Murray Rothbard Single-Handedly Brought Down the Saigon Government
with Malice Aforethought
Joseph R. Stromberg
by Joseph R. Stromberg
current US foreign policy adventure drags on, it seems as
good a time as any to address a recurring charge brought against
Murray Rothbard by sundry libertarians (sic), Randians,
near-Neo-Conservatives, and other worthies. Strictly speaking,
the complaint is not that Rothbard, alone and unaided, brought
down the Saigon Government in 1975; even Rothbard’s enemies
do not go quite that far. The complaint seems to be that Rothbard
“cheered” when that government fell, proving that he was “pro-communist,”
had a bad attitude about these things, was crazy and immoral,
a proper handle on this apparently controversial subject,
it is best to begin with Rothbard’s writings on the deaths
Deaths of States
Murray Rothbard penned two essays on the fall of the Saigon
government, a government largely invented, bankrolled, and
sustained by the United States. This invention was part of
the American project of incorporating Southeast Asia into
a kind of US-directed “Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
 The US had of course objected, in the 1930s, to the
Japanese version of such a project.
articles on the collapse of the Republic of South Vietnam
have caused much angst among those conservatives and
libertarians who never managed to question any important assumptions
about the Cold War. This angst reverberates down the
halls of time. Its echo, for some reason, is with us still.
essay, “The Death of a State,” appeared in Rothbard’s newsletter,
the Libertarian Forum in April 1975. It began on this
we are seeing these last weeks in Indochina is, for libertarians,
a particularly exhilarating experience: the death of a State,
or rather two States: Cambodia and South Vietnam. The exhilaration
stems from the fact that here is not just another coup
d’état, in which the State apparatus remains virtually
intact and only a few oligarchs are shuffled at the top. Here
is the total and sudden collapse – the smashing – of an entire
State apparatus. Its accelerating and rapid disintegration.
Of course, the process does not now usher in any sort of libertarian
Nirvana, since another bloody State is in the process
of taking over. But the disintegration remains, and offers
us many instructive lessons. 
at the very outset, Rothbard says in effect, “Yes, another
state will replace the one that fell, but the process
itself may prove to be interesting and instructive.” The excitement
– that which initially draws our interest – has to do with
the complete implosion of a state. As for how such an Einsturz
might happen, Rothbard writes that Étienne de La Boétie, David
Hume, and Ludwig von Mises have long since given the explanation.
put, “no matter how bloody or despotic any State may be, it
rests for its existence in the long-run (and not-so-long run)
on the consent of the majority of its subjects….” This consent
may be “passive resignation, but the important thing is that
it rests on the willingness of the masses to obey the orders
and the commands of the State apparatus” up to the point,
where we see “a sudden and infectious decision of the masses
to say: Enough! We’ve had it; we quit.”
was with ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam – “trained
for decades by American commanders, armed to the teeth by
the United States” – which, in the end, just quit. Rothbard
noted that the South Vietnamese government “had no real roots
in popular support…. Hence its supporters were mainly only
the recipients of American largesse.” Further:
corollary lesson of the collapse, then, is the long-run impossibility
for an imperialist-dominated regime to survive, when opposed
by guerrilla warfare backed by the great majority of the population.
And this despite the enormous advantage in firepower and in
modern weaponry that the imperialist power, and its puppets,
then, cannot win; and we have learned this lesson after the
Johnson-Nixon regimes managed to murder a million or more
Vietnamese, North and South, along with over 50,000 American
soldiers. All that blood and treasure just to postpone the
refrain from making a comparison with any current events,
given the unpredictability involved i.e., whether or
not any current resistance is “backed by the great
majority of the population.”)
also observed that “it comes with ill grace indeed” for US
spokesmen to lament the looming “bloodbath,” should the communists
prevail. “Vietnamization” had been an abject failure, as had
US interference in Cambodia. The Ford administration – clinging
to the wreckage of the war in Indo-China, was “the true legatee
of the Nixon administration,” but at least it had given up
“the budding Cowboy police state at home.” 
first essay provoked consternation in some libertarian circles, the
second must have increased it.
second salvo, also entitled “The Death of a State,” appeared
in Reason Magazine, July 1975. He repeated his theme
that state collapse in Indo-China was “exhilarating” and elaborated
his interest in it as process. With every mathematically
inclined political scientist and international relations scholar
in the world (then and now) ransacking history for “case studies”
to “test” their dreaded “robust”  hypotheses and propositions,
we might well think that Rothbard could be allowed to look
at events in the light of some generalizations drawn from
political history (but apparently not).
process by which these states [South Vietnam and Cambodia]
have crumpled vindicates once again the insights of the theorists
of mass guerrilla warfare, from libertarians such as Charles
Lee in the late 18th century to the elaborations
of modern Communist theoreticians… that, after a slow, patient
protracted struggle, in which the guerrilla armies (backed
by the populace) whittle and wear down the massively superior
fire power of the State armies (generally backed by other,
imperial governments), the final blow occurs in which the
State dissolves and disintegrates with remarkable speed.
Rothbard notes that “in Vietnam and Cambodia, one State has
been immediately displaced by another – not surprisingly,
since the communist-led insurgents are scarcely anarchists
or libertarians. But States exist everywhere; there is nothing
remarkable in that. What is inspiring is to actually
see the final and swift disintegration of a State.”
who want to quibble about the words “exhilarating,” “inspiring,”
and “rejoicing” might want to answer whether or not the continuance
of a state, at the price being then exacted by the RVN and
US, could be so described.
