A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt
by David Gordon
by David Gordon
A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt. By John V. Denson. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006. 207 pages.
Judge Denson has, in this excellent book, expertly solved a difficult problem. Wars are a principal means for the state to increase its power. The classic work on this theme by Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan, will be well known to most readers of this journal; but Denson also calls attention in this connection to the important study of Bruce Porter, War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (New York, 1994).
Given this fact, one can readily understand why unscrupulous political leaders actively seek war: they wish to increase their own power. But of course war, with all its appalling massacres and horrors, is very much against the interests of the great majority of the population. Here our problem arises: how do the political leaders manage to enlist the general population behind their murderous crusades?
Denson finds the answer by appealing to a well-known fact. Most people, despite their aversion for war, are not pacifists. If they have been attacked, they will fight back; and, once battle is joined, matters usually get out of hand. This gives the political leaders their opportunity. They have only to provoke an enemy into an attack. By doing so, they will be able to rally their nation to "defend" against an assault they have themselves instigated. In one prime example of this tactic, Secretary of War Henry Stimson noted in his diary for November 25, 1941, "The question was how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves" (p. 101). Denson discusses in detail two instances of this phenomenon: Abraham Lincoln's attempt, knowing that this would induce an attack, to provision Fort Sumter, and Franklin Roosevelt's aggressive policy toward Japan, which led to the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. Denson also considers in less detail Woodrow Wilson's similar tactics toward Germany in Word War I.
The key to Lincoln's policy toward to the states that had seceded may be found in a passage of his First Inaugural, delivered on March 4, 1861. Here he said that he would not initiate force against the departed states, even though in his view they had acted illegally in seceding. His seemingly conciliatory policy was belied by a qualification. He said that he would not use force, except to the extent necessary to collect the duties and imposts.
The government of the United States depended at that time for its revenue principally on tariffs. These operated to the disadvantage of the South, a largely agricultural area, which had to pay high prices for imports. Tariffs redistributed wealth from the South to the North.
July 5, 2008
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