This essay is a chapter from Murray Rothbard’s For A New Liberty.
“Isolationism,” Left and Right
“Isolationism" was coined as a smear term to apply to opponents of American entry into World War II. Since the word was often applied through guilt-by-association to mean pro-Nazi, “isolationist” took on a “right wing” as well as a generally negative flavor. If not actively pro-Nazi, “isolationists” were at the very least narrow-minded ignoramuses ignorant of the world around them, in contrast to the sophisticated, worldly, caring “internationalists” who favored American crusading around the globe. In the last decade, of course, antiwar forces have been considered “leftists,” and interventionists from Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter and their followers have constantly tried to pin the “isolationist” or at least “neoisolationist” label on today’s left wing.
Left or right? During World War I, opponents of the war were bitterly attacked, just as now, as “leftists,” even though they included in their ranks libertarians and advocates of laissez-faire capitalism. In fact, the major center of opposition to the American war with Spain and the American war to crush the Philippine rebellion at the turn of the century was laissez-faire liberals, men like the sociologist and economist William Graham Sumner, and the Boston merchant Edward Atkinson, who founded the “Anti-Imperialist League.” Furthermore, Atkinson and Sumner were squarely in the great tradition of the classical English liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in particular such laissez-faire “extremists” as Richard Cobden and John Bright of the “Manchester School.” Cobden and Bright took the lead in vigorously opposing every British war and foreign political intervention of their era and for his pains Cobden was known not as an “isolationist” but as the “International Man.”1 Until the smear campaign of the late 1930s, opponents of war were considered the true “internationalists,” men who opposed the aggrandizement of the nation-state and favored peace, free trade, free migration and peaceful cultural exchanges among peoples of all nations. Foreign intervention is “international” only in the sense that war is international: coercion, whether the threat of force or the outright movement of troops, will always cross frontiers between one nation and another.
“Isolationism” has a right-wing sound; “neutralism” and “peaceful coexistence” sound leftish. But their essence is the same: opposition to war and political intervention between countries. This has been the position of antiwar forces for two centuries, whether they were the classical liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the “leftists” of World War I and the Cold War, or the “rightists” of World War II. In very few cases have these anti-interventionists favored literal “isolation”: what they have generally favored is political nonintervention in the affairs of other countries, coupled with economic and cultural internationalism in the sense of peaceful freedom of trade, investment, and interchange between the citizens of all countries. And this is the essence of the libertarian position as well.
Libertarians favor the abolition of all States everywhere, and the provision of legitimate functions now supplied poorly by governments (police, courts, etc.) by means of the free market. Libertarians favor liberty as a natural human right, and advocate it not only for Americans but for all peoples. In a purely libertarian world, therefore, there would be no “foreign policy” because there would be no States, no governments with a monopoly of coercion over particular territorial areas. But since we live in a world of nation-states, and since this system is hardly likely to disappear in the near future, what is the attitude of libertarians toward foreign policy in the current State-ridden world?
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Pending the dissolution of States, libertarians desire to limit, to whittle down, the area of government power in all directions and as much as possible. We have already demonstrated how this principle of “de-statizing” might work in various important “domestic” problems, where the goal is to push back the role of government and to allow the voluntary and spontaneous energies of free persons full scope through peaceful interaction, notably in the free-market economy. In foreign affairs, the goal is the same: to keep government from interfering in the affairs of other governments or other countries. Political “isolationism” and peaceful coexistence refraining from acting upon other countries is, then, the libertarian counterpart to agitating for laissez-faire policies at home. The idea is to shackle government from acting abroad just as we try to shackle government at home. Isolationism or peaceful coexistence is the foreign policy counterpart of severely limiting government at home.
Specifically, the entire land area of the world is now parcelled out among various States, and each land area is ruled by a central government with monopoly of violence over that area. In relations between States, then, the libertarian goal is to keep each of these States from extending their violence to other countries, so that each State’s tyranny is at least confined to its own bailiwick. For the libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area of State aggression against all private individuals. The only way to do this, in international affairs, is for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine its activities to the area it monopolizes and not to attack other States or aggress against their subjects. In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war. The people under each State should pressure “their” respective States not to attack one another, or, if a conflict should break out, to withdraw from it as quickly as physically possible.
Let us assume for the moment, a world with two hypothetical countries: Graustark and Belgravia. Each is ruled by its own State. What happens if the government of Graustark invades the territory of Belgravia? From the libertarian point of view two evils immediately occur. First, the Graustark Army begins to slaughter innocent Belgravian civilians, persons who are not implicated in whatever crimes the Belgravian government might have committed. War, then, is mass murder, and this massive invasion of the right to life, of self-ownership, of numbers of people is not only a crime but, for the libertarian, the ultimate crime. Second, since all governments obtain their revenue from the thievery of coercive taxation, any mobilization and launching of troops inevitably involve an increase in tax-coercion in Graustark. For both reasons because inter-State wars inevitably involve both mass murder and an increase in tax-coercion, the libertarian opposes war. Period.
It was not always thus. During the Middle Ages, the scope of wars was far more limited. Before the rise of modern weapons, armaments were so limited that governments could and often did strictly confine their violence to the armies of the rival governments. It is true that tax-coercion increased, but at least there was no mass murder of the innocents. Not only was firepower low enough to confine violence to the armies of the contending sides, but in the premodern era there was no central nation-state that spoke inevitably in the name of all inhabitants of a given land area. If one set of kings or barons fought another, it was not felt that everyone in the area must be a dedicated partisan. Moreover, instead of mass conscript armies enslaved to their respective rulers, armies were small bands of hired mercenaries. Often, a favorite sport for the populace was to observe a battle from the safety of the town ramparts, and war was regarded as something of a sporting match. But with the rise of the centralizing State and of modern weapons of mass destruction, the slaughter of civilians, as well as conscript armies, have become a vital part of inter-State warfare.
Suppose that despite possible libertarian opposition, war has broken out. Clearly, the libertarian position should be that, so long as the war continues, the scope of assault upon innocent civilians must be diminished as much as possible. Old-fashioned international law had two excellent devices to accomplish this goal: the “laws of war,” and the “laws of neutrality” or “neutrals’ rights.” The laws of neutrality were designed to keep any war confined to the warring States themselves, without attacks upon nonwarring States and, particularly, aggression against the peoples of other nations. Hence the importance of such ancient and now almost forgotten American principles as “freedom of the seas” or severe limitations upon the rights of warring States to blockade neutral trade with the enemy country. In short, the libertarian tries to induce neutral States to remain neutral in any inter-State conflict, and to induce the warring States to observe fully the rights of neutral citizens. The “laws of war,” for their part, were designed to limit as much as possible the invasion by warring States of the rights of civilians in their respective countries. As the British jurist F. J. P. Veale put it:
The fundamental principle of this code was that hostilities between civilized peoples must be limited to the armed forces actually engaged…. It drew a distinction between combatants and non-combatants by laying down that the sole business of the combatants is to fight each other and, consequently, that non-combatants must be excluded from the scope of military operations.2
In the modified form of prohibiting the bombardment of all cities not in the front line, this rule held in Western European wars in recent centuries until Britain launched the strategic bombing of civilians in World War II. Now, of course, the entire concept is scarcely remembered, since the very nature of modern nuclear warfare rests upon the annihilation of civilians.
To return to our hypothetical Graustark and Belgravia, suppose that Graustark has invaded Belgravia, and that a third government, Walldavia, now leaps into the war in order to defend Belgravia against “Graustarkian aggression.” Is this action justifiable? Here, indeed, is the germ of the pernicious twentieth-century theory of “collective security” the idea that when one government “aggresses” against another, it is the moral obligation of the other governments of the world to band together to defend the “victimized” State.
There are several fatal flaws in this concept of collective security against “aggression.” One is that when Walldavia, or any other States, leap into the fray they are themselves expanding and compounding the extent of the aggression, because they are (1) unjustly slaughtering masses of Graustarkian civilians, and (2) increasing tax-coercion over Walldavian citizens. Furthermore, (3) in this age when States and subjects are closely identifiable, Walldavia is thereby leaving Walldavian civilians open to retaliation by Graustarkian bombers or missiles. Thus, entry into the war by the Walldavian government puts into jeopardy the very lives and properties of Walldavian citizens which the government is supposed to be protecting. Finally, (4) conscription-enslavement of Walldavian citizens will usually intensify.
