The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

February 21, 2000

A Lost Episode of the Old Right: The ‘Great Debate,’ 1950-1951


Taking a cue from Mel Brook’s character Yogurt in Spaceballs, I often think there should be a line of Old Right products – Old Right the tee-shirt, Old Right the book, and so on. Not the least of these would be Old Right, the Movie. This could be done, cheaply enough, by taking those old newsreels from 1938-1952, replacing the pro-New Deal northeastern-accented commentary with an Old Right script recited, perhaps, by a Midwesterner. A really Old Right movie would require, at some point, an alternate time-track with footage of President Robert A. Taft’s inauguration and the like.

Alas, it was not to be – the reality, or even the movie.


Even so, it is worth looking at a lost episode from the prematurely canceled Old Right series. I refer to the so-called "great debate" over the principles and purposes of American foreign policy, which raged, briefly, at the end of 1950 and into the beginning of 1951. President Truman’s post-constitutional Korean War was the immediate focus of debate, perhaps the last such debate until well into the Vietnam War. In contrast to the latter debate, the Old Right "isolationists" taking part in the "great debate" put forward a consciously noninterventionist alternative apparently inconceivable to most critics of the War in Vietnam.


In June 1950, President Truman responded to the North Korean invasion of South Korea with a clearly unconstitutional deployment of US forces without the slightest pretense of Congressional consent. Under Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant but erratic leadership, US and South Korean forces (with a few others under the UN fig-leaf) had driven North Korean forces out of South Korea. Not satisfied with achieving their declared goal, the Americans now decided to take the North, provoking a Chinese Communist invasion which, by early 1951, drove the UN forces back into South Korea. This disaster formed the context of the "great debate."


On October 19, 1950, former President Herbert Hoover spoke on CBS radio, giving a pessimistic assessment of the situation. While no clear alternative "line" emerged from his speech, he did stress the high costs and sheer futility of Cold War interventionism as presented by the administration. We had squandered millions of dollars on containment and he doubted that any powers, besides the United States and Britain, were serious about it. Before we exhausted ourselves in this way, "we had better reconsider our whole relation to the problem. In that event, we had better quit talking and paying, and consider holding the Atlantic Ocean with Britain (if they wish) as one frontier, and the Pacific Ocean with an armed Japan and other islands as the other frontier."1

Joseph P. Kennedy, former US Ambassador to Great Britain, raised similar issues on December 12, 1950. He said that he "naturally opposed Communism but… if portions of Europe or Asia wish to go Communist or even have Communism thrust upon them, we cannot stop it." We had aided Greece and Turkey in 1947 and spent millions since, and yet the policy "has not contained Communism. By our methods of opposition it has solidified Communism, where otherwise Communism might have bred within itself internal dissensions. Our policy today is politically and morally a bankrupt policy."

He said that we should "get out of Korea – indeed… out of every point in Asia which we do not plan realistically to hold in our own defense." The same rule should apply in Europe. This might not "contain" communism, but an over-expanded communism would splinter and fragment, as Tito had already shown in Yugoslavia. Mao would not long take orders from Russian "non-Asiatics." Some would call this "appeasement" but was it "appeasement to withdraw from unwise commitments….?" He thought not.

He asked "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 marines into the mountains of Tibet to keep the Dalai Lama on his throne?" No, it was better to "conserve American lives for American ends, not waste them in the freezing hills of Korea or the battle-scarred plains of Western Germany."2

Former President Hoover returned to the fray with a speech on the Mutual Broadcasting System on December 20, 1950. Even if things were as dire as they appeared to be, it would be sheer folly to oppose communist forces on the Eurasian land mass. It would be "a war without victory, a war without a successful political terminal" and "the graveyard of millions of American boys…" It "would end in the exhaustion of this Gibraltar of Western Civilization." The United Nations forces in Korea had suffered defeat. US policy should focus on the actual defense of American territory and necessary sea lanes. Allied with Britain, Japan, the Philippines, and Formosa (reflecting the soft spot some Old Rightists had for Chiang Kai-shek), we could defend our interests without endless foreign wars and economic exhaustion. Europe ought to take on responsibility for its own defense.3


Such unreconstructed "isolationist" talk from the Right soon led to one of those situations wherein waste material collides with a rotary cooling device. A New Republic editorial, "Peace Without Appeasement," asked whether we would "crawl back into our isolationist hole?" Unlike Hoover and Kennedy, Cold War liberal interventionists had a complete line, which was soon spun out. Our commitments in Asia were necessary to the defense of Europe, and the defense of Europe to the defense of America. We had to mobilize even further, since Indochina was the "gateway to Southeast Asia" and we were presently not in position to defend it. (And now you know who invented the "domino theory"!) The best is at the end. To come back from our Korean setback, we had to have "much greater military mobilization" and "economic action." This meant "a shift from limited to full control on materials"; "full price and wage controls"; "a much higher rate of taxation"; "a full draft on man-power"; and "a declaration of a National Emergency…." The last item was actually capitalized, FDR having only been gone a little while. These were "the initial requirements of peace without appeasement"; who could deny that "peace is not worth the price?"4

Leaving aside the peculiarly Orwellian use of the word "peace," anyone who gave a damn about Americans’ freedom, prosperity, and continued health could have objected, which was precisely what the Old Rightists, however inconsistently, were trying to do.