Rothbard observes that a state that forfeits “majority support”
will fall: “In the end, the ARVN army simply laid down their
arms and fled, ignoring the orders of their hierarchical chain
of commanders, from the President down to the non-coms.”
expressed another forbidden thought, noting that “the body
blow that these events have delivered to U.S. imperialism”
was a “cause for libertarian rejoicing.” It was a blow to
the idea that “the United States has the moral duty, and the
permanent power, to install, prop up, and rule governments
and peoples throughout the world.” Given this blow, a rebirth
of non-intervention seemed more than possible.
all, Americans “were sick and tired of our long and losing
intervention in Vietnam” in a “continuation of the American
policy of imperialism – the Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon-Ford
policy – that was responsible for pushing Indochina into the
arms of communism.” The US accomplished that feat by “bolstering
and then replacing French imperialism; by propping up unpopular
and corrupt dictatorial regimes in the name of ‘freedom’;
by suppressing peasant property and returning it to the imperially-created
feudal landlords,” and so on. Further, “it was precisely the
idiotic CIA-directed right-wing coup against the popular neutralist
Prince Norodom Sihanouk that has now led to the Communist
Enterprise in South Vietnam
I wish to note an article that appeared in the Miami Herald
on South Vietnamese inflation remedies in late 1971:
South Vietnamese government announced Friday that it is
imposing price controls to curb rises that followed devaluation
of the piaster.
government also announced that it would start strict implementation
of a seldom-used 1965 law providing penalties ranging from
10 years in jail to death for spreading rumors
harmful to the national economy or seeking to increase the
cost of living.
death penalty will be applied only in extreme cases
of hoarding for profit or causing very harmful
rumors, such as that currency devaluation is imminent,
a government spokesman said.
of some commodities shot up this week, largely because of
speculation and hoarding, after Economic Minister Pham Kim
Ngoc announced on Monday that the piaster would be devalued
45 to 55 percent as part of an economic reform package.
the face of it, “harmful rumors” about coming devaluations
would have been true, and from this we may conclude
that the Saigon government, like any other despotic state,
wanted to be able to tax the people via inflation, repress
the inevitably rising prices by controls, and arrest and possibly
kill anyone who mentioned it out loud.
regard, the Saigon sideshow was acting in the tradition of
Chiang Kai-shek Chinese despot and Cold War hero to
the interventionist right wing (they weren’t called “the China
Lobby” for nothing!). Under the economic “management” of Chiang
and his close relatives, who made up the core of the Nationalist
Government, prices in China rose by a factor of 2,167 between
1937 and 1945. As Joyce and Gabriel Kolko put it, “In the
end, the soldiers would not or could not fight, and much of
the government bureaucracy was forced into graft and corruption.
Translated into social and political terms, Chiang mobilized
vital potential support for the Communists and melted the
possible resistance to them.”
1965 and 1970, the Saigon government managed to inflate by
604%. This was not quite up to Chiang’s standards, but it
did erode the confidence of bureaucrats, soldiers, and pretty
much everyone else.
Building in South Vietnam
however, is that had the Saigon government really been “up
to it,” it would have effectively turned itself into a rather
totalitarian regime in pursuit, no doubt, of some rather fictitious
liberty to be realized after it succeeded. But I jest, since
the Saigonistas were no more about liberty than the communists
were, in the end, about equality. But at the time, if I may
be so rude as to mention it, a program of quasi-totalitarian
state-building was precisely what high-toned US Cold War liberals,
social engineers, and counterinsurgency experts were urging
upon the scattered attention of the Saigon state. 
what the soft, “winning hearts and minds” school of US counterinsurgency
theorists had in mind for South Vietnam, as summarized by
D. Michael Shafer: “rapid incorporation of the vulnerable
inhabitants of the periphery into the center,” brought about
by “physical control of territory and populace; penetration
of authority throughout the country; and promotion of economic
and social development.” And of course these goals entailed
“relocation of people to defended villages” – that is, to
the so-called strategic hamlets.
in the eyes of US planners, it was necessary for South Vietnam
to “address distributional, racial, and communal problems
and remove corrupt or abusive officials.” Along with these
reforms, should come general “increases in the quantity of
government.” By carrying out their own social revolution,
assisted by US advice and superabundant firepower, the Saigon
crew would win the wavering people over, by really giving
them “the benefits only promised by the insurgents.”  (This last point was an especially
tall order to the extent that one of the “benefits” sought
was precisely to be rid of the Saigon regime.)
school erred, Shafer continues, in “assuming that leaders’
interests are the same as the national interest.” Don’t we
all! Thus they overlooked “the possibility that for certain
elites the aim of fighting is to defend power and privilege,”
and consequently, the commitment of these elites to reform
might be a bit limited. Under such circumstances, “increasing
the government’s security may decrease that of the population,”
driving them into the arms of the insurgents.
to sundry flawed assumptions rooted in the then universally
loved modernization theory, the soft school ended with “a
prescriptive bent for centralized, paternalistic government.”
Bruce Miroff underscores the connection between modernization
theory and counterinsurgency:
and counterinsurgency were closely interwoven in New Frontier
ideology. Walt W. Rostow was a key figure here in establishing
the linkage. The Administration’s leading theoretician of
economic development and modernization, Rostow was also one
of its most fervent proponents of counterinsurgency. He considered
counterinsurgency an integral branch of modernization; hence,
he told a graduating class of Green Berets at Fort Bragg in
1961: “Your job is to work with understanding with your fellow
citizens in the whole creative process of modernization. From
our perspective in Washington you take your place side by
side with those others who are committed to help fashion independent,
modern societies out of the revolutionary process now going
forward. I salute you as I would a group of doctors, teachers,
economic planners, agricultural experts, civil servants, or
those others who are now leading the way in fashioning new
nations and societies.” 
to US planners (as depicted by Shafer), success in the war
demanded “the ability to manage modernization.” The state
had to make “hard decisions: to invest, not consume; rationalize
administration; root out corruption; attack parochial political
groupings, etc.” Further, the planners believed “that more
government is better government. But this presupposes the
very issues at question… that government and populace share
the same goals that will be advanced by greater government
capabilities at the grassroots level.” And, worse luck, “improving
administrative capacity has often meant greater governmental
ability to collect taxes, enforce skewed land tenure arrangements,
raise conscripts, etc. In short, improved administrative capacity
may mean better enforcement of the status quo.” 