If this kind of “collective security” should really be applied on a worldwide scale, with all the “Walldavias” rushing into every local conflict and escalating them, every local skirmish would soon be raised into a global conflagration.
There is another crucial flaw in the collective security concept. The idea of entering a war in order to stop “aggression” is clearly an analogy from aggression by one individual upon another. Smith is seen to be beating up Jones aggressing against him. Nearby police then rush to the defense of the victim Jones; they are using “police action” to stop aggression. It was in pursuit of this myth, for example, that President Truman persisted in referring to American entry into the Korean war as a “police action,” a collective UN effort to repel “aggression.”
But “aggression” only makes sense on the individual Smith-Jones level, as does the very term “police action.” These terms make no sense whatever on an inter-State level. First, we have seen that governments entering a war thereby become aggressors themselves against innocent civilians; indeed, become mass murderers. The correct analogy to individual action would be: Smith beats up Jones, the police rush in to help Jones, and in the course of trying to apprehend Smith, the police bomb a city block and murder thousands of people, or spray machine-gun fire into an innocent crowd. This is a far more accurate analogy, for that is what a warring government does, and in the twentieth century it does so on a monumental scale. But any police agency that behaves this way itself becomes a criminal aggressor, often far more so than the original Smith who began the affair.
But there is yet another fatal flaw in the analogy with individual aggression. When Smith beats up Jones or steals his property we can identify Smith as an aggressor upon the personal or property right of his victim. But when the Graustarkian State invades the territory of the Belgravian State, it is impermissible to refer to “aggression” in an analogous way. For the libertarian, no government has a just claim to any property or “sovereignty” right in a given territorial area. The Belgravian State’s claim to its territory is therefore totally different from Mr. Jones’ claim to his property (although the latter might also, on investigation, turn out to be the illegitimate result of theft). No State has any legitimate property; all of its territory is the result of some kind of aggression and violent conquest. Hence the Graustarkian State’s invasion is necessarily a battle between two sets of thieves and aggressors: the only problem is that innocent civilians on both sides are being trampled upon.
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Aside from this general caveat on governments, the so-called “aggressor” State often has a quite plausible claim on its “victim”; plausible, that is, within the context of the nation-state system. Suppose that Graustark has crossed the Belgravian border because Belgravia had, a century earlier, invaded Graustark and seized its northeastern provinces. The inhabitants of these provinces are culturally, ethnically, and linguistically Graustarkian. Graustark now invades in order to be reunited at last with its fellow Graustarkians. In this situation, by the way, the libertarian, while condemning both governments for making war and killing civilians, would have to side with Graustark as having the more just, or the less unjust, claim. Let us put it this way: In the unlikely event that the two countries could return to premodern warfare, with (a) weapons limited so that no civilians were injured in their persons or property; (b) volunteer rather than conscript armies; and also (c) financing by voluntary methods instead of taxation; the libertarian could then, given our context, side unreservedly with Graustark.
Of all the recent wars, none has come closer though not completely so to satisfying these three criteria for a “just war” than the Indian war of late 1971 for the liberation of Bangla Desh. The government of Pakistan had been created as a last terrible legacy of Imperial Britain to the Indian subcontinent. In particular, the nation of Pakistan consisted of imperial rule by the Punjabis of West Pakistan over the more numerous and productive Bengalis of East Pakistan (and also over the Pathans of the North-West Frontier). The Bengalis had long been yearning for independence from their imperial oppressors; in early 1971, parliament was suspended as a result of Bengali victory in the elections; from then on, Punjabi troops systematically slaughtered the civilian Bengal population. Indian entry into the conflict aided the popular Bengali resistance forces of the Mukhti Bahini. While taxes and conscription were, of course, involved, the Indian armies did not use their weapons against Bengali civilians; on the contrary, here was a genuine revolutionary war of the Bengali public against a Punjabi occupying State. Only Punjabi soldiers were on the receiving end of Indian bullets.
This example points up another characteristic of warfare: that revolutionary guerrilla war can be far more consistent with libertarian principles than any inter-State war. By the very nature of their activities, guerrillas defend the civilian population against the depredations of a State; hence, guerrillas, inhabiting as they do the same country as the enemy State, cannot use nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. Further: since guerrillas rely for victory on the support and aid of the civilian population, they must, as a basic part of their strategy, spare civilians from harm and pinpoint their activities solely against the State apparatus and its armed forces. Hence, guerrilla war returns us to the ancient and honorable virtue of pinpointing the enemy and sparing innocent civilians. And guerrillas, as part of their quest for enthusiastic civilian support, often refrain from conscription and taxation and rely on voluntary support for men and matriel.
The libertarian qualities of guerrilla warfare reside only on the revolutionary side; for the counterrevolutionary forces of the State, it is quite a different story. While the State cannot go to the length of “nuking” its own subjects, it does, of necessity, rely primarily on campaigns of mass terror: killing, terrorizing, and rounding up the mass of civilians. Since guerrillas, to be successful, must be supported by the bulk of the population, the State, in order to wage its war, must concentrate on destroying that population, or must herd masses of civilians into concentration camps in order to separate them from their guerrilla allies. This tactic was used by the Spanish general, “Butcher” Weyler, against the Cuban rebels in the 1890s, was continued by the American troops in the Philippines, and by the British in the Boer War, and continues to be used down to the recent ill-fated “strategic hamlet” policy in South Vietnam.
The libertarian foreign policy, then, is not a pacifist policy. We do not hold, as do the pacifists, that no individual has the right to use violence in defending himself against violent attack. What we do hold is that no one has the right to conscript, tax, or murder others, or to use violence against others in order to defend himself. Since all States exist and have their being in aggression against their subjects and in the acquiring of their present territory, and since inter-State wars slaughter innocent civilians, such wars are always unjust although some may be more unjust than others. Guerrilla warfare against States at least has the potential for meeting libertarian requirements by pinpointing the guerrilla’s battle against State officials and armies, and by their use of voluntary methods to staff and finance their struggle.
American Foreign Policy
We have seen that libertarians have as their prime responsibility the focussing on the invasions and aggressions of their own State. The libertarians of Graustark must center their attentions on attempting to limit and whittle down the Graustark State, the Walldavian libertarians must try to check the Walldavian State, and so on. In foreign affairs, the libertarians of every country must press their government to refrain from war and foreign intervention, and to withdraw from any war in which they may be engaged. If for no other reason, then, libertarians in the United States must center their critical attention on the imperial and warlike activities of their own government.
But there are still other reasons for libertarians here to focus upon the invasions and foreign interventions of the United States. For empirically, taking the twentieth century as a whole, the single most warlike, most interventionist, most imperialist government has been the United States. Such a statement is bound to shock Americans, subject as we have been for decades to intense propaganda by the Establishment on the invariable saintliness, peaceful intentions, and devotion to justice of the American government in foreign affairs.
The expansionist impulse of the American State began to take increasing hold in the late nineteenth century, leaping boldly overseas with America’s war against Spain, dominating Cuba, grabbing Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and brutally suppressing a Filipino rebellion for independence. The imperial expansion of the United States reached full flower in World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson’s leap into the fray prolonged the war and the mass slaughter, and unwittingly bred the grisly devastation that led directly to the Bolshevik triumph in Russia and the Nazi victory in Germany. It was Wilson’s particular genius to supply a pietistic and moralistic cloak for a new American policy of worldwide intervention and domination, a policy of trying to mould every country in the American image, suppressing radical or Marxist regimes on the one hand and old-fashioned monarchist governments on the other. It was Woodrow Wilson who was to fix the broad features of American foreign policy for the rest of this century. Almost every succeeding President has considered himself a Wilsonian and followed his policies. It was no accident that both Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt so long thought of as polar opposites played important roles in America’s first global crusade of World War I, and that both men harked back to their experience in World War I intervention and planning as the guideposts for their future foreign and domestic policies. And it was one of Richard Nixon’s first acts as President to place Woodrow Wilson’s picture upon his desk.
