Prophets on the Right

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The Old Right Revisited

Review by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

Ronald Radosh, most recently the author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, a neoconservative assessment of the history of the American left, has penned a new introduction for a book that no neoconservative could have written: Radosh’s own Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism. Indeed, Radosh, at the time the first edition of the book was published in 1975, was a member of the anti-New Deal New Left, and like many of his fellow neoconservatives today, eventually switched from the big-government left to the big-government right, and set up shop clamoring for a war for global democracy. In 1975 though, Radosh was under the influence of the leftist intellectual William Appleman Williams who was a proponent of dismantling the American corporate state that he believed had been created under FDR’s New Deal and had been complicit in creating the military-industrial complex that the New Left so reviled. Opposition to centralized "rational" government was certainly not unique to the American left, and in his search to find allies on the Right, Radosh ended up making a great contribution to the literature of the history of the American right in the 20th century. Prophets on the Right is a history of five members of what we now call the "Old Right," that coalition of old-style liberals and laissez faire theorists who united in opposition to the New Deal, American involvement in WWII, and finally, the Cold War. The writings of these men would serve as some of the core intellectual foundations for a later movement of conservative anti-interventionists, and at the time of its first printing, Radosh’s leftist assessment of these conservatives would win him some friends on the right. Indeed, several years earlier, Radosh had co-edited with Murray Rothbard a collection of essays on the "American Corporate State" titled A New History of Leviathan. Prophets on the Right was much in this same ecumenical vein, and today, the book is still a basic text for any serious scholar researching the history of American conservatism.

Regarding his embrace of neoconservatism, Radosh is quite upfront and clear about all of this, unlike some of his fellow neocons, and in his new introduction to Prophets on the Right, Radosh makes no bones about sharing "what is often called the neoconservative view that the United States has a positive role to play in the spread of democracy and the creation of democratic regimes around the globe, and that success in this endeavor will lead to both a more peaceful and more just world." Thus Radosh explains that his own politics could not be more unlike the politics of men he wrote so sympathetically about almost thirty years earlier. Although his current intellectual adversaries do not escape such a fate, Radosh is loath to dismiss his old subjects as mere kooks and fools, and describing them as "serious and penetrating thinkers," and maintains that these men of the Old Right, while hopelessly wrong about America’s role in the international arena, are still worth reading and understanding.

Prophets on the Right is an examination of the intellectual and political careers of five men: Charles Beard, Oswald Garrison Villard, Robert A. Taft, John T. Flynn, and Lawrence Dennis. While Radosh does spend some time examining the personalities of these men, his examination of the Old Right focuses not on character studies or biographical data, but rather looks at American foreign policy from the end of World War I to the early years of the Cold War through five different lenses, each one offering a passionate account of the folly of American foreign adventurism as provided by these leading figures of the conservative opposition.

How each of these men ends up being considered "conservative" is itself interesting given the diverse backgrounds of Radosh’s five subjects. Beard, Flynn, and Villard, before the New Deal, had all been associated with "progressive" or leftist movements and intellectual traditions, yet by the time Franklin Roosevelt had transformed America’s corporate structure and agitated for yet another Wilsonian project to liberate all the world, they all found themselves associated with the American right and with older notions of what the United States was supposed to be and what its place was in the world. Both Flynn and Villard, for example, had supported Roosevelt early in the 30’s, yet for both of them, it soon became abundantly clear that, far from being an enemy of state-controlled "capitalism" (which Flynn had become famous by lampooning), Roosevelt was actually quite comfortable granting favors and subsidies to his corporate allies if it forwarded his plans to regiment the economy under the New Deal program. Both Villard and Flynn began to fear what they called "corporate fascism" and eventually sided against the New Deal and the Second World War which they saw as nothing more than an extension of the administration’s grandiose plans to transform the world. Charles Beard was more forgiving of Roosevelt on domestic issues, yet offered some of the most withering attacks on Roosevelt’s policies that led up to American entry into the Second World War. Beard relentlessly chronicled the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to agitate for war with the American public through provoking small-scale military encounters with the Axis powers. This was no surprise to Flynn and Villard who contended that the drive for war stemmed from the same reckless motivations as the drive toward corporate fascism, taking the form of militarism and infecting the minds of American intellectuals — leading them ever further away from the true democratic and liberal ideals of earlier generations.

Villard and Flynn would carry into the Cold War era their warnings that the abandonment of American traditions to militarism would destroy the United States before the Soviets ever could, and that the true threat, a militarist ideology, was already a danger from within. Militarism was the enemy, Flynn contended, and had been the downfall of societies in the past that had tried it "supposing it would advance some special objective not necessarily connected with war, only to find that militarism in the end rides the countries. It sets in motion forces and pressures too powerful to ever be controlled." Villard was no more optimistic. He saw what was being called the "American Century" as the century of American war: "We are to have permanent conscription and a seven-ocean navy, the largest ever dreamed of in the world…to be prepared for our next wholesale effort to save the world for democracy or from other countries, white or yellow, which we may have to put in their places." Both Flynn and Villard saw the coming of an imperial age where the needs of the quest for global enlightenment would forever trump the needs of the Republic.

