April 10, 2000
Not every figure profiled in this space was an absolutely consistent critic of war and intervention. Often enough, having supported one overseas adventure, a public intellectual rethought the matter when asked to sign up for the next crusade. The Progressive historian Charles Beard, for example, supported World War I, but in reaction to Wilson's domestic wartime reign of terror and the ruinous Versailles "settlement," became an opponent of intervention from 1939 on.
Louis Bromfield was a sort of Northern agrarian, a Jeffersonian democrat of the Old Northwest. He was soft on FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps and some aspects of the Tennessee Valley Authority, but was otherwise critical of New Deal methods, as can be seen in his essays on farming in Pleasant Valley (1943[reprint 1971]). Bromfield was a screenwriter (writer of the 1940 Fox production, "Brigham Young, Frontiersman," among others), novelist of the agrarian way of life, and a practicing farmer.
He was very fond of France, where had lived and farmed, and admired the French peasant's sense of limits. As he later wrote: "I had found there a continuity which had always been oddly lacking in American life save in remote corners… like parts of the New England and the South… where permanence and continuity of life existed through inertia and defeat…. The permanence and continuity of France was not born of weariness and economic defeat, but was a living thing, anchored to the soil, to the very earth itself."1 Bromfield was not very fond of Germany. That he supported US entry into World War II is not very surprising.
Bromfield's showcase farm – and the subject of his book, Malabar Farm (1948) is now run by the state of Ohio as a museum and center for spreading ideas on "sustainable farming." There is a website, www.malabarfarm.org. His literary production includes twenty some novels, essays on farming, and an airing of his political views, A Few Brass Tacks (1946). Public television has treated Bromfield's life and ideas in a film, The Man Who Had Everything (1999).
Bromfield was something of a moralist. He had a lot to say about waste, soil erosion, economic instability, installment buying, proletarianization, and other aspects of modern life which were opposed to the agrarian way of life. Things were so far gone that "each depression will be followed by more and more destructive taxations, as the whole economic structure of the nation grows weaker and sinks to a European and finally an Asiatic standard of living." Yet he was skeptical of state intervention – fascist or socialist – to address such problems. Speaking of soil conservation, he wrote that its intelligent advocates knew that "no remedial measures would be effective if imposed by government" (his emphasis).2
There was much truth in the agrarian critique of modern life, but not much economic theory. It is unfortunate that Bromfield seems never to have confronted the thought of Wilhelm Rüpke, a German free-market economist with a strong interest in agrarian issues. Rüpke might have shown Bromfield how free markets, properly understood, could address many of his Jeffersonian concerns.
But of course I don't do much with farming in this space. It is Louis Bromfield's later reflections on foreign policy which will concern us. When World War II gave way to mobilization-in-permanence the Cold War Bromfield emerged as an outspoken critic. The most complete expression of his views is his book, A New Pattern for a Tired World (1954). This is not the easiest book to find. I found my copy in London, and a friend found one in LaBelle, Florida. There are two editions – New York and London – and the page numbers differ from one to the other. (I cite the London edition here.)
As a Jeffersonian agrarian, Bromfield believed free trade to be essential to the development of agriculture across the globe. Sound agriculture was the key to further economic progress everywhere. Bromfield's case against US domestic and foreign economic policies nicely recapitulated the controversy between Jefferson and Hamilton, as well as the one between Bukharin and Trotsky/Stalin/Preobrazhensky during the so-called Soviet industrialization debate of the 1920s.
US foreign policy was becoming the great obstacle to spontaneous development. Bromfield posited a sharp conceptual conflict between cartelized European capitalism and the ideal American model resting on free markets. European imperialism had established a top-down system of politicized capitalism throughout the colonial world. It was no wonder that people in the colonies were now rejecting both European rule and – mistakenly – capitalism, which they identified with that rule.
Under the slogan of anti-communism, US foreign policy-makers aspired to suppress anticolonial, nationalist revolutions everywhere. This put America on a collision course with these inevitable revolts and put us on the wrong side of history (as the phrase goes). It was a hopeless and futile course, which could prove to be very costly.
Growing governmental secrecy, "Big Lie" propaganda, and fear-mongering thrived under Cold War foreign policy. A "Messiah complex, peculiarly an Anglo-Saxon disease which at times can border on the ecstatic and the psychopathic" helped fuel these trends.3 It was a mistake to believe we could export our way of life overseas. The smug attempt to do so simply stirred up resentment abroad.
Centrist and Establishment writers sometimes treat complaints about the "military-industrial-university complex" as a sort of intellectual disorder which sprung from the fevered brain of C. Wright Mills and then went on haunting overwrought people who read the Report from Iron Mountain too often. That the painfully middle-of-the-road president, Eisenhower, the Jeffersonian Bromfield, and Old Right figures like Felix Morley and John T. Flynn also noted the phenomenon suggests to me that it was not the idle fancy of "anti-American" leftists.
Bromfield anticipated New Left historian William Appleman Williams' notion of an Open Door for revolutions. It would be better in the long run, he reasoned, to allow them to run their course with as little war as possible. The present American "attempt to dominate and direct the whole course, not only of Asia, but of the world, is a policy of insanity which can only cause war after war and the eventual ruin of this nation." If Asians chose "the disastrous experiment of Communism" in throwing off foreign colonialism, that was "Asia's problem and none of our own."4
The whole geopolitical conceptions behind US policy needed rethinking: "The arrogant assertion that Korea, lying in the very midst of the Russo-Chinese-Japanese orbit, is our frontier is an idiotic assumption which cannot be maintained save at huge expense or the prospect of a third World War and economic ruin. If Korea is our frontier, so then is every nation in the world, and we are tempted to ask whether our future policy will be one of maintaining military installations and conscripted armies in every nation of the world."5
US intervention in Indo-China, already under way, had been "merely disastrous" in every way. Applying common sense to the case, rather than any special gift of prophecy, Bromfield wrote, "[i]t is an intervention and a battle which in the long run can never be won by either France or the US even though we pour more millions and more lives into the debacle for years to come."6
Bromfield decried US trade policies aimed at coercing Cold War enemies: "We have chosen as a policy to strangle trade with Russian and Red China in an attempt to bring about a steady deterioration of living standards and a proportionate increase in discontent within the borders of both nations." This was counterproductive and increased tensions. It would be far more productive to open up trade with these nations. Furthermore, trade would undermine communism: "A prosperous Russia, a prosperous China and Japan, a prosperous Europe are the best guarantors not only of peace but of the eventual slow destruction of the Marxian theory (which in practice fails to produce either prosperity, freedom or food) everywhere in the world, including Soviet Russia itself."7
This seems sound, if radical-sounding advice. It was, Bromfield suggested, precisely the external threat to the "ramshackle" Soviet empire – a threat gratuitously provided by the Americans – that helped the Soviet leadership cling to power. The continuing good health of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq makes one wonder if Bromfield didn't have something there.
It may be that making foreigners miserable in order to goad them into overthrowing regimes on Uncle's little list merely makes people miserable, not to mention prematurely dead. Perhaps it makes unneeded enemies for Uncle, as well as for those of us associated with him in the minds of the foreigners so treated. Indeed, it may turn out that it is not markets and capitalism that lead to the "immiseration" of the masses but, instead, the foreign policies of those who preach global capitalism, free markets, and democracy while practicing none of them.
As a farmer, Bromfield understood the wisdom of Candide's conclusion that it is better "to cultivate our own garden," rather than interfere with the world.
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