In the name of “national self-determination” and “collective security” against aggression, the American government has consistently pursued a goal and a policy of world domination and of the forcible suppression of any rebellion against the status quo anywhere in the world. In the name of combatting “aggression” everywhere of being the world’s “policeman” it has itself become a great and continuing aggressor.
Anyone who balks at such a description of American policy should simply consider what the typical American reaction is to any domestic or foreign crisis anywhere on the globe, even at some remote site that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered a direct or even indirect threat to the lives and security of the American people. The military dictator of “Bumblestan” is in danger; perhaps his subjects are tired of being exploited by him and his colleagues. The United States then becomes gravely concerned; articles by journalists friendly to the State Department or the Pentagon spread the alarm about what might happen to the “stability” of Bumblestan and its surrounding area if the dictator should be toppled. For it so happens that he is a “pro-American” or “pro-Western” dictator: that is, he is one of “ours” instead of “theirs.” Millions or even billions of dollars’ worth of military and economic aid are then rushed by the United States to prop up the Bumblestani field marshal. If “our” dictator is saved, then a sigh of relief is heaved, and congratulations are passed around at the saving of “our” State. The continuing or intensified oppression of the American taxpayer and of the Bumblestanian citizens are, of course, not considered in the equation. Or if it should happen that the Bumblestani dictator may fall, hysteria might hit the American press and officialdom for the moment. But then, after a while, the American people seem to be able to live their lives after “losing” Bumblestan about as well as before perhaps even better, if it means a few billion less in foreign aid extracted from them to prop up the Bumblestani State.
If it is understood and expected, then, that the United States will try to impose its will on every crisis everywhere in the world, then this is clear indication that America is the great interventionary and imperial power. The one place where the United States does not now attempt to work its will is the Soviet Union and the Communist countries but, of course, it has tried to do so in the past. Woodrow Wilson, along with Britain and France, tried for several years to crush bolshevism in the cradle, with American and Allied troops being sent to Russia to aid the Czarist (“White”) forces in trying to defeat the Reds. After World War II, the United States tried its best to oust the Soviets from Eastern Europe, and succeeded in pushing them out of Azerbaijan in northwestern Iran. It also helped the British to crush a Communist regime in Greece. The United States tried its best to maintain Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorial rule in China, flying many of Chiang’s troops northward to occupy Manchuria as the Russians pulled out after World War II; and it continues to prevent the Chinese from occupying their offshore islands, Quemoy and Matsu. After virtually installing the dictator Batista in Cuba, the United States tried desperately to oust the Communist Castro regime, by actions ranging from the CIA-engineered Bay of Pigs invasion to CIA-Mafia attempts to assassinate Castro.
Of all America’s recent wars, certainly the most traumatic for Americans and their attitude toward foreign policy was the Vietnam war. America’s imperial war in Vietnam was, indeed, a microcosm of what has been tragically wrong with American foreign policy in this century. American intervention in Vietnam did not begin, as most people believe, with Kennedy or Eisenhower or even Truman. It began no later than the date when the American government, under Franklin Roosevelt, on November 26, 1941, delivered a sharp and insulting ultimatum to Japan to get its armed forces out of China and Indochina, from what would later be Vietnam. This U.S. ultimatum set the stage inevitably for Pearl Harbor. Engaged in a war in the Pacific to oust Japan from the Asian continent, the United States and its OSS (predecessor to the CIA) favored and aided Ho Chi Minh’s Communist-run national resistance movement against the Japanese. After World War II, the Communist Viet Minh was in charge of all northern Vietnam. But then France, previously the imperial ruler of Vietnam, betrayed its agreement with Ho and massacred Viet Minh forces. In this double cross, France was aided by Britain and the United States.
When the French lost to the reconstituted Viet Minh guerrilla movement under Ho, the United States endorsed the Geneva agreement of 1954, under which Vietnam was to be quickly reunited as one nation. For it was generally recognized that the postwar occupation divisions of the country into North and South were purely arbitrary and merely for military convenience. But, having by trickery managed to oust the Viet Minh from the southern half of Vietnam, the United States proceeded to break the Geneva agreement and to replace the French and their puppet Emperor Bao Dai by its own clients, Ngo Dinh Diem and his family, who were installed in dictatorial rule over South Vietnam. When Diem became an embarrassment, the CIA engineered a coup to assassinate Diem and replace him with another dictatorial regime. To suppress the Viet Cong, the Communist-led national independence movement in the South, the United States rained devastation on South and North Vietnam alike bombing and murdering a million Vietnamese and dragging half a million American soldiers into the quagmires and jungles of Vietnam.
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Throughout the tragic Vietnamese conflict, the United States maintained the fiction that it was a war of “aggression” by the Communist North Vietnamese State against a friendly and “pro-Western” (whatever that term may mean) South Vietnamese State which had called for our aid. Actually, the war was really a doomed but lengthy attempt by an imperial United States to suppress the wishes of the great bulk of the Vietnamese population and to maintain unpopular client dictators in the southern half of the country, by virtual genocide if necessary.
Americans are not accustomed to applying the term “imperialism” to the actions of the U.S. government, but the word is a particularly apt one. In its broadest sense, imperialism may be defined as aggression by State A against the people of country B, followed by the subsequent coercive maintenance of such foreign rule. In our example above, the permanent rule by the Graustark State over formerly northeastern Belgravia would be an example of such imperialism. But imperialism does not have to take the form of direct rule over the foreign population. In the twentieth century, the indirect form of “neoimperialism” has increasingly replaced the old-fashioned direct kind; it is more subtle and less visible but no less effective a form of imperialism. In this situation, the imperial State rules the foreign population through its effective control over native client-rulers. This version of modern Western imperialism has been trenchantly defined by the libertarian historian Leonard Liggio:
The imperialist power of the Western countries… imposed on the world’s peoples a double or reinforced system of exploitation imperialism by which the power of the Western governments maintains the local ruling class in exchange for the opportunity to superimpose Western exploitation upon existing exploitation by local states.3
This view of America as a long-time imperial world power has taken hold among historians in recent years as the result of compelling and scholarly work by a distinguished group of New Left revisionist historians inspired by Professor William Appleman Williams. But this was also the view of conservative as well as classical liberal “isolationists” during World War II and in the early days of the Cold War.4
The last anti-interventionist and anti-imperialist thrust of the old conservative and classical liberal isolationists came during the Korean War. Conservative George Morgenstern, chief editorial writer of the Chicago Tribune and author of the first revisionist book on Pearl Harbor, published an article in the right-wing Washington weekly Human Events, which detailed the grisly imperialist record of the United States government from the Spanish-American War down to Korea. Morgenstern noted that the “exalted nonsense” by which President McKinley had justified the war against Spain was “familiar to anyone who later attended the evangelical rationalizations of Wilson for intervening in the European war, of Roosevelt promising the millennium,…of Eisenhower treasuring the ‘crusade in Europe’ that somehow went sour, or of Truman, Stevenson, Paul Douglas or the New York Times preaching the holy war in Korea.”5
In a widely noted speech at the height of the American defeat in North Korea at the hands of the Chinese in late 1950, conservative isolationist Joseph P. Kennedy called for U.S. withdrawal from Korea. Kennedy proclaimed that “I naturally opposed Communism but I said if portions of Europe or Asia wish to go Communistic or even have Communism thrust upon them, we cannot stop it.” The result of the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan, Kennedy charged, was disaster a failure to purchase friends and a threat of land war in Europe or Asia. Kennedy warned that:
…half of this world will never submit to dictation by the other half…. What business is it of ours to support French colonial policy in Indo-China or to achieve Mr. Syngman Rhee’s concepts of democracy in Korea? Shall we now send the Marines into the mountains of Tibet to keep the Dalai Lama on his throne?