counterinsurgency theory was a general Western fad at the
time, resting on a strong record of failure or dubious successes
in Algeria, Malaya, Kenya, and elsewhere. The theorists called
for “civic action” and “revolutionary war.” Here, the threatened
state, or its allies, would use military forces to seize,
transform, and carry out the popular revolution in an approved
form. The neo-Jacobinism of the project hardly needs underlining. 
none of this actually worked all that well and the hearts-and-minds
gang were soon out, replaced by the harder-nosed cost/benefit
folk of the RAND Corporation type, who focused on how to coerce
the Vietnamese laboratory rats into submission along the lines
of rational actor models drawn from mathematized neoclassical
economics, or behaviorist psychology. 
Chomsky quotes one of these writers, Morton Halperin, as follows:
events in Vietnam also illustrate the fact that most people
tend to be motivated not by abstract appeals, but rather by
their perception of the course of action that is most likely
to lead to their own personal security and to the satisfaction
of their economic, social, and psychological desires. Thus,
for example, large-scale American bombing in South Vietnam
may have antagonized a number of people; but at the same time
it demonstrated to these people that the Vietcong could not
guarantee their security as it had been able to do before
or home invader could say as much. And one begins to wonder
if states are not only “stationary bandits” but also stationary
terrorists. This certainly wasn’t going to win any hearts
and minds, but for the planners, if those “subjective factors”
could not be dealt with “scientifically” and mathematically,
they could not be considered at all.
were the insurgents doing all this while? Eqbal Ahmad suggests
that overall, they were behaving better than the Saigon bureaucrats
and soldiers not a difficult feat, apparently. He writes
that support for the guerrillas rested on “moral alienation
of the masses from the existing government.” Accordingly,
the rebels had to “outadminister” more than “outfight” the
government. Thus the guerrillas were working with the “human
factor” so invisible to US planners.
notes that there are cases like Algeria in which the rebels
“lost” militarily but won politically – and this goes straight
to the problems of obedience and legitimacy
 that interested Rothbard.
Liberation Front operated by creating parallel hierarchies
that displaced official ones. Despite the assumptions of US
officials, this was not a case of rule by terror, despite
the occasional “conversion or killing of village officials.”
Serious and disciplined guerrillas rejected wholesale terrorism
and laid “stress on scrupulously ‘correct and just’ behavior
toward civilians.” Their “use of terror, therefore, [was]
sociologically and psychologically selective.” Thus, “[s]uccessful
parallel hierarchies” were “generally based on extant local
patterns and experiences….”
the revolutionaries played to what Eric Wolf refers to as
the “natural anarchism” of rebelling peasants that
is, the peasant’s instinctive wish to continue his way of
life, but without tax collectors, bureaucrats, and feudal
landlords.  That NLF cadres built up an incipient state in the course
of the struggle is consistent with the history of other 20th-century
peasant-based revolutions led by Marxists. The NLF had on
their side the powerful cement of Vietnamese nationalism,
another factor the Americans contrived to miss.
Ahmad writes, the US unleashed total war, “punitive measures,
and widespread, systematic use of torture.” He observes: “these
wars are ‘limited’ only in their consequences for the intervening
power. For the country and people under assault they are total.” 
once more consider what the US sought to do in South Vietnam,
namely, to build a state able to “incorporate” the people
via “physical control” and effective administration, while
carrying on an ersatz, top-down social revolution and
making a great forward leap into “centralized, paternalistic
government,” with the burgeoning state undertaking “economic
and social development”; making “hard decisions” about investment
vs. consumption, rationalizing administration, rooting out
corruption, and “attack[ing] parochial political groupings”;
and serving as the vanguard of forced-draft “urbanization”
by bombing the rural population into new living arrangements.
 One theorist even suggested that the South Vietnamese
state substitute itself for “intermediate structures”
where those were, lamentably, missing.
 I leave to one side the obvious problem that if
the state supplies the intermediate structures, they
no longer seem very intermediate and perhaps another word
will be needed for them.
about 1965 on, American policymakers tried to substitute unrestrained
US firepower for the “administrative failure” of the Saigon
regime, so as to drive peasants into the “protection” of that
regime, and where they could not provide support for the guerrillas.
But an ineffective and unpopular regime cannot be bombed into
strength and public esteem. So here it is: whichever side
won, the people were going to get a stronger state
than they were used to; absent the Americans, however, they
would not be carpet-bombed. Let us leave to one side for a
moment, the moral and subjective factors that seem to have
been decisive. That done, even on the American theorists’
own argument, a peasant able to see past next week into some
middle term might in fact “rationally calculate” that he would
be better off under the NLF.
their methodologically narrow definition of rationality and
their neoclassical inability to treat (and then distinguish
degrees of) time-preference, the US counterinsurgency theorists
were thoroughly at sea.
v. Chomsky, 1977
probably worth mentioning the letters-to-the-editor exchanged
between Rothbard and Noam Chomsky in Libertarian Review
in December 1977. Rothbard had written a piece in the September
issue in which he argued that democratic socialism was a chimera.
Any serious attempt to realize socialism would necessarily
lead in the direction of totalitarian rule. In a footnote,
he chided Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman for their skepticism
regarding some chilling statements attributed to Cambodian
wrote an angry letter to Libertarian Review, saying
that Rothbard had misrepresented his and Herman's position.
