetime conscription, or UMT (universal military training), Representative Howard Buffett of Nebraska argued that Selective Service “would prove to the world that Hitler was right—that the threat of communism externally justifies militarism and regimentation at home.” It rested on “the totalitarian concept that the state owns the individual.” Representative Lawrence Smith of Wisconsin complained that there would be “no escape” from “economic controls, manpower controls, and the regimentation that goes with dictatorial power.”5

Felix Morley, president of Haverford College, wrote in 1955 that centralization must accompany our increasingly imperial foreign policy. Our institutions, “rather than our imperial policy . . . will be modified.” Congress was becoming a mere rubber-stamp for agencies working in pitch-black secrecy like the CIA and AEC (Atomic Energy Commission). In 1957, Morley wrote in Modern Age that America had reached a point where “we have a vested interest in preparation for war.” Defense spending was a major prop of full employment and we were dangerously addicted to it. Behind the screen of secrecy which the Cold War made possible, we were “losing the substance of self-government” to a rising “self-perpetuating managerial elite.”6

Veteran anti-New Deal writer John T. Flynn, a central Old Right figure, wrote in 1955:

By means of war and the post-war mess, our government has managed to keep an evil prosperity going, based on continuous confiscatory taxes, endless borrowing, fantastic adventures abroad, a crooked pretense of war on the Soviet which we saved with our military aid and perpetuated with our Treasury, and which we now nurse as an enemy&emdash;not because we fear her clumsy system in a military sense&emdash;but because we need her. We need her as the enemy this corrupt system requires to keep the taxes and the borrowing and spending going.7

Such biting criticism was banished from the Right, or New Right, by the mid-fifties, and complainers like Morley and Flynn were increasingly isolated. The Old Right detested Soviet communism. Its power, where it existed, made them uneasy. But they refused to turn a blind eye to the dangers of American empire, American bureaucratization, and American militarism. Sustained interventionism, under the Cold War banner as under any other one, deeply threatened America’s historically unique culture of liberty.

Perhaps no one on the Old Right made the point as well as the industrialist Ernest Weir in a speech in early 1951:

As it is we hear too little from our leadership that is positive and constructive. We are told that we must prepare to endure 5-10-20 years of tension . . . of expanding government and government costs . . . of widening government controls . . . of high taxes . . . of military service for our youth . . . of a garrison state economy. Think what this will mean. It will mean that by the end of 20 years—if it does end then—we will have had two whole generations of Americans who have never had the opportunity to know the real America. They will have no experience with the real individual independence that made this country great but on the contrary they will accept as an accustomed thing, the detailed control over their private lives by a powerful central government.8

During the High Cold War such initiatives were as likely to come from the Right as from the Left. A perfect illustration is a collection of “conservative” essays on federalism published in 1961. A majority of the contributors belittled decentralization and the Tenth Amendment and called for endless, hyperthyroidal federal efforts—federal aid to education, road building, desegregation, and so on, in the name of “national strength” necessary to win the Cold War. One contributor even demanded a federal building code so that everyone would have a bomb shelter when the Russkies nuked us! Poor Russell Kirk and James Jackson Kilpatrick made little headway defending “territorial democracy” and states’ rights in that crowd.9

After 40-some years of the Cold War and with no real “dismantling” of its structures&emdash;including our old pal, NATO—in sight despite the collapse of the official enemy, it may be time to have another look at the Old Right’s critique of the Cold War and intervention.

Who They Were

The Old Right was made up mainly of right-wing Republicans who wished to avert the institutional and economic costs of war and empire. As such, they are not seen as worthy predecessors by the anti-war Left and their insights have been abandoned by most of their Republican successors. Yet they saw that making the authoritarian fixtures of war into permanent “peacetime” policies was the high road to the garrison state. At the same time, the extension of U.S. “interests” all over the world was turning the Old Republic into an Empire.

Arthur Ekirch, Bruce Porter, and Robert Higgs, among others, have noted the inner unity between social intervention at home and military intervention overseas.10 That great humanitarian and classical liberal Herbert Spencer wrote that “a society’s internal and external policies are so bound together, that there cannot be an essential improvement of the one without an essential improvement of the other.”11 One might add that a worsening of one runs right along with a worsening of the other. Thus it was hardly accidental that so many turn-of-the-century social reformers could never praise war and imperialism too much. (Teddy Roosevelt is just one who comes to mind.)

The Old Right was well aware of the philosophical unity of the two spheres of intervention. Senator Taft made the point well:

There are a good many Americans who talk about an American century in which America will dominate the world. . . . If we confine our activities to the field of moral leadership we shall be successful if our philosophy is sound and appeals to the people of the world. The trouble with those who advocate this policy is that they really do not confine themselves to moral leadership. They are inspired by the same kind of New Deal planned-control ideas abroad as recent Administrations have desired to enforce at home. In their hearts they want to force on these foreign people through the use of American money and even, perhaps, arms, the policies which moral leadership is able to advance only through the sound strength of its principles.12

