War and American Conservatism

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A talk to the Christian Coalition of Georgia on Jan. 8, 2000

I’ve been encouraged in recent years to see that American conservatives have not been enthusiastic for Clinton’s wars. They joined the effort to prevent another full-scale war against Iraq, they were outraged at his bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, and they opposed his assault on Serbia, which ended in massive loss of civilian property and life.

Anyone who believes that Clinton’s wars were really about human rights and punishing terrorists is woefully naive. Clinton goes to war to distract the public, to silence his opposition, and to be seen as a hero on the world stage.

Yet, I wonder to what extent American conservatives have intellectually internalized these lessons. American organs of opinion are completely inconsistent on the question. And I doubt that most voters have put much thought into developing systematic views on the subject of war and peace in the post-cold war period. Are we prepared to reclaim our roots as the party of peace against the party of global military empire? Do we fully understand what it implies to have a bias for or against the standing armies about which the framers warned?

It would appear that American conservatives are still digging themselves out of the intellectual rubble of the Cold War years, a disastrous period in ideological organizing in which the defenders of liberty and civilization warmed up to the idea that a nuclear exchange with Russia wouldn’t be such a terrible thing.

War, it was said, would vanquish the communist foe and make the US supreme on the world stage, giving it no competitors in global ideological struggle. Those who worried about nuclear proliferation and the relentless military buildup that lasted until very recently were regarded as Soviet sympathizers who didn’t understand the high price we needed to pay to rid ourselves of the Red menace.

But we must realize this: pro-war sentiment on the American right was an extreme departure from our tradition. In the previous generation of thinkers on the American right, opposition to the New Deal welfare-warfare state was an article of faith. Before that, it was the most passionate defenders of the market order and the ethical system that undergirded it who opposed Wilson’s war on Germany and Austria, and, before that, McKinley’s war on Spain. Northerners who opposed Lincoln’s invasion and conquest of the South tended also to be champions of small government and market economics, and defenders of traditional faith and family.

The wedding of the anti-war tradition with conservative political ideology was natural. The ideals and liberties of the old republic faced no greater foe than the central state in the District of Columbia: relentlessly expanding to crush individual rights, local autonomy, and the whole range of social institutions that stood between the liberties exalted at the American founding and the omnipotent state.

War is the health of the state, said Randolph Bourne, and so did centuries of Western political thought. War and the preparation for war should always be avoided as a means of preserving liberty.

But a fateful thing happened in the years following the second world war. Harry Truman was facing a decline of political fortunes in 1948, the same time that the bloated national security establishment was anxious to find a public rationale for preserving its budget and power. The Republican Party was in the process of reverting to its tradition of non-interventionism, and everyone understood that such a reversion would threaten the very foundations of the New Deal state. The establishment was extremely concerned about preserving the structure of government it had worked so hard to build over 15 years.

Truman concocted a brilliant plan to construct a rationale for military internationalism that Republicans would have to go along with. He called for a new war to preserve the American way of life against the advancing communist menace, the product of a global conspiracy hatched in Moscow. The menace, said Truman, can only be combated by the US military, well funded with our tax dollars, and a huge CIA and a host of other spy agencies.

Now these claims were implausible on a number of fronts. First, Russia was a main US ally the day before yesterday. To have the US government suddenly announce that Russia was the mortal enemy was an act of propaganda so brazen that Orwell ridiculed it in his book, 1984. Second, Russia was bankrupt after the war, and its people were all but starving. The Soviet military, despite massive US aid, was exhausted and thinned. Socialism is the system of economics least likely to survive a war.

Third, it’s true that Russia’s influence over Europe was unprecedentedly huge and evil, but that was because FDR and Truman agreed to slice up the postwar map in exactly that way.

Finally, Truman was the last person you would expect to wage a war against Communism: communist agents and sympathizers had been leading players at the highest levels of the federal government since FDR first came to power, and this was no secret. If you wanted to wage a war against Communism, the best place to start was the Truman administration itself.