Rothbard replied in kind, reiterating his point that socialism,
if undertaken seriously, required violence, brutality and
As a lifelong advocate of a laissez-faire market economy,
Rothbard was not about to defend any form of socialism. This
exchange of letters took place just when former opponents
of US intervention in Southeast Asia, many of them socialists,
were debating among themselves whether or not it was "moral"
to criticize the successor states in Southeast Asia.
view, if the bulk of a country's people opted for socialism
in reaction to feudalism, mercantilism, and foreign domination,
that did not give the US government the right to wage a savage
imperialist war against them. In any case, Rothbard had long
rejected the Cold Warriors' claim that all movements against
the status quo, and against western powers that propped up
existing regimes, were somehow parts of a centrally-directed
campaign of communist aggression, and that therefore, US intervention
anywhere and everywhere constituted a form of "defense."
Rothbard had no problem opposing the war and criticizing those
who came to power in its aftermath, especially since, absent
the war, the outcomes would have been substantially different.
returned to the theme of falling states in a piece on the
Shah of Iran in Reason Magazine in June 1979. Libertarians,
he wrote, are “determined opponents of the Leviathan State.”
They also have faith “in the power of ideas to move mountains,
to transform society. Even to overthrow an entrenched coercive
despotism. And yet, libertarians have displayed curiously
little interest in the process by which such social transformations
can and do take place.”
often treated ideas “as floating abstractions.” Hence they
overlooked the need to build a movement of people to carry
forward the idea of liberty. They would then fall into despair,
thinking that nothing can be done.
events in Iran demonstrated the power of ideas combined with
of Shah Pahlevi seemed to be irresistible. It had been in
power for decades. The shah’s father had proclaimed himself
monarch and had grabbed about half the land area of the country
for his own personal use and ownership. From taxes and the
proceeds of such ownership, Pahlevi built up a formidable
military machine, fueled by enormous military, political,
and psychological aid from the United States.
the shah’s “engine of internal terror” – sustained by torture
– was quite “impressive.”
was the Shah now gone?
the Shah had made a lot of enemies, and deserved most of them.
Second, the opposition was able to organize around an ideology
– in this case, Islamic republicanism. Rothbard writes: “Whether
libertarians like the fact or not, religion has always proved
to be one of the most animating and energizing ideas that
mankind can adopt.” The Iranian opposition “started with no
guns at all; it began only with a figure deeply venerated
by the Muslim masses of Iran, a figure who had been exiled
for many years for his opposition to the shah.”
of mullahs got the word out that the issue was “Islam versus
the shah.” Once this point was reached, “the shah, for all
his money and might, didn’t stand a chance.” In the end, “it
was the masses versus the army, with its virtual monopoly
of firepower.” As “in all successful revolutions… finally
the army, too, becomes ‘subverted’ – it is either swept up
in the revolutionary ideology, or the soldiers refuse to fire
upon their own families or upon people very like themselves.” 
emotional and value-laden language once more, the ever-subversive
this is how even a mighty and despotic State gets toppled.
This is how ideas effect social and political change
– through movements, through alternative visions, through
struggle. And this is a change that should gladden the hearts
of libertarians, for it shows that a Leviathan State, even
a particularly brutal and dictatorial one, can be vanquished….
precisely the same point as in the two earlier essays, Rothbard
asks his readers to “notice what I am not saying. I
am not claiming that the Khomeini republic will be particularly
libertarian.” This was not to be expected, nor was it the
point of his essay. “Libertarian rejoicing has nothing at
all to do with whatever State replaces the shah. It celebrates
the fact that a powerful, dictatorial, seemingly impregnable
State can be and has been overthrown by the force of
an idea.” 
it another way, a state crosses an invisible line at the Predation
Possibilities Frontier, and people quit obeying it.
the Bourgeois Counter-Revolutionary
us fast-forward to Rothbard’s speech on “The Future of Austrian
Economics,” given at the Mises Institute’s Summer University
held at Stanford University in 1990. Briefly, in the course
of a talk on the history and prospects of Austrian School
economics, Rothbard took a few minutes to discuss the collapse
of communism, and particularly, the moment when the subjects
of the Rumanian communist ruler Ceausescu quit taking orders.
It was the end of the regime.
if the critics are to be believed, Rothbard “cheered” and
welcomed the triumph of communism in Vietnam, and then
(by the same logic) became a partisan of Islamic republicanism
in 1979. In 1990, it follows, he must have reversed his “pro-communism”
in order to celebrate the fall of Ceausescu, and this reversal
must involve “cheering” and welcoming anti-Ceausescuism, bourgeois
reaction, fascist revanchism, or God knows what.
fellow, this Rothbard.
are people who could wander forty years in deserto
looking for the common thread in Rothbard’s commentaries.
They could save time, however, by taking seriously what Rothbard
himself said was the common thread; for the simplest
explanation is that Rothbard rightly saw that there was something
to learn from state implosions, something of interest, maybe,
to those who cared about liberty. Such a lesson might indeed
bring a bit of cheer on a cloudy day.
The Mystery of Civil Obedience
one wonders, why Rothbard’s critics are so exercised by his
comments on the fall of Saigon.
be that they are put out by his use of emotive language. Perhaps
they would be happier had he done cold, social-scientific
monographs on the subject. Doubtless they would be happier
still, had he presented his analysis in the form of advice
to state managers everywhere. “Look here, ye noble rulers
and bureaucrats, true friends of All Mankind,” he might have
said, “take care not to completely alienate your subjects,
lest ye go the way of the government of South Vietnam – a
great tragedy and from such outcomes Heaven protect
Rothbard might have affirmed the Cold War, embraced US policy
as the standard of global right, and lamented the passing
of “our” puppet state. Even the Randians might be quiet under
such circumstances. To achieve such high-toned respectability,
all Rothbard had to do was to ignore everything he believed
and everything he had learned about US foreign policy.
