Jack of No Trade, Masters of War
By Joseph R. Stromberg
This article appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of The Independent Review
The task of history, according to historian Ralph Raico, is essentially one of revisionism and especially the undermining of excuses for war. It therefore comes as no surprise that Raico masterfully punctures the inflated reputations of Wilson, Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman, and the Soviet leadership in his recent book, Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal.
You will probably never see Ralph Raico, professor emeritus of history at
Buffalo State College, holding forth on the History Channel surrounded by
wide-eyed naïfs eager to improve their mastery of American Establishment
gospel. His new book, Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010) shows why. Yet Raico has a wellearned
reputation as a classical-liberal historian who has made important contributions
to the history of German liberalism, translated Ludwig von Misess Liberalism,
broadened our knowledge of liberal class-conflict theory, and accomplished much
more. There is more to a historians achievement than superficial public acclaim.
In a typical Raico essay, the reader finds solid research, detailed knowledge of
relevant sources, deft deployment of quotations, and careful interpretation, complemented
by wit, devastating understatement, and an occasional outburst that might
seem intemperate had he not just written several pages that render the point both
inevitable and obvious. The materials in his new book have been published previously,
but the first three chapters have been greatly expanded to good effect. Because they
amount to 60 percent of the book, I deal mainly with them in this review. Each of these
three chapters provides an excellent overview of the main issues of the period under
consideration as well as a good introduction to essential historical sources.
Wars, Wars, and Rumors of Wars
With superb moral clarity, Raico states in his introduction that the task of history is
essentially one of revisionism and especially the undermining of excuses for war (p. vii). He notes the declension of Europes nineteenth-century liberal parties into
machines for the exploitation of society by the now victorious predatory middle
classes (p. ix, a point also made in the foreword by Robert Higgs). From then to
now, it has fallen to consistent and critical liberals such as Richard Cobden, John
Bright, William Graham Sumner, Gustave de Molinari, Albert Jay Nock, H. L.
Mencken, Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard, Leonard Liggio, and others to expose
the motives of apparently liberal wars.
The First European Suicide Attempt, 19141918
Raicos first chapter, World War I: The Turning Point, sees the war of 191418 as
the Great Disaster that set the tone and course of the dreadful twentieth century.
Given the mass slaughter, ideological extremism, and sheer state building that accompanied
the war, this characterization is no exaggeration. Raico is of course concerned
to sketch the wars impact on American politics and lifenone of it good. Here his
mastery of the relevant literature and his immunity to encrusted wartime myths, old
and new alike, serve us well.
Raico does not shortchange the reader on essential background: the emerging
alliance system that pitted Allied Powers against Central Powers, Serbian ambitions,
Balkan Wars, Pan-Slavism, and the dangers of mobilization. Neither does he overlook
the commitments made to France (and therefore to Russia) by a minority of the
British cabineta secret (and undemocratic) undertaking that plays hell with the
fashionable democratic peace theory (p. 6).
Once the European war began in August 1914, the outwardly neutral United
States found its shipping at the mercy of the warring powers. (Americans had been
here before, a century earlier.) Raico spares no details, especially regarding the international
law of the case. Britain undertook a hunger blockade (pp. 4445) to starve
the Germans. (Chapter 9, Starving a People into Submission, pursues this topic
further.) Certain consequences followed, chief among them being German resort to
submarine warfare. The U.S. ruling elite could never manage to connect these two
things (p. 28, citing Edwin M. Borchard and William P. Lage). They knew much and
Worse luck for the Americans, between 1914 and 1917 the United States had
two war parties and no peace party (p. 27), a condition that by now seems entirely
normal. Northeastern Anglophile intellectuals, clergymen, politicians, and big business
took Englands side from the start and saw their chief problem as maneuvering
the rest of the country into war on the Allied side. Raico accordingly makes acid
comments on the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Walter Hines Page, who practically
served as a member of the British cabinet, and more particularly on Robert Lansing,
William Jennings Bryans successor as U.S. secretary of state (Bryan had taken the
administrations peace rhetoric entirely too seriously). Raico highlights passages in
Lansings War Memoirs (1935) that admit that all of his diplomatic notes complaining about British naval practices were meaningless charades that ensured the continuance
of the controversy and left the questions unsettled, which was necessary in order to
leave this country free to act and even act illegally when it entered the war (qtd. on p. 30).
