Joseph R.


September 14, 2002

The Ghost of Henry Cabot Lodge


I am not actually going to say much about Henry Cabot Lodge here. He is useful, however, as a symbol of one particular approach to U.S. imperial policy. Lodge was an influential Senator (R., Massachusetts), a crony of Theodore Roosevelt and other high-toned turn-of-the-20th-century Republican imperialists.

He was thus one of the architects of what TR and his circle called "the large policy," that is, a neo-mercantilist strategy of engrossing foreign markets by political-military means so as to overcome allegedly inbuilt defects in American capitalism. Like their economist-spokesmen Charles A. Conant and Jeremiah W. Jenks, these large policy men were, in effect, "right-wing Leninists." Indeed, they invented the Leninist thesis that problems endogenous to the market economy required expansion into overseas markets lest the system run down and stagnate.

Lenin picked up the theory from John A. Hobson, a sort of proto-Keynesian English Liberal and anti-imperialist, who had in turn picked it up from the American pro-imperialist school. For all these theorists, the great bugbears were "overproduction" and "underconsumption," twin evils to be cured by economic empire. The difference was that Hobson and Lenin condemned empire, while their predecessors, the actual founders of this tissue of economic fallacies, embraced it.(1)

As I noted a few weeks ago in a column on the Liberal Imperialism of John Stuart Mill, a similar argument had been knocking around in English circles since the 1830s.(2)


The "large policy" triumphed in the Spanish-American War of 1899 and its sequel, the Philippine Insurrection. The U.S. organized the Philippines as a formal colony and well-meaning Progressive reformers got to try out their ideas there, as well as in informal parts of the rising empire such as Cuba. Government-favored capitalists got to make some money on it.

So far so good.

But two could play at this game, and the Democratic Party mongered itself into World War I in April 1917. Professional belligerents like TR were heartbroken that Wilson had gotten both the war and the joys of running it. Disagreements about how to run the rising U.S. Empire soon joined with partisan jealousies to produce a famous fight over the settlement that followed the "catastrophe of 1914-1918."

The standard textbook account has long been along the following lines. Wilson, a spiritually developed idealist, wished to organize the postwar world via a League of Nations which would toss coins in the air and read tea leaves before pronouncing upon who "the aggressor" was in any international dispute. As an international posse comitatus, all nations in good standing would join in imposing "sanctions" on the certified aggressor in the name of preserving peace.

This would have been a wonderful thing, apparently. Everyone would have lived happily ever after. It was a bit jarring, however, to see Italy denounced for doing in the 20th century exactly what the denouncers had done in the 19th (and even into the 20th). Somehow, repressing the natives to keep an empire was much more moral than repressing them to get an empire.

Unfortunately, narrowly nationalist and bigoted elements in the Senate, mostly Republicans, rallied against Wilson’s great vision, and the Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. The U.S. remained outside the League. This was the terrible and costly victory of "isolationism," a force so diffuse and malevolent as to be comparable only with "hate."

But this account conflates two different groups who opposed the League for entirely different reasons. Unilateral imperialists, like Lodge, wished to continue to build U.S. economic empire (the Open Door), but did not want their hands tied by any prior commitment to consult with other imperialist powers. By contrast, anti-imperialists like Senator William E. Borah (R., Idaho) shied away from any form of U.S. imperialism, cooperative or unilateral.

This anti-imperialist minority of Progressive Republicans – the term "Progressive" covered a lot of ground – saw the League as nothing but a central committee to coordinate the imperialist policies of Britain, France, etc., and the U.S., should we be foolish enough to enter the League. Between the unilateralists and the anti-imperialists, there were enough votes to defeat the treaty. It was hardly a clear-cut victory for "isolation" as such.

William Appleman Williams sorted this out nicely some forty years ago.(3)


Despite U.S. refusal to take part in the League, Leaguism (my term), or "collective security," enjoyed great popularity in the interwar years. Coordinated opposition to "aggression" by blockade ("sanctions") or possibly stronger measures would preserve peace, not to mention the existing empires and properties of the World War I victors. The Soviets even swore their allegiance to collective security.

Critics argued that Leaguism had the potential to turn every local dispute into a regional or world war. It was a snare and a delusion. It set aside older notions of the laws of war and the rights of neutrals, already severely damaged by World War I practices, in favor of arbitrary assignments of guilt by a cabal of interested parties. Among the critics I shall mention only Edwin M. Borchard, a great American authority on neutral rights and international law.(4)


Then came the set of wars that we call, collectively, World War II. One afterthought of that glorious struggle was the United Nations. The Cold War, which pitted several holders of a veto power in the UN Security Council against two others, Russia and China, prevented serious appeal to the UN as a quasi-world government. The UN didn’t work as planned and thank God for that.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and much redrawing of the world map came the danger that the UN might function as intended. In fact, however, the UN seems to present primarily an ideological and creeping-NGO threat, whose long-run consequences we cannot yet see. In practice, the UN functions as a sort of fig-leaf or cover story for U.S. imperial initiatives. When it fails to play that role, the U.S. and its sometime allies simply ignore the U.N.


