The Rise And Fall Of The American Empire
Liberals are for peace and prosperity, Conservatives are for war and business; liberals are pacifists, conservatives are warmongers. Or so you could decide after watching the dismal landscape of the neo-Conservative Right in the age of the War on Terror. Yet there is a long, honorable and mostly hidden tradition of antiwar thought and action among the Conservative movement in America. It stretches from the Federalists of old who opposed the War of 1812 and the civic-minded conservative elite critics of the Spanish-American War. The history continues through the Isolationists who formed the backbone of the pre–World War II America First movement and the conservative Republicans who voted against U.S. involvement in the League of Nations, NATO and Vietnam. Although they are barely audible amid the hawkish clamoring of today’s shock-and-awe Right, libertarians and traditionalist conservatives are among the sharpest critics of the Iraq War and the imperial project of the current neo-con Republicans.
I would argue that while it is accepted that Liberalism has indeed lost it’s way, so has the conservative movement as well. Liberals can’t even call themselves liberals anymore. They use the term Progressives as if they can hide behind some identity wall. A rose by any other name would still smell, I think that’s the way it goes. Anyway Liberalism is all but dead in America, but it has been co-opted by the Imperial ruling class of our nation. As has the once great rising Conservative movement in America seems to have been taken prisoner by the neo-con forces of the day that have learned to tax and spend their way to votes.
In expressing true Conservatism it’s simply people who want no part of foreign wars and who want to be allowed to live their own lives without interference from the government. The antiwar Right has put forth a critique of foreign intervention that is idealistic, historically grounded, and deeply entrenched in the American experience. Just because the neo cons are a blip in our history and are ignorant of history doesn’t mean that true conservatives have to swallow this profoundly un-American Empire.
Most people today especially young people would be of the opinion that if you’re against war that you’re a Liberal. Not true, in fact historically Conservatives have been the ones derided as Isolationists.
The terms Right and Left are thought of as good and evil, and in fact many on each side do think, of their side as masterful and the other as evil. We need to correct the current situation so that there remains no more confusion. So my “Right” is capacious enough to include Jeffersonian libertarians and Jefferson-hating Federalists, Senators Cabot Lodge and Robert Taft, southern populists, Midwestern cornhuskers and Beacon Streeters. They also include the cranky Nebraska tax cutters and little old ladies in tennis shoes marching against the United Nations and free-market economists protesting the draft. They are soccer moms and generation X’ers who distrust institutions. My Conservatives are in the mainstream of our nation, suspicious of government power, bureaucracy and in favor of small government in general. They are so genuinely conservative that they cherish the idea of home and hearth and family.
Rooted in the Farewell Address of George Washington, telling such conservative-tinged antiwar movements as the Anti-Imperialist League, which said no to U.S. colonialism in the Philippines, finding regret and knowing expression in the extraordinary oratory in which President Dwight Eisenhower warned his citizens against the “military-industrial complex,” the conservative case against American Empire and militarism remains forceful and important. It is no museum piece, as if it was something of antiquity. It reverberates wise and deserves revival, but before it can be revived, it must be unburied and lifted up for all to see. Men who faced wars and chose to say no, that isn’t the American way for the most part were Conservatives who were against wars from the beginning of our nation through to today. A good example of a modern Conservative is Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. His message of smaller government, staying out of war and ending the Fed are cornerstones of modern American Conservatism.
On the other hand we continue to try to label each other as right and left, liberal and conservative to try to make ourselves correct and our dissenters wrong.
I am constantly amazed that the most interesting American political figures cannot be squeezed into the constricted and lifeless labels of liberal or conservative. It would be difficult to call George Washington or Abe Lincoln one or the other and certainly both sides want to claim them. Nor do I accept the simpleminded division of our vast and demographically changing country into red and blue, for to paint Colorado, Kansas, and Alabama requires every color in the spectrum. It is much easier I think to read most people as from Purple states. They are right leaning conservative by nature and have a great desire to be left alone by their government. Above all the average American fears most what has been created and now exists, they have feared empire. They have feared what we have wrought.
