[This article is excerpted from chapter 9 of The Betrayal of the American Right.]
One of the most brilliant and forceful attacks on Cold War foreign policy in this era came from the pen of the veteran conservative and free-market publicist Garet Garrett. In his pamphlet “The Rise of Empire,” published in 1952, Garrett began by declaring: “We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire.”
Linking his thesis with his pamphlet of the 1930s, “The Revolution Was,” denouncing the advent of domestic executive and statist despotism within the republican form under the New Deal, Garrett saw once more a “revolution within the form” of the old constitutional republic:
After President Truman, alone and without either the consent or knowledge of Congress, had declared war on the Korean aggressor, 7,000 miles away, Congress condoned his usurpation of its exclusive Constitutional power to declare war. More than that, his political supporters in Congress argued that in the modern case that sentence in the Constitution conferring upon Congress the sole power to declare war was obsolete. … The Betrayal of the Am... Best Price: $11.20 Buy New $18.50 (as of 07:55 EST - Details)
Mr. Truman’s supporters argued that in the Korean instance his act was defensive and therefore within his powers as Commander-in-Chief. In that case, to make it Constitutional, he was legally obliged to ask Congress for a declaration of war afterward. This he never did. For a week Congress relied upon the papers for news of the country’s entry into war; then the President called a few of its leaders to the White House and told them what he had done….
A few months later Mr. Truman sent American troops to Europe to join an international army, and did it not only without a law, without even consulting Congress, but challenged the power of Congress to stop it.1
Garrett noted that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee then asked the State Department to set forth the position of the executive branch on the powers of the president to send troops abroad. The State Department declared that “constitutional doctrine has been largely molded by practical necessities. Use of the congressional power to declare war, for example, has fallen into abeyance because wars are no longer declared in advance.”
Garrett added that “Caesar might have said it to the Roman Senate,” and that this statement “stands as a forecast of executive intentions, a manifestation of the executive mind, a mortal challenge to the parliamentary principle.”
What, then, were the hallmarks of empire? The first requisite, Garrett declared, was that “the executive power of government shall be dominant.” For
what Empire needs above all in government is an executive power that can make immediate decisions, such as a decision in the middle of the night by the President to declare war on the aggressor in Korea.2
In previous years, he added, it was assumed that the function of the Congress was to speak for the American people. But now
it is the President, standing at the head of the Executive Government, who says: “I speak for the people” or “I have a mandate from the people.” … Now much more than Congress, the President acts directly upon the emotions and passions of the people to influence their thinking. As he controls Executive Government, so he controls the largest propaganda machine in the world. The Congress has no propaganda apparatus at all and continually finds itself under pressure from the people who have been moved for or against something by the ideas and thought material broadcast in the land by the administrative bureaus in Washington.
The powers of the executive are aggrandized by delegation from Congress, by continual reinterpretation of the language of the Constitution, by the appearance of a large number of administrative bureaus within the executive, by usurpation, and as a natural corollary of the country’s intervening more and more into foreign affairs.
A second hallmark of the existence of empire, continued Garrett, is that “[d]omestic policy becomes subordinate to foreign policy.” This is what happened to Rome, and to the British Empire. It is also happening to us, for
as we convert the nation into a garrison state to build the most terrible war machine that has ever been imagined on earth, every domestic policy is bound to be conditioned by our foreign policy. The voice of government is saying that if our foreign policy fails we are ruined. It is all or nothing. Our survival as a free nation is at hazard. That makes it simple, for in that case there is no domestic policy that may not have to be sacrificed to the necessities of foreign policy — even freedom…. If the cost of defending not ourselves alone but the whole non-Russian world threatens to wreck our solvency, still we must go on.3
We are no longer able to choose between peace and war. We have embraced perpetual war…. Wherever and whenever the Russian aggressor attacks, in Europe, Asia, or Africa, there we must meet him. We are so committed by the Truman Doctrine, by examples of our intention, by the global posting of our armed forces, and by such formal engagements as the North Atlantic Treaty and the Pacific Pact.
Let it be a question of survival, and how relatively unimportant are domestic policies — touching, for example, the rights of private property, when if necessary, all private property may be confiscated; or touching individual freedom, when, if necessary, all labor may be conscripted…. The American mind is already conditioned.
