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August 8, 2000

Garet Garrett (1878-1954) On Empire


by Joseph Stromberg

I have foregone writing about Garet Garrett in this space partly because Justin Raimondo has written so often and eloquently about him in his columns. Nonetheless, Garrett was such an interesting and articulate – if, in the end, forlorn and hopeless – critic of the system of US global meddling that it seems a pity not to say something about him in this column. Garrett called the new system, whose rise he witnessed a half century, ago by its right name, too – Empire. At the same time, he was a sharp critic of the servile system of domestic life, which had also grown up under the New Deal. In Garrett's view, the two trends were inwardly linked as expressions of rampant statism in their respective spheres.

OUTLINE OF GARRETT'S LIFE

Garrett was born Edward Peter Garrett in Iowa. He became a printer's apprentice and then moved into reporting, working at a number of papers in the Midwest.

He moved to Washington, DC, where he covered our first truly imperial administration and adopted the pen-name Garet Garrett. He married in 1900 and went to New York, working as a financial journalist for important papers. He reported from Germany for the New York Times for part of 1915. On his return, he became financial editor of the New York Tribune.1

NOVELIST AND ESSAYIST

Garrett began writing a series of novels – The Blue Wound, The Driver, The Wild Wheel – all of which reflected his belief in the moral soundness of the American way of life and competitive capitalism. He also developed his odd style, which might be called "gnomic," among other things. His one departure from a "pure" free-market defense of capitalism was his espousal of protective tariffs. He was an American nationalist, who embraced America's synthesis of classical liberalism and republicanism. As the New Deal administration of Franklin Roosevelt seemed more and more to threaten those values fundamentally, Garrett became an important spokesman of the emerging Old Right opposition movement. At the Saturday Evening Post, he found an ideal outlet for his talents as a political commentator and essayist.

WAR AND WAR-IN-PEACE

U.S. participation in World War II changed American forever. In the short run, Garrett – like other pre-war "isolationists" – suffered lost income and influence in the general purge of noninterventionist writers which followed Pearl Harbor. The dogs of war were in charge now and the Old Right publicists, acting the part of Albert Jay Nock's "saving remnant," had to write in memory and for the record, in the hope that some later generation might come to appreciate their critique. Their contemporaries were hopelessly misled.

As World War shaded into permanent warlike mobilization-in-peace – the Cold War – Garrett wrote his most penetrating attacks on statism and empire.

POTTAGE AND REVOLUTION

The fullest expression of Garrett's views on matters of the kind on which we dwell on this website can be found in The People's Pottage, consisting of three essays, "The Revolution Was" (1945), "Ex America" (1951), and "Rise of Empire" (1952), published together by Caxton in 1953. The John Birch Society took up the cause and kept the little book in print for many years after.2

"The Revolution Was" undertook to assess the New Deal. Garrett's essay opens on an ominous note: "There are those who think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of the Depression, singing songs to freedom." Further: "the ultimate power of initiative did pass from the hands of private enterprise to government." The obvious political conclusion was this: "You do not defend what is already lost."3

This would make an interesting "text" for our Compassionate Conservatives, who wish to "conserve" all those things which make up the Negation of American Life. Garrett, by contrast, takes up the posture of a radical conservatism, something which the good social democrats and tame conservatives like Peter Viereck spent the fifties and early sixties telling us just isn't done, old chaps.

The Depression was the new rulers' great opportunity and they exploited it to the hilt. Intent on building up a new system of "administrative absolutism," the New Dealers held political power in part by demagogic propaganda – Garrett actually mentions "hatred," which, as all good sheep now know, only exists on the political Right. Further, they attached to their cause the industrial workers and the farmers by claiming to solve their problems for them. They sold the people on the virtues of disguised inflation and public debt and greatly strengthened executive, that is, bureaucratic authority over American life. Thus Garrett: "in Burckhardt's devastating phrase, [the next step] would be 'the domestication of individuality' – by any means that would make the individual more dependent upon government."4 At this late date, I think we can say they've done very well for themselves. And what a wonderful heritage for our GOP protectors to "conserve"!

