The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

February 16 , 2002

The Debate We Never Have

Critics of US wars and US aspirations for empire have had their work cut out for them for over 100 years. This does not mean that there has existed a single, continuous antiwar or anti-imperialist movement of any real public visibility. Certainly, there have been underground currents, so to speak.

John T. Flynn, who opposed FDR's rush to war and became a critic of Cold War militarism, had witnessed as a young man the debates in Congress between the "expansionists" and the anti-imperialists over the annexation of the Philippine Islands (1900). This left a lasting impression on Flynn and has something to do with his later scepticism about US pretensions to global rule. Historian Charles A. Beard and sociologist Harry Elmer Barnes were conversant with the anti-imperialist literature of the 1920s and that awareness had some bearing on their opposition to Roosevelt II's foreign policy. Barnes lived long enough to become a trenchant Cold War critic.

For maintaining a certain consistency of outlook, these men were perceived as having "moved" from Left to Right. It might have been noted that it was US policy-makers who had moved from a less ambitious foreign policy to one of empire. But my point is that no broadly based movement or institutional structure has existed to connect the anti-interventionists of one generation to the next. In a real sense, each generation has had, with the help of a few veterans of earlier fights, to discover the terrain for itself.


The key to this overall lack of continuity may be the ability of those in power, those who crave each new set of interventions, to redefine any current situation as entirely new and unprecedented. To the extent they are successful in this, they blur the continuity of their policy initiatives with those of their predecessors. This leaves their opponents unaware of their own tradition, or unaware that they might even have such a tradition.

Since no two crises involving proposed intervention are exactly the same, this strategy has rested on a plausible if flawed basis. The issues were almost joined by Senator William Borah (R., Idaho), who brought a sophisticated critique of US imperial strivings for an Open Door in Asia to bear on the debate over the Versailles Treaty in 1919. As historian William Appleman Williams presented that debate, it was a three-cornered fight between 1) those who sought a concert of imperial powers, i.e. Wilson and his supporters, 2) those who preferred a unilateral policy of US imperialism, e.g. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and 3) those like Borah, who rejected either form of imperial policy in favor of relative laissez faire liberalism and no US involvements outside the Western Hemisphere.

The Establishment managed to simplify the debate into a two-sided one between far-seeing "internationalists" like Wilson and narrow, troglodytic "isolationists" like Borah and Lodge, thereby throwing two very different critiques into the same camp and blocking historical reconstruction of the 1919 debate along the lines proposed by Williams. Senator Borah died in 1940, depriving the anti-interventionist cause of a spokesman who might have tied the discussions of 1900, 1919, and 1940-1941 together.

Although the writings of Flynn, Barnes, Beard, and others display a knowledge of the broad sweep of history, the anti-interventionist politicians of 1939-1940 tended to argue more narrowly. This may have been in part because their own party (Republican) was implicated in the policies debated in 1900 and divided on those argued over in 1919. Yet a case can be made that the essential issue in each instance has been the same: empire vs. republican liberty.

Interventionists prevailed in 1941, partly by provoking an attack on American territory, and always quick to spot a new crusade invented the Cold War almost before the ashes of World War II had cooled. Opponents mainly right-wing Republicans put up a rearguard fight and succumbed, with most of their mass base going over to the new cause. The Vietnam War occasioned the beginnings of a debate on the fundamentals of US foreign policy: a debate on empire as such. Unfortunately, left-wing critics of the US empire led the charge and coupled it with broad-gauge attacks on all aspects of American life, with the result that their potential audience was repulsed and baffled.


The Estabishment regrouped, retooled the Cold War, found new enemies, and the debate over empire was turned aside. One might have thought that the sudden implosion of the Soviet enemy would have re-opened the aborted discussion set off by Vietnam. For various reasons this did not take place, outside of libertarian and paleo-conservative circles. Meanwhile, the policy establishment managed to find new enemies and repackage US foreign policy as the pursuit of worldwide humanitarianism and political correctness enforced by cruise missiles.
At the risk of repeating myself, the debate over whether or not the American people wish to undertake the "joys and sorrows of empire" was never joined. In the wake of the 9/11 "blowback," certain establishment figures have begun to announce with infinite cheek that, of course, there is an American empire; who ever doubted it? It is a wonderful thing, this US empire. We must all fall down and praise its mighty works.


This may be the cruelest cut of all. Having never had a real debate on empire, we are now to be told that the empire is an accomplished fact not subject to discussion. Instead of a discussion, the empire-builders have sent us little cards announcing that they have won the debate which never was. This seems more than a little arbitrary, but very convenient for the aspiring New Romans.

Now, the imperial birth announcements and matching marching orders have been very numerous in the last five months. They pop up in all manner of mainstream journals and straddle the political opinion magazines all the great wide way from Center Right to Center Left. The only disagreements are about the extent to which domestic socialism will be sacrificed to the needs of the imperial mission.

There are a number of themes running through this repellent literature. These include permanent mobilization for perpetual frontier wars, which will include nation-building and other high-toned social work projects. Barnes used to war against "perpetual war for perpetual peace" but now it's de rigueur. The perpetual crusade will recreate "community," "patriotism," and force the American couch-potatoes to "sacrifice" to ends higher than their mere contemptible bourgeois lives. The US will literally "invade the world" but this will somehow be rationalized as "defense" even when it involves proactive reconstruction of whole societies so that they will be much nicer and never threaten us and our "interests." These interests apparently include everything there is. Do you see now why some writers spot a thread of very bad theology running through US policy and discourse from at least 1861 forward?


An unreconstructed nation or tribe, anywhere, is a standing threat to "our" peace and prosperity. The mere thought that someone, somewhere, is doing things of which Global Sam disapproves, must disturb us in our sleep. It was seen in 1947 as a lack of verbal sophistication when President Truman said that the purpose of his famous doctrine was to help people who want to live the way we do go on living the way they want to live (this is a close paraphrase). Now, this malapropism has taken wing, gained a lot of weight, and threatens mankind with high-tech weaponry.

Of course if mankind submits, there will be no need of violence. If this seems like madness, there is probably good reason for that. Empire involves that sort of thing.

In future columns, we shall look at some of the writers who are encouraging the madness, including the neo-pagan foreign policy guru and travel writer, Mr. Robert D. Kaplan.

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