Garrett then — himself prophetically — pointed to the keen prophetic insight of a New York Times editorial of October 31, 1951, in detailing the permanent changes in American life wrought by the Korean War. Wrote the Times:
We are embarking on a partial mobilization for which about a hundred billion dollars have been already made available. We have been compelled to activate and expand our alliances at an ultimate cost of some twenty-five billion dollars, to press for rearmament of former enemies and to scatter our own forces at military bases throughout the world. Finally, we have been forced not only to retain but to expand the draft and to press for a system of universal military training which will affect the lives of a whole generation. The productive effort and the tax burden resulting from these measures are changing the economic pattern of the land.
What is not so clearly understood, here or abroad, is that these are not temporary measures for a temporary emergency but rather the beginning of a whole new military status for the United States, which seems certain to be with us for a long time to come.
Garrett, endorsing this insight, added sardonically that “probably never before in any history, could so dire a forecast have been made in these level tones” — tones made possible by the myth that this new state of affairs was “not the harvest of our foreign policy but Jehovah acting through the Russians to afflict us — and nobody else responsible.”4
A third brand of empire, continued Garrett, is the “ascendancy of the military mind.” Garrett noted that the great symbol of the American military mind is the Pentagon Building in Washington, built during World War II, as a “forethought of perpetual war.” There at the Pentagon, “global strategy is conceived; there, nobody knows how, the estimates of what it will cost are arrived at; and surrounding it is our own iron curtain.” The Pentagon allows the public to know only the information that it wills it to learn;
All the rest is stamped “classified” or “restricted,” in the name of national security, and Congress itself cannot get it. That is as it must be of course; the most important secrets of Empire are military secrets.
Garrett went on to quote the devastating critique of our garrison state by General Douglas MacArthur:
Talk of imminent threat to our national security through the application of external force is pure nonsense…. Indeed, it is a part of the general patterns of misguided policy that our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear. While such an economy may produce a sense of seeming prosperity for the moment, it rests on an illusionary foundation of complete unreliability and renders among our political leaders almost a greater fear of peace than is their fear of war.
Garrett then interprets that quotation as follows:
War becomes an instrument of domestic policy…. [The government may] increase or decrease the tempo of military expenditures, as the planners decide that what the economy needs is a little more inflation or a little less…. And whereas it was foreseen that when Executive Government is resolved to control the economy it will come to have a vested interest in the power of inflation, so now we may perceive that it will come also to have a kind of proprietary interest in the institution of perpetual war.5
A fourth mark of empire, continued Garrett, is “a system of satellite nations.” We speak only of Russian “satellites,” and with contempt, but “we speak of our own satellites as allies and friends or as freedom loving nations.” The meaning of satellite is a “hired guard.” As Garrett notes,
When people say we have lost China or that if we lose Europe it will be a disaster, what do they mean? How could we lose China or Europe, since they never belonged to us? What they mean is that we have lost or may lose a following of dependent people who act as an outer guard.
Armed with a vast array of satellites, we then find that “for any one of them to involve us in war it is necessary only for the Executive Power in Washington to decide that its defense is somehow essential to the security of the United States.” The system had its origins in the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. Garrett concludes that the imperial center is pervaded by a fear of standing alone in the world, without satellites.
Fear at last assumes the phase of a patriotic obsession. It is stronger than any political party…. The basic conviction is simple. We cannot stand alone. A capitalistic economy, though it possesses half the industrial power of the whole world, cannot defend its own hemisphere. It may be able to save the world; alone it cannot save itself. It must have allies. Fortunately, it is able to buy them, bribe them, arm them, feed and clothe them; it may cost us more than we can afford, yet we must have them or perish.6
The final hallmark of empire is “a complex of vaunting and fear.” Here Garrett cuts to the heart of the imperial psychology. On the one hand is vaunting:
The people of Empire … are mighty. They have performed prodigious works. … So those must have felt who lived out the grandeur that was Rome. So the British felt while they ruled the world. So now Americans feel. As we assume unlimited political liabilities all over the world, as billions in multiples of ten are voted for the ever expanding global intention, there is only scorn for the one who says: “We are not infinite.” The answer is: “What we will to do, that we can do.”
