For A New Isolationism

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[This
item in the Rothbard Papers bears the notation: "Written
April 1959. Sent to National Review."]

It
is with a heavy heart that I enter the lists against the overwhelming
majority of my friends and compatriots on the Right; also with
a sense of futility in trying to combat that tough anti-Soviet
foreign policy to which the Right is perhaps even more dedicated
than it is to anti-Socialism. But I must try, if only for the
reason that no one else has done so (if, indeed, there
are any outright isolationists left anymore).

To
begin with, I wish to put my argument purely on the grounds of
American national interest. I take it for granted that there are
few, if any, world-savers on the Right of the Wilson-FDR stamp,
who believe in the moral obligation of the American government
to enforce “collective security” all over the world, and to make
sure that global Ruritania has no government which we do not like.
I assume that the reason that the Right favors a "tough"
foreign policy against the Soviet bloc, is that it believes that
only such a policy will secure and promote, American national
interests. And this is the argument which, I maintain, is open
to serious challenge.

There
is, in the first place, an obviously serious omission in the arguments
of the partisans of a policy of "liberation," who constantly
denounce the doctrine of mere "containment" to which
the Administration, both Democratic and Republican, has been roughly
committed for over a decade. In opposition, the Right talks grandiosely
but very vaguely about "ultimatums" on Quemoy, Berlin
or any other issue that comes up; but precisely what it
really has to offer as a positive program is never mentioned.
In all the reams of material written by the Right in the last
decade, there is never any precise spelling-out of what a policy
of ultrafirmness or toughness really entails.

Let
us then fill in this gap by considering what I am sure we would
all agree is the toughest possible policy: an immediate
American ultimatum to Khruschev and Co. to resign and disband
the whole Communist regime; otherwise we drop the H-bomb on the
Kremlin. What about this policy of maximum toughness, which would
certainly accomplish one thing: it would bring about a quick showdown
between East and West? What is wrong with this policy? Simply
that it would quickly precipitate an H-bomb, bacteriological,
chemical, global war which would destroy the United States as
well as Russia. Now, it is true that perhaps this would not happen.
Indeed, if we accept the favorite Right-wing credo that the Soviet
leaders will always back down before any of our ultimatums,
and will never fight if we are only tough enough, then maybe it
is true that the Communist leaders will quickly surrender, perhaps
on promise of asylum on some remote Elba. But are you, Mr. Right
Winger, willing to take this risk? It seems to me that this is
the only logical conclusion of the vague talk of toughness that
we have adopted for so long. As for me, it seems clear that, since
it is almost certain that the destruction of the United States
would follow such an ultimatum, we must strongly oppose such a
policy. The fact that Russia would also be destroyed in the holocaust
would be cold comfort to someone who holds the national interest
of the United States uppermost.

But
if we concede that this ultimate and decisive ultimatum must be
rejected, then, I contend, we must revise our views on foreign
policy as a whole. Perhaps then we should think twice about sending
ultimatums about Berlin, Quemoy, or the countless other trouble
spots which are bound to erupt in an unending series of crises,
so long as we continue the policy of the cold war. If we are not
prepared to go the whole way in a program of liberation, then
it makes little sense and creates great risks to keep inching
forward part of the way, each time proclaiming our supposed certainty
that Russia will not fight.

What,
then, of the old policy of containment, which is the only logical
alternative to all-out liberation that has been offered? We have
so far been more or less containing for over ten years, seemingly
doomed forever to huge and crippling armament budgets, an unending
chase-your-tail arms race with periodic cries of alarm about the
"crisis year" coming up when Russia will be ahead of
us in something or other, and an eternal series of hot-spot crises
each of which may touch off a global holocaust. In short, we are
sitting on top of an ever-more menacing powder keg. We have all
tended to forget the basic rationale of containment as expounded
by George Kennan when he was "Mr. X." That is, that
time will bring either a revolution inside Russia, or a "mellowing"
of Soviet power; at any rate, that with a little time, the Soviet
menace to the United States would dissolve.

As
for the "mellowing," some of us had high hopes after
the famous Khruschev speech of 1956. For here, for the first time,
the Communists were denouncing their own hallowed leader, Stalin.
Yet, it is certainly clear by now that no mellowing is in the
offing; that the Communist Parties, far from shaken, have absorbed
this shift in line as they have absorbed so many others, and that
the so-called "liberal" Communism of the Gomulka stripe
is just the same old totalitarianism in another guise. The failure
of the Communist regime to crumble after the anti-Stalin shift
should be a lesson to all of us proving that people in power never
voluntarily give it up; that they must be blasted loose. In short,
the Marxists are right when they say that the "ruling class"
(in this case, the Communists in Russia) will never relinquish
power voluntarily.