Blight of Anti-Communism
before 1975, Rothbard had concluded, among other things, that
obsessive anticommunist hysteria was the key to the transformation
of the American right wing from a “quasi-libertarian” political
force in the 1930s and forties to a state-building war party
from the early 1950s onward. As he wrote in 1968: “the major
ideological instrument of the transformation was the blight
of anti-communism, and the major carriers were Bill Buckley
and National Review.” 
analysis of anticommunism as a definite and distinct ideology
was already clear in a memo written for the Volker Fund in
1962. The memo was a critique of a manuscript by Frank Meyer.
The latter had written a rather standard Cold War meditation
on world communism as an unchanging monolith. In Rothbard’s
view, Meyer had missed the significance of the Soviet-Chinese
split, and indeed, all other fissures within the socialist
world. Instead, Meyer chose to treat communism “almost as
if it were a ‘thing’ from Outer Space, a diabolic monolith
dedicated solely and simply to world conquest of power.”
communists were scarcely acting human beings who “might be
frightened for their own skins.” Consistent with such a view
he had managed to read the now ongoing debates between Soviet
spokesmen, on the one hand, and Chinese and Albanian spokesmen,
on the other, as if nothing substantial were at stake. In
Meyer’s mind, apparently, the Soviets were cloaking an offensive
program of world conquest behind defensive rhetoric, while
the Chinese and their adherents were doing without the rhetoric.
a summary of recent Soviet-Chinese debates, Rothbard argued
that the Soviet leadership were quite serious about defusing
Cold War tensions and avoiding a disastrous war, or wars,
fought with modern atomic weapons. This was entirely rational
on their part: “Now all this is a straightforward, sensible,
candid, and non-diabolic policy, pursued eagerly and consistently,
especially since Russia adopted the Western disarmament proposals
(which we then quickly withdrew) in May 1955.”
added, that in an age of airpower, missiles, and hydrogen
bombs, “the main threat, not only to Communists and
to the Soviets but to all men everywhere, is total nuclear
with the Soviet position, the Chinese claimed that atomic
bombs were “paper tigers” and that what counted in the world
struggle for socialism was popular revolutionary will. Rothbard,
naturally, did not hold back from making an obvious comparison:
“If you see a strong resemblance between the Chinese view
and analysis of the world, and that of Frank S. Meyer, you
are correct.” On this view, everything the other side did
or said was a trick, negotiations were futile, and we
might as well launch a war to get it all over with.
a closed ideology, anticommunism was singularly unfit
for dealing with changing realities in world politics. It
was more than fit, however, for sustaining endless expansion
of the US central state and for risking, and finding, wars.
This syndrome – a diabolical universal enemy whose very existence
demanded unceasing sacrifice to the US government in the name
of freedom – had been a central concern for Rothbard since
the mid-1950s, a concern he expressed in Faith and Freedom
in April 1954 and in an unpublished “isolationist” manifesto
written in 1959. 
pursued his line of analysis on the relationship between state
expansion, foreign policy, and war in such papers as “War,
Peace, and the State” (1963) and “Anatomy of the State” (1965).  Here, too, I should at least mention Rothbard’s
running critique of “conservatism” from 1957 onwards. 
it to say, that having studied the problem, Rothbard thought
that prepackaged anticommunist ideology, both as a theory
and explanation of the world, was a bit thin, by the
time the US leadership managed to bog us down in Vietnam.
Communism was bad, to be sure, and a mistaken choice in social
organization. But imperial intervention, modern warfare, strategic
(terror) bombing, and the like were also bad, even if conservative
anticommunists contrived to not notice the fact.
in its own closed, ideological universe, anticommunism became
a huge obstacle to American thought and the primary justification
for expansion of the central state. Under cover of the Cold
War, the state advanced on all fronts, carrying forward policies
once considered “leftist” (but such labels mean less and less
these days). If anyone “won” the Cold War, it was state
power that did so, plain and simple. 
Obedience and Its Alternatives
happens, Rothbard was interested in the problem of civil obedience.
Put simply, the problem is, Why do people who vastly outnumber
state bureaucrats nonetheless obey them? His interest went
back many years, and certainly before LBJ got waist-deep in
the Big Muddy.
1970, Rothbard responded to an essay by Leonard Read, who
had, in Rothbard’s view, cut his links to any real libertarianism
by taking the view that we must obey all existing laws, until
we can get them repealed.
 This was not the best line of attack on the problem
of “civil obedience.” Reflecting on the same problem, eleven
months later, he wrote: “there has never been a successful
armed revolution against a democratic government; all toppled
governments have been seen by the public to be outside themselves,
either as dictatorships or monarchies (Cuba, China, Russia,
18th Century France, 17th Century England)
or as imperial powers (the American Revolution, the Algerian
is more. It was precisely in the 1970s, when the offending
pieces on the fall of Saigon were written, that Rothbard was
working in two areas especially relevant to state collapse.
Rothbard wrote a lengthy preface to the Free Life Edition
of Étienne de La Boétie’s Discourse
of Voluntary Servitude. La Boétie was a young French
lawyer, who wrote the essay during his days as a student at
the University of Orléans, about 1550. Rothbard found La Boétie’s
argument elegantly simple.
sundry Huguenot treatises of the 16th century,
“the very abstraction and universality of La Boétie’s thought
led inexorably to radical and sweeping conclusions on the
nature of tyranny, the liberty of the people, and what needed
to be done to overthrow the former and secure the latter.”
La Boétie built his essay “around a single axiom, a single
percipient insight into the nature not only of tyranny, but
implicitly of the State apparatus itself.” That insight was
“that every tyranny must necessarily be grounded upon general
popular acceptance” because “general public support is in
the very nature of all governments that endure.” This brought
up, “what is, or rather should be, the central problem of
political philosophy: the mystery of civil obedience.”
same period, Rothbard was also deeply involved in his
multivolume history of colonial America, which culminated
in the American Revolution. The series, projected as far back
as 1962, was well under way. It had, naturally, given Rothbard
much reason to reflect on the sociology of revolutions, the
interplay between interest and ideology,  legitimacy, and the creation by American
revolutionaries of parallel hierarchies and their use of partisan
(or guerrilla) warfare.
is Rothbard on the liberal revolution in New York – Leisler’s
Rebellion – set off by local conditions at the time of the
Glorious Revolution (1688) in England:
it is important when weighing the reasons for the outbreak
of a revolution, to separate this stage from the later history
of the revolutionary government after it has taken
power…. The revolution was not a class struggle of
the poor against the rich, or of the laborer against other
occupations. It was the culmination of many years of political
and economic grievances suffered by every great economic class
in the colony, by every section, by English and Dutch alike….
