The progressive statesman Robert La Follette and the libertarian writer Albert Jay Nock epitomized the polar extremes in early 20th-century American politics on all issues having to do with the role of the federal government in society. Yet from different premises they reached the same conclusion about the evils of imperialism and agreed that the United States should follow the counsel of George Washington in his Farewell Address by shunning militarism, staying home, and minding the country’s own business. Their shared views about the danger posed by the American Empire constitute a historical lesson in need of remembrance today.
La Follette’s early career gave no indication of his future role as a champion of anti-imperialism. During the 1880s, as a young Republican congressman from Wisconsin, the political figure he most admired was William McKinley, then an establishment congressman from Ohio. La Follette’s support for the highly protectionist McKinley Tariff of 1890 cost him his seat in Congress that year. He retired to private life as a lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin.
By the time he returned to politics, as governor of the state in 1901, his ideological horizons had been expanded considerably by Henry Demarest Lloyd’s 1894 book Wealth Against Commonwealth. Lloyd’s indictment of the corporations and the banks as a menace to the common good and his passionate advocacy of state intervention in the economy made a profound impression on La Follette. More than any other single factor, this book launched him on his career as a progressive politician.
As governor for the next six years, La Follette embodied progressivism in the United States. His administration, supported by leading professors at the University of Wisconsin, championed reforms against the state’s monopolies and trusts. He raised taxes on the railroads and other corporations. He also increased inheritance taxes to go along with a graduated income tax. With bolstered revenues, Wisconsin built up its education system and became the most progressive state in the nation.
La Follette returned to Washington in 1906 as a United States senator. Though much changed in his thinking about domestic politics, he remained a McKinley Republican on foreign affairs. He ardently had supported President McKinley during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Filipino-American War that broke out the following year. In 1906, he continued to endorse the American military presence in the Philippines.
He did not begin to change his mind about foreign policy until 1911, during the William Howard Taft administration. Once again, books marked a turning point in La Follette’s thinking, particularly John Kenneth Turner’s 1910 Barbarous Mexico, which he described as “a great book bearing on [the] administration’s military and other operations through [the] departments of state and justice.” Turner’s analysis of Mexico as a fiefdom under the control of New York investors shocked La Follette.
In the 1912 election, La Follette supported Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson, after his own candidacy for the Republican nomination went down to defeat, primarily through the opposition of former president Theodore Roosevelt. For La Follette there could be no question of supporting Taft, whom he despised as a rank reactionary, or the third-party candidacy of Roosevelt, whom he hated as a bitter political rival and a fake progressive ever inclined to carry out reforms for the benefit of business, not the people.
By 1912 La Follette envisaged progressivism as a cause for both Democrats and Republicans. The movement stood for empowering the people to take back their government from the lobbies and employ it for the common good. In foreign affairs, he interpreted progressivism to mean a peaceful engagement with the rest of the world. He thought that we could not have peace if our foreign policy continued to consist primarily of initiatives for the advancement of Wall Street’s interests.
Soon La Follette began to criticize Wilson’s Mexico policy as well, and his antagonism toward the president became implacable when the administration began to take the country into World War I. La Follette led the opposition in the U.S. Senate to Wilson’s interventionist policy. In his April 4, 1917 speech opposing the president’s call for a democratic crusade against Germany, La Follette said that nothing could be worse for the country than an elective war for spurious reasons.
In the anti-interventionist campaign, La Follette acquired an ally in the antiwar journalist Albert Jay Nock. Their sporadic and always strained cooperation furnishes a highly suggestive precedent for similar alliances in American politics today. Nock had supported Wilson in 1916 for keeping the United States out of war. By July of the following year, however, with America in the fighting, he would write to Atlantic editor Ellery Sedgwick that a war for trade routes had been dressed up by Wilson to look like a noble exercise in moral uplift.
Nock’s antiwar views appealed to Nation editor Oswald Garrison Villard, who gave him a job writing editorials in the fall of 1917. Nock’s libertarian views complicated his relationship with the magazine, however. He liked Villard but scoffed at the Nation’s progressive liberalism, explaining in 1919 after leaving the magazine, “one can’t waste energy on that.” The next year he founded The Freeman, which H.L. Mencken would praise as one of the glories of American letters, especially for Nock’s brilliant editorials.
In addition to La Follette’s liberal politics, which he found tediously jejune, the Wisconsin senator’s eventual enthusiasm for Wilson’s war disappointed Nock. After his initial opposition, La Follette had reasoned that as a United States senator he had a moral obligation to support a democratically declared war. Then, upon listening to Wilson’s idealistic Fourteen Points address on January 8, 1918, La Follette allowed that the war could be justified as the crusade for democracy that the president had said it was.
Only after reading the Versailles Treaty and John Maynard Keynes’s denunciation of the Paris conference in The Economic Consequences of the Peace did La Follette conclude that Wilson had deceived the American people. No less important to La Follette’s postwar thinking about the conflict was Nock’s Myth of a Guilty Nation, a volume based on articles he had written for The Freeman. Excerpts from this book appeared in the April 1922 issue of La Follette’s Magazine, a periodical—today known as The Progressive—that the senator had founded in 1909.
In his editor’s introduction, La Follette praised Nock for exposing the Wilson administration’s collusion with the purveyors of British propaganda. Germany, Nock claimed, was the country least responsible for causing the war. British imperialism had been a much greater factor in the international turmoil immediately preceding the calamity that brought death to more than 16 million Europeans.
Nock’s comparison of the prewar military budgets of the combatant powers turned inside out American suppositions about the war. That America’s peace-loving brother democracy, Britain, consistently had outspent the allegedly warmongering Germany seemed to Nock like an important detail, one that might shed light on the question of which imperialist country actually bestrode the globe like a military colossus.
Nock described the Versailles settlement essentially as a capitulation to British imperialism. The peace conference had ended with the British gaining all of the objectives outlined in the secret treaties negotiated among the Allies during the war. Upon taking power in Russia, the Bolsheviks had revealed the contents of these agreements. The Allies had a keen interest in the Middle East territories of the Ottoman Empire, above all for the oil there. To Nock it seemed obvious that the war had been fought for the reasons disclosed by the secret treaties—for the acquisition or preservation of markets, territories, and resources. It was a war of big business for bigger business.
The government in Washington conformed to the pattern set by the other imperialist powers. As a libertarian, Nock found it impossible to believe in the goodness of any government, including his own. He would flesh out fully this political philosophy in his 1935 book, Our Enemy, The State. Even in The Myth of a Guilty Nation, Nock made clear his libertarian antipathies toward state power American