The
only way for the Communist regime to crumble from within, therefore,
is by internal revolution. Now I know that Mr. Eugene Lyons has
been valiantly predicting for many years now an imminent revolution
inside the Soviet Union. I fervently hope that he is right. But
to base a foreign policy on expectation of revolution seems to
me foolhardy. The Soviet regime has been in power, after
all, for some forty-two years, and unfortunately, there are still
no signs of revolution on the horizon. Don't misunderstand
me: we must all hope and pray for such a revolution, but we cannot
count on its arrival. The present regime seems more stable than
any since Stalin's death.

If
neither liberation nor containment is sensible, what is the alternative?
Simply a genuine policy of peace, or, what is the same thing,
a return to the ancient and traditional American policy of isolationism
and neutrality. This is a policy which I think the Right should
understand, in view of the Right's gallant fight against the disastrous
Roosevelt maneuvering of the United States into World War II.
This means total disengagement in Europe and Asia, "bringing
the boys back home," and all the other aspects of that policy
of sturdy neutrality which used to be America's pride.

But,
I will hear from every side, everyone knows that isolationism
is obsolete and dead, in this age of H-bombs, guided missiles,
etc. But is it really? It is my contention that our national interest
calls for the following policy: a program of world disarmament
up to the point where isolationism again becomes militarily practical.
Specifically, America is threatened now in a way in which
it was not threatened a generation ago: by those weapons, H-bomb
missiles, disease germs, chemical gases, which can span the old
blessed protection of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. We are
not threatened by Russian tanks or machine guns or infantry.
It is, therefore, the principal task of an American foreign policy
truly devoted to American interests, to bring about a universal
scuttling of the new weapons. If we all returned to no more than
the old "conventional" weapons, and preferably even
to the muskets of yore, then America would no longer
be endangered. This does not mean, of course, that America should
unilaterally disarm. But it does mean that America should
try its best to effect a disarmament-agreement with Soviet Russia,
whereby all the nuclear etc. weapons that could injure us would
be dismantled. Khrushchev's speech at the United Nations should
not be arrogantly ignored.

I
have no fears that a workable inspection agreement cannot be hammered
out, if our leaders only have the will that they have so far lacked.
In fact, the quite obvious fears of Right-wingers that Russia
will consent to a viable disarmament program, shows that
they agree with me that the Russians are truly sincere
in wanting nuclear disarmament. They are sincere, of course, not
because the Communist leaders are altruists or humanitarians;
but simply because it is also to their best interests to adopt
nuclear disarmament.

Here,
the Right-winger will stop short and say: Aha, how can a policy
be both to the Communist interests and to ours? Simply because
neither side should want to be destroyed, and therefore each side
will gain by the mutual disarming of the only weapons (nuclear,
etc.) by which each can be mortally hurt. Secondly, mutual nuclear
disarmament will certainly leave the Soviet Union in a military
advantage vis–vis its neighbors: since it will have the
preponderance of conventional arms. Here, the Right-winger thinks
he really has me. Isn't the fact that Russia will gain a great
arms advantage by nuclear disarmament a clear proof that this
policy is unwise?

In
the first place, I do not think it at all obvious that Russia
will immediately attack the other nations. Believing as it does
in eventual internal Communist triumph and fearing an American
return to a cold-war policy, it will most likely refrain from
any military attack. And, secondly, we can relieve ourselves of
even more of the crippling and wasteful economic burden of armaments,
as well as take the unilateral propaganda play for peace away
from the Russians for a change, by suggesting to them further
disarmament of even conventional weapons, perhaps eventually stripping
down completely to bows and arrows. But let US assume the worst,
and suppose that the Russians will really proceed to attack their
neighbors with conventional arms once nuclear disarmament has
been attained. What then?

I
maintain that the only answer we can give to this hypothetical
problem is the inelegant: "so what"? Let us not forget
our initial axiom: that we first and foremost pursue American
national interests. In that case, while we would personally deplore
a Communist takeover of foreign countries, we would also adhere
to the old isolationist principle of doing nothing about it, because
it would not be of official national concern. Deprived of nuclear,
etc. arms, Russia might be a military menace to Europe or the
Middle East, but it would no longer be a menace to the United
States, our primary concern. The Russian and Chinese hordes will
not be able to swim the oceans to attack us.