Economically, Kennedy added, we have been burdening ourselves with unnecessary debts as a consequence of Cold War policy. If we continue to weaken our economy “with lavish spending either on foreign nations or in foreign wars, we run the danger of precipitating another 1932 and of destroying the very system which we are trying to save.
Kennedy concluded that the only rational alternative for America is to scrap the Cold War foreign policy altogether: “to get out of Korea” and out of Berlin and Europe. The United States could not possibly contain Russian armies if they chose to march through Europe, and if Europe should then turn Communist, Communism “may break of itself as a unified force…. The more people that it will have to govern, the more necessary it becomes for those who govern to justify themselves to those being governed. The more peoples that are under its yoke, the greater are the possibilities of revolt.” And here, at a time when cold warriors were forecasting a world Communist monolith as an eternal fact of life, Joseph Kennedy cited Marshall Tito as pointing the way for the eventual breakup of the Communist world: thus, “Mao in China is not likely to take his orders from Stalin….”
Kennedy realized that “this policy will, of course, be criticized as appeasement. [But]… is it appeasement to withdraw from unwise commitments…. If it is wise in our interest not to make commitments that endanger our security, and this is appeasement, then I am for appeasement." Kennedy concluded that “the suggestions I make [would] conserve American lives for American ends, not waste them in the freezing hills of Korea or on the battlescarred plains of Western Germany.”6
One of the most trenchant and forceful attacks on American foreign policy to emerge from the Korean War was leveled by the veteran classical liberal journalist, Garet Garrett. Garrett began his pamphlet, The Rise of Empire (1952), by declaring, “We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire.” Explicitly linking this thesis with his notable pamphlet of the 1930s, The Revolution Was, which had denounced the advent of executive and statist tyranny within the republican form under the New Deal, Garrett once more saw a “revolution within the form” of the old constitutional republic. Garrett, for example, called Truman’s intervention in Korea without a declaration of war a “usurpation” of congressional power.
In his pamphlet, Garrett adumbrated the criteria, the hallmarks for the existence of Empire. The first is the dominance of the executive power, a dominance reflected in the President’s unauthorized intervention in Korea. The second is the subordination of domestic to foreign policy; the third, the “ascendancy of the military mind”; the fourth, a “system of satellite nations”; and the fifth, “a complex of vaunting and fear,” a vaunting of unlimited national might combined with a continuing fear, fear of the enemy, of the “barbarian,” and of the unreliability of the satellite allies. Garrett found each one of these criteria to apply fully to the United States.
Having discovered that the United States had developed all the hallmarks of empire, Garrett added that the United States, like previous empires, feels itself to be “a prisoner of history.” For beyond fear lies “collective security,” and the playing of the supposedly destined American role upon the world stage. Garrett concluded:
It is our turn.
Our turn to do what?
Our turn to assume the responsibilities of moral leadership in the world,
Our turn to maintain a balance of power against the forces of evil everywhere in Europe and Asia and Africa, in the Atlantic and in the Pacific, by air and by sea evil in this case being the Russian barbarian.
Our turn to keep the peace of the world.
Our turn to save civilization.
Our turn to serve mankind.
But this is the language of Empire. The Roman Empire never doubted that it was the defender of civilization. Its good intentions were peace, law and order. The Spanish Empire added salvation. The British Empire added the noble myth of the white man’s burden. We have added freedom and democracy. Yet the more that may be added to it the more it is the same language still. A language of power.7
War As the Health of the State
Many libertarians are uncomfortable with foreign policy matters and prefer to spend their energies either on fundamental questions of libertarian theory or on such “domestic” concerns as the free market or privatizing postal service or garbage disposal. Yet an attack on war or a warlike foreign policy is of crucial importance to libertarians. There are two important reasons. One has become a clich, but is all too true nevertheless: the overriding importance of preventing a nuclear holocaust. To all the long-standing reasons, moral and economic, against an interventionist foreign policy has now been added the imminent, ever-present threat of world destruction. If the world should be destroyed, all the other problems and all the other isms socialism, capitalism, liberalism, or libertarianism would be of no importance whatsoever. Hence the prime importance of a peaceful foreign policy and of ending the nuclear threat.
The other reason is that, apart from the nuclear menace, war, in the words of the libertarian Randolph Bourne, “is the health of the State.” War has always been the occasion of a great and usually permanent acceleration and intensification of State power over society. War is the great excuse for mobilizing all the energies and resources of the nation, in the name of patriotic rhetoric, under the aegis and dictation of the State apparatus. It is in war that the State really comes into its own: swelling in power, in number, in pride, in absolute dominion over the economy and the society. Society becomes a herd, seeking to kill its alleged enemies, rooting out and suppressing all dissent from the official war effort, happily betraying truth for the supposed public interest. Society becomes an armed camp, with the values and the morals as the libertarian Albert Jay Nock once phrased it of an “army on the march.”
It is particularly ironic that war always enables the State to rally the energies of its citizens under the slogan of helping it to defend the country against some bestial outside menace. For the root myth that enables the State to wax fat off war is the canard that war is a defense by the State of its subjects. The facts, however, are precisely the reverse. For if war is the health of the State, it is also its greatest danger. A State can only “die” by defeat in war or by revolution. In war, therefore, the State frantically mobilizes its subjects to fight for it against another State, under the pretext that it is fighting to defend them.8
In the history of the United States, war has generally been the main occasion for the often permanent intensification of the power of the State over society. In the War of 1812 against Great Britain, as we have indicated above, the modern inflationary fractional-reserve banking system first came into being on a large scale, as did protective tariffs, internal federal taxation, and a standing army and navy. And a direct consequence of the wartime inflation was the reestablishment of a central bank, the Second Bank of the United States. Virtually all of these statist policies and institutions continued permanently after the war was over. The Civil War and its virtual one-party system led to the permanent establishment of a neomercantilist policy of Big Government and the subsidizing of various big business interests through protective tariffs, huge land grants and other subsidies to railroads, federal excise taxation, and a federally controlled banking system. It also brought the first imposition of federal conscription and an income tax, setting dangerous precedents for the future. World War I brought the decisive and fateful turn from a relatively free and laissez-faire economy to the present system of corporate state monopoly at home and permanent global intervention abroad. The collectivist economic mobilization during the war, headed by War Industries Board Chairman Bernard Baruch, fulfilled the emerging dream of big business leaders and progressive intellectuals for a cartelized and monopolized economy planned by the federal government in cozy collaboration with big business leadership. And it was precisely this wartime collectivism that nurtured and developed a nationwide labor movement that would eagerly take its place as junior partner in the new corporate State economy. This temporary collectivism, furthermore, served as a permanent beacon and model for big business leaders and corporatist politicians as the kind of permanent peacetime economy that they would like to impose on the United States. As food czar, Secretary of Commerce, and later as President, Herbert C. Hoover helped bring this continuing monopolized statist economy into being, and the vision was fulfilled in a recrudescence of wartime agencies and even wartime personnel by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.9 World War I also brought a permanent Wilsonian global intervention abroad, the fastening of the newly imposed Federal Reserve System and a permanent income tax on society, high federal budgets, massive conscription, and intimate connections between economic boom, war contracts, and loans to Western nations.
World War II was the culmination and fulfillment of all these trends: Franklin D. Roosevelt finally fastened upon American life the heady promise of the Wilsonian domestic and foreign program: permanent partnership of Big Government, big business, and big unions; a continuing and ever-expanding military-industrial complex; conscription; continuing and accelerating inflation; and an endless and costly role as counterrevolutionary “policeman” for the entire world. The Roosevelt-Truman-Eisenhower-Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon-Ford-Carter world (and there is little substantive difference among any of these administrations) is “corporate liberalism,” the corporate State fulfilled.
It is particularly ironic that conservatives, at least in rhetoric supporters of a free-market economy, should be so complacent and even admiring of our vast military-industrial complex. There is no greater single distortion of the free market in present-day America. The bulk of our scientists and engineers has been diverted from basic research for civilian ends, from increasing productivity and the standard of living of consumers, into wasteful, inefficient, and nonproductive military and space boondoggles. These boondoggles are every bit as wasteful but infinitely more destructive than the vast pyramid building of the Pharaohs. It is no accident that Lord Keynes’s economics have proved to be the economics par excellence of the corporate liberal State. For Keynesian economists place equal approval upon all forms of government spending, whether on pyramids, missiles, or steel plants; by definition all of these expenditures swell the gross national product, regardless of how wasteful they may be. It is only recently that many liberals have begun to awaken to the evils of the waste, inflation, and militarism that Keynesian corporate liberalism has brought to America.
