War Revisionism, Peace, and Liberty

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The Indispensable Raico

Recently by David Gordon: Neoconservatism Defined


Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal, Ralph Raico, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 246 pages

Ralph Raico is our foremost historian of classical liberalism; and in this masterly collection of essays, he follows the practice of his great predecessor Lord Acton. In a letter to Bishop Creighton, Acton said: “Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.” Raico has taken to heart this counsel. Walter Hines Page, the American Ambassador to London during World War I, “in his abject eagerness to please his hosts, displayed all the qualities of a good English spaniel.” He agrees with John T. Flynn that Franklin Roosevelt was “a failure, a liar, and a fraud.” Of Roosevelt’s successor he remarks, “If Harry Truman was not a war criminal, then no one ever was.”

Raico’s severe judgments stem from a carefully considered view of foreign policy. Classical liberals see war as a principal means to enhance the power of the predatory state. We should shun that false god, military glory, and instead seek peaceful cooperation among all peoples. Here Raico’s guide is another champion of classical liberalism in the nineteenth century, Richard Cobden. “He looked forward to a time when the slogan ‘no foreign politics’ would become the watchword of all who aspired to be the representatives of a free people.” Such a policy of nonintervention stands squarely in accord with American tradition. Washington Farewell Address, Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, and John Quincy Adams’s declaration in 1821 that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” clearly demonstrate that what is derisively termed “isolationism” has firm roots in our history.

Must not contemporary defenders of peace and nonintervention confront an objection? Isolation, it is all-too-frequently contended, cannot cope with the global challenges that a great nation must inevitably confront. Whatever its merits when America was a mere backwater, nonintervention had to be abandoned with the onset of the twentieth century. In 1914, Germany embarked on a war of European conquest. America first endeavored to remain neutral; but, faced with Germany’s U-boat assaults, could not for long remain aloof from the cause of democracy and civilization. Following the war, America sought to retreat from European affairs and to return to its traditional policy of nonintervention; but again, this proved an untenable prescription. Once more Germany threatened to overturn the world order, this time under the leadership of the uniquely malevolent Adolf Hitler. After Pearl Harbor, America responded to the challenge, which, once surmounted, led to a Cold War of forty-five years duration. Only unrealistic dreamers could support nonintervention today.

To confront this objection, the historical claims on which it rests must be overturned; and it is the principal aim of Raico’s collection to do precisely that. In pursuing this end, Raico revives the revisionist movement in post-World War I historiography, supported by such scholars as Sidney B. Fay and Charles C. Tansill. For Raico, revisionist history did not begin with the challenge to the war-guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles but extends much farther back into the past. “Revisionism and classical liberalism, today called libertarianism, have always been closely linked.”

Raico rejects the thesis of unique German guilt for World War I. In doing so, he puts himself squarely at odds with Fritz Fischer and his school. In his immensely influential Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1961) and subsequent works, Fischer contended that Germany used the pretext of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to seek European hegemony through a preventive war against Russia and her ally France. Raico does not deny that Germany acted hastily and unwisely in its “blank check” to Austria; but he returns to the pre-Fischer consensus that the Entente powers shared responsibility for the war with Germany. In particular, he stresses Russia’s general mobilization in July 1914, which to a large extent forced Germany’s hand; and, from a less immediate perspective, Germany’s by no means groundless fears of encirclement by the Entente powers.

If responsibility for the onset of war in 1914 raises difficult questions of judgment, the case as regards American entry into the war is much clearer cut. America entered the war in large part because of Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare, but Germany was provoked to this desperate measure by Woodrow Wilson’s unneutral policies. Britain in 1914 imposed a hunger blockade against Germany, illegally seeking to interdict food from the civilian population. The Anglophilic American President, Woodrow Wilson, turned a blind eye to Britain’s gross violation of international law, while insisting on the strictest accountability for all German countermeasures. Entry into the war permitted Wilson the opportunity to “make the world safe for democracy.” Raico describes the situation in his characteristic mordant style: “Given his war speech, Wilson may be described as the anti-[George] Washington . . .Wilson was also the anti-John Quincy Adams… Discarding this whole tradition, Wilson put forward the vision of an America that was entangled in countless political connections with foreign powers and on perpetual patrol for monsters to destroy.”

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Books by David Gordon

March 11, 2011

David Gordon [send him mail] is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a columnist for LRC. He is, most recently, the author of The Essential Rothbard and editor of Strictly Confidential: the Private Volker Fund Memos of Murray N. Rothbard. See his Books on Liberty. See also his Books on War.

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