WASPs and Foreign Policy

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A frequently heard complaint on the Old Right is that American foreign policy has changed for the worst because of the neoconservative ascendancy in public affairs. Supposedly there was a time when sober white Anglo-Saxon Protestants or other staid types were running Foggy Bottom, or wherever US foreign policy was made. These embodiments of prudence, fortified by a belief in original sin, warned our heads of government against ideological fanaticism. Whether these advisors were like the subject of Lee Congdon’s admiring biography of George F. Kennan or the "wise men" described by Walter Isaacs in his equally celebratory study of the bluebloods who became presidential advisors in the 1940s and 1950s, supposedly foreign policy advisors were not always of the stuff of Madeleine Albright, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Michael Ledeen.

At one time, perhaps fifty or eighty years ago, there were patricians imbued with a sense of limited national interest and with a desire to stay out of entangling alliances, unless American survival was at stake. Back in the good old days, secretaries of state and presidential confidants did not rant against the non-democratic world or call for foreign crusades to impose the American way of life.

Such an age of sobriety has not existed for a very long time. The sober realist Kennan was an isolated dinosaur by the end of the Second World War; and it is hard to think of many struggles that the US has engaged in since the First World War that was not sold as a crusade for democracy and universal rights. The late Hans Morgenthau, who was supposedly a foreign policy realist, argued that it was OK for the US to wage foreign wars for universal ideals, as long as our leaders understand that it was all for show. But that dichotomy has never worked. All crusades for democracy, from the time they are launched, have to be defended and prosecuted as struggles with global moral significance. In the two World Wars this ideological zeal resulted in demonizing the enemy. Particularly in the last two years of the Second World War this governmentally incited demonization facilitated the mass bombing of the "undemocratic" civilian population on the other side. The US also insisted on unconditional surrender in both Europe and Asia and it engaged in expensive efforts to either kill or imprison the leaders of its erstwhile enemies and then to reeducate the surviving civilian population, until they became more or less like us. That’s how democratic crusades fought for universal ideals are likely to end, particularly if they involve large standing armies and continue to be fought with considerable bloodshed until the other side has been totally defeated.

This did not happen while Russian Jewish Trotskyists or super-Zionist hawks were running American foreign policy. Rather we are looking at the demonstrable actions of WASP patricians like FDR, who espoused a drastic course of action in destroying anti-democratic enemies that FDR believed Americans had failed to take during an earlier American crusade for democracy.

That of course was the war that the Southern patrician Wilson had pulled his country into in 1917. Other bluebloods between 1914 and 1917 such as Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Elihu Root and Henry Cabot Lodge, were profoundly disgusted that Wilson had taken so long to throw us into the European meat grinder. Many of these patricians balked (as they should have) at American adhesion to the League of Nations. They did not want armies being sent to Europe to aid the French and those successor states in East Central Europe created or expanded to contain Germany and Soviet Russia in perpetually holding down the losers, namely the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians. But the argument could be made that these patricians should have thought twice before embroiling us in a massive war, one in which we became complicit in mass killing and in the unjust treaty that ended that struggle. Far better if the US had taken the advice of Wilson’s first secretary of state, the decidedly non-patrician prairie populist William Jennings Bryan, someone who had been serious about being neutral and about working to reconcile the European belligerents.

The WASP patrician pressure to push this country into the war to end all wars was far more destructive than anything that any sleazy operator in the Bush administration did by dragging us into Iraq. Although neocons applaud in retrospect what WASP patricians did to spread democracy by force of arms, there was nothing they themselves achieved that was quite as catastrophic as what our social elite did to this country and to Europe during the First World War. We sacrificed American lives to bring about an unjust peace, when we had opportunities to act as an honest peace broker in the European conflict.

Needless to say, the appeal to the universal or universally applicable ideal of democracy played a big part in greasing the skids; and whether it was our ambassador to England Walter Hines Page, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, or President Wilson, the war in Europe was always featured as a global struggle between world democracy and military autocracy. Presumably by fighting for the British and Japanese Empires against the Habsburg and Hohenzollern Empires, we were making the world safer for democracy. Pursuing this position required us to ignore certain injustices committed against the anti-British side, starting with the illegal hunger blockade that Churchill and the British navy imposed on the Germans, several weeks before the war began.

Now it is possible to look back at nineteenth-century American framers of foreign policy, whether John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, or even Lincoln’s secretary of state William Seward, and notice the absence of democratic missionary tropes in their statements about national interest. And though the Spanish American War in 1898 featured rhetoric about America’s progressive republic opposing Spain’s decadent Catholic monarchy, the US did not claim to be waging that war in order to spread democracy or to obliterate its enemies. It was fighting for a time-bound nineteenth-century cause, for a vigorous Germanic Protestant world against Latin Catholic decadence. And once we got the colonies we wanted, no American in his right mind spoke about occupying Spain and then converting its inhabitants to global democratic values — or even Protestantism.