At
this point, my opponents are sure to trot out that old saw which
was used so effectively by interventionists who sobbed about the
terrible world that would ensue if Hitler won the war in Europe:
perhaps we would not be militarily in danger, the slogan runs,
but then America would be an island, forced to a heavy arms budget,
and not able to trade with the hostile rest-of-the-world. In the
first place, this argument, never very sensible, is absurd today
when we are groaning under the fantastic budgets imposed by our
nuclear arms race. Certainly, our arms budget will be less than
it is now, especially since it would take far less to protect
us from military attack. And we could, as I have said, propose
further and progressive disarmament.

We
are left with the argument about trade. This strikes one of the
oddest notes of all, coming as it does from the very same people
who are now fiercely opposed to any current trade with the Communist
countries. The basis of all trade is benefit to both parties.
There is no need for the traders to like each other for each to
gain by the trade. There is no reason, therefore, why the Communists,
even if in charge of most of the world, would not be willing to
trade with us, just as they are willing and eager to trade now.

A
return to old-fashioned isolationism, then, is paradoxically
the only really practical foreign policy that we have. It is precisely
because we are living in the terrible technology of the nuclear
age that we have a sound basis for a workable disarmament agreement
with the Russians. And, with such an agreement, we would be back
to the military realities of the pre-nuclear age when even our
present Right-wing interventionists agreed that isolationism was
practical.

One
thing I would like to make quite clear: I am not proposing
a program of large-scale foreign aid to the Soviet government,
or a joint UN slush fund for the backward nations. In fact, adoption
of a true isolationist program would finally end, once and for
all, the blackmail wheedling of foreign countries that they will
go Communist if we don't come across with a suitable bribe. We
can now tell the foreign nations to paddle their own canoes at
last, and take full responsibility for their own actions.

There
is, in short, an eminently sound alternative to the loudly trumpeted
policies of either pro-Soviet or anti-Soviet interventionism.
And that is a new policy of enlightened and realistic isolationism,
sparked, as it needs to be in our day, by general nuclear disarmament
of the world powers. Abandoning foreign meddling, we need neither
continue the cold war nor pretend that the Communist leaders are
our "heroic allies." We need only adopt again that stance
of splendid isolation which once made peaceful and free America
the beacon-light of the world.

Postscript.
As Rothbard might have expected, National Review did not
wish to re-open debate on the fundamentals of foreign policy.
Rothbard expressed his reaction in a letter of May 19, 1959, to
a colleague:

"…
I thought you might be interested in the enclosed article, u2018For
a New Isolationism,' which was, predictably, turned down by Bill
Buckley. (Bill loftily though in friendly fashion declared that
I should have refuted Burnham, W. H. Chamberlin, and Janeway;
I think I did anyway, but even if I had specifically dealt with
them, it is clear Bill would not have published it.) In this article,
I don't at all deal with the moral-libertarian reasons for pure
isolationism such as I had treated in the 1954 Faith and Freedom
symposium, but solely on the grounds of u2018national interest' [thereby
meeting] the Right-wingers on their own terms, with their own
weapons.

"I
can think of no other magazine which might publish this, though
I might fix it up a bit and try one of the leftist-pacifist publications.
The thing is that I am getting more and more convinced that the
war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian
business, and that we will never get anywhere in this great intellectual
counter-revolution (or revolution) unless we can end this Verdamte
cold war — a war for which I believe our u2018tough' policy is largely
responsible. Suppose, for example, that an enormously unlikely
thing would happen and Nixon would (a) become converted to purism,
and (b) would be elected President. As long as the cold war continued,
and we had a $40 billion or more arms budget, what good would
it really do? The fact that we might spend a few billion less
on public housing or on farm support no longer thrills me. Nothing
will mean much without a radical dismantling of the State apparatus,
and this cannot occur without radical disarmament, and an end
to the cold war policy;

"I
think that, when I get some spare time, I will write a little
book on this war-peace question, incorporating moral-libertarian
and realist-national defense arguments, to work out a theory of
isolationism. I know that this will make me highly unpopular on
the Right without increasing my rating on the Left, but this is
a job I am convinced has to be done, and it looks as if I'll have
to do it, precisely because nobody else is. As grand old Tom Barber
said years ago, in the forward of his libertarian book: u2018It will
be asked: Who is the author?… Why should he undertake to write
such a book? The answers are quite simple. I have written this
book because I felt it should be written for the benefit of the
United States, and because I am the only person I have available
to write it.'" …. "Cordially, Murray"

~ Joseph
Stromberg, Rothbard Archivist

Murray
N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism
and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author
of The
Ethics of Liberty
and For
a New Liberty
and many
other books and articles
. He was also academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives


        
        

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