Garrett details how the New Deal accomplished its ends: Roosevelt's illegal "banking holiday," repudiation of what was left of the gold standard, and the abortive fascistic National Recovery Administration, whose goals were carried out by roundabout means once the Supreme Court came to understand who was in charge. "Ex America" continues the discussion of how Americans were domesticated by inflation, welfare, and bureaucracy.

'RISE OF EMPIRE'

By 1952, it was clear that "We have crossed the boundary that lies between republic and empire." As with the Roman Republic, there was no exact point at which the metamorphosis could have been spotted. But the results were clear. As in the Roman case, the new imperial rulers were careful to keep up the appearances of republican legitimacy. FDR, like Augustus, was merely the "first man" among equals. Garrett termed this imposture: "Revolution within the form."5

Roosevelt had a fight on his hands trying to maneuver the country into an unwanted war. Only Pearl Harbor delivered him from his plight. But "nine years later a much weaker President" put the nation into war in Korea on his own motion. Defenders of the Great Office now said that the power of Congress was obsolete because an emergency could arise more quickly than Congress could act. Garrett replies: "The reasoning is puerile. The Korean War, which made the precedent, did not begin that way; secondly, Congress was in session at the time, so that the delay could not have been more than a few hours, provided the Congress had been willing to declare war…."6

THE PATTERN OF EMPIRE

Garrett saw six major characteristics as defining the imperial syndrome. The first was executive supremacy within the state. The second was that "Domestic policy becomes subordinate to foreign policy."7 Anyone who grew up in the fifties and sixties will remember how all proposals, most of them bad, could be dressed up as necessary to win the Cold War.

Third: "Ascendancy of the military mind, to such a point that the civilian mind is intimidated." He quotes a surprising source in support of this proposition, General Douglas MacArthur: "Talk of imminent threat to our national security through the application of external force is pure nonsense…. Indeed it is part of the general pattern 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."8

Fourth: "A system of satellite nations."9 I think we can agree that this hits the mark. Indeed, as the whole world – from London to Vladivostok – weighs NATO membership, it seems that we have even more. Not to mention our latest acquisition, Kosovo, soon to be united, no doubt, with our satellite Greater Albania.

Fifth: "A complex of fear and vaunting."10 This is Garrett at his most subtle. He had seen the Imperial Overlords vacillate between giddy fits of grandeur and sharp attacks of fear, as if they believed their own propaganda. They were very good at inducing these feelings in the people. For further research into the complex of fear and vaunting, I suggest a program of occasional reading of the New Republic and the Weekly Standard, where the syndrome is on regular display.

Sixth and last: The empire becomes "A prisoner of history."11 This is the worst feature of all, and all the Compassionate Conservatism in the world won't help us here, short of repudiating empire and all its works. Someone tell ole George, will ya?

A NOD AT CURRENT EVENTS

I have hardly done justice to Garet Garrett. But I must move on. Speaking of George, a friend suggests spelling his middle name "Dublla," since he's so keen on the Spanish-speaking vote. Or should that be "Dubilla"? Gotta get that "ll" in there some way.

And how about this for a campaign song? (Air: Ballad of Jed Clampett)

"Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Bush
guess we'll have to vote for him but we ain't in a rush
He says multicultural is the only way to be,
But his main interest is that flowin' Texas Tea –
Oll, that is, Black Sea, big pipelines, intervention….

JUST WARS

It's Hiroshima season again and most commentators are appalled that anyone should question Uncle Sam's morals or motives in deploying his weapons of mass destruction. Let us not dwell on it, then. It was mass murder, period.

Notes

  1. See Justin Raimondo, Reclaiming the American Right (Burlingame, CA: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993), ch. 3, "Garet Garrett: Exemplar of the Old Right," pp. 51-97.
  2. Garet Garrett, The People's Pottage (Boston: Western Islands, 1965).
  3. Ibid., pp. 9, 11.
  4. Ibid., p. 16.
  5. Ibid., pp. 93-94.
  6. Ibid., pp. 97-98.
  7. Ibid., p. 110.
  8. Ibid., pp. 112, 118.
  9. Ibid., p. 119.
  10. Ibid., p. 123.
  11. Ibid., p. 125.
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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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