Iraqi morality play grinds on, now well into
its second Act. Will the Shi'ites clash with the Sunnis, or
will they unite and drive us back from whence we came? Will
the long drama of the Kurds end in subjugation, or independence?
And what of the Israelis – can they be accommodated without
a dangerous complicity on our part? There is no water in Basra:
The antiquities of Ninevah are on E-bay. Little
Ali cries out in bewildered agony.
does it all mean? For what seems like an eternity, we've been
telling our readers that this war is a turning point in the
history of this country, a frankly imperial venture that puts
us well on the road to becoming the New Rome. Now comes a
voice from the past to say when and how we first took this
dangerous route to our destiny.
publication of Garet Garrett's Defend
America First: The Antiwar Editorials of the Saturday Evening
Post, 1939-1942 (Caxton
Press, 285 pages) just as the Iraq war ended, was serendipitous.
It was as if someone – History, perhaps – had tapped us on
the shoulder and reminded us that all of it has happened once
before, as in a dream.
chief editorial writer
for the Saturday Evening Post – go here,
for some indication of his importance as an
analyst of imperial decline and a revered figure of the
Right was the journalistic voice of an America
that had not yet been seduced into its global mission. To
him, as to the overwhelming majority of ordinary Americans,
circa 1940, the chief preoccupation of the public was the
failure of the New Deal to lift them out of their domestic
disaster. Yet it was at about that time that Garrett noted
a peculiar shift in the political winds:
was a stranger thing than that the American people should
be inviting themselves to another world war before it happens.
At frequent intervals those who sample the waters of public
emotion heave their questionaires into the stream – such as,
'If England and France were attacked by the dictators, will
this country have to do something about it?' or, 'Shall the
democracies of the world at any cost stand together?'"
what was behind this sudden focus on the overseas disaster,
when an economic and social catastrophe was staring Americans
in the face? That is the question the conservatives of the
time raised, some meekly – the
Landons and the
Wilkies – and
some boldly, like Garrett, whose idiosyncratic and artful
prose skewered the New Deal week after week. The rush to war
was, to him, suspicious, and he pondered who or what was behind
October, 1937, the nation was sliding back into the depths
of a killer economic contraction, known today as the Great
Depression, when "suddenly, out of the blue,"
FDR made his famous "quarantine
the aggressor" speech. Americans had thought that
the chief aggression against them was the continuing collapse
of the nation's economy, hurried along by the
brainier crackpots of the presidential Brain Trust. But
they were wrong. The real enemy was not at home, but overseas,
in Europe, and we had to strike preemptively, the President
argued, because "let no one imagine that America will
escape." The Western hemisphere would not be spared the
world plague of lawlessness: "When an epidemic of physical
disease starts to spread," he declared, "the community
approves and joins in a quarantine."
virus, once germinated, began to take root. The idea of an
American will to preemptively protect – yes, and save – the
world can be traced back at least as far as the Great War,
but FDR was the first to wield it with such aggressive alacrity.
Yet not even this President who had, after all, aspired
to overthrow the Supreme Court, and, in doing that and much
else, threatened to overthrow the Constitution – dared speak
of war. He knew the inherently American aversion to foreign
wars would not be so easily overthrown. It had to be done
slowly, subtly awakening competing emotional currents, and
with care not to alert the public to the real agenda behind
the pollsters gentle probing. "But you do not need the
statistics," Garrett wrote,
can feel it. There is all at once an intellectual cult of
interventionists. The feet of many pacifists are running in
the paths toward war. The American character is inhabited
by a strong crusader spirit. Many voices, for different reasons,
have been calling for it, and it responds."
words might have been written today, and that is what is so
striking about much of Garrett's work: its modernity. Though
he died in 1955, warning that "we have crossed the boundary
that lies between Republic and Empire," his prose has
about it a prescient air that falls not too far short of supernatural.
The antiwar editorials gathered together in this volume, all
culled by editor Bruce Ramsey from the Saturday Evening
Post, taken together tell a familiar story.
updated version of the
same story has just played
out its first phase on the front pages of our newspapers
some sixty years later. The long process of entangling us
in the affairs of the Middle East, step by step, was begun
well before Bin Laden struck New York, until, today, as former
CIA chief James
Woolsey calls for "World War IV" to begin on
a plain called Armageddon, it all seems horribly
traces the path of a pattern that is easily recognizable.