In short, this was truly a liberal people’s revolution,
a revolution of all classes and ethnic strains in New York
against the common oppressors: the oligarchical ruling clique
and its favorites, receivers of patronage, privilege, and
monopolistic land grants from the royal government. 
this is not the end of the story: “Any libertarian revolution
that takes power immediately confronts a grave inner
contradiction: in the last analysis, liberty and power are
incompatible.” And so, “[a]s soon as Jacob Leisler assumed
supreme power, he, naturally, began to use it.”
theme in Conceived
in Liberty has to do with higher taxes, institutionalized
militarism, and arbitrary rule to which colonial authorities
resorted, for example, in aid of conquering French Canada
– “an Anglo-Virginian attempt at a huge land grab.”  Does this mean then, that for purposes of
discussing the mid-18th century Rothbard was pro-French
and pro-Catholic? It seems more likely that he was rather
consistently critical of state leaders who fomented unnecessary
wars; and if the states happened to have Brits or Americans
in them, that was of no consequence to Rothbard.
fourth volume of Conceived in Liberty, Rothbard discusses
the merits of guerrilla warfare as a strategy in the American
Revolution. He writes:
European-style, orthodox war would be heavily statist, and
would inevitably lead to the resumption of the very statism
– the taxes, the restrictions, the bureaucracy – which the
colonies were waging the revolution to escape…. What is more,
guerrilla war would be enormously more effective; for that
is the way any subjugated people – not only libertarians
– can best fight against a better-armed, but hated foe.
Ethan Allen had already shown this in Vermont, the official
leadership of the Revolution did their best to shy away from
guerrilla warfare.  Note that Rothbard isn’t crying about how
unfair it is that great powers have to face “asymmetrical”
opponents who don’t play fair. He is more interested in how
this form of struggle favors “any subjugated people.” The
great power, after all, could have refrained from getting
into the empire business.
was interested in counterinsurgency, but from somewhat the
other end of the telescope. Here he comments on Lord Dunmore’s
campaign in Virginia:
warfare must rest on the active support of the bulk of the
populace; the guerrilla troop is the armed spearhead of the
revolutionary masses. Its fire is directed in pinpoint fashion
against government troops and installations, and sometimes
against their relatively few allies and sympathizers. Its
aim is to dislodge the rulers from the backs of the people.
Its long-run chances of victory are excellent. But counter-revolutionary
raiding is necessarily conducted in wild and haphazard fashion,
by an armed minority against the bulk of the people.
Its aim is not simply to dislodge a ruling group, but to spread
terror among the people, to injure, harass, and disrupt the
economy. Its long-run chances of victory are slight…. The
more scrupulously the guerrillas refrain from harming the
civilian population, the more solemnly and securely the populace
will support them, while the more vigorous the counter-revolutionary
terror raids, the more bitterly hostile will the populace
become. Short-term successes for the guerrillas therefore
promote victory in the long run; short-term gains for counter-revolutionary
bands anger the people still further and insure long-run defeat.
continues: “It was this sort of harassing force that Lord
Dunmore established on the Virginia coast”
 – but he could equally well be writing about Vietnam.
the question naturally arises, Why could Americans not “get”
guerrilla warfare in Vietnam? Why, having won American independence
at least partly on the strength of such tactics,
 could US leaders not foresee what lay ahead in Vietnam?
Part of the answer is the typical latter-day American reduction
of everything to technique and technology. US counterinsurgency
experts actually thought they could pull out the working parts
of guerrilla war light weaponry, speed, surprise, etc.
– and repackage them as counter-revolutionary commando raids.
Thus they could ignore the entire political and ideological
context of the war, not to speak of other local knowledge
bearing on where the Hell they were.
Americans only understood guerrilla war back when they themselves
were the insurgents; and after the fact, many of them preferred
to remember the war as the victory of the Continental Army.
reason why Americans didn’t “get” guerrilla war in Vietnam
stemmed from another misreading of American history: the myth
that a third of the American population supported the revolution,
a third supported George III, and a third were neutral. This
claim rested on a misunderstood letter in which John Adams
discussed Americans’ views on the French Revolution,
quite another thing. In fact, the American Revolution
enjoyed majority support. 
legend strengthened US policymakers’ tendency to believe that
all revolutions were the work of small minorities. The masses
were inert and manipulable. Therefore, if US and South Vietnamese
operatives could manipulate them better, all would be well.
part, Rothbard loathed state-building imperialist wars. He
believed they were bad for their foreign victims, but also
bad for the people whose state carried them out. On the other
hand, he believed in the right of a people to resist outsiders’
invasion and occupation of their home. See, for example, his
comments in 1969 on the case of Northern Ireland.
who opposes empire is not willy-nilly “pro-communist,” “pro-Islamic
Republican,” or “pro-bourgeois reactionary,” depending on
the ideas embraced by a succession of movements that resist
the empire; he is someone who really does oppose empire.