But in addition to vaunting is the fear:
Fear of the barbarian. Fear of standing alone…. A time comes when the guard itself, that is, your system of satellites, is a source of fear. Satellites are often willful and the more you rely upon them the more willful and demanding they are. There is, therefore, the fear of offending them…. How will they behave when the test comes? — when they face … the terrible reality of becoming the European battlefield whereon the security of the United States shall be defended? If they falter or fail, what will become of the weapons with which we have supplied them?7
Having concluded that we now have all the hallmarks of empire, Garrett then points out that the United States, like previous empires, feels itself “a prisoner of history.” Americans feel somehow obliged to play their supposed role on the world stage. For beyond fear lies “collective security” and beyond that lies “a greater thought.” In short,
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.8
Garrett ends his splendid work by calling for the recapture of the “lost terrain” of liberty and republicanism from executive tyranny and empire. But, as he pointed out, we must face the fact
that the cost of saving the Republic may be extremely high. It could be relatively as high as the cost of setting it up in the first place, one hundred and seventy-five years ago, when love of political liberty was a mighty passion, and people were willing to die for it…. [D]eceleration will cause a terrific shock. Who will say, “Now?” Who is willing to face the grim and dangerous realities of deflation and depression? … No doubt the people know they can have their Republic back if they want it enough to fight for it and to pay the price. The only point is that no leader has yet appeared with the courage to make them choose.9
No less enthusiastic was the devotion to peace and the opposition to the Korean War and militarism on the part of the more narrowly libertarian wing of the Old Right movement. Thus, Leonard Read published a powerful pamphlet, “Conscience on the Battlefield” (1951), in which he imagined himself as a young American soldier dying on a battlefield in Korea and engaged in a dialogue with his own conscience. The conscience informs the soldier that
while in many respects you were an excellent person, the record shows that you killed many men — both Korean and Chinese — and were also responsible for the death of many women and children during this military campaign.
The soldier replies that the war was “good and just,” that “we had to stop Communist aggression and the enslavement of people by dictators.” Conscience asks him, “Did you kill these people as an act of self-defense? Were they threatening your life or your family? Were they on your shores, about to enslave you?” The soldier again replies that he was serving the clever US foreign policy, which anticipates our enemies’ actions by defeating them first overseas.
Read’s conscience then responds:
Governments and such are simply phrases, mere abstractions behind which persons often seek to hide their actions and responsibilities…. In the Temple of Judgment which you are about to enter, Principles only are likely to be observed. It is almost certain that you will find there no distinction between nationalities or between races…. A child is a child, with as much right to an opportunity for Self-realization as you. To take a human life — at whatever age, or of any color — is to take a human life…. According to your notions, no one person is responsible for the deaths of these people. Yet they were destroyed. Seemingly, you expect collective arrangements such as “the army” or “the government” to bear your guilt.10
On the matter of guilt, the conscience adds that
there can be no distinction between those who do the shooting and those who aid the act — whether they aid it behind the lines by making the ammunition, or by submitting to the payment of taxes for war. Moreover, the guilt would appear to be even greater on the part of those who resorted to the coercive power of government to get you to sacrifice your home, your fortune, your chance of Self-realization, your life — none of which sacrifices do they themselves appear willing to make.
In introducing his pamphlet, Read wrote, “War is liberty’s greatest enemy, and the deadly foe of economic progress.” Seconding that view was libertarian leader F.A. “Baldy” Harper, in a FEE pamphlet, “In Search of Peace,” published in the same year. There Harper wrote,
Charges of pacifism are likely to be hurled at anyone who in troubled times raises any question about the race into war. If pacifism means embracing the objective of peace, I am willing to accept the charge. If it means opposing all aggression against others, I am willing to accept the charge also. It is now urgent in the interest of liberty that many persons become “peacemongers…”
So the nation goes to war, and while war is going on, the real enemy [the idea of slavery] — long ago forgotten and camouflaged by the processes of war — rides on to victory in both camps…. Further evidence that in war the attack is not leveled at the real enemy is the fact that we seem never to know what to do with “victory” … Are the “liberated peoples to be shot, or all put in prison camps, or what? Is the national boundary to be moved? Is there to be further destruction of the property of the defeated? Or what? … Nor can the ideas of [Karl Marx] be destroyed today by murder or suicide of their leading exponent, or of any thousands or millions of the devotees…. Least of all can the ideas of Karl Marx be destroyed by murdering innocent victims of the form of slavery he advocated, whether they be conscripts in armies or victims caught in the path of battle.11
Harper then added that Russia was supposed to be the enemy, because our enemy was Communism.
But if it is necessary for us to embrace all these socialist-communist measures in order to fight a nation that has adopted them — because they have adopted these measures — why fight them? Why not join them in the first place and save all the bloodshed? … There is no sense in conjuring up in our minds a violent hatred against people who are the victims of communism in some foreign nation, when the same governmental shackles are making us servile to illiberal forces at home.