Raico draws the rather straightforward conclusion that such postwar revelations [explain] the passion of the anti-war movement before the Second World War much
better than the imaginary Nazi sympathies or anti-Semitism nowadays invoked by
ignorant interventionist writers (p. 30 n.).
Villains abound in this chapter, but theVillain in Chief is surely ThomasWoodrow
Wilson, president of the United States from 1913 to 1921and rightly so, as Raico
soon demonstrates. Despite his constant Jeffersonian rhetoric (in which he was even
less sincere than Jefferson), Professor Wilson was an ambitious Hamiltonian state
builder, fascinated by the power of the Presidency and how it could be augmented
by meddling in foreign affairs and dominating overseas territories (p. 18). As for
Wilsons idealism, Raico concludes that it masked a well-developed need for power.
The Wilson administrations conduct on the home front (191719) established
once and for all the right of a government legitimized by formal democratic processes
to dispose at will of the lives, liberty, and property of its subjects (p. 38), idle
talk about democracy and its global prospects notwithstanding. Among the precedents
thus established is that ancient blunderbuss the Espionage Act of 1917, with
which certain present-day politiciansbipartisan as everhope to solve their problems
with freedom of the press and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. (Yes, the
damned thing is still on the books.) Only a very exceptional nation could have lived
throughWorldWar I at home and, having forgotten the whole thing, still regard itself
as some sort of world emporium of freedom.
A Cousin Too Far: Winston Churchill
Chapter 2, Rethinking Churchill, is a wonderful essay that undermines the chief
foundations of the Churchill legend brick by brick. The idea that Churchill was
unusually farsighted in regard to Hitler falls by the wayside, along with Churchills
wartime statesmanship, his strategic genius, his humanity, and his conservatism.
What remain when Raico is finished are Churchills opportunism, his contributions
to the welfare state, and his lifelong need to be in a war (any war)in short, his
active life as a Man of the State (p. 53). Raico naturally notices those to whom
Churchills reputation is of great service: an international interventionist class that
has adopted Churchill as a perfect symbol and an inexhaustible vein of high-toned
blather (p. 54). This view may seem rather shocking, but there is no shortage of
concrete evidence for Raicos seemingly unkind evaluation, and adult readers can
weigh it for themselves.
Old Rightists, in whose tradition Raico works, did not trust or admire Winston
Churchill, nor did they write lightweight spy novels about the derring-do of MI-6
or Office of Strategic Services agents, as did a famous New Right luminary. In
statesmen such as Churchill, as in the organs of state security, they saw a pattern of
empire, militarism, and inevitable reactions on domestic life, which they prayed the
United States would avoid.
The Buck Stopped There, but Not Soon Enough
Harry Truman, a state-building New Deal Democrat from Missouri, inherited Franklin
D. Roosevelts wars and made the most of them. He even found a way tomake wartime
powers accrue to the state permanently through the invention of a cold warneither
war nor peace (though not quite in the way the Bolsheviks used the phrase at Brest
Litovsk). Truman was scarcely alone in this venture; the whole U.S. wartime establishment
had an interest in the new model of permanent semimobilization. Here, too,
Raico provides ample context, sequence, and consequences in what amounts to a
minihistory of Cold War origins.
With the U.S government circumnavigating the world these days, moralizing
about nuclear weapons, it is nice to see Raico reopen the case of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. He concludes that there simply was no need to drop the so-called
weapons under any credible definition of such words as military or necessity. Yet
Truman did drop them and thought little of doing so. Once more Raico provides
sources and reasons.
