MERE "ISOLATIONISM": THE FOREIGN
POLICY OF THE OLD RIGHT
One of the "old causes" embraced
in this column perhaps the most important one is that
of the "isolationist" Old Right. As used by the late Murray
Rothbard among others, the term Old Right refers to a loose coalition
opposed to the New Deal in both its domestic and foreign aspects.
While not following a strict "party line," Old Rightists
largely spoke from the ground of classical liberalism and classical
republicanism. This earned them epithets like "conservative"
and "reactionary" since those two outlooks were rooted
in actual American life. Having something to conserve made them
"conservatives" a terrible thing from the standpoint
of the Party of Progress. This was a label which many on the Old
Right rejected, arguing with a certain dogged futility that they
were the real American "liberals." (See Justin Raimondo's
the American Right for more on this movement.)
The Old Right was effectively dead by 1955 with the death, electoral
defeat, or retirement of many of its prominent figures. More importantly,
the Right was undergoing an ideological make-over as new spokesmen
(hereafter called the New Right) rushed headlong into interventionism
and overseas empire under Cold War slogans and policies largely
invented by Establishment Liberals. In an interesting case of cultural
lag, the American press continued to refer to the "conservatives"
or whatever as "isolationists" well into the later 1950s.
They didn't fully take on board the transformation of the Right
until 1964, when they had to denounce Barry Goldwater as an inhumane,
trigger-happy fellow, who wanted to immolate poor flower-picking
little girls in nuclear Armageddon, unlike Ole LBJ, who would never,
never get us into a wider war anywhere. But at least they finally
noticed the existence of the New Right. As Carl Oglesby pointed
out (speaking of Vietnam), the Goldwaterite New Right "accepts
the political description [of the war] and therefore wants the war
to be more fiercely waged" a point which applies to
the entire Cold War. For the Goldwaterites far more active policies
were necessary to "win" that great cosmic struggle than
those undertaken by the inept Liberals.
The problem was in the premises, and this brings me back to the
Old Right's distinctive take on foreign policies. It was hard to
stampede the Old Right into futile crusades involving Total Good
vs. Total Evil. As critics of our intervention in World War I, they
were aware of the costs of grand ideological crusades and of war
itself. This rather than some unexplained fondness for foreign
governments known for big parades and funny salutes accounts
for their participation in the America First movement. (Actually,
the Liberals "explained" it on the view that everyone
to their Right has bad motives fascists! Nazis! whereas
those to their Left are basically good but in too much of a hurry,
but I think we can reject this construct.) For some Old Rightists
the aversion to intervention and "futile crusades" continued
into the early Cold War period.
These so-called "isolationists" (to use the term foisted
on them by their interventionist enemies) worried about the risk
of war, the costs of war, and the domestic consequences of imperial
policy. They well understood Randolph Bourne's statement that "war
is the health of the state." Permanent mobilization in time
of peace the essence of the Cold War fostered many
undesirable policies. Conscription was especially evil. Senator
Taft called it "essentially totalitarian" and added, "it
is the most extreme test of our whole philosophy.... We shall have
fought to abolish totalitarianism in the world, only to set it up
in the United States." When the Truman administration brought
in legislation for peacetime conscription or UMT, Congressman Howard
Buffett argued that Selective Service "would prove to the world
that Hitler was right that the threat of communism externally
justifies militarism and regimentation at home" It rested on
"the totalitarian concept that the state owns the individual."
Congressman Lawrence Smith complained that there would be "no
escape" from "economic controls, manpower controls, and
the regimentation that goes with dictatorial power."