The pen-named Garet Garrett a novelist and individualist, and a once-reliable staff member for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1953, he set down a quintet of imperial requisites that describe empire. First, that the executive power of the government shall be dominant. That certainly seems to be the case today. Secondly that domestic policy becomes subordinate to foreign policy. Thirdly, ascendancy of the military mind to such a point at last that the civilian mind is intimidated. In the fourth place a system of satellite nations. Finally a complex of vaunting and fear, which certainly seems appropriate for today. Between “Constitutional, representative, limited government, on the one hand, and Empire on the other hand, there is mortal enmity,” wrote Garrett.
More than fifty thousand American boys had died—for what?—on the Korean peninsula. This was the first of a long line of military conflicts that US Presidents would engage in without congressional approval. Truman had refused to obtain from Congress a formal declaration of war. As we have seen our executive branch has made our constitution something that can be manipulated with tricks and legalese. This was what our founding fathers had warned against and over the past sixty plus years is what has come to pass.
Why did these men of the “Right” oppose expansion, war, and empire? In contemporary America, where have all the followers gone? They seem to have been kidnapped by the neo cons so in love with the bellicose thunder of war. I’m here to spread the word that we’re still here and ready to retake our Conservative movement.
As Bill Kauffman puts it in his profound Ain’t My America, “from the Republic’s beginning, Americans of conservative temperament have been skeptical of manifest destiny and crusades for democracy. They have agreed with Daniel Webster that “there must be some limit to the extent of our territory, if we are to make our institutions permanent. The Government is very likely to be endangered . . . by a further enlargement of its already vast territorial surface.” Is it really worth trading in the Republic for southwestern scrubland? Webster’s point was remade, just as futilely, by the Anti-Imperialist League. It was repeated by those conservatives who supplied virtually the only opposition to the admission of Hawaii and Alaska to the Union. As the Texas Democrat Kenneth M. Regan told the House when he vainly argued against stitching a forty-ninth star on the flag, “I fear for the future of the country if we start taking in areas far from our own shores that we will have to protect with our money, our guns, and our men, instead of staying here and looking after the heritage we were left by George Washington, who told us to beware of any foreign entanglements.”
In America throughout the twentieth century, and including four substantial wars abroad, conservatives had been consistently the voices of non-inflationary military budgets, and an emphasis on trade in the world instead of American nationalism. In the two World Wars, in Korea, and in Viet Nam, the leaders of American entry into war were such renowned liberals as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. In all four episodes conservatives, both in the national government and in the rank and file, were largely opposed to all of those wars. Again I say these things not so much to inflict labels upon people as much as to educate the masses who thirst to know the true answers to these questions.
Today’s self described conservatives loathe and detest anyone who speaks for peace. FDR and Truman join Ronald Reagan in the trinity of favorite presidents of the contemporary neo cons; those Old Rightists who harbor doubts about U.S. entry into the world wars or our Korean or Vietnam conflicts that were scripted, launched, and propagandized for by liberal Democrats are dismissed as cranks.
Vice President Dick Cheney charged that the Democrats wanted to “retreat behind our oceans”—which an earlier generation of peace-minded Republicans had considered a virtuous policy consistent with George Washington’s warning to avoid foreign entanglements and alliances.
In pre-imperial America, conservatives objected to war and empire out of a fervent regard for personal liberty, a balanced budget, the free enterprise system, and federalism. These concerns came together under the umbrella of the misunderstood America First Committee, the largest popular antiwar organization in U.S. history. The AFC was formed in 1940 to keep the United States out of a second European war that many Americans feared would be a repeat of the first. A group that had over eight hundred thousand members who ranged from rich to poor, from Main Street Republican to rural populist, America First preached and acted upon George Washington’s Farewell Address counsel to pursue a foreign policy of neutrality. Of course after the attack on Pearl Harbor they were all but crucified. As the America Firsters discovered, protesting war is a lousy career move.
These brave men and women also insisted that dissent can be patriotic. For protesting the drive to war in 1941, Charles Lindbergh was called a Nazi by the establishment under Roosevelt. For challenging the constitutionality of Harry Truman’s Korean conflict, Senator Robert Taft would be labeled a commie sympathizer. That Pat Buchanan would be called an anti-Semite for noting the role that Israel’s supporters played in driving the United States into the two invasions of Iraq. Same as it ever was, if you disagree with the executive branch especially in the age of the Imperial Presidency you are often lonely. Isn’t that what being a real Conservative is after all, a harkening back to better times by a strong but smaller minority. Senator Taft was vigorous in his debate against the Korean War in January 1951 during the brief debate over Korea and NATO strategy between hawkish liberal Democrats and peace-minded conservative Republican. Taft said that “Criticisms are met by the calling of names rather than by intelligent debate.” So true, more than ever before are those resonating voices from descent over the War of 1812 to descent over the Middle East Wars of today.
