• For A New Isolationism

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    [This
    item in the Rothbard Papers bears the notation: "Written
    April 1959. Sent to National Review."]

    It
    is with a heavy heart that I enter the lists against the overwhelming
    majority of my friends and compatriots on the Right; also with
    a sense of futility in trying to combat that tough anti-Soviet
    foreign policy to which the Right is perhaps even more dedicated
    than it is to anti-Socialism. But I must try, if only for the
    reason that no one else has done so (if, indeed, there
    are any outright isolationists left anymore).

    To
    begin with, I wish to put my argument purely on the grounds of
    American national interest. I take it for granted that there are
    few, if any, world-savers on the Right of the Wilson-FDR stamp,
    who believe in the moral obligation of the American government
    to enforce “collective security” all over the world, and to make
    sure that global Ruritania has no government which we do not like.
    I assume that the reason that the Right favors a "tough"
    foreign policy against the Soviet bloc, is that it believes that
    only such a policy will secure and promote, American national
    interests. And this is the argument which, I maintain, is open
    to serious challenge.

    There
    is, in the first place, an obviously serious omission in the arguments
    of the partisans of a policy of "liberation," who constantly
    denounce the doctrine of mere "containment" to which
    the Administration, both Democratic and Republican, has been roughly
    committed for over a decade. In opposition, the Right talks grandiosely
    but very vaguely about "ultimatums" on Quemoy, Berlin
    or any other issue that comes up; but precisely what it
    really has to offer as a positive program is never mentioned.
    In all the reams of material written by the Right in the last
    decade, there is never any precise spelling-out of what a policy
    of ultrafirmness or toughness really entails.

    Let
    us then fill in this gap by considering what I am sure we would
    all agree is the toughest possible policy: an immediate
    American ultimatum to Khruschev and Co. to resign and disband
    the whole Communist regime; otherwise we drop the H-bomb on the
    Kremlin. What about this policy of maximum toughness, which would
    certainly accomplish one thing: it would bring about a quick showdown
    between East and West? What is wrong with this policy? Simply
    that it would quickly precipitate an H-bomb, bacteriological,
    chemical, global war which would destroy the United States as
    well as Russia. Now, it is true that perhaps this would not happen.
    Indeed, if we accept the favorite Right-wing credo that the Soviet
    leaders will always back down before any of our ultimatums,
    and will never fight if we are only tough enough, then maybe it
    is true that the Communist leaders will quickly surrender, perhaps
    on promise of asylum on some remote Elba. But are you, Mr. Right
    Winger, willing to take this risk? It seems to me that this is
    the only logical conclusion of the vague talk of toughness that
    we have adopted for so long. As for me, it seems clear that, since
    it is almost certain that the destruction of the United States
    would follow such an ultimatum, we must strongly oppose such a
    policy. The fact that Russia would also be destroyed in the holocaust
    would be cold comfort to someone who holds the national interest
    of the United States uppermost.

    But
    if we concede that this ultimate and decisive ultimatum must be
    rejected, then, I contend, we must revise our views on foreign
    policy as a whole. Perhaps then we should think twice about sending
    ultimatums about Berlin, Quemoy, or the countless other trouble
    spots which are bound to erupt in an unending series of crises,
    so long as we continue the policy of the cold war. If we are not
    prepared to go the whole way in a program of liberation, then
    it makes little sense and creates great risks to keep inching
    forward part of the way, each time proclaiming our supposed certainty
    that Russia will not fight.

    What,
    then, of the old policy of containment, which is the only logical
    alternative to all-out liberation that has been offered? We have
    so far been more or less containing for over ten years, seemingly
    doomed forever to huge and crippling armament budgets, an unending
    chase-your-tail arms race with periodic cries of alarm about the
    "crisis year" coming up when Russia will be ahead of
    us in something or other, and an eternal series of hot-spot crises
    each of which may touch off a global holocaust. In short, we are
    sitting on top of an ever-more menacing powder keg. We have all
    tended to forget the basic rationale of containment as expounded
    by George Kennan when he was "Mr. X." That is, that
    time will bring either a revolution inside Russia, or a "mellowing"
    of Soviet power; at any rate, that with a little time, the Soviet
    menace to the United States would dissolve.

    As
    for the "mellowing," some of us had high hopes after
    the famous Khruschev speech of 1956. For here, for the first time,
    the Communists were denouncing their own hallowed leader, Stalin.
    Yet, it is certainly clear by now that no mellowing is in the
    offing; that the Communist Parties, far from shaken, have absorbed
    this shift in line as they have absorbed so many others, and that
    the so-called "liberal" Communism of the Gomulka stripe
    is just the same old totalitarianism in another guise. The failure
    of the Communist regime to crumble after the anti-Stalin shift
    should be a lesson to all of us proving that people in power never
    voluntarily give it up; that they must be blasted loose. In short,
    the Marxists are right when they say that the "ruling class"
    (in this case, the Communists in Russia) will never relinquish
    power voluntarily.

