The Wilsonian Legacy

An enthusiasm for military adventures is by no means limited to either pole of our political spectrum. At least since the First World War, and America’s entry on to the international scene as a world power, our foreign relations have been characterized by a missionary spirit that intermittently turns belligerent. And this spirit has hardly been restricted to a single national party.

Perhaps I should indicate before proceeding further what seems to me an at least minimally justifiable reason for applying force. Those who are defending their homeland or region from invasion are taking up arms for good reason. This would pertain to a wide range of situations, whether we’re describing the Spanish guerrillas who resisted Napoleon’s occupation of Spain or local residents and soldiers who tried to keep Sherman’s army from overrunning and sacking Georgia and South Carolina. In neither of these cases were the defenders choosing to make war on others. They were fighting defensively and were certainly not seeking to brutalize or kick around unwilling subjects. I am also not targeting here the attitudes of a traditional military class. Military elites have been inculcated with martial values and a sense of service. This kind of training may or may not deserve our praise, depending on how it’s applied, but military classes are not the subject of today’s comments.

Encounters: My Life wi... Paul Gottfried Best Price: $5.20 Buy New $5.60 (as of 08:10 UTC - Details) What I am looking at is the messianic depiction of the US as the bearer of a world mission that we are obliged to pursue in the face of opposition both domestic and foreign. When I was in college studying American history, “mainstream” historians presented the Civil War, World War One and World War Two as fortunate occasions for spreading our “democratic principles.” The US entered wars and fought them to their bloody end, or so I was told, in order to advance universal ideals, like making the “world safe for democracy” or undertaking “a war to end all wars.” There is also a widespread notion among our foreign policy establishment that our statecraft is “amoral” or “immoral” unless it is firmly tied to the goal of making others live like us, that is, espousing those values that our foreign policy elites and our national media would like other to adopt. Democracy is also defined by whatever stage of political development the US has reached at a particular time. According to Hillary Clinton and The New Republic, for example, we can only pursue foreign policy morally if we fight for current feminist goals. For Republicans it is also necessary to bring others the benefit of global capitalism while luring or pushing them into alliances with our government.

According to neoconservative policy expert James Kirchik, fighting for democracy against the fascist tyrant Vladimir Putin also requires that we bestow on Russians all the advances in gay rights that we’ve enacted in the US. In Foreign Policy Kirchik insists that we push back hard against Putin, who calls for the “protection of traditional values from the forces of cosmopolitanism and post-nationalism.” Kirchik scolds Trump’s supporters for collaborating with a reactionary Russian government, against which we’ve hesitated to take a sufficiently hard line.

This unfriendly stance toward Russia and other designated enemies is not characteristic of the Left exclusively. Indeed some of the most outspoken critics of this position like Stephen Cohen and Glenn Greenwald, have themselves come from the Left. All the same, the historical Left and even more, the present American conservative establishment take an aggressive approach to international relations, because of a shared passion to impose everywhere their preferred values. A quintessential statement of this tendency is in Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, a book that only in contemporary America would be proclaimed a “conservative classic.” According to Bloom: “And when we Americans speak seriously about politics, we mean that our principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable. World War II was really an educational experiment undertaken to force those who do not accept these principles to do so.” One might infer from this that the over 400,000 German and other civilians who were eradicated in terror bombing in 1944 and 1945, were just students in an “educational experiment” intended to enhance their appreciation of human rights.

This form of pedagogy would seem strange to anyone who didn’t share Bloom’s global democratic obsessions. It is a quirk that prevails among the millions of improperly named “American conservatives” who gobbled up Bloom’s teachings and who provided him with astounding book sales. And his human rights-belligerence irritates even those of us who think the American government was right in working to remove the Nazi government in Germany, something, by the way, that could have been done without demanding “unconditional surrender,” devastating Central Europe and handing over Eastern Europe to Stalinist tyranny. If the US, moreover, had played a genuine peacemaker role in World War One, without joining the Allies to defeat the Central Powers and inflict a vindictive peace, it would not have been necessary to intervene against the brutally expansionist Third Reich.

Indeed by the summer of 1917, according to the emeritus professor of contemporary history at the Sorbonne, Georges Henri Soutou, the French and Germans were negotiating a peace, which the French were free to reject once American troops arrived. Please note that even before the US entered a war that would exact over 100,000 American lives and many times that number in casualties, this country was by far the world’s major industrial power. No matter which side in Europe dragged itself to the finish line first after losing millions of lives, American industrial and economic preeminence would have been secure. The US needed trading partners on both sides of the conflict. It had no national interest (if I may use that amoral term) in seeing one side crush the other.

I raise these points because it astonishes me that our neoconservative publicists defend American involvement in World War One as something we had to do in order to check the German autocratic threat to our “democratic values.” This particular position resonates well with, among others, a certain type of British Tory, perhaps best exemplified by the late Margaret Thatcher, who never forgave the Kaiser for the Great War. Thatcher seems to have forgotten that the British foreign minister Edward Grey and a number of his cabinet members, plus the British ambassadors to France and Russia, all played key roles in the alliance system that led to the blowup. Every major belligerent, as Harry Elmer Barnes correctly pointed out in the 1920s and Christopher Clark more recently, contributed significantly to the disaster of 1914.