Dean Russell, another staff member at FEE, added to the antimilitarist barrage:
Those who advocate the “temporary loss” of our freedom in order to preserve it permanently are advocating only one thing: the abolition of liberty. In order to fight a form of slavery abroad, they advocate a form of bondage at home! However good their intentions may be, these people are enemies of your freedom and my freedom; and I fear them far more than I fear any potential Russian threat to my liberty. These sincere but highly emotional patriots are clear and present threats to freedom; the Russians are still thousands of miles away.12
The Russians would only attack us, Russell pointed out, “for either of two reasons: fear of our intentions or retaliation to our acts.” The Russians’ fear would
evaporate if we pulled our troops and military commitments back into the Western Hemisphere and kept them here…. As long as we keep troops on Russia’s borders, the Russians can be expected to act somewhat as we would act if Russia were to station troops in Guatemala or Mexico — even if those countries wanted the Russians to come in!
Dean Russell concluded his critique of American foreign policy:
I can see no more logic in fighting Russia over Korea or Outer Mongolia, than in fighting England over Cyprus, or France over Morocco. … The historical facts of imperialism and spheres of influence are not sufficient reasons to justify the destruction of freedom within the United States by turning ourselves into a permanent garrison state and stationing conscripts all over the world. We are rapidly becoming a caricature of the thing we profess to hate.
My own reaction to the onset of the Korean War was impassioned and embittered, and I wrote a philippic to an uncomprehending liberal friend which I believe holds up all too well in the light of the years that followed:
I come to bury Liberty, not to praise it; how could I praise it when the noble Brutus — Social Democracy — has come into full flower? … What had we under the regime of Liberty? More or less, we had freedom to say whatever we pleased, to work wherever we wanted, to save and invest capital, to travel wherever we pleased, we had peace. These things were all very well in their day, but now we have Social Democracy…. Social Democracy has the draft, so all of us can fight for lasting peace and democracy all over the world, rationing, price control, allocation … the labor draft, so we can all serve society at our best capacities, heavy taxes, inflationary finance, black markets … healthy “economic expansion.” Best of all, we shall have permanent war. The trouble, as we all know, with the previous wars is that they ended so quickly…. But now it looks as if that mistake has been rectified. We can … proclaim as our objective the occupation of Russia for twenty years to really educate her people in the glorious principles of our own Social Democracy. And if we really want to battle for Democracy, let’s try to occupy and educate China for a couple of generations. That should keep us busy for a while.
In the last war, we were hampered by a few obstructionist, isolationist, antediluvians, who resisted such salutary steps as a draft of all labor and capital, and total planning for mobilization by benevolent politicians, economists, and sociologists. But under our permanent war setup, we can easily push this program through. If anyone objects, we can accuse him of giving aid and comfort to the Commies. The Democrats have already accused the reactionary obstructionist [Senator] Jenner (R., Ind.) of “following the Stalinist line.”
Yes, the obstructionists are licked. Social Democracy has little to fear from them. Whoever the genius was who thought up the permanent war idea, you’ve got to hand it to him. We can look forward to periods of National Unity, of a quintupling of the National Income, etc. There is a little fly in the ointment that some obstructionists may mention — the boys actually doing the fighting may have some objections. But we can correct that with a $300 billion “Truth” campaign headed, say, by Archibald MacLeish, so they will know what they are fighting for. And, we’ve got to impose equivalent sacrifices on the home front, so our boys will know that things are almost as tough at home….
There you have it. The Outlines of the Brave New World of Democratic Socialism. Liberty is a cheap price to pay. I hope you’ll like it.13
2.Ibid., p. 129.
3.Ibid., p. 139.
4.Ibid., pp. 140–41.
5.Ibid., pp. 148–49.
6.Ibid., pp. 150, 155.
7.Ibid., pp. 155–57.
8.Ibid., pp. 158–59.
9.Ibid., pp. 173–74.
10.Leonard F. Read, Conscience on the Battlefield (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1951), pp. 8–11. It is indicative of the decay of the older libertarian movement and of FEE that Read’s pamphlet was never included in FEE’s Essays on Liberty and was allowed to disappear rather quickly from circulation.
13.The only response of my liberal friend was to wonder why I had written him a letter sounding like the statement of “some business organization.”