Edgar Masters, the Spoon River Anthology poet and states’-rights Democrat who threw away his career by writing of Abraham Lincoln as a guileful empire builder. Masters recalled of the Spanish-American War: “There was great opposition to the war over the country, but at that time an American was permitted to speak out against a war if he chose to do so.” Masters had lived through the frenzied persecutions of antiwar dissidents under the liberal Democrat Woodrow Wilson. He had little patience with rosy colored patriotic images about wars for human rights and the betterment of mankind. He knew that war meant death and taxes, those very real inevitabilities that become the focus of government propaganda to support their endeavors. The antiwar Middle Americanism that he represented has never gone away. It surfaced even during Vietnam, that showpiece war of the best and brightest establishment liberal Democrats. President Johnson’s War, the military industrial complex’s war of imperial conquest.
Most conservative Republicans were gung-ho on Vietnam, discarding their erstwhile preference for limited constitutional government, the right-wing antiwar banner was carried by such libertarians as Murray Rothbard and some in Congress led by the fiscally conservative Iowa Republican congressman H. R. Gross, who said no to the war on the simple if not wholly adequate grounds that it cost too much.
The Iraq war of George Bush has rekindled the old antiwar spirit of the true Conservatives. Of course, both Republicans and Democrats have fretted mightily over recent opinions from the Council on Foreign Relations showing that the American people are reverting to isolationism, which the council defines as hostility toward foreigners. I think the very idea of isolationism is wholesome, peaceful, conservative and very American. The reluctance to intervene in the political and military struggles of other nations is at the heart of our early American tradition.
A Pew Research Center survey in the fall of 2005 found, 42 percent of Americans agreed that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” As a Pew press release noted, over the last forty years “only in 1976 and 1995 did public opinion tilt this far toward isolationism.”
Democrats were “twice as likely as Republicans to say the U.S. should mind its own business internationally,” a sign of just how successful the neoconservatives have been in reshaping the GOP mindset. A decade earlier, Pew found no substantial difference in isolationist attitudes among Republican and Democratic partisans. In the true heart of most Americans lies a strong desire to be left alone and to leave others alone to solve their own problems. This is not a democrat or republican thing, it is an American thing.
In spite of our current Wilsonian approach to trying to use the U.S. military to construct a democratic Middle East, this is not what our people want. Pew also found that encouraging democracy in other nations comes in last in the foreign-policy priorities of Americans. Only 24 percent of respondents affirmed that goal compared to 84 percent who favored protecting jobs of American workers and 51 percent who placed reducing illegal immigration atop their list. Protecting American jobs and immigration reform are classic themes of the conservative movement. Men like Patrick Buchanan and Ronald Paul are great examples of this isolationist sentiment. There is nothing cowardly about these Middle Americans who are against foreign wars. In fact they are acting in the best traditions of their ancestors. The history of conservatism or small-government, or even Republican hostility to militarism and empire is not a modern view shared by many. These traditions are unheralded but truly are at the heart of what our founding fathers believed.
In current teaching of history and politics we view making war as a conservative’s dream, when it’s actually a nightmare for the real conservative. For all they know, Robert Taft and Cabot Lodge might as well be Fidel Castro. Yet there is a grumbling by the Right, who understand the potential of an anti-interventionist electoral wave. Now people are once more asking the never-answered question of the isolationist, why in world are we over there? A question that has many answers and almost all the answers end up in tattered dreams and dead Americans.
Our revolution itself was a conservative movement. A group of men decided that keeping their liberty was more important than belonging to the empire of their day. The same way we need to restore our nation to it’s original ideas of small government and liberty for it’s citizens in a true republic. There is nothing conservative about the American Empire. It seeks to destroy, which is why good conservatives, those loyal to family and home and our best traditions.
In fact it should be said very clearly that we must work for the peaceful dismantling of the American empire. It’s my hope to educate and illuminate the public so that we can take back our country and restore it to the principals of liberty that it was founded on.