These former leftists were joined in their vitriol by Lawrence Dennis, a long-time member of the American right, and a convert to anti-interventionism after witnessing the American mission in Nicaragua to establish "supervision of elections, the maintenance of order and economic rehabilitation" following the revolution of 1926. Noting that 3,000 "Nicaraguan patriots" had died fighting the American occupation (135 Marines were killed in the conflict) Dennis was convinced that foreign interventions were at best counterproductive. Like Flynn and Villard, Dennis believed that if it were not careful, the United States would "go fascist fighting fascism." What made Dennis different, however, was that he was accepting of an American version of fascism as a necessary defense against the racist and totalitarian breeds of fascism overseas. Dennis’ great sin, it turned out, was that he identified fascism as a type of socialism and insisted that others make the connection as well. His mixing together of communists, Nazis, and fascists as all socialists eventually earned him accusations of "seditious" behavior and he was put on trial for conspiracy with 29 other right-wing Roosevelt critics.

By the time the Cold War was in full swing, though, Dennis had reverted to his laissez-faire beliefs of earlier days. Disenchanted with the possibility of government using political power responsibly, Dennis developed a critique of American global power that laid blame on the previous generations for courting imperialist fantasies. Dennis concluded that the American internationalism of the Cold War era was more of the same in the "imperial tradition" that his generation had inherited from the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, John Hay, Rudyard Kipling, and Cecil Rhodes. According to Radosh, Dennis believed that the Republicans had fully accepted the globalism of Woodrow Wilson and that they had bought what Dennis saw as the central fallacy of U.S. policy: "that controlling the world is purely a matter of power. But the more power is used compulsively…the more uncontrollable are the consequences." Dennis lamented that a restrained foreign policy had lost all currency in American politics and that conservatives had been particularly pathetic in their opposition to the policies of Truman and Roosevelt bitterly noting that there was "nothing you can’t put over on conservatives if you spice it with war and anti-red talk." For Dennis, the vast spending and global crusading was nothing more than a complete surrender to the militaristic crusading of the Roosevelt years, except that it was now considered a "conservative" agenda.

The one politician in Radosh’s study is Robert Taft. Unlike the other men featured here, Taft was neither a newspaperman nor an academic, and thus we see less intellectual consistency in Taft’s opposition to foreign intervention. Nevertheless, from the 30’s until his death in 1953, Taft was one of the few voices in the mainstream political arena challenging the liberal and mainstream orthodoxy of American globalism. He supported true neutrality in Atlantic shipping in the early days of the war in Europe, believing that a disregard for neutrality had brought the United States into the First World War, and he attacked the president heartily for "stirring up prejudices against one or another nation." He was one of FDR’s few critics in Washington during the Greer affair where Roosevelt claimed that the Germans had fired unprovoked on an American sub, failing to mention to the American public that the destroyer had been tracking the sub on behalf of the British Navy.

Most characteristic of Taft was his rejection of the proposition that the war — even if a legitimate case for national defense could be made — was some kind crusade against evil. Calling the "pro-democracy" argument nothing more than a specious belief that the United States had a "divine appointment to reform the world," Taft would fight against framing the war in such terms and would later lead the conservative opposition against permanent membership in NATO, and against involvement in the United Nations. Taft failed to see the inherent goodness in the United States adopting for itself the role of global caretaker and noted, "however benevolent we might be, other people simply do not like to be dominated."

As the Cold War progressed and Truman claimed "that as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces he had the authority to send troops anywhere in the world," Taft found himself increasingly isolated among Republicans who were adopting the liberal interventionist view of American foreign policy. Men like Barry Goldwater would vote against him at the 1952 convention, and by the time of his death, Taft’s opposition to a perpetual military presence in places like Korea and endless commitments to international organizations like NATO became lost in the anti-Communist din.

Today, in looking at these anti-interventionist critiques from World War II and the early Cold War, it is noteworthy how little the modern rhetoric has changed about spreading democracy, and that its inevitable result, as John T. Flynn pointed out, has been massive growth of government power both at home and abroad. All five of these men would die forgotten and ignored, their memories kept alive by only a tiny group of right-wing opponents to the triumphant messianic foreign policy that would dominate the American mind for the next fifty years.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, the Old Right has enjoyed renewed attention from the new opponents to the continuation of a war against an enemy that no longer existed. Just as Flynn and Villard would have predicted, the needs of the militaristic state dictated that new enemies be found, and indeed they were. In reading Prophets, it quickly becomes clear that the arguments of the Old Right discussed by Radosh are in no way irrelevant to today’s political climate and ideological battles. One could change out names and dates, a find himself with an accurate account of recent policy debates.

Unfortunately, Radosh has these days taken to the sort of ad hominem attacks (like being sure to note in the new introduction that he believes Pat Buchanan to be "clearly an anti-Semite") that he so properly condemns in this book. Yet, in spite of Radosh’s current leanings and some of the left-socialist overtones contained in the original text such as a rather flippant condemnation of Joseph McCarthy, Radosh gives us an excellent introduction to the Old Right, and provides us with profiles of principled men with whom every critic of modern America’s endless foreign adventures should be familiar.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] writes from Colorado. His personal web site can be found here.

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