    The
    only way for the Communist regime to crumble from within, therefore,
    is by internal revolution. Now I know that Mr. Eugene Lyons has
    been valiantly predicting for many years now an imminent revolution
    inside the Soviet Union. I fervently hope that he is right. But
    to base a foreign policy on expectation of revolution seems to
    me foolhardy. The Soviet regime has been in power, after
    all, for some forty-two years, and unfortunately, there are still
    no signs of revolution on the horizon. Don't misunderstand
    me: we must all hope and pray for such a revolution, but we cannot
    count on its arrival. The present regime seems more stable than
    any since Stalin's death.

    If
    neither liberation nor containment is sensible, what is the alternative?
    Simply a genuine policy of peace, or, what is the same thing,
    a return to the ancient and traditional American policy of isolationism
    and neutrality. This is a policy which I think the Right should
    understand, in view of the Right's gallant fight against the disastrous
    Roosevelt maneuvering of the United States into World War II.
    This means total disengagement in Europe and Asia, "bringing
    the boys back home," and all the other aspects of that policy
    of sturdy neutrality which used to be America's pride.

    But,
    I will hear from every side, everyone knows that isolationism
    is obsolete and dead, in this age of H-bombs, guided missiles,
    etc. But is it really? It is my contention that our national interest
    calls for the following policy: a program of world disarmament
    up to the point where isolationism again becomes militarily practical.
    Specifically, America is threatened now in a way in which
    it was not threatened a generation ago: by those weapons, H-bomb
    missiles, disease germs, chemical gases, which can span the old
    blessed protection of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. We are
    not threatened by Russian tanks or machine guns or infantry.
    It is, therefore, the principal task of an American foreign policy
    truly devoted to American interests, to bring about a universal
    scuttling of the new weapons. If we all returned to no more than
    the old "conventional" weapons, and preferably even
    to the muskets of yore, then America would no longer
    be endangered. This does not mean, of course, that America should
    unilaterally disarm. But it does mean that America should
    try its best to effect a disarmament-agreement with Soviet Russia,
    whereby all the nuclear etc. weapons that could injure us would
    be dismantled. Khrushchev's speech at the United Nations should
    not be arrogantly ignored.

    I
    have no fears that a workable inspection agreement cannot be hammered
    out, if our leaders only have the will that they have so far lacked.
    In fact, the quite obvious fears of Right-wingers that Russia
    will consent to a viable disarmament program, shows that
    they agree with me that the Russians are truly sincere
    in wanting nuclear disarmament. They are sincere, of course, not
    because the Communist leaders are altruists or humanitarians;
    but simply because it is also to their best interests to adopt
    nuclear disarmament.

    Here,
    the Right-winger will stop short and say: Aha, how can a policy
    be both to the Communist interests and to ours? Simply because
    neither side should want to be destroyed, and therefore each side
    will gain by the mutual disarming of the only weapons (nuclear,
    etc.) by which each can be mortally hurt. Secondly, mutual nuclear
    disarmament will certainly leave the Soviet Union in a military
    advantage vis–vis its neighbors: since it will have the
    preponderance of conventional arms. Here, the Right-winger thinks
    he really has me. Isn't the fact that Russia will gain a great
    arms advantage by nuclear disarmament a clear proof that this
    policy is unwise?

    In
    the first place, I do not think it at all obvious that Russia
    will immediately attack the other nations. Believing as it does
    in eventual internal Communist triumph and fearing an American
    return to a cold-war policy, it will most likely refrain from
    any military attack. And, secondly, we can relieve ourselves of
    even more of the crippling and wasteful economic burden of armaments,
    as well as take the unilateral propaganda play for peace away
    from the Russians for a change, by suggesting to them further
    disarmament of even conventional weapons, perhaps eventually stripping
    down completely to bows and arrows. But let US assume the worst,
    and suppose that the Russians will really proceed to attack their
    neighbors with conventional arms once nuclear disarmament has
    been attained. What then?

    I
    maintain that the only answer we can give to this hypothetical
    problem is the inelegant: "so what"? Let us not forget
    our initial axiom: that we first and foremost pursue American
    national interests. In that case, while we would personally deplore
    a Communist takeover of foreign countries, we would also adhere
    to the old isolationist principle of doing nothing about it, because
    it would not be of official national concern. Deprived of nuclear,
    etc. arms, Russia might be a military menace to Europe or the
    Middle East, but it would no longer be a menace to the United
    States, our primary concern. The Russian and Chinese hordes will
    not be able to swim the oceans to attack us.

