Now and Then: Reflections on the War on Terrorism and the War on Communism

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Now
we are in a state of war against terrorism. My gut, instinctive,
reasoned, first, and last responses to Bush's war on terrorism have
been negative. The Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security,
the transformation of airports into post offices, corporate subsidies
(e.g., airlines) and especially nation building and foreign wars,
in my opinion, are all wrong. Yet many writers whom I had respected
in the past are gung ho in favor of these policies. For example,
I have been a great admirer of William Buckley and I have subscribed
to National Review for almost 20 years. Yet NR's support
of the Iraq war in particular has prompted me to let my subscription
lapse. A primary reason I believed in NR then was its vociferous
anti-communism. So the current debate among so-called conservatives,
neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, and libertarians (not to mention
liberals, socialists, and leftists in general) regarding the war
now, has given me significant pause for reflection on the war on
communism and what I thought then.

Bear
with me for the following personal account that would qualify for
Walter Block's archive of libertarian autobiographies, except that
I am an unknown and perhaps not a full-blooded libertarian. Depending
upon my mood and the topic at hand I describe myself as a reactionary
libertarian or a libertarian reactionary.

I
grew up apolitical with a much greater interest in the Cubs than
any political party. However, I was a good reader, with a keen interest
in history, especially the civil war, but had no overall direction.
In college I was an engineering student and managed to graduate
without taking any courses in history, political science or economics
(the exception being engineering economics which focuses on applications
of the time value of money). Evidence regarding my lack of political
convictions from this period was my vote for the bland, non-entity
John Anderson in the 1980 presidential election.

During
the 80's I became interested in political issues. I had watched
Buckley on Firing Line for a number of years. I was impressed
with his erudition and that of his guests. I do not recall understanding
his politics. I did not know NR existed. While in graduate school,
it seems for the first time, I began to have political discussions.
I found myself taking the conservative line on most issues. In 1984
I voted for Reagan. I learned of NR from my academic advisor and
started reading his old issues. Upon reading the memorial issue
for James Burnham I decided to take out my own subscription to the
magazine. Under the influence of NR I read virtually everything
by Whitaker Chambers, many books by Burnham, of course more by Buckley,
as well as more traditional conservative classics such as The
Federalist Papers
, DeTocqueville’s Democracy
in America
, and Burke's Reflections
on the Revolution in France
.

One
of my favorite haunts during graduate school at Duke University
was Perkins Library. There was a display in the lobby that contained
the favorite books of individuals who had made donations to the
library. The latest book by Buckley was in the display. A short
caption mentioned that this was always the current favorite of Ruth
Matthews. It also mentioned that she had worked at NR and lived
in Durham. I admired Buckley and NR so much that I asked for her
number from the library staff and invited her to lunch. We had lunch
on that occasion and many more times as we became great friends.

I
had expected to meet a retired secretary who might be able to tell
me tales of Buckley, Chambers, Burnham, etc. She was much more than
a secretary, being a writer and a scholar in her own right. Her
late husband J. B. Matthews was well known but is now obscure. It
was her donation of his papers that made her a Friend of the Library.
In many ways he was an archetype of the 30s intellectual who turned
against communism. He reminds me of Chambers in that the source
of his socialist ideas was the great sympathy he felt for his fellow
human beings. He eventually realized that far from being a salve
for the human condition, socialism is a virus that destroys people,
and then had the integrity and courage to fight what he had previously
been fighting for. By the 50s he was given the moniker Mr. Anti-Communist
and J. B. and Ruth maintained a right-wing salon in their New York
penthouse. Frequent visitors included Ayn Rand and Joseph McCarthy,
among many other writers, politicians, and anti-communists from
other walks of life.

During
the administration of Bush senior my interest in economics began
to grow. Primarily because the economists were so consistently wrong.
Compared to engineering calculation, I thought economic calculation
was disastrous. I determined to study the subject. On one occasion
visiting Ruth's apartment I noticed a book titled Human
Action: A Treatise on Economics
, sitting on her coffee table.
I had never heard of the author, Ludwig von Mises, but Ruth told
me they had been close friends. Margit von Mises mentions Ruth in
her book about her life with Ludwig. I borrowed and read Human
Action; thus I began to study economics and started on the road
to libertarianism. Passages like the one below substantiated my
observation that the numerical modelers were now, and always would
be, fundamentally in error.