Nonetheless, the Republicans were eventually browbeaten into signing up for a new military crusade, one which was to eventually cost trillions of tax dollars, sustain big government at home, put US troops in more than 100 countries, and utterly betray George Washington’s vision of a country that engages in commerce with all and entangling alliances with none.

Ironically, the US cold war state actually ended up forestalling economic and political reforms in Russia itself, causing communism to live far longer than it otherwise would have. The decrepit despots who headed the Soviet state needed a foreign enemy to maintain power over their crumbling empire, and the US elites gave it to them on a silver platter, as they also gave the Soviet government food and other foreign aid..

My old intellectual mentor Neil McCaffrey, founder of Arlington House, the Conservative Book Club, and much of the conservative movement, had his world outlook shaped by the pre-war generation of conservatives who hated standing armies and understood that warfare generated welfare. He was a child of the last great generation of right-wing public advocates which included Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, John T. Flynn, and Robert Taft. Neil and I came to disagree on the cold war, although he agreed that military establishments were conspiracies against liberty.

But to his eternal credit, after the cold war ended, Neil left no doubt where he stood. He called for the US to return to its roots, not as an empire, but as a peaceful commercial republic. He called for an end to presidential war powers, an end to contracts for the merchants of death, an end to troops around the world, an end to aerial bombings of civilians as we saw in the Iraq and Kosovo wars, an end to sanctions of the sort that have killed millions in Iraq, and an end to the largest military state erected in the history of mankind. Neil had always said that he was an anti-militarist at heart, but that he had made an exception to beat the communists.

Neil was true to his word. But what about the rest of the right? I just read an essay by William F. Buckley in which he gives an account of the years I mentioned to you earlier, with exactly the opposite point of view. When it came time to spell out his own preferred vision of American foreign policy, he was stumped, possibly for the first time in his life. He literally has no idea what the US should do today. This is after promising, as early as the late 1940s, that his support of what he called a “totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores” was contingent on the existence of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union is gone. And what should our foreign policy be? To answer this question, I would like to turn to Ludwig von Mises, specifically to his 1949 book Human Action and its chapter titled, “The Economics of War.” Here he argues at length that war is the antithesis of trade and civilization; it is the destruction of society.

“War [and] civil wars…are detrimental to man’s success in the struggle for existence because they disintegrate the apparatus of social cooperation.” The necessary prerequisite for keeping war at bay is free trade, both in domestic affairs and in international relations. Only this path eliminates the conflicts that breed war. If war must be undertaken, he argued with deference to the just-war tradition of medieval Catholic thought, it must be in accordance with strict rules.

“How far we are today from the rules of international law developed in the age of limited warfare!” Mises lamented. “Modern war is merciless, it does not spare pregnant women or infants; it is indiscriminate killing and destroying. It does not respect the rights of neutrals. Millions are killed, enslaved, or expelled from the dwelling places in which their ancestors lived for centuries. Nobody can foretell what will happen in the next chapter of this endless struggle….”

Mises is sometimes described as an internationalist, but he distinguished between true and false internationalism. Liberty “does not build its hopes upon abolition of the sovereignty of the various national governments.” What is needed to make peace durable is not treaties and international organizations, but freedom itself: societies that embrace the teachings of the classical liberals and reject socialism, protectionism, and other forms of government planning.

“Modern civilization is a product of the philosophy of laissez faire. It cannot be preserved under the ideology of government omnipotence. Statolatry owes much to the doctrines of Hegel. However, one may pass over many of Hegel’s inexcusable faults, for Hegel also coined the phrase ‘the futility of victory.’ To defeat the aggressors is not enough to make peace durable. The main thing is to discard the ideology that generates war.”

American needs a party of peace, not necessarily a political party but a social and cultural pressure group that consistently and relentlessly embraces peace as an ideal, and the free society as the proper model for achieving that peace.

American conservatives are uniquely suited to become such a party because it is our heritage, it is consistent with the vision of the founding fathers, and it is part of the Western religious patrimony. It is time for all of us to reject Clinton’s consistent political package of socialism and war, and embrace an equally consistent vision of peace and free enterprise.

January 8, 2000

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