The US might have contributed to a fair peace but unfortunately never tried to negotiate honestly. Our government was pro-British from the outset, for cultural reasons and because British propagandists were much better at their work than their glaringly inept German and Austrian counterparts. But a curious feature of the pro-British interventionists was the cooperation of two groups of partisans that were equally determined to push us into war.  First were the self-identified Progressives, like Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey, many writing for the very early New Republic. This crowd saw American intervention as a path for creating a social democratic public administration, while fighting internationally for democracy. Libertarian economist Murray Rothbard has written a book and a number of relevant articles on the pivotal role played by these reformers. Eventually they teamed up with liberal Protestant theologians, who identified America’s struggle on the side of England as a providential plan. Our entry into the European conflict was supposedly integral to creating God’s kingdom on Earth.

Second among the interventionists were members of our patrician class, like Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, Nicholas Murray Butler, A. Lawrence Lowell and many Anglophile Southern Senators. This group happily recycled the language of Progressive interventionists, for their own purpose. They too presented the struggle as one between democracy and autocracy and one that would help spread our enlightened political doctrines.  War advocates like Lodge and Lowell, who were passionately pro-British and proud of their British ancestry, understood the PR value of appealing to universal ideals. They perceived no contradiction between proclaiming a crusade for democracy and their vigorous support for immigration restriction at home. After all, both their wartime interventionism and their efforts to restrict immigration were aimed at preserving things British.

Patrician interventionists bestowed on us another legacy that outlasted the early twentieth century. They founded the Council for Foreign Relations in 1921, which has helped maintain liberal internationalism as the cornerstone of American foreign policy.   Among high placed foreign policy advisers, being for “democracy” has served as the basis for distinguishing friends from enemies. Last week I learned from our media that the “other democracies” supported our efforts to get rid of Nicolas Maduro as president of Venezuela and to replace him with Juan Guaido. Allegedly “authoritarian states,” which include Bolivia and Mexico as well as Russia and China, side with Maduro, because they’re against democracy and human rights.

Although there is no sound reason to defend Maduro’s gross mismanagement of his country, one should note that there are competing interests here. Those who back Maduro have motives other than their alleged membership in the Kingdom of Darkness. The Russians and Chinese loaned Maduro tens of billions of dollars and expect to be getting something in return. Other countries are upset by the obtrusive role played by los Norteamericanos in isolating the Venezuelan president. The plan that John Bolton has devised for sending 5,000 American soldiers into harm’s way to overthrow the Venezuelan regime could get sticky, particularly if the Venezuelan military remains loyal to their present leader.

Perhaps before ending I should make a few observations about the ideological backing and political effects of our war in Vietnam. Advocates of this involvement consisted mainly of liberal internationalists, both Democrats and Republicans.  Lyndon Johnson and his advisers seized on conventional liberal internationalist phraseology in order to justify their intervention. They even promised to bring Great Society programs to the Mekong Delta once American and South Vietnamese forces had triumphed. Among critics of our intervention were George Kennan, at least initially Senator Richard Russell and several other Southern Senators, some outspoken libertarians, the John Birch Society and what was left of the interwar Right. The pro-Communist Left, represented by presidential candidate George McGovern, opposed this military action for obvious ideological reasons. Unlike World War Two, in which McGovern served as a bomber, we were fighting Communists in Vietnam, which is the reason that many academics of my acquaintance opposed our engagement there.

An unmistakable sympathy for the Communist enemy, which I recall encountering among some articulate critics of the war, weakened my receptiveness to their arguments. This partisanship stood in striking contrast to an observation made to me by the late Christopher Lasch long after the events in question. Lasch offered a cogent argument against our entanglement in Vietnam, which applies to other more recent temptations to rush to intervention.  Given the brutal behavior of the Vietcong, it is certainly possible to depict the struggle against them as a just war. But not every just war or just cause justifies an American military presence and the loss of numerous American lives. My impression was that most of the young protesters were neither pro-Communist nor anti-Communist. They were just trying to avoid getting killed in Southeast Asia, and so they demonstrated against the war and burnt draft cards. As for the antiwar hippies smoking weed and holding love beads, I’m not sure one could discern much of any political worldview in their bizarre behavior. They were just tuning out.

At least part of the Left, namely, that part that included Norman Podhoretz and Ronald Radosh, engaged in personally profitable soul-searching after the war. Podhoretz famously produced a long book teeming with second thoughts in 1982, Why We Were in Vietnam. These neoconservative second thoughts affected the American Right, in ways that I’ve described in my books. As is widely known, the post-World War Two conservative movement came about in large part to prosecute the struggle against Communism. Conservative Catholic leaders, like Pius XII and Cardinal Spellman of New York, encouraged this struggle, while arch conservative writers often got their start as strongly anti-Communist polemicists. Indeed anti-Communism was the lifeblood of the post-World War Two Right in the US, and this continued to be the case throughout most of the Cold War. Not surprisingly, those who founded National Review were both ardent defenders of Senator Joe McCarthy and advocates for liberating Eastern Europe. In retrospect, it might be observed, this movement was driven more by what it opposed with relentless fury than by any vision of political and moral order. The enemy was what determined the cause.