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As the scope of government spending military and civilian alike has widened, science and industry have been skewed more and more into unproductive goals and highly inefficient processes. The goal of satisfying consumers as efficiently as possible has been increasingly replaced by the currying of favors by government contractors, often in the form of highly wasteful “cost-plus” contracts. Politics, in field after field, has replaced economics in guiding the activities of industry. Furthermore, as entire industries and regions of the country have come to depend upon government and military contracts, a huge vested interest has been created in continuing the programs, heedless of whether they retain even the most threadbare excuse of military necessity. Our economic prosperity has been made to depend on continuing the narcotic of unproductive and antiproductive government spending.10
One of the most perceptive and prophetic critics of America’s entry into World War II was the classical liberal writer John T. Flynn. In his As We Go Marching, written in the midst of the war he had tried so hard to forestall, Flynn charged that the New Deal, culminating in its wartime embodiment, had finally established the corporate State that important elements of big business had been seeking since the turn of the twentieth century. “The general idea,” Flynn wrote, was “to reorder the society by making it a planned and coerced economy instead of a free one, in which business would be brought together into great guilds or an immense corporative structure, combining the elements of self rule and government supervision with a national economic policing system to enforce these decrees…. This, after all, is not so very far from what business had been talking about….”11
The New Deal had first attempted to create such a new society in the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, mighty engines of “regimentation” hailed by labor and business alike. Now the advent of World War II had reestablished this collectivist program “an economy supported by great streams of debt under complete control, with nearly all the planning agencies functioning with almost totalitarian power under a vast bureaucracy.” After the war, Flynn prophesied, the New Deal would attempt to expand this system permanently into international affairs. He wisely predicted that the great emphasis of vast governmental spending after the war would continue to be military, since this is the one form of government spending to which conservatives would never object, and which workers would also welcome for its creation of jobs. “Thus militarism is the one great glamorous public-works project upon which a variety of elements in the community can be brought into agreement.”12
Flynn predicted that America’s postwar policy would be “internationalist” in the sense of being imperialist. Imperialism “is, of course, international… in the sense that war is international,” and it will follow from the policy of militarism. “We will do what other countries have done; we will keep alive the fears of our people of the aggressive ambitions of other countries and we will ourselves embark upon imperialistic enterprises of our own.” Imperialism will ensure for the United States the existence of perpetual “enemies,” of waging what Charles A. Beard was later to call “perpetual war for perpetual peace.” For, Flynn pointed out, “we have managed to acquire bases all over the world…. There is no part of the world where trouble can break out where… we cannot claim that our interests are menaced. Thus menaced there must remain when the war is over a continuing argument in the hands of the imperialists for a vast naval establishment and a huge army ready to attack anywhere or to resist an attack from all the enemies we shall be obliged to have.”13
One of the most moving portrayals of the change in American life wrought by World War II was written by John Dos Passos, a lifelong radical and individualist who was pushed from “extreme left” to “extreme right” by the march of the New Deal. Dos Passos expressed his bitterness in his postwar novel, The Grand Design:
At home we organized bloodbanks and civilian defense and imitated the rest of the world by setting up concentration camps (only we called them relocation centers) and stuffing into them
American citizens of Japanese ancestry… without benefit of habeas corpus…
The President of the United States talked the sincere democrat and so did the members of Congress. In the Administration there were devout believers in civil liberty. “Now we’re busy fighting a war; we’ll deploy all four freedoms later on,” they said….
War is a time of Caesars….
And the American people were supposed to say thank you for the century of the Common Man turned over for relocation behind barbed wire so help him God.
We learned. There are things we learned to do
but we have not learned, in spite of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the great debates at Richmond and Philadelphia
how to put power over the lives of men into the hands of one man
and to make him use it wisely.14
Soviet Foreign Policy
In a previous chapter, we have already dealt with the problem of national defense, abstracting from the question of whether the Russians are really hell-bent upon a military attack upon the United States. Since World War II, American military and foreign policy, at least rhetorically, has been based upon the assumption of a looming threat of Russian attack an assumption that has managed to gain public approval for global American intervention and for scores of billions in military expenditures. But how realistic, how well grounded, is this assumption?
First, there is no doubt that the Soviets, along with all other Marxist-Leninists, would like to replace all existing social systems by Communist regimes. But such a sentiment, of course, scarcely implies any sort of realistic threat of attack just as an ill wish in private life can hardly be grounds for realistic expectation of imminent aggression. On the contrary, Marxism-Leninism itself believes that a victory of communism is inevitable not on the wings of outside force, but rather from accumulating tensions and “contradictions” within each society. So Marxism-Leninism considers internal revolution (or, in the current “Eurocommunist” version, democratic change) for installing communism to be inevitable. At the same time, it holds any coercive external imposition of communism to be at best suspect, and at worst disruptive and counterproductive of genuine organic social change. Any idea of “exporting” communism to other countries on the backs of the Soviet military is totally contradictory to Marxist-Leninist theory.
We are not saying, of course, that Soviet leaders will never do anything contrary to Marxist-Leninist theory. But to the extent that they act as ordinary rulers of a strong Russian nation-state, the case for an imminent Soviet threat to the United States is gravely weakened. For the sole alleged basis of such a threat, as conjured up by our cold warriors, is the Soviet Union’s alleged devotion to Marxist-Leninist theory and to its ultimate goal of world Communist triumph. If the Soviet rulers were simply to act as Russian dictators consulting only their own nation-state interests, then the entire basis for treating the Soviets as a uniquely diabolic source of imminent military assault crumbles to the ground.
When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, they had given little thought to a future Soviet foreign policy, for they were convinced that Communist revolution would soon follow in the advanced industrial countries of Western Europe. When such hopes were dashed after the end of World War I, Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks adopted the theory of “peaceful coexistence” as the basic foreign policy for a Communist State. The idea was this: as the first successful Communist movement, Soviet Russia would serve as a beacon for and supporter of other Communist parties throughout the world. But the Soviet State qua State would devote itself to peaceful relations with all other countries, and would not attempt to export communism through inter-State warfare. The idea here was not just to follow Marxist-Leninist theory, but was the highly practical course of holding the survival of the existing Communist State as the foremost goal of foreign policy: that is, never to endanger the Soviet State by courting inter-State warfare. Other countries would be expected to become Communist by their own internal-processes.
Thus, fortuitously, from a mixture of theoretical and practical grounds of their own, the Soviets arrived early at what libertarians consider to be the only proper and principled foreign policy. As time went on, furthermore, this policy was reinforced by a “conservatism” that comes upon all movements after they have acquired and retained power for any length of time, in which the interests of keeping power over one’s nation-state begins to take more and more precedence over the initial ideal of world revolution. This increasing conservatism under Stalin and his successors strengthened and reinforced the nonaggressive, “peaceful coexistence” policy.
The Bolsheviks, indeed, began their success story by being literally the only political party in Russia to clamor, from the beginning of World War I, for an immediate Russian pullout from the war. Indeed, they went further and courted enormous unpopularity among the public by calling for the defeat of “their own” government (“revolutionary defeatism”). When Russia began to suffer enormous losses, accompanied by massive military desertions from the front, and the war became extremely unpopular, the Bolsheviks, guided by Lenin, continued to be the only party to call for an immediate end to the war the other parties still vowing to fight the Germans to the end. When the Bolsheviks took power, Lenin, over the hysterical opposition of even the majority of the Bolshevik central committee itself, insisted on concluding the “appeasement” peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. Here, Lenin succeeded in taking Russia out of the war, even at the price of granting to the victorious German army all the parts of the Russian empire which it then occupied (including White Russia and the Ukraine). Thus, Lenin and the Bolsheviks began their reign by being not simply a peace party, but virtually a “peace-at-any-price” party.