This pretty much sums up the Truman Doctrine, the Nixon Doctrine, the Bush Doctrine, and the Clinton Doctrine. (Yes, he, too, cobbles together “doctrines,” when he’s not otherwise occupied.) I leave out a couple of presidents because I’m not sure they actually had “doctrines” as such. Certainly they all had policies of the same sort. JFK genuinely wanted to move us forward, at home and abroad, but with more excitement, drama, vigor, and counter-insurgency than that dull fellow Eisenhower bothered with. This worked out very well, especially in Southeast Asia. His heir, Lyndon Johnson, illustrates the point perfectly: one of his great brainstorms was to try bribing North Vietnam to give up the war by offering them a sort of Mekong Valley Authority modeled on TVA! The Clinton Doctrine seems to involve exporting all the American new class’s delusions about welfare rights and civil rights, bombing those who don’t conform quickly enough, and then setting up big civil engineering projects to rebuild the cities of those who submit. Finally&emdash;and like Dave Barry, I am not making this up—FDR’s political fixer and factotum Harry Hopkins opined in 1941 that Hitler could only be defeated by “the New Deal universally extended and applied.”13

In 1991, columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that renewed “isolationism” on both sides of the political spectrum posed a grave threat to proper (interventionist) U.S. foreign policy. The threat came from right-wing isolationists (Midwestern boneheads who refuse to learn French?) and former “peaceniks” traumatized by Vietnam. At that time, Krauthammer had a long wish list of anticipated “threats” and interventions: “North Korea, Libya, Pakistan, Iran, South Africa.”14 I was all set to watch the JFK Flexible Response Legions rain death down on the heathen and then make up for it by hanging drywall, setting up soup kitchens, and holding seminars on interest-group liberalism and electoral practices in Cook County, Illinois. (Dr. New Deal, meet Dr. Win-the-Perpetual-War.) After all, John Kennedy bogged us down in Vietnam and founded the Green Berets and the Peace Corps. Having it both ways never had it so good.

Since 1991, we have found out that some of the peaceniks do enjoy bombing foreigners, and Krauthammer himself discovered an intervention he didn’t like, and for this he should be commended. In any case, renewed “isolationism” anywhere—Left or Right—and by whatever name is something to cheer about. Even so, the task is even more daunting than Ernest Weir predicted, since three, rather than two, generations have grown up under the impression that all the inroads made against liberty and property in that time span are “normal” and even, in a joking sort of way, “constitutional.”

Political scientist Bruce Porter suggests that there is some basis for hope. He writes that “[a]t the end of the Cold War, despite nearly fifty years of full or partial national mobilization, civil society in America remains stronger, more independent-minded and more antistatist than in virtually any country of Europe or Asia.” Being more antistatist than the heroic masses of Natovia may, however, not be quite enough. The enhanced state which grew up under cover of endless foreign state transcends its military origins and acquires a new raison d’état as the pilot of the economy and provider of social welfare. Military basis or not, the American state will not go gentle into that good night.”15

Notes:

1. See Murray N. Rothbard, “Confessions of a Right Wing Liberal,” Ramparts, June 15, 1968, pp. 48-52, and “The Transformation of the American Right,” Continuum, Summer 1964, pp. 220-31. Also see Justin Raimondo, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (Burlingame, Calif.: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993).

2. See the editorial, “The Ultra-Right and Cold War Liberalism,” Studies on the Left, vol. II, no. 1 (1962).

3. Carl Oglesby, “Vietnamese Crucible: An Essay on the Meaning of the Cold War” in Carl Oglesby and Richard Shaull, Containment and Change (London: The Macmillan Company, 1967), pp. 36-37.

4. On the smears against the AFC, see Michele Flynn Stenehjem, An American First: John T. Flynn and the America First Committee (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1976), esp. Chapter 7, “Anti-Semitism and Profascism in the AFC: Fact and Fiction.”

5. Robert A. Taft, “Compulsory Military Training in Peace Time,” Vital Speeches of the Day, July 1, 1945, p. 557; Howard Buffett, Congressional Record, June 15, 1948, pp. 8362-63; Lawrence Smith, ibid., June 17, 1948, p. 8707.

6. Felix Morley, “Conservatism and Foreign Policy: Either the Constitution or the Policy Must Give Way,” Vital Speeches, January 15, 1955, pp. 974-79, and “American Republic or American Empire,” Modern Age, Summer 1957, pp. 20-32.

7. John T. Flynn, The Decline of the American Republic (New York: Devin-Adair, 1955), p. 161.

8. Ernest T. Weir, “Good Government and a World at Peace,” Vital Speeches, June 15, 1951, p. 732.

9. Robert A. Goldwin, ed., A Nation of States: Essays on the American Federal System (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963).

10. See Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., The Decline of American Liberalism (New York: Atheneum, 1969 [1955]), especially Chapter 11, “The Progressives as Nationalists”; Bruce D. Porter, War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (New York: Free Press, 1994); and Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

11. Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, ed. Donald MacRae (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 189.

12. Robert A. Taft, A Foreign Policy for Americans (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1951), pp. 17-18.

13. Harry Hopkins quoted in John Charmley, Churchill’s Grand Alliance (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1995), p. 20.

14. Charles Krauthammer, “The Lonely Superpower,” The New Republic, July 29, 1991, pp. 23-27.

15. Porter, pp. 293-94.


Joseph R. Stromberg is an independent historian and a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Freeman, February 2000. ? Copyright 2000, the Foundation for Economic Education.