DECEMBER 1950-JANUARY 1951
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
THE BEST FOR LATER, IF NOT LAST….
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
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.
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.
"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
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.
Herbert Hoover, "‘Where We Are Now,’" October
Joseph P. Kennedy, "Present Policy is Politically
and Morally Bankrupt," December 12, 1950.
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.)
"Peace Without Appeasement," The New
Republic , December 18, 1950), pp. 5-8.
"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.
"Hoover’s Folly," The Nation, December
30, 1950, pp. 688-89.
"Can We Save World Peace?", The New Republic,
124 (January 1, 1951), pp. 5-6.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.., "The New Isolationism,"
The Atlantic Monthly, May 1952, pp. 34-38.
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