The task of history, according to historian Ralph Raico, is essentially one of revisionism and especially the undermining of excuses for war. It therefore comes as no surprise that Raico masterfully punctures the inflated reputations of Wilson, Churchill, Roosevelt, Truman, and the Soviet leadership in his recent book, Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal.
You will probably never see Ralph Raico, professor emeritus of history at Buffalo State College, holding forth on the History Channel surrounded by wide-eyed naïfs eager to improve their mastery of American Establishment gospel. His new book, Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010) shows why. Yet Raico has a well-earned reputation as a classical-liberal historian who has made important contributions to the history of German liberalism, translated Ludwig von Mises’s Liberalism, broadened our knowledge of liberal class-conflict theory, and accomplished much more. There is more to a historian’s achievement than superficial public acclaim.
In a typical Raico essay, the reader finds solid research, detailed knowledge of relevant sources, deft deployment of quotations, and careful interpretation, complemented by wit, devastating understatement, and an occasional outburst that might seem intemperate had he not just written several pages that render the point both inevitable and obvious. The materials in his new book have been published previously, but the first three chapters have been greatly expanded to good effect. Because they amount to 60 percent of the book, I deal mainly with them in this review. Each of these three chapters provides an excellent overview of the main issues of the period under consideration as well as a good introduction to essential historical sources.
Wars, Wars, and Rumors of Wars
With superb moral clarity, Raico states in his introduction that the task of history is essentially one of “revisionism” and especially the undermining of “excuses for war” (p. vii). He notes the declension of Europe’s nineteenth-century liberal parties into “machines for the exploitation of society by the now victorious predatory middle classes” (p. ix, a point also made in the foreword by Robert Higgs). From then to now, it has fallen to consistent and critical liberals such as Richard Cobden, John Bright, William Graham Sumner, Gustave de Molinari, Albert Jay Nock, H. L. Mencken, Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard, Leonard Liggio, and others to expose the motives of apparently “liberal” wars.
The First European Suicide Attempt, 1914–1918
Raico’s first chapter, “World War I: The Turning Point,” sees the war of 1914–18 as the Great Disaster that set the tone and course of the dreadful twentieth century. Given the mass slaughter, ideological extremism, and sheer state building that accompanied the war, this characterization is no exaggeration. Raico is of course concerned to sketch the war’s impact on American politics and life – none of it good. Here his mastery of the relevant literature and his immunity to encrusted wartime myths, old and new alike, serve us well.
Raico does not shortchange the reader on essential background: the emerging alliance system that pitted Allied Powers against Central Powers, Serbian ambitions, Balkan Wars, Pan-Slavism, and the dangers of mobilization. Neither does he overlook the commitments made to France (and therefore to Russia) by a minority of the British cabinet – a secret (and undemocratic) undertaking that plays hell with the fashionable “democratic peace” theory (p. 6).
Once the European war began in August 1914, the outwardly “neutral” United States found its shipping at the mercy of the warring powers. (Americans had been here before, a century earlier.) Raico spares no details, especially regarding the international law of the case. Britain undertook a hunger blockade (pp. 44–45) to starve the Germans. (Chapter 9, “Starving a People into Submission,” pursues this topic further.) Certain consequences followed, chief among them being German resort to submarine warfare. The U.S. ruling elite could never manage to connect these two things (p. 28, citing Edwin M. Borchard and William P. Lage). They knew much and understood little.
Worse luck for the Americans, between 1914 and 1917 the United States had two war parties and no peace party (p. 27), a condition that by now seems entirely normal. Northeastern Anglophile intellectuals, clergymen, politicians, and big business took England’s side from the start and saw their chief problem as maneuvering the rest of the country into war on the Allied side. Raico accordingly makes acid comments on the US ambassador to Britain, Walter Hines Page, who practically served as a member of the British cabinet, and more particularly on Robert Lansing, William Jennings Bryan’s successor as US secretary of state (Bryan had taken the administration’s “peace” rhetoric entirely too seriously). Raico highlights passages in Lansing’s War Memoirs (1935) that admit that all of his diplomatic notes complaining about British naval practices were meaningless charades that “ensured the continuance of the controversy and left the questions unsettled, which was necessary in order to leave this country free to act and even act illegally when it entered the war” (qtd. on p. 30).
Raico draws the rather straightforward conclusion that such postwar revelations “[explain] the passion of the anti-war movement before the Second World War much better than the imaginary ‘Nazi sympathies’ or ‘anti-Semitism’ nowadays invoked by ignorant interventionist writers” (p. 30 n.).
Villains abound in this chapter, but the Villain in Chief is surely Thomas Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States from 1913 to 1921 – and rightly so, as Raico soon demonstrates. Despite his constant Jeffersonian rhetoric (in which he was even less sincere than Jefferson), Professor Wilson was an ambitious Hamiltonian state builder, “fascinated by the power of the Presidency and how it could be augmented by meddling in foreign affairs and dominating overseas territories” (p. 18). As for Wilson’s “idealism,” Raico concludes that it masked a well-developed need for power.