After World War I and Germany’s defeat, the new Polish State attacked Russia and succeeded in grabbing for itself a large chunk of White Russia and the Ukraine. Taking advantage of the turmoil and of the civil war within Russia at the end of the war, various other national groups Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania decided to break away from the pre-World War I Russian empire and declare national independence. Now, while Leninism pays lip service to national self-determination, to Soviet rulers, from the very beginning, it was clear that the boundaries of the old Russian State were supposed to remain intact. The Red Army reconquered the Ukraine, not only from the Whites, but also from the Ukrainian nationalists, and from the indigenously Ukrainian anarchist army of Nestor Makhno as well. For the rest, it was clear that Russia, like Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, was a “revisionist” country vis–vis the postwar settlement at Versailles. That is, the lodestar of both Russian and German foreign policy was to recapture their pre-World War I borders what they both considered the “true” borders of their respective States. It should be noted that every political party or tendency in Russia and Germany, whether ruling the State or in opposition, agreed with this aim of full restoration of national territory.
But, it should be emphasized, while Germany under Hitler took strong measures to recapture the lost lands, the cautious and conservative Soviet rulers did absolutely nothing. Only after the Stalin-Hitler pact and the German conquest of Poland did the Soviets, now facing no danger in doing so, recapture their lost territories. Specifically, the Russians repossessed Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as well as the old Russian lands of White Russia and the Ukraine that had been eastern Poland. And they were able to do so without a fight. The old pre-World War I Russia had now been restored with the exception of Finland. But Finland was prepared to fight. Here the Russians demanded not the reincorporation of Finland as a whole, but only of parts of the Karelian Isthmus which were ethnically Russian. When the Finns refused this demand, the “Winter War” (1939–1940) between Russia and Finland ensued, which ended with the Finns conceding only Russian Karelia.15
On June 22, 1941, Germany, triumphant over everyone but England in the West, launched a sudden, massive, and unprovoked assault on Soviet Russia, an act of aggression aided and abetted by the other pro-German States in Eastern Europe: Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Finland. This German and allied invasion of Russia soon became one of the pivotal facts in the history of Europe since that date. So unprepared was Stalin for the assault, so trusting was he in the rationality of the German-Russian accord for peace in Eastern Europe, that he had allowed the Russian army to fall into disrepair. So unwarlike was Stalin, in fact, that Germany was almost able to conquer Russia in the face of enormous odds. Since Germany otherwise would have been able to retain control of Europe indefinitely, it was Hitler who was led by the siren call of anti-Communist ideology to throw away a rational and prudent course and launch what was to be the beginning of his ultimate defeat.
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The mythology of the cold warriors often concedes that the Soviets were not internationally aggressive until World War II indeed, they are compelled to assert this point, since most cold warriors heartily approve the World War II alliance of the United States with Russia against Germany. It was during and immediately after the war, they assert, that Russia became expansionist and drove its way into Eastern Europe.
What this charge overlooks is the central fact of the German and associated assault upon Russia in June 1941. There is no doubt that Germany and her allies launched this war. Hence, in order to defeat the invaders, it was obviously necessary for the Russians to roll back the invading armies and conquer Germany and the other warring countries of Eastern Europe. It is easier to make a case for the United States being expansionist for conquering and occupying Italy and part of Germany than it is for Russia’s actions after all, the United States was never directly attacked by the Germans.
During World War II, the United States, Britain, and Russia, the three major Allies, had agreed on joint three-power military occupation of all the conquered territories. The United States was the first to break the agreement during the war by allowing Russia no role whatever in the military occupation of Italy. Despite this serious breach of agreement, Stalin displayed his consistent preference for the conservative interests of the Russian nation-state over cleaving to revolutionary ideology by repeatedly betraying indigenous Communist movements. In order to preserve peaceful relations between Russia and the West, Stalin consistently tried to hold back the success of various Communist movements. He was successful in France and Italy, where Communist partisan groups might easily have seized power in the wake of the German military retreat; but Stalin ordered them not to do so, and instead persuaded them to join coalition regimes headed by anti-Communist parties. In both countries, the Communists were soon ousted from the coalition. In Greece, where the Communist partisans almost did seize power, Stalin irretrievably weakened them by abandoning them and urging them to turn over power to newly invading British troops.
In other countries, particularly ones where Communist partisan groups were strong, the Communists flatly refused Stalin’s requests. In Yugoslavia, the victorious Tito refused Stalin’s demand that Tito subordinate himself to the anti-Communist Mihailovich in a governing coalition; Mao refused a similar Stalin demand that he subordinate himself to Chiang Kai-shek. There is no doubt that these rejections were the beginning of the later extraordinarily important schisms within the world Communist movement.
Russia, therefore, governed Eastern Europe as military occupier after winning a war launched against her. Russia’s initial goal was not to communize Eastern Europe on the backs of the Soviet army. Her goal was to gain assurances that Eastern Europe would not be the broad highway for an assault on Russia, as it had been three times in half a century the last time in a war in which over twenty million Russians had been slaughtered. In short, Russia wanted countries on her border which would not be anti-Communist in a military sense, and which would not be used as a springboard for another invasion. Political conditions in Eastern Europe were such that only in more modernized Finland did non-Communist politicians exist whom Russia could trust to pursue a peaceful line in foreign affairs. And in Finland, this situation was the work of one far-seeing statesman, the agrarian leader Julio Paasikivi. It was because Finland, then and since, has firmly followed the “Paasikivi line” that Russia was willing to pull its troops out of Finland and not to insist on the communization of that country even though it had fought two wars with Finland in the previous six years.
Even in the other Eastern European countries, Russia clung to coalition governments for several years after the war and only fully communized them in 1948 after three years of unrelenting American Cold War pressure to try to oust Russia from these countries. In other areas, Russia readily pulled its troops out of Austria and out of Azerbaijan.
The cold warriors find it difficult to explain Russian actions in Finland. If Russia is always hell-bent to impose Communist rule wherever it can, why the “soft line” on Finland? The only plausible explanation is that its motivation is security for the Russian nation-state against attack, with the success of world communism playing a very minor role in its scale of priorities.
In fact, the cold warriors have never been able either to explain or absorb the fact of deep schisms in the world Communist movement. For if all Communists are governed by a common ideology, then every Communist everywhere should be part of one unified monolith, and one which, given the early success of the Bolsheviks, would make them subordinates or “agents” of Moscow. If Communists are mainly motivated by their bond of Marxism-Leninism, how come the deep China-Russia split, in which Russia, for example, keeps one million troops at the ready on the China-Russia frontier? How come the enmity between the Yugoslav and Albanian Communist States? How come the actual military conflict between the Cambodian and Vietnamese Communists? The answer, of course, is that once a revolutionary movement seizes State power, it begins very quickly to take on the attributes of a ruling class with a class interest in retaining State power. The world revolution begins to pale, in their outlook, to insignificance. And since State elites can and do have conflicting interests in power and wealth, it is not surprising that inter-Communist conflicts have become endemic.
Since their victory over German and associated military aggression in World War II, the Soviets have continued to be conservative in their military policy. Their only use of troops has been to defend their territory in the Communist bloc, rather than to extend it further. Thus, when Hungary threatened to leave the Soviet bloc in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets intervened with troops reprehensibly, to be sure, but still acting in a conservative and defensive rather than expansionist manner. (The Soviets apparently gave considerable thought to invading Yugoslavia when Tito took it out of the Soviet bloc, but were deterred by the formidable qualities for guerrilla fighting of the Yugoslav army.) In no case has Russia used troops to extend its bloc or to conquer more territories.