Time accused the "isolationists" lately heard from of being "men who were ready to give up just as the great test was beginning." One could wonder, of course, why, after World Wars I and II, interventionists still felt entitled to set up big tests which others might fail, but no matter…. A week later, on January 1, 1951, Time red-baited Hoover(!), saying that the noninterventionist Chicago Tribune and the Communist Daily Worker both approved his speeches. Sundry interventionists were quoted on the enormity of Hoover and Kennedy’s "appeasement." From Britain – the (intellectually) senior partner in empire – Robert Waithman wrote that the "isolationists" had performed the useful service of making people see that the existing policy had to be pursued more vigorously than before.5


Whatever the worth of the Old Right case, the counter-arguments of the interventionists are by far the most revealing part of the "great debate." Genuinely frightened that the evil forces of Reaction might rally the public, they pulled out all the stops. According to The Nation, Hoover and his allies – Taft, Wherry, McCormick, and Hearst – were "laying down" a line which "should set the bells ringing in the Kremlin as nothing has since the triumph of Stalingrad." The "Hoover Doctrine" was the work of "provincial little souls" who failed to understand the dear old UN. The isolationists were ready "to give the Russians nothing less than the rest of Asia and the whole continent of Europe.…" Such Republicans were "a clear and present danger"! If they were in power, "a deeply reactionary American administration" might cut a deal with the Soviets involving spheres of influence, which would, presumably, be the end of life as we knew it.6

Not to be outdone, the New Republic denounced the possibility of "years of accommodation [with Russia] during which we will ‘arm to the teeth’ and wait patiently until ‘the evils of communism bring about their own disintegration.’" (Like Willi Schlamm, the New Republic’s editors had never heard of Mises’ discussion of economic calculation under socialism.) No, attempting to deal with the Soviets would just encourage them to invade Europe, doubtless in 1951! And "Stalin, after raising the ante, as he did with Hitler, and sweeping over Asia, would move on until the Stalinist caucus in the Tribune tower would bring out in triumph the first Communist edition of the Chicago Tribune" (!). Joe McCarthy move over; the prize for unlikely red-baiting clearly came to rest here.

Once again, the only possible answer was "full-scale mobilization": "Tight controls, universal service, and a good tax bill are now worth ten divisions." Further Western "integration" and support for the UN were in order, as well.7 For anyone able to shake the Cold War liberals’ mood of permanent National Emergency for even a few minutes, it must have seemed that the interventionists had made the "isolationists’" case for them.


The "great debate" came and went. The interventionists were able to go on "scaring hell out of the American people" (as the phrase goes). The threat to all the vested interests committed to world improvement and exaggerated notions of "defense" was put down. Mr. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., revisited the "great debate" in mid-1952, as if to be certain the vampire was slain. Among other evidence of isolationist folly, he noted Senator Robert Taft’s comments that he would not send US forces into Indochina "unless we were absolutely sure of winning…." Failing such assurance, "they would just have to fall."8

I think it is more than mere hindsight to suggest that in fact Taft may have had the better of it. In the end, of course, by not having another debate of this kind after 1951 – certainly not one as clearly focused – the American people have been the losers. The state, big government, and the long list of allied usual suspects have been the winners. This needs to be pointed out from time to time.


  1. Herbert Hoover, "‘Where We Are Now,’" October 19, 1950.
  2. Joseph P. Kennedy, "Present Policy is Politically and Morally Bankrupt," December 12, 1950.
  3. Herbert Hoover, "Our National Policies in this Crisis," December 20, 1950. (These speeches can be found in Vital Speeches of the Day a few weeks after their original delivery.)
  4. "Peace Without Appeasement," The New Republic , December 18, 1950), pp. 5-8.
  5. "World Without Friends," Time, December 25, 1950, p. 9, "Out of the Grave," ibid., January 1, 1951, pp. 9-10, and Robert Waithman, "The American Argument: How Isolationists Help," The Spectator, December 29, 1950, pp. 753-754.
  6. "Hoover’s Folly," The Nation, December 30, 1950, pp. 688-89.
  7. "Can We Save World Peace?", The New Republic, 124 (January 1, 1951), pp. 5-6.
  8. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.., "The New Isolationism," The Atlantic Monthly, May 1952, pp. 34-38.

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