Neo-, Pseudo-, and Post-Libertarianism
the materials adduced above would seem to give Rothbard’s
essays on the fall of Saigon (as well as on the toppling of
the Shah) a bit of a context.
lightly hinted, Rothbard’s themes were, among others, state
power, civil obedience, and war. Unlike many of his critics,
Rothbard was able to distinguish conceptually between the
US state apparatus and America. Thus the charge of systematic
“anti-Americanism” misses the mark by miles. True, Rothbard
became angry at times that Americans could not be bothered
to make the distinction, but even this complaint falls into
the category of cultural critique, and if an American can’t
critique American culture, who the Hell can?
has to agree with Rothbard on these things, I suppose,
and for all I care, everyone may re-fight the Vietnam War
to his or her heart’s content; but no one can reasonably say
that Rothbard’s three “Death of a State” essays flowed from
any partisan commitment to communism or Islamic republicanism.
In any case, it was not within Murray Rothbard’s power to
bring down the Saigon regime. Had he turned his considerable
talents to shoring up that same regime, perhaps writing press
releases for USAID, he could not have saved it, either.
problem begins to withdraw to within its proper bounds. What
the critics are really saying is, “This Rothbard fellow had
the wrong attitude about the Saigon government, and
a wrong attitude about that, shows that his entire
system of thought is flawed.” But if someone really believed,
with Rothbard, that US administrations had “managed to murder
a million or more Vietnamese… along with over 50,000 American
soldiers,” he or she might well take a dim view of the whole
business, criticize it (however mildly), and actually be
glad the damned thing was finally over.
was not exactly alone in his reaction, and it is hard to see
why he and millions of other Americans who had opposed the
thing, should have put on sackcloth and ashes at the end of
an exercise they had not planned, ordered, or wanted,
an exercise they saw as unwise, futile, and criminal.
consistency speaks for itself, even if that quality is unwelcome
to certain latter-day neo- and post-libertarians. No doubt
Rothbard could have cut a bold Cold War figure, churning
out input/output analyses for the RAND Corporation, had he
not rejected such work on both methodological and ethical
grounds. This may be a cautionary tale for would-be “efficiency
experts for the state.” And the tale remains true, even if
these parties dream they are somehow serving the rather wonderfully
hidden “classical liberal” and “commercial republican”
spiritual essence of a particularly successful imperial
would seem to be this: liberal states, by allowing considerable
economic freedom, sit atop more productive economies than
do backward states. With lower taxes, they can still raise
great revenues and assemble superior armed force. They then
wield this armed force in projects that interest them as state
apparatchiks, while the busy commercial classes pay little
liberal states such as Britain and the United States are likely
to succeed in imperialist competition, while clunky feudal-mercantilist
or dirigiste states are not. This is the key to the
much-mooted “democratic peace” imposture. Liberal democratic
states get more revenue and win most of their wars. This tells
us nothing about the merits of those wars, and little enough
about reasons for those states’ foreign policies. (Hint: doing
good may not top the list.)
ago, John Locke saw the point: “that Prince who shall be so
wise and godlike as by established laws of liberty to secure
protection and encouragement to the honest industry of Mankind
against the oppression of power and narrowness of Party will
quickly be too hard for his neighbours.” Thomas Paine,
too, saw it, when he wrote that, “the portion of liberty enjoyed
in England, is just enough to enslave a country by, more productively
than by despotism; and that as the real object of all despotism
is revenue, a government so formed obtains more than it could
do either by direct despotism, or in a full state of freedom;
and is therefore, on the ground of interest, opposed to both.”
And Hans-Hermann Hoppe has made the same point at greater
be interesting to look at the ambiguities of Locke as an early
semistatist modernizer,  mercantilist, participant in the slave trade,
etc., but there is no room here, and anyway, Locke has plenty
of latter-day followers in providing a liberal façade for
state activities. They are legion who stand for “free-market”
Social Bonapartism – the imposing of “freedom” and “spontaneous
order” by US weaponry. That so many Chicagoites are on board
the imperial train suggests that the Chicago School always
functioned as the right wing of Cold War liberalism.
is heady brew and one can easily see why enlistments are up
in John Stuart Mill’s Own Lancers and the Bentham Berets.
Instead of cultivating our own garden – dull work at best
– liberventionists have enlisted to “Smash Someone Else’s
State,” or to repudiate someone else’s national debt. This
creates a bit of a problem.
can someone do, who sincerely believes that markets work better
than states, that liberty is better than statism, or that
life is better than death? Well, he or she can learn to separate
America from the state, justifications from good intentions,
morality from utility, American political realities from vanished
18th-century essences, freemen from Founders, defense
from empire, and so on. There is plenty of work to be done
and, at the end of it, inquiring minds will be better able
to judge whether or not Murray Rothbard was morally bound
to praise, lionize, or at least remain silent about interventions,
bad wars, and the collapse of various states.
Carl Oglesby, Containment
and Change (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 126–130;
Peter Dale Scott, “The Vietnam War and the CIA-Financial
Establishment,” in Mark Selden, ed., Remaking
Asia: Essays on the American Uses of Power (New
York: Pantheon Books, 1974), pp. 91154, esp. 137.
 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Death of a State,” Libertarian
Forum, VII, 4 (April 1975), p. 1.
 “Death of a State,” p. 1.
 “Death of a State,” pp. 1–2.
 “Death of a State,” pp. 2–3. The “budding Cowboy
police state at home” refers to the infamous “Huston Plan,”
now realized in the age of Ashcroft and his sundry Straussian-Federalist
 The word “robust” needs a rest in all scholarly
 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Death of a State,” Reason
Magazine, 7, 3 (July 1975), p. 31 (subsequent quotations
are from the same page).
 “Saigon to Impose Price Curbs With Severe Penalties,”
Miami Herald, November 20, 1971, p. 22-A (emphasis
 Allan E. Goodman, Randolph Harris, and John
C. Wood, “South Vietnam and the Politics of Self-Support,”
Asian Survey, 11, 1 (January 1971), p. 14ff.
 See, for example, Charles A. Joiner, “The Ubiquity
of the Administrative Role in Counterinsurgency,” Asian
Survey, 7, 8 (August 1967), pp. 540554.