It may also be useful to note other aspects of this anti-Communist crusade that are now swept under the rug. The conservative movement in the 1950s came to define itself partly by battling those on the Right who were less aggressively anti-Communist. The new conservatism fought furiously against isolationists who despised the Communists but who feared the effects of continued military mobilization. Taft Republicans, anti-big government libertarians, and even some McCarthyites, who denounced Communism at home but who opposed sending troops overseas, went down to defeat.  All such critics of liberal internationalism disappeared from most conventional accounts of the American Right since the 1950s; and it is in the work of non-establishment authors, including Marxist scholars such as William Applemann Williams, that such figures have survived as a respectful presence.

It is also clearly no accident that those anti-Communists who came to dominate the conservative movement by the 1980s were not even recognizably conservative by the standards of the 1950s. By then neoconservatives had become the shakers and movers; and many of their complaints against the Soviets were grounded in their own ethnic concerns about the Soviet regime and its relation to Zionist dissidents and in their support of social democratic labor movements.

The neoconservative opposition to the Russian government did not end with the Cold War. It has continued in the form of incessant protests against Russian nationalist leadership. Meanwhile neoconservatives Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan and Max Boot have carried their gripes into the Democratic Party and on to CNN. We may also question whether the Soviet Empire’s disintegration has been a victory for the Right outside of Eastern Europe. A reunited Germany has moved far to the left culturally and socially since 1991; and the same development has occurred in a less dramatic fashion in other Western countries.  Outside of economic issues, the Communist bloc was arguably more conservative by the end of the Cold War than the side that prevailed. It is highly unlikely that any Communist society would approve of gay marriage, fluid gender identities, and the acceptance of Sharia law in countries that have already pushed their Christian traditions into the corner.

In any case it may be hard to prove that the Cold War ended for the West in a situation that conservatives of the 1950s would have cheered. Prolonged wars or tensions often end in ways that their earlier contestants could not have imagined. In the case of the Cold War, it would be simplistic to imagine that it was ever an exclusively right-wing thing. Much of the antifascist rhetoric of the Second World War got pumped into the anti-Soviet struggle under the Truman administration. What’s more, a large anti-Soviet leftist front already existed by the time clashes broke out over a divided post-War Germany.

Fascism: The Career of... Paul E. Gottfried Best Price: $23.12 Buy New $27.58 (as of 04:55 UTC - Details) The neoconservatives were perfectly correct when they called attention to their pedigree as liberal anti-Communists. They never hid the fact that they stood in a progressive anti-Soviet tradition, which eventually became integrated into a transformed conservative movement. Someone reading National Review circa 1960 or attending Yale graduate school, like me, in the mid-1960s would not have been aware that there was a vigorous anti-Communist Left as well as an anti-Communist center and anti-Communist Right. Certainly my professors and classmates did not reveal this critical fact, which only became obvious to me years later. Back then I never heard of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was an international organization for the anti-Communist Left paid for by the CIA. I also never came across until much later the Congress’s journal Encounter, which opposed the Soviets from a recognizably left of center political position. Back in the 1960s anti-Communism for me was synonymous with the Buckleyite Right. And I was far from alone in this illusion.

In the end anti-Communist forces that were not part of that Right turned out be more important for the outcome of the Cold War than those who wrote for National Review. Lest anyone doubt this, please recall which side won the presidential race in 1964: Was it the embattled anti-Communist of the Right Barry Goldwater or the Cold War liberal Lyndon Johnson? In the 1980s, under the Reagan administration, certain elements of what had belonged to the Left center took charge of our anti-Soviet politics. The National Endowment for Democracy, which Congress created in November 1983 and which still enjoys federal support, is tasked with promoting “democracy abroad.” Figures who in the 1980s built up the Endowment, like Undersecretary of State Eliot Abrams and its director Carl Gershman, shaped the way American foreign policy was presented to the public. George W. Bush happily latched on to their proselytizing language during the Iraq War twenty years later. And I still catch these now ancient phrases every time President Trump tell us that he is standing up for “values” internationally.

Again I’m not trying to indict the Left or the Right exclusively for the failures and excesses of liberal internationalism. The same view of the world seems to come back, no matter which government we elect, a liberal internationalist template, which I once described in a long essay for Orbis as the “invincible Wilsonian matrix.” In a very real sense, the global democratic crusader, who led us into World War One, never departed this world. President Wilson continues to preside at least in spirit over the making of American foreign policy. As I began by stating, this matrix is not limited to any one side of our conventional political spectrum. It is present throughout.