Felix Morley, President of Haverford College, wrote in 1954 that
centralization must accompany our increasingly imperial foreign
policy. Our institutions, "rather than our imperial policy...
will be modified." Congress was becoming a mere rubber-stamp
for agencies working in pitch-black secrecy like the CIA and Atomic
Energy Commission. In 1957, Morley wrote in Modern Age that
America had reached a point where "we have a vested interest
in preparation for war." Defense spending was a major prop
of full employment and we were dangerously addicted to it. Behind
the screen of secrecy which the Cold War made possible, we were
"losing the substance of self-government" to a rising
"self-perpetuating managerial elite." I seem to recall
that C. Wright Mills said something similar.
Veteran anti-New Deal writer John T. Flynn, a central Old Right
figure, wrote in 1955:
"By means of war and the post-war mess, our government
has managed to keep an evil prosperity going, based on continuous
confiscatory taxes, endless borrowing, fantastic adventures abroad,
a crooked pretense of war on the Soviet which we saved with our
military aid and perpetuated with our Treasury, and which we now
nurse as an enemy not because we fear her clumsy system
in a military sense but because we need her. We need her
as the enemy this corrupt system requires to keep the taxes and
the borrowing and spending going."
Such biting criticism was banished from the Right, or New Right,
by the mid fifties and complainers like Morley and Flynn were increasingly
isolated. The Old Right detested Soviet communism. Its power, where
it existed, made them uneasy. But they refused to turn a blind eye
to the dangers of American empire, American bureaucratization, and
American militarism. Sustained interventionism, under the Cold War
banner as under any other one, deeply threatened America's historically
unique culture of liberty. Perhaps no one on the Old Right made
the point as well as the industrialist Ernest Weir in a speech in
"As it is we hear too little from our leadership that is positive
and constructive. We are told that we must prepare to endure 5
10 20 years of tension... of expanding government and government
costs... of widening government controls... of high taxes... of
military service for our youth... of a garrison state economy. Think
what this will mean. It will mean that by the end of 20 years
if it does end then we will have had two whole generations
of Americans who have never had the opportunity to know the real
America. They will have no experience with the real individual independence
that made this country great but on the contrary they will accept
as an accustomed thing, the detailed control over their private
lives by a powerful central government."
After forty some years of the Cold War and with no real "dismantling"
of its structures including our old pal, NATO in sight
despite the collapse of the official enemy, it may be time to have
another look at the Old Right's critique of the Cold War and intervention.
The Old Right was made up mainly of right-wing Republicans who wished
to avert the institutional and economic costs of war and empire.
As such, they are not seen as worthy predecessors by the anti-war
Left and their insights have been abandoned by most of their Republican
successors. Yet they saw that making the authoritarian fixtures
of war into permanent "peacetime" policies was the high
road to the garrison state. At the same time, the extension of US
"interests" all over the world was turning the Old Republic
into an Empire.
In 1992, Charles Krauthammer wrote that renewed "isolationism"
on both sides of the political spectrum posed a grave threat to
proper (interventionist) US foreign policy. The threat came from
right-wing isolationists (Midwestern boneheads who refuse to learn
French?) and former "peaceniks" traumatized by Vietnam.
(Since then, we have found out that some of the peaceniks do enjoy
bombing foreigners, and Krauthammer himself discovered an intervention
he didn't like, and for this he should be commended). Well, renewed
"isolationism" anywhere and by whatever name is something
to cheer about. Even so, the task is even more daunting than Ernest
Weir predicted, since three, rather than two generations have grown
up under the impression that all the inroads made against liberty
and property in that timespan are "normal" and even, in
a joking sort of way, "constitutional."
Due to a typographical error, Chosroes (or Khushraw) appeared without
his first "s" in last week's column. I regret any offense
given to adherents of the former Parthian Empire.
R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since
1973, including The Individualist, Reason,
of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the
and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time
lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent
Cold War," on the Ludwig
von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause,"
appears each Tuesday on Antiwar.com.
contribution of $20 or more gets you a copy of Justin Raimondo's
Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in
the Balkans, a 60-page booklet packed with the kind of intellectual
ammunition you need to fight the lies being put out by this administration
and its allies in Congress. Send contributions to
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form