 D. Michael Shafer, “The Unlearned Lessons of
Counterinsurgency,” Political Science Quarterly,
103, 1 (Spring 1988), pp. 6263.
 Shafter, “Unlearned Lessons,” pp. 6568.
 Shafer, “Unlearned Lessons,” p. 70.
 See Eqbal Ahmad, “Revolutionary Warfare and
Counterinsurgency,” in Norman Miller and Roderick Aya, eds.,
National Liberation: Revolution in the Third World
(New York: The Free Press, 1971), pp. 172-175.
 See Richard Shultz, “Breaking the Will of the
Enemy during the Vietnam War: The Operationalization of
the Cost-Benefit Model of Counterinsurgency Warfare,” Journal
of Peace Research, 15, 2 (1978), pp. 109129.
 Ahmad, “Revolutionary Warfare,” pp. 145, 148,
 Ahmad, “Revolutionary Warfare,” pp. 157, 159,
164, and cf. 167.
 Eric R. Wolf, “Peasant Rebellion and Revolution,”
in Miller and Aya, eds., National Liberation, pp.
 Ahmad, “Revolutionary Warfare,” pp. 173174
 On “urbanization” by bomber, see Noam Chomsky,
American Power and the New Mandarins, pp. 1214.
Like Dave Barry, Chomsky did not make this up; all he had
to do was quote well-placed Cold War corporate liberals.
 Charles A. Joiner, “The Ubiquity of the Administrative
Role in Counterinsurgency,” Asian Survey, 7, 8 (August
1967), p. 553.
 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Myth of Democratic
Socialism,” Libertarian Review, September 1977, pp.
2427, and 45 (footnote at 45).
 Libertarian Review (December 1977), pp.3536
(Chomsky) and 36 (Rothbard).
 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Death of a State,”
Reason Magazine, 11, 2 (June 1979), p. 53.
 Murray N. Rothbard, “Confessions of a Right-Wing
Liberal,” Ramparts, 6, 11 (June 15, 1968), p. 50.
 Murray N. Rothbard, “Critique of Frank Meyer’s
Memorandum,” March 1962, pp. 23, 16, 18, and 22, Rothbard
Papers, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, AL. Meyer’s
views may be found in his book, The
Moulding of Communists (New York: Harcourt, Brace
& Co., 1961).
 Aubrey Herbert [Murray N. Rothbard], “The Real
Aggressor,” Faith and Freedom, 5, 8 (April 1954),
pp. 2227; “The
New Isolationism,” April 1959, Rothbard Papers.
 Murray N. Rothbard, “The Transformation of the
American Right,” Continuum, II (Summer 1964), pp.
220231, “Confessions of a Right Wing Liberal” (see
#29), and “The Foreign Policy of the Old Right,” Journal
of Libertarian Studies, 2, 1 (Winter 1978), pp. 8596.
 On this aspect of the Cold War, see Daniel Deudney
and G. John Ikenberry, “After the Long War,” Foreign
Policy, 94 (Spring 1994), pp. 2135.
 Murray N. Rothbard, “On Civil Obedience,” Libertarian
Forum, II, 1314 (July 1970), pp. 16.
 Murray N. Rothbard, “How to Destatize,” Libertarian
Forum, III, 5 (June 1971), p. 1.
 Murray N. Rothbard, “Introduction,” in Étienne
de La Boétie, The
Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude
(Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1997), pp. 11, 13 (pagination
is the same as in the Free Life Editions printing, New York,
1975). See also Nannerl O. Keohane, “The Radical Humanism
of Etienne de La Boetie,” Journal of the History of Ideas,
38, 1 (January-March 1977), pp. 119130.)
 See, for example, Conceived
in Liberty, vol. III (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises
Institute, 1999 ), “The Revolutionary Movement: Ideology
and Motivation,” pp. 350356.
 Murray N. Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty,
vol. I (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House Publishers,
1975), p. 434.
 Murray N. Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty,
vol. II (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1975),
pp. 226237 and 245268, quote at 227.
 Murray N. Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty,
vol. IV (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1979),
pp. 2425 (emphasis supplied); and see Rothbard’s sympathetic
portrait of Charles Lee, chief proponent of an American
guerrilla war, pp. 3439.
 On the military aspects of the Revolutionary
War, see Murray N. Rothbard, “Modern Historians Confront
the American Revolution,” Literature of Liberty,
I, 1 (January-March 1978), pp. 2931, and William F.
Marina, “Revolution and Social Change: The American Revolution
As a People’s War,” ibid., I, 1 (April-June 1978), pp. 539.
 See Rothbard, “Modern Historians Confront the
American Revolution,” p. 19; and William F. Marina, “The
American Revolution and the Minority Myth,” Modern Age,
20 (Summer 1976), pp. 298-309.
 See Murray N. Rothbard, “National Liberation,”
Libertarian Forum, 1, 11 (1969), pp. 12; reprinted
in Egalitarianism As a Revolt Against Nature (Auburn,
AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2000), pp. 195198.
 So hidden that only a 33rd Degree
Straussian adept could spot it.
 John Locke, Two
Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (New
York: New American Library, 1965), p. 340 (emphasis supplied);
Selected Writings of Thomas Paine, Richard Emery
Roberts, ed. (New York: Everybody’s Vacation Publishing
Co., 1945), p. 282; Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “Banking, Nation
States, and International Politics: A Sociological Reconstruction
of the Present Economic Order,” Review of Austrian Economics,
4 (1990), pp. 5587, esp. 7679.
 See Sheldon S. Wolin, “Democracy and the Welfare
State,” Political Theory, 15, 4 (November 1987),
R. Stromberg [send him mail]
is holder of the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at the Ludwig
von Mises Institute and a columnist for LewRockwell.com
and Antiwar.com. With David
Gordon, he is writing an intellectual biography of Murray N.
Rothbard. See his War,
Peace, and the State.
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