FDR tried to fool the public by advocating "measures
short of war" that were designed, in fact, to pull us
in: his machinations resemble the stratagems of the current
administration in principle if not in full particulars. The
decision to take Baghdad had been made long before the UN
charade began, and the "evidence" linking Saddam
to 9/11 is about as credible as Roosevelt's lie that the Germans
would soon take Brazil, and move north to Texas. "He
lied us into war" is how Clare Booth Luce described
FDR's course of calculated deception. The same might be said
of the current occupant of the Oval Office, whose tall tales
of Iraqi drones on their way to wreak havoc on our shores
are in the same league, albeit cruder.
the aggressor: that's what Roosevelt said. So, in his way,
did Garrett. But the aggressor, to the conservatives of the
time, was not just Hitler, but all the European ideologies
of power. To
enter the European maelstrom, again, would expose us to the
continental contagion. The President had already mounted an
assault on the Constitution and the American creed of limited
government under cover of the economic emergency: war would
be a lethal weapon in his hands, one that would cut down his
domestic enemies long before the Axis powers were humbled.
The "return to Europe" would mean the end of our
President, in the very process of guile and undercover machinations,
would subvert the foundations of the constitutional order.
In the end, we might defeat national socialism in the trenches
and witness its victory on the home front. This was the great
fear of Garrett and his fellow America Firsters, and reading
Defend America First is like receiving bulletins from
the front lines of a war lost long ago, but no less breathless
or dramatic for their antiquity:
is written on June tenth . With no notice to the American
people or to the Congress that is supposed to interpret their
will, this country entered the war four days ago," he
wrote on hearing the news that the Navy had just announced
the sale of fifty bombers to France. "Stranger than the
fact was the passive acceptance of it." Garrett did not
accept this seizure of power by the executive, and he called
down damnation on the coup plotters, asking history to bear
we now write is to complete the record. We have no idea what
the next consequences will be or what will have happened by
the time these words appear. But as in time to come it may
be bitterly remembered, so now be it said that in the one
hundred and fifty years of its existence the house of constitutional
republican government was betrayed, even as the builders feared.
Unawares to the people, the exalted Executive principle could
involve them in a war."
have to remember that, back then, the Caesar principle had
not been voiced, let alone generally accepted. The idea that
the President has the power to single-handedly run the foreign
policy of the United States, as an extension of his imperial
will, was heresy, a doctrine advanced only by pure stealth.
Aid to England "short of war," Garrett knew, meant
that the U.S. had entered the war without the knowledge or
consent of either the people or their representatives many
months before Pearl Harbor.
people had not been told what was taking place," wrote
Garrett on the occasion of the 1940 presidential election.
Congress has not been told. The President did it all by executive
will, one thing at a time, and the news came afterward, not
in any case, perhaps, all of the news, but as much only as
was necessary for the people and the Congress to know."
leftists of today think of Richard Nixon and Bush the Younger
as not only incipient tyrants but pioneers in the presidential
prerogative of obsessive secrecy and outright duplicity in
wartime. On this score, however, FDR had both beat by a mile.
Nixon, after all, openly proclaimed his intent on "regime
change" in Hanoi, as did Bush 43 in Baghdad. On the other
hand, FDR vowed not to get us into the European war, and
interpreted this as a license to get us into that war
through the Asian back door: he had secretly agreed to defend
Britain's Eastasian colonies, ensuring that Japan would become
the third spoke in the wheel of the Axis. On the civil liberties
front, it has to be said that Nixon never even considered
locking up all Vietnamese-Americans in concentration camps,
and there is probably no truth to the rumor that Susan Sarandon
is about to be cast in the role of an "enemy combatant."
literature of the Old Right is enjoying a renaissance such
as I imagined but did not dare predict in my 1993 book, Reclaiming
the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.
"The history of the modern conservative movement in America
is really the history of two movements," I wrote.
Old Right, the original Right, was nationalist, populist,
and fundamentally libertarian. The cold war Right, dominated
in large part by ex-leftist converts to conservatism, was
militantly internationalist, increasingly elitist, and largely
indifferent to free market economics indifferent, indeed,
to virtually anything but the crusade against Communism."