As the chill of Cold War set in, the beleaguered Republican (and nearly
Old Right) Congress, elected in 1946 on hopes of returning to normalcy, gradually
yielded to a series of Cold War liberal initiatives: aid to Greece and (unthreatened)
Turkey in 1947, the Marshall Plan to rebuild western Europe (1948), and the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (1949)an entangling alliance with a big
future currently before it, albeit one with no basis in the text of the treaty itself.
(Reviewers aside: Robert Taft warned us that NATO might turn out badly.) Administration
planners, unsatisfied, poured their boundless ambitions into One Ring, or at
least into National Security Council Memo No. 68 (June 1950). Even they doubted
they could get Congress to pay for what they wanted, but then thank God Korea
came along (Truman adviser, qtd. on p. 117). There is more, of course, and Raicos
account of the conduct of the Korean War on the American side is worth the price of
admission. (Short version: bombs, bombs, bombs, and more bombsall to no avail.)
At home, acting on his steroid-enhanced presidential war powers (whatever they
may be), Truman seized American steel plants in April 1952 to avert a looming strike.
Senator Robert Taft (ROhio) joined left liberals in condemnation. The U.S. Supreme
Court performed a daring balancing act and reasoned that Truman had overstepped,
but without achieving any great juridical clarity (my two cents). Raico calls attention to
Old Right Congressman George Bender (ROhio), who called for Trumans impeachment
over the steel seizure. Bender doubted the American people could tolerate such a
precedent (April 19, 1952). Raico adds: Of course the American people could and did
tolerate such a precedent. What is still uncertain is whether there is still any limit
whatever to their tolerance of acts of oppression by the government (p. 127 n.). One
can see why Trumans record inspires contemporary unitary-executive theorists and
various aspirants to the mighty Office. (Side note: Conservatives inclined to join the
current fad for the thought of Carl Schmitt might wish to reconsider it carefully after
reviewing Raicos account of Harry S. Trumans style of decisionism.)
Other Essays and Reviews
Chapter 6, Trotsky: The Ignorance and the Evil, takes that historical figure down a
peg or two, adding Trotskys remains to the critique of Marxism already undertaken
in chapter 4, Marxist Dreams and Soviet Realities. Chapters 8 and 12 return to
World War I, and Chapter 10 deals with Old Right journalist John T. Flynn, a great
critic of Franklin D. Roosevelts primitive accumulation of power. Chapter 11,
reviewing Justus D. Doeneckes Storm on the Horizon (2000), discusses the character
of a forgotten and much-hated yet authentically American antiwar movement, the
America First Committee.
As telegraphed by the books subtitle, Raico is no respecter of great presidents but
instead judges them by the standards of the libertarian Old Right. Unhappily for all of
us, the story these chapters tell is one of decline. At the beginning of the twentieth
century, Americans had a set of rights, whether grounded in natural law, public law, or
mere practice; these rights were not always honored in practice, but they were nonetheless
honored far more than they are today. This hard fall seems to go unnoticed.
The chief culprit (there are others) has been the central states ability to find itself a
series of overseas adventures even unto empireprecisely the connection Wilson
affirmed and the Old Right deplored. The BushObama idea of the presidency entails
the American executives right to arrest, torture, and bomb the world and anyone in
it. Those who doubt this claim will find these powers asserted in official public
documents and in the works of whole battalions of approving scholars, whose views
run from tidy-minded liberal imperialism to neoconservative theorems on perpetual
war. (He who laughs has not yet read Yoo, Posner, Vermeule, Bybee, Koh, Lederman,
Barron, and many others.)
If Raico were of my generation, he might refer, with Dave Davies, to [t]he
wonderful world of technologyNapalm, hydrogen bombs, biological warfare and
complain of having been born in a welfare state ruled by bureaucracy, controlled
by civil servants and people dressed in grey (The Kinks, 20th Century Man,
on Muswell Hillbillies ). In fact, Raico tackles that very military-industrialintellectual
complex and can actually remember an America in which there was considerably
less of it. Better yet, he backs his complaints with impressive historical
materials, focused scholarship, and an honest passion for truth.
Joseph R. Stromberg is an independent historian and a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute.
Volume 17 Number 1
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