The real shift in attitude came around World War One, which was the source of so many evils, save for Communists and neoconservatives. Trying to explain why American social and ethnic elites became obsessed with a democratic world mission before and during the war, historian Richard Gamble in The War for Righteousness focuses on the transformation of American Protestant culture in the early twentieth century. According to Gamble, the liberalization of Protestant doctrine and the beginnings of the Social Gospel movement produced two characteristic attitudes among those affected by these trends. One, Protestant, democratic missionaries believed it was their mission to bring moral uplift to the entire world; and such improvement was often associated with the transmission of American political ideals, ideals that liberal Protestants, like George W. Bush and Michael Gerson, have also touted as universally applicable. Two, the non-traditional Protestants whom Gamble cites held to an increasingly secularized pre-millennialism, one in which Christ’s Kingdom would be prepared by changing social and political structures to conform to the believer’s vision of the Good. Indeed every change these Protestants approved of would be given cosmic significance in terms of the end times, understood as democratic political perfection.

When war came to Europe, the liberal Protestants, exemplified by Woodrow Wilson, who had ceased to be an orthodox Calvinist, considered it to be a struggle between democratic Good and autocratic Evil. Once the partisans identified their English kinsmen as the progressive side, it became a moral and millenarian imperative for the US to enter the European war on behalf of the Allies. Anything less would have been a dereliction of religious duty and would have prevented God’s Kingdom from being rapidly established. And those who at home failed to take their side in the war deserved to be treated as enemies of the Good. Such liberal Protestants were totally intolerant of the neutralists or pacifists, and they continued to rage against the Central Powers long after the war was over.

Although Gamble documents his arguments, one point he never addresses to my satisfaction is why liberal Protestants held such strong views about the war from the outset. Why did they view Germany and Austria so negatively and England so positively? England certainly had a more robust tradition of parliamentary government than Germany, but German workers had a higher standard of living, were better educated and far less subject to social prejudice than the English lower orders. If the Germans invaded Belgium on their way to fighting France, the English navy was starving German civilians in violation of international law. What I’m suggesting is that there would have been good reason for Gamble’s Protestants to have taken the same position as other Protestants, including some very liberal ones, who wanted the US to stay out of the European war.

The reason these figures didn’t is that most of them were Anglophiles of English descent, like Henry Sloane Coffin, Lyman Abbott, and most of the editorial board of Christian Century. Gamble ignores certain cultural shifts that began before the War and which expressed or resulted in changed allegiances. From the 1890s on, England and Germany were competing European powers; and of the two, Germany was outpacing England economically and educationally. Germany would also challenge England’s and France’s race to divide up African colonies and insist on being given her share as a rising colonial power. And although Germany was behind England and several other countries as a naval power, by the 1890s the Germans were engaged in producing state-of-the-art battle ships, which the British government considered a threat to British naval supremacy. The naval race was not really a race, since the Germans were not likely to catch up to the British; and in the end they provided grist for the mills of British politicians like Churchill, who called for military preparations against the German Empire.

This rivalry caused emotional problems for American patricians. In the nineteenth century this group had adored the British and Germans with almost equal enthusiasm. New Englanders had gone off to study in England and Germany both; and they viewed each as a Protestant Germanic land that had contributed to the practice of liberty. This process was tortuous, since the value in question had traveled far, from the forest of Germania to Westminster Abbey and from there, to the American frontier by way of Boston and Philadelphia. But this legacy of constitutional freedom in any case had come from the Saxons, who had settled Central Germany and England; and it was also a Saxon Martin Luther who had freed the Germanic world from Latin religious bondage by spearheading the Protestant Reformation.

As a plaque from the early twentieth century on the Conrad Weiser estate, near Reading, Pennsylvania, reminds the visitor even now, the German Lutheran clergymen who settled this land in the mid-eighteenth century were thought to represent Germanic Protestant civilization, against Latin Catholic civilization. That was how many Pennsylvanians once interpreted the Anglo-French rivalry that eventually burst into the French-Indian War. Even more importantly, the phrase also indicates that Protestant Americans in the early twentieth century viewed themselves as Germanic rather than strictly English. The First World War and the Anglo-German competition preceding it made it harder and harder to accept that Germanic identity; and what took its place, as the German historian Heinz Gollwitzer points out, is a fractured Germanism, splitting into English and continental German types. Although this fracturing had begun even before the War, the struggle that broke out among Germanic kinsmen made it much sharper.