    At
    this point, my opponents are sure to trot out that old saw which
    was used so effectively by interventionists who sobbed about the
    terrible world that would ensue if Hitler won the war in Europe:
    perhaps we would not be militarily in danger, the slogan runs,
    but then America would be an island, forced to a heavy arms budget,
    and not able to trade with the hostile rest-of-the-world. In the
    first place, this argument, never very sensible, is absurd today
    when we are groaning under the fantastic budgets imposed by our
    nuclear arms race. Certainly, our arms budget will be less than
    it is now, especially since it would take far less to protect
    us from military attack. And we could, as I have said, propose
    further and progressive disarmament.

    We
    are left with the argument about trade. This strikes one of the
    oddest notes of all, coming as it does from the very same people
    who are now fiercely opposed to any current trade with the Communist
    countries. The basis of all trade is benefit to both parties.
    There is no need for the traders to like each other for each to
    gain by the trade. There is no reason, therefore, why the Communists,
    even if in charge of most of the world, would not be willing to
    trade with us, just as they are willing and eager to trade now.

    A
    return to old-fashioned isolationism, then, is paradoxically
    the only really practical foreign policy that we have. It is precisely
    because we are living in the terrible technology of the nuclear
    age that we have a sound basis for a workable disarmament agreement
    with the Russians. And, with such an agreement, we would be back
    to the military realities of the pre-nuclear age when even our
    present Right-wing interventionists agreed that isolationism was
    practical.

    One
    thing I would like to make quite clear: I am not proposing
    a program of large-scale foreign aid to the Soviet government,
    or a joint UN slush fund for the backward nations. In fact, adoption
    of a true isolationist program would finally end, once and for
    all, the blackmail wheedling of foreign countries that they will
    go Communist if we don't come across with a suitable bribe. We
    can now tell the foreign nations to paddle their own canoes at
    last, and take full responsibility for their own actions.

    There
    is, in short, an eminently sound alternative to the loudly trumpeted
    policies of either pro-Soviet or anti-Soviet interventionism.
    And that is a new policy of enlightened and realistic isolationism,
    sparked, as it needs to be in our day, by general nuclear disarmament
    of the world powers. Abandoning foreign meddling, we need neither
    continue the cold war nor pretend that the Communist leaders are
    our "heroic allies." We need only adopt again that stance
    of splendid isolation which once made peaceful and free America
    the beacon-light of the world.

    Postscript.
    As Rothbard might have expected, National Review did not
    wish to re-open debate on the fundamentals of foreign policy.
    Rothbard expressed his reaction in a letter of May 19, 1959, to
    a colleague:

    "…
    I thought you might be interested in the enclosed article, u2018For
    a New Isolationism,' which was, predictably, turned down by Bill
    Buckley. (Bill loftily though in friendly fashion declared that
    I should have refuted Burnham, W. H. Chamberlin, and Janeway;
    I think I did anyway, but even if I had specifically dealt with
    them, it is clear Bill would not have published it.) In this article,
    I don't at all deal with the moral-libertarian reasons for pure
    isolationism such as I had treated in the 1954 Faith and Freedom
    symposium, but solely on the grounds of u2018national interest' [thereby
    meeting] the Right-wingers on their own terms, with their own
    weapons.

    "I
    can think of no other magazine which might publish this, though
    I might fix it up a bit and try one of the leftist-pacifist publications.
    The thing is that I am getting more and more convinced that the
    war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian
    business, and that we will never get anywhere in this great intellectual
    counter-revolution (or revolution) unless we can end this Verdamte
    cold war — a war for which I believe our u2018tough' policy is largely
    responsible. Suppose, for example, that an enormously unlikely
    thing would happen and Nixon would (a) become converted to purism,
    and (b) would be elected President. As long as the cold war continued,
    and we had a $40 billion or more arms budget, what good would
    it really do? The fact that we might spend a few billion less
    on public housing or on farm support no longer thrills me. Nothing
    will mean much without a radical dismantling of the State apparatus,
    and this cannot occur without radical disarmament, and an end
    to the cold war policy;

    "I
    think that, when I get some spare time, I will write a little
    book on this war-peace question, incorporating moral-libertarian
    and realist-national defense arguments, to work out a theory of
    isolationism. I know that this will make me highly unpopular on
    the Right without increasing my rating on the Left, but this is
    a job I am convinced has to be done, and it looks as if I'll have
    to do it, precisely because nobody else is. As grand old Tom Barber
    said years ago, in the forward of his libertarian book: u2018It will
    be asked: Who is the author?… Why should he undertake to write
    such a book? The answers are quite simple. I have written this
    book because I felt it should be written for the benefit of the
    United States, and because I am the only person I have available
    to write it.'" …. "Cordially, Murray"

    ~ Joseph
    Stromberg, Rothbard Archivist

    Murray
    N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism
    and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author
    of The
    Ethics of Liberty
    and For
    a New Liberty
    and many
    other books and articles
    . He was also academic vice president
    of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
    Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
    Rothbard-Rockwell Report
    .

    Murray
    Rothbard Archives


            
            

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