Professor Stephen F. Cohen, director of the program in Russian Studies at Princeton, has recently delineated the nature of Soviet conservatism in foreign affairs:
That a system born in revolution and still professing revolutionary ideas should have become one of the most conservative in the world may seem preposterous. But all those factors variously said to be most important in Soviet politics have contributed to this conservatism: the bureaucratic tradition of Russian government before the revolution; the subsequent bureaucratization of Soviet life, which proliferated conservative norms and created an entrenched class of zealous defenders of bureaucratic privilege; the geriatric nature of the present-day elite; and even the official ideology, whose thrust turned many years ago from the creation of a new social order to extolling the existing one…
In other words, the main thrust of Soviet conservatism today is to preserve what it already has at home and abroad, not to jeopardize it. A conservative government is, of course, capable of dangerous militaristic actions, as we saw in Czechoslovakia… but these are acts of imperial protectionism, a kind of defensive militarism, not a revolutionary or aggrandizing one. It is certainly true that for most Soviet leaders, as presumably for most American leaders, detente is not an altruistic endeavor but the pursuit of national interests. In one sense, this is sad. But it is probably also true that mutual self-interest provides a more durable basis for detente than lofty, and finally empty, altruism.16
Similarly, as impeccable an anti-Soviet source as former CIA Director William Colby finds the overwhelming concern of the Soviets to be the defensive goal of avoiding another catastrophic invasion of their territory. As Colby testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
You will find a concern, even a paranoia, over their [the Soviets’] own security. You will find the determination that they shall never again be invaded and put through the kinds of turmoil that they have been under and many different invasions… I think that they… want to overprotect themselves to make certain that that does not happen…17
Even the Chinese, for all their bluster, have pursued a conservative and pacific foreign policy. Not only have they failed to invade Taiwan, recognized internationally as part of China, but they have even allowed the small offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu to remain in Chiang Kai-shek’s hands. No moves have been made against the British and Portuguese-occupied enclaves of Hong Kong and Macao. And China even took the unusual step of declaring a unilateral cease-fire and withdrawal of forces to its border after having triumphed easily over Indian arms in their escalated border war.18
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Avoiding A Priori History
There is still one thesis common to Americans and even to some libertarians that may prevent them from absorbing the analysis of this chapter: the myth propounded by Woodrow Wilson that democracies must inevitably be peace-loving while dictatorships are inevitably warlike. This thesis was of course highly convenient for covering Wilson’s own culpability for dragging America into a needless and monstrous war. But apart from that, there is simply no evidence for this assumption. Many dictatorships have turned inward, cautiously confining themselves to preying on their own people: examples range from premodern Japan to Communist Albania to innumerable dictatorships in the Third World today. Uganda’s Idi Amin, perhaps the most brutal and repressive dictator in today’s world, shows no signs whatever of jeopardizing his regime by invading neighboring countries. On the other hand, such an indubitable democracy as Great Britain spread its coercive imperialism across the globe during the nineteenth and earlier centuries.
The theoretical reason why focussing on democracy or dictatorship misses the point is that States all States rule their population and decide whether or not to make war. And all States, whether formally a democracy or dictatorship or some other brand of rule, are run by a ruling elite. Whether or not these elites, in any particular case, will make war upon another State is a function of a complex interweaving web of causes, including temperament of the rulers, the strength of their enemies, the inducements for war, public opinion. While public opinion has to be gauged in either case, the only real difference between a democracy and a dictatorship on making war is that in the former more propaganda must be beamed at one’s subjects to engineer their approval. Intensive propaganda is necessary in any case as we can see by the zealous opinion-moulding behavior of all modern warring States. But the democratic State must work harder and faster. And also the democratic State must be more hypocritical in using rhetoric designed to appeal to the values of the masses: justice, freedom, national interest, patriotism, world peace, etc. So in democratic States, the art of propagandizing their subjects must be a bit more sophisticated and refined. But this, as we have seen, is true of all governmental decisions, not just war or peace. For all governments but especially democratic governments must work hard at persuading their subjects that all of their deeds of oppression are really in their subjects’ best interests.
What we have said about democracy and dictatorship applies equally to the lack of correlation between degrees of internal freedom in a country and its external aggressiveness. Some States have proved themselves perfectly capable of allowing a considerable degree of freedom internally while making aggressive war abroad; other States have shown themselves capable of totalitarian rule internally while pursuing a pacific foreign policy. The examples of Uganda, Albania, China, Great Britain, etc., apply equally well in this comparison.
In short, libertarians and other Americans must guard against a priori history: in this case, against the assumption that, in any conflict, the State which is more democratic or allows more internal freedom is necessarily or even presumptively the victim of aggression by the more dictatorial or totalitarian State. There is simply no historical evidence whatever for such a presumption. In deciding on relative rights and wrongs, on relative degrees of aggression in any dispute in foreign affairs, there is no substitute for a detailed empirical, historical investigation of the dispute itself. It should occasion no great surprise, then, if such an investigation concludes that a democratic and relatively far freer United States has been more aggressive and imperialistic in foreign affairs than a relatively totalitarian Russia or China. Conversely, hailing a State for being less aggressive in foreign affairs in no way implies that the observer is in any way sympathetic to that State’s internal record. It is vital indeed, it is literally a life-and-death matter that Americans be able to look as coolly and clear-sightedly, as free from myth at their government’s record in foreign affairs as they are increasingly able to do in domestic politics. For war and a phony “external threat” have long been the chief means by which the State wins back the loyalty of its subjects. As we have seen, war and militarism were the gravediggers of classical liberalism; we must not allow the State to get away with this ruse ever again.19
A Foreign Policy Program
To conclude our discussion, the primary plank of a libertarian foreign policy program for America must be to call upon the United States to abandon its policy of global interventionism: to withdraw immediately and completely, militarily and politically, from Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, from everywhere. The cry among American libertarians should be for the United States to withdraw now, in every way that involves the U.S. government. The United States should dismantle its bases, withdraw its troops, stop its incessant political meddling, and abolish the CIA. It should also end all foreign aid which is simply a device to coerce the American taxpayer into subsidizing American exports and favored foreign States, all in the name of “helping the starving peoples of the world.” In short, the United States government should withdraw totally to within its own boundaries and maintain a policy of strict political “isolation” or neutrality everywhere.
The spirit of this ultra-“isolationist,” libertarian foreign policy was expressed during the 1930s by retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley D. Butler. In the fall of 1936, General Butler proposed a now-forgotten constitutional amendment, an amendment which would delight libertarian hearts if it were once again to be taken seriously. Here is Butler’s proposed constitutional amendment in its entirety:
- The removal of members of the land armed forces from within the continental limits of the United States and the Panama Canal Zone for any cause whatsoever is hereby prohibited.
- The vessels of the United States Navy, or of the other branches of the armed service, are hereby prohibited from steaming, for any reason whatsoever except on an errand of mercy, more than five hundred miles from our coast.
- Aircraft of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps is hereby prohibited from flying, for any reason whatsoever, more than seven hundred and fifty miles beyond the coast of the United States.20
Strict isolationism and neutrality, then, is the first plank of a libertarian foreign policy, in addition to recognizing the chief responsibility of the American State for the Cold War and for its entry into all the other conflicts of this century. Given isolation, however, what sort of arms policy should the United States pursue? Many of the original isolationists also advocated a policy of “arming to the teeth”; but such a program, in a nuclear age, continues the grave risk of global holocaust, a mightily armed State, and the enormous waste and distortions that unproductive government spending imposes on the economy.
Even from a purely military point of view, the United States and the Soviet Union have the power to annihilate each other many times over; and the United States could easily preserve all of its nuclear retaliatory power by scrapping every armament except Polaris submarines which are invulnerable and armed with nuclear missiles with multi-targeted warheads. Bur for the libertarian, or indeed for anyone worried about massive nuclear destruction of human life, even disarming down to Polaris submarines is hardly a satisfactory settlement. World peace would continue to rest on a shaky “balance of terror,” a balance that could always be upset by accident or by the actions of madmen in power. No; for anyone to become secure from the nuclear menace it is vital to achieve worldwide nuclear disarmament, a disarmament toward which the SALT agreement of 1972 and the SALT II negotiations are only a very hesitant beginning.