Old Right's quarrel
with the neoconservatives over Gulf War II has widened
the gulf between these two streams of ostensibly conservative
thought. While today the crusade against Communism has given
way to the jihad against Islam, and the indifference to all
the neoconservatives' former goals (smaller government, fiscal
sanity, domestic economic issues) is more obvious than ever,
the lions of the Old Right, as Pat Buchanan called them, have
much to say to the present day generation.
like to think that my modest 1993 attempt to reexamine the
legacy of the Old Right had something to do with the current
revival of interest in figures such as Garrett, and John
T. Flynn, although to be sure their brilliance and relevance
would have recommended them to us in any event. The timeliness
of this collection edited by Bruce Ramsey, a
veteran newspaperman who writes a
weekly opinion piece for the Seattle Times, couldn't
have been better.
editorial broadsides against the Rooseveltian effort to impose
an American form of the collectivist systems that took hold
in Germany, Italy, and Soviet Russia, have already been gathered
together by Ramsey into a separate book, Salvos
Against the New Deal. Together with Defending America
First, Caxton Press has given us two bookends that, between
them, summarize the history of the Old Right's long war against
renaissance of the Old Right revival owes a debt of gratitude
to Bruce Ramsey, whose introduction to the present volume
correctly fits Garrett's life and ideas into the paradigm
of an authentic American nationalism that manages to retain
its libertarian core values without too much contradiction.
Ramsey points to Buchanan and the paleoconservatives, as well
as congressman Ron Paul
and us libertarians, as Garrett's heirs and legatees.
also does us the very great favor of including, as
an Appendix, Garrett's stunning essay on "The Mortification
of History" – one of my top favorites which first appeared
in the defiantly anti-interventionist Chicago Tribune
in the autumn of 1943, wherein he answers the question of
what is meant by the smear-word "isolationism."
In his vivid and highly idiosyncratic prose, Garrett shows
that the stereotypical troglodyte living in seclusion was
never a part of the American character:
you say of this history that its intense character has been
nationalistic, consistently so from the beginning until now,
that is true. Therefore, the word in place of isolationism
hat would make sense is nationalism. Why is the right word
explanation must be that the wrong one, for what it is intended
to do, is the perfect political word. Since isolationism cannot
be defined, those who attack it are not obliged to defend
themselves. What are they? Anti-isolationists? But if you
cannot say what isolationism is, neither can you say what
anti-isolationism is, whereas nationalism, being definite,
has a positive antithesis. One who attacks nationalism is
decision to attack "isolationists" as the partisans
of the Hermit Republic was tactical, and the result, for the
internationalists, was that they would never have to openly
state their own position and political goals:
use of the obscurity created by the false word is to conceal
something. The thing to be concealed is the identity of what
is speaking. Internationalism is speaking."
internationalism did not speak in its own name. Today, it
does so fearlessly, at least among the intellectuals if not
yet so quite boldly among their political camp followers.
Garrett, if we are to name a school after his tradition, might
be termed the exact opposite of the modern internationalist:
a market nationalist, who championed American enterprise and
national sovereignty as twin principles inextricably intertwined.
reissue of these short editorials may, one hopes, lead to
the republication of Garrett's numerous other works, most
especially the trilogy consisting of The
Revolution Was, Ex
America, and Rise of Empire, gathered together
in the 1950s and published as The
People's Pottage. His book, The Wild Wheel,
a paean to the entrepreneurial spirit that animated innovators
like Henry Ford, and his early meditations on "the mechanical
extension of mankind" are precursors of the libertarian
techno-optimism links the tendency toward human freedom with
the liberation of humankind from the tyranny of nature. He
was a novelist, too, and his serials for the Saturday Evening
Post are rich in possibilities for reprinting, especially
for publishers of midwestern Americana like Caxton. And what
about what is arguably Garrett's best full-length book, The
American Story? It is a history of the American Republic
as seen through the eyes of a libertarian patriot whose view
of it was summarized early in the text:
American revolution was a pilot flame that leaped the Atlantic
and lighted holocaust in the Old World. But its character
was misunderstood and could not have been reproduced by any
other people. It was a revolution exemplary."
such a book has much to say to us today.
by the way, is one
of the oldest publishing houses in the country, and brought
out many of the original editions of Garrett's works, including
the "People's Pottage" trilogy. I look forward to
the expansion of their political books in this mode, which
might be termed Old Right Americana.
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