What is interesting is that for the first time in many decades the unilateral brand of U.S. imperialism is back. This is the crux of the criticism of the Bushies’ present policies coming from the Center Left and Left. Lifelong advocates of U.S. imperialism tempered by outward cooperation and coalition building are shocked that the present U.S. politbureau wish openly to run the world by their own lights and wisdom. Horrors.

In the view of these critics, we must return to an imperialism making use of nice international institutions. We must create consensus and good feeling all around. True, the U.S. will lead, always and in the end, but it’s just so much more polite to ask for others’ opinions. This is how the same Liberals and Left Liberals view domestic policy: coalition building between business, labor, the state, and (now) noisy ethnic pressure groups leads, via the magic hopper of policy formation, to policy and happiness alike.

The "collective security" window-dressing for U.S. imperialism is simply domestic interest-group liberalism extended to the entire planet.

Perfected by Cold War Liberals, acquiesced in by those Cold War Conservatives who got rid of the isolationist Old Right, this policy had a nice run for more than a half century. It is such a shame to see this useful camouflage go. Woe is us.


Even so, the return of imperial unilateralism does help clarify the existing world order. It lifts the curtain just enough that we may see the Wizard behind the multilateral and Atlanticist Oz. Transparency of this kind is probably a good thing.

Some people say that Bush II should get "authorization" from the UN for war against Iraq. This is a mistake. An unnecessary and criminal war cannot be made into anything else by any vote in the UN or elsewhere. "Elsewhere" includes the U.S. Congress.

It is doubtful that Bush II will really wait for the UN. He will barely consult Congress. He probably should consult Congress, constitutionally, but that is a mere relic of republican thinking. Anyway, Congress could "declare" a bad war, and has done so before, so the role of Congress hardly goes to the real problem.

I can understand, I suppose, why critics of the rush to war appeal to UN decrees, resolutions, and waste paper in a last-ditch effort to prevent war. They can’t imagine any other moral authority. We cannot play this game. It befogs our grasp of the issues at hand and tends to reinforce the idle gospel of Leaguism and collective security, which are part of the problem.

Certainly a return to cooperative Cold War Liberal standards of behavior would be a slight improvement. It hardly begins to address the real issues. Meanwhile the Republican Neo-Lodgeans have tied their "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" – okay, the last one is a joke – to the cause of eternal warmongering. They think that the War Card trumps the race, gender, and other cards wielded by their enemies. They may be right in the short run, but the short run can be very brief.

They begin to remind one of England’s professional warmongering classes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as characterized by A. J. A. Morris: "The political style of the Radical Right’s wildest publicists embracing the intransigence of the diehard, the energy and blind enthusiasms of the Ultra, the xenophobia and reckless rhetoric of the super-patriot, was annexed to serve the ambitions and hopes of the whole Tory party. It was sincerely believed that there was no better way to frustrate the knavish schemes of the Kaiser’s Germany. But far from incidentally, it was also designed to encompass the downfall and destruction of the Liberal government."(5)

Strangely enough, a magazine called The National Review was at the center of the fray. They got their wish: a major European war. Anyone who visits contemporary Britain can admire the long-range results of their good work.

As for "the downfall and destruction of the Liberal government," we might well substitute for "Liberal" such words as "constitutional," "limited," or even "American" – provided we want clarity.

A preliminary finding is this: We have paid a very high price for putting up with the Republican Party.


  1. Murray N. Rothbard, "The Origins of the Federal Reserve," in A History of Money and Banking in the United States (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2002), esp. pp. 208-234.
  2. Eileen P. Sullivan, "Liberalism and the Imperialism: J. S. Mill’s Defense of the British Empire," Journal of the History of Ideas, 44, 4 (Oct.-Dec. 1983), p. 608, and Murray N. Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, II: Classical Economics (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 1995), pp. 287-288.
  3. William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York: World Publishing Company, 1959), pp. 77-118.
  4. Edwin M. Borchard, "The "Enforcement of Peace by ‘Sanctions,’" American Journal of International Law, 27, 3 (July 1933), pp. 518-525.
  5. A. J. A. Morris, The Scaremongers: The Advocacy of War and Rearmament, 1896-1914 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 386.

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on


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