The Imperial School of History, inaugurated by Louis Andrews at Yale in 1910, focused on early America as a part of British civilization. Although a famous revolution severed the American colonies from their mother country, this, according to Andrews and his fan Woodrow Wilson, occurred after a permanent British Protestant identity had been imparted to the colonists. Note how well this corresponds to Francis Parkman’s history of the French-Indian War, which had been written two generations earlier. Parkman too had presented the victory of Protestant Anglo-Saxon institutions over French Catholic ones in the New World as the defining American experience. Any subsequent American break from England becomes in Parkman’s narrative anticlimactic.

In 1914 WASP patricians had a full set of arguments for why they were part of a British cultural and political world rather than a German one. They were heirs to the English language and literature, English common law, and English parliamentary democracy. This last point was particularly useful for the pro-British side. British parliamentary institutions were clearly better established than German ones, despite the fact Germans were less class-bound and enjoyed a higher standard of living than Englishmen. But the main point here is WASP patrician loyalties were formed on the basis of ethnic identity — and not because of any mystical belief in the democratic nature of English society or the British Empire.

The leftist opponents of America’s entry into the war saw through this appeal to democracy, and especially when it came from racial segregationists and extremely aloof social elites. John Lukacs properly observes that the typical Anglophile interventionist in the US in 1916 was usually not less but more socially conservative than American neutralists. But those who wanted the US to come to the aid of the English mother country with American lives and treasure invented a form of global democratic rhetoric that became a permanent part of American thinking about the rest of the world.

Still, as Erich Kaufmann shows in The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America, WASP patricians continued to mix their liberal internationalism, which was often a codeword for Anglophilia and an Open Door policy in China, with ethnic national attitudes. This was particularly the case, once the crusade for democracy was over. A look at the membership list of the liberal internationalist Council for Foreign Policy, formed in 1919 under the guidance of former Secretary of State Elihu Root, would have contained not a few of the members of the Immigration Restriction League. Henry Cabot Lodge was both a chastened liberal internationalist and an outspoken opponent of the de-WASPization of the United States, starting in Boston as viewed from Beacon Hill. Lodge’s close friend A.B. Lawrence, president of Harvard since 1909, combined support for liberal internationalist politics and wartime Anglophilia with deep concern about the passing of WASP America. When Lowell was not campaigning for American adhesion to the League of Nations, a matter that he and Lodge disagreed about, he was working to limit the number of non-Northern European immigrants coming to the US. Lowell was a fervent advocate of the Johnson-Reed (immigration reform) Act of 1924; and as president of Harvard expressed alarm about his institution being reshaped by ethnic newcomers. Above all, he feared the arrival of Latin Catholics and Eastern European Jews at his Brahmin institution, a concern that never hindered him however from embracing the aggressive democratic internationalism that had characterized his presidential predecessor at Harvard Charles W. Eliot.

At least some of the WASP establishment defected from liberal internationalism in the decades between the two wars. Onetime enthusiasts for the war to end all wars, such as Robert McCormick, Robert Taft and Herbert Hoover, joined Midwestern and Western isolationist Progressives, in scolding FDR for plunging the US into a second European war. These onetime Anglophiles expressed second thoughts about what they thought was the misguided crusading spirit among the American patriciate. And although the Century Club, which was an ingathering of Anglophile interventionists just before the Second World War, contained some of the same people who had been interventionists in the Great War, the roll call of prominent WASP interventionists was shrinking by 1940.

In summing up, ethnic loyalty had a great deal to do with WASP liberal internationalism. That is why this stance attracted Southern politicians, who were certainly not liberal in their cultural views but whose region viewed itself as Anglo-Saxon. It also explains why members of the Immigration Restriction League saw no contradiction between international crusades for democracy and favoring ethnic nationalism at home. Therefore it must be concluded that their political outlook did not entirely coincide with the world vision now associated with neoconservatives and neoliberals. Henry Cabot Lodge, A.B. Lowell, Carter Glass and Richard Byrd of Virginia were not the predecessors of Michael Ledeen or of other neocon advocates of cosmic political reconstruction. They were WASP nativists. They were also Anglophiles rather than dedicated Zionists, which is another obvious difference between WASP interventionists of an earlier generation and later neoconservative-neoliberal policy advisors.

But these differences should not overshadow the continuities between these groups. Anglophile internationalism and its rhetorical justification paved the way for neoconservative values and emphases in the framing of American foreign policy. One served as a building block for the other; neoconservative internationalism would not have prevailed had it not been for the WASP internationalism that had become an American orthodoxy in the early twentieth century. Here then is an example of what historians call the law of unintended consequences.

November 25, 2009

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author of Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, The Strange Death of Marxism, and Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right. His latest book is Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers.

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