Since it is in the interest of all people, and even of all State rulers, not to be annihilated in a nuclear holocaust, this mutual self-interest provides a firm, rational basis for agreeing upon and carrying out a policy of joint and worldwide “general and complete disarmament” of nuclear and other modern weapons of mass destruction. Such joint disarmament has been feasible ever since the Soviet Union accepted Western proposals to this effect on May 10, 1955 an acceptance which only gained a total and panicky Western abandonment of their own proposals!21
The American version has long held that while we have wanted disarmament plus inspection, the Soviets persist in wanting only disarmament without inspection. The actual picture is very different: since May 1955, the Soviet Union has favored any and all disarmament and unlimited inspection of whatever has been disarmed; whereas the Americans have advocated unlimited inspection but accompanied by little or no disarmament! This was the burden of President Eisenhower’s spectacular but basically dishonest “open skies” proposal, which replaced the disarmament proposals we quickly withdrew after the Soviet acceptance of May 1955. Even now that open skies have been essentially achieved through American and Russian space satellites, the 1972 controversial SALT agreement involves no actual disarmament, only limitations on further nuclear expansion. Furthermore, since American strategic might throughout the world rests on nuclear and air power, there is good reason to believe in Soviet sincerity in any agreement to liquidate nuclear missiles or offensive bombers.
Not only should there be joint disarmament of nuclear weapons, but also of all weapons capable of being fired massively across national borders; in particular bombers. It is precisely such weapons of mass destruction as the missile and the bomber which can never be pinpoint-targeted to avoid their use against innocent civilians. In addition, the total abandonment of missiles and bombers would enforce upon every government, especially including the American, a policy of isolation and neutrality. Only if governments are deprived of weapons of offensive warfare will they be forced to pursue a policy of isolation and peace. Surely, in view of the black record of all governments, including the American, it would be folly to leave these harbingers of mass murder and destruction in their hands, and to trust them never to employ those monstrous weapons. If it is illegitimate for government ever to employ such weapons, why should they be allowed to remain, fully loaded, in their none-too-clean hands?
The contrast between the conservative and the libertarian positions on war and American foreign policy was starkly expressed in an interchange between William F. Buckley, Jr., and the libertarian Ronald Hamowy in the early days of the contemporary libertarian movement. Scorning the libertarian critique of conservative foreign policy postures, Buckley wrote: “There is room in any society for those whose only concern is for tablet-keeping; but let them realize that it is only because of the conservatives’ disposition to sacrifice in order to withstand the [Soviet] enemy, that they are able to enjoy their monasticism, and pursue their busy little seminars on whether or not to demunicipalize the garbage collectors.” To which Hamowy trenchantly replied:
It might appear ungrateful of me, but I must decline to thank Mr. Buckley for saving my life. It is, further, my belief that if his viewpoint prevails and that if he persists in his unsolicited aid the result will almost certainly be my death (and that of tens of millions of others) in nuclear war or my imminent imprisonment as an “un-American”….
I hold strongly to my personal liberty and it is precisely because of this that I insist that no one has the right to force his decisions on another. Mr. Buckley chooses to be dead rather than Red. So do I. But I insist that all men be allowed to make that decision for themselves. A nuclear holocaust will make it for them.22
To which we might add that anyone who wishes is entitled to make the personal decision of “better dead than Red” or “give me liberty or give me death.” What he is not entitled to do is to make these decisions for others, as the prowar policy of conservatism would do. What conservatives are really saying is: “Better them dead than Red,” and “give me liberty or give them death” which are the battle cries not of noble heroes but of mass murderers.
In one sense alone is Mr. Buckley correct: in the nuclear age it is more important to worry about war and foreign policy than about demunicipalizing garbage disposal, as important as the latter may be. But if we do so, we come ineluctably to the reverse of the Buckleyite conclusion. We come to the view that since modern air and missile weapons cannot be pinpoint-targeted to avoid harming civilians, their very existence must be condemned. And nuclear and air disarmament becomes a great and overriding good to be pursued for its own sake, more avidly even than the demunicipalization of garbage.
4 For “New Left” revisionists, see, in addition to Williams himself, the work of Gabriel Kolko, Lloyd Gardner, Stephen E. Ambrose, N. Gordon Levin, Jr., Walter LaFeber, Robert F. Smith, Barton Bernstein, and Ronald Radosh. Coming to similar conclusions from far different revisionist traditions were Charles A. Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes, the libertarian James J. Martin, and classical liberals John T. Flynn and Garet Garrett.
Ronald Radosh, in his Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (New York: Simon & Schuster 1975) has appreciatively portrayed the conservative isolationist opposition to American intervention in World War II. In numerous articles and in his Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1978), Justus D. Doenecke has carefully and sympathetically analyzed the sentiment of World War II isolationists in confronting the early Cold War. A call for a common anti-interventionist and anti-imperialist movement by Left and Right can be found in Carl Oglesby and Richard Shaull, Containment and Change (New York: Macmillan, 1967). For an annotated bibliography of the writings of isolationists, see Doenecke, The Literature of Isolationism (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Ralph Myles, 1972).
5 George Morgenstern, “The Past Marches On,” Human Events (April 22, 1953). The revisionist work on Pearl Harbor was Morgenstern, Pearl Harbor: Story of a Secret War (New York: Devin-Adair 1947). For more on the conservative isolationists and their critique of the Cold War, see Murray N. Rothbard, “The Foreign Policy of the Old Right,” Journal of Libertarian Studies (Winter 1978).
6 Joseph P. Kennedy, “Present Policy is Politically and Morally Bankrupt,” Vital Speeches (January 1, 1951), pp. 170–73.
7 Garet Garrett, The People’s Pottage (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1953), pp. 158–59, 129–174. For more expressions of conservative or classical liberal anti-imperialist critiques of the Cold War, see Doenecke, Not to the Swift, p. 79.
8 For more on a libertarian theory of foreign policy, see Murray N. Rothbard, “War, Peace and the State,” in Egalitarianism As A Revolt Against Nature and other Essays (Washington, D.C.: Libertarian Review Press, 1974) pp. 7080.
9 Numerous revisionist historians have recently developed this interpretation of twentieth-century American history. In particular, see the works of, among others, Gabriel Kolko, James Weinstein, Robert Wiebe, Robert D. Cuff, William E. Leuchtenburg, Ellis D. Hawley, Melvin I. Urofsky, Joan Hoff Wilson, Ronald Radosh, Jerry Israel, David Eakins, and Paul Conkin again, as in foreign policy revisionism, under the inspiration of William Appleman Williams. A series of essays using this approach may be found in Ronald Radosh and Murray N. Rothbard, eds., A New History of Leviathan (New York: Dutton, 1972).
10 On the economic distortions imposed by the military-industrial policies, see Seymour Melman, ed., The War Economy of the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971).
12 Ibid., pp. 198, 201, 207.
13 Ibid., pp. 212–13, 225–26.
15 For an illuminating view of the Russo-Finnish conflict, see Max Jakobson, The Diplomacy of the Winter War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961).
16 Stephen F. Cohen, “Why Detente Can Work,” Inquiry (December 19, 1977), pp. 14–15.
17 Quoted in Richard J. Barnet, “The Present Danger: American Security and the U.S.-Soviet Military Balance,” Libertarian Review (November 1977), p. 12.
18 See Neville Maxwell, India’s China War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970). Neither is China’s reconquest and suppression of national rebellion in Tibet a valid point against our thesis. For Chiang Kai-shek as well as all other Chinese have for many generations considered Tibet as part of Greater China, and China was here acting in the same conservative nation-state manner as we have seen guiding the Soviets.
19 For a critique of recent attempts by cold warriors to revive the bogey of a Soviet military threat, see Barnet, The Present Danger.
20 The Woman’s Home Companion (September 1936), p. 4. Reprinted in Mauritz A. Hallgren, The Tragic Fallacy (New York: Knopf, 1937), p. 194n.
21 On the details of the shameful Western record in these negotiations, and as a corrective to the portrayals in the American press, see Philip Noel-Baker, The Arms Race (New York: Oceana Publications, 1958).
Murray N. Rothbard (19261995) was dean of the Austrian School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic vice president of the Mises Institute. He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The Rothbard-Rockwell Report, and appointed Lew as his literary executor.