The very
idea that the future is predictable, that some formulas could
be substituted for the specific understanding which is the essence
of entrepreneurial activity, and that familiarity with these formulas
could make it possible for anybody to take over the conduct of
business is, of course, an outgrowth of the whole complex of fallacies
and misconceptions which are at the bottom of present-day anticapitalistic
policies. (Retrieved from http://www.mises.org/humanaction/chap38sec3.asp,
October 4, 2004.)

I
was hooked on Mises. I read many more of his works as well as those
of Friedrich von Hayek. Ruth gave me a subscription to the Rothbard-Rockwell
Report. I read many more books and publications from the Ludwig
von Mises Institute and now read LewRockwell.com regularly.

Thus
for me Buckley, through Ruth, led to Mises. Now I wonder, was my
appreciation and affection for the anti-communists ill conceived.
I believe Mises' critique of socialism is correct, that without
economic calculation production would collapse. But would that economic
collapse alone necessarily lead to the political and military collapse
of the Communist party in the Soviet Union? Were the anti-communists
statists like Bush, who used the Cold War to enhance government
power? Did they sing the same siren song of most (all?) democratic
governments? "You are in danger, I will protect you if you
give me power," where the danger is overblown. If there is
a legitimate balance between security and liberty, what are the
risks posed by the conspiracy movement of international jihadist
Islam compared to the former conspiracy movement of international
communism? The last question of comparison brings to mind several
more questions for analysis.

What
is the homeland military threat? The Soviets had a large arsenal
of nuclear weapons aimed at the US and were a leading sponsor of
terrorism. However, I do not know of any terrorist acts they committed
on US soil beyond killing their own or defectors. Of course the
Islamic jihadists accomplished 9/11, and threaten more terrorism.
But it seems to me they pose is no true military threat.

What
is the international military threat? All over the world communist
military forces were active and the list of countries absorbed into
the communist empire continued to swell well into the 70s. At present
there is no military threat to the West, as there are only a couple
of regimes, most notably Iran, which could be described as Islamic
jihadist, and their militaries are regional powers at most.

What
is the homeland threat for revolution? International conspiracy
movements are more inclined to incite revolutions than to overt
military action. Communists have had and continue to have tremendous
influence on virtually all aspects of life in this country. In the
30s it seemed that the workers, led by the intellectuals, could
turn the US into a communist country. They infiltrated virtually
all the institutions including the highest levels of government.
The Islamic jihadists have virtually no influence with the vast
majority of Americans.

What
is the international threat for revolution? As mentioned above,
the communists were very active and the communist empire continued
to grow up until only a decade before it collapsed, most often through
revolutionary movements. There is a major threat of Islamic revolution
within Islamic countries; however, there is no threat in the rest
of the world.

Perhaps
the biggest threat to the West by the Islamic jihadists is their
potential for controlling, or a least disrupting, the flow of oil.
But the communists, through their global influence, probably posed
at least as much of a threat.

Thus
I believe communism and communists were a much greater threat to
the US and the West than that posed by the Islamic jihadists. Furthermore,
this threat would have been present independent of American imperialism,
as communist imperialism started at least as far back as Marx; e.g.,
"Workers of the world unite." In contrast, the Islamic
threat is somewhat overblown and is the direct result of American
imperialism.

These
preliminary conclusions lead me to believe that some form of anti-communism
was justified; but certainly some anti-communists did aggrandize
the state. I still believe that communism was and is terrible; however,
my understanding of history has changed. I now realize, what I did
not then, that virtually all wars begin with lies and only achieve
mixed results at best. So now I know that the terrorists are wrong,
but our government is a greater threat to the blood and treasure
of this country.

October
12, 2004

Ira
Katz [send him mail] teaches
mechanical engineering at Lafayette College.  He is the co-author
of Handling
Mr. Hyde: Questions and Answers about Manic Depression
and
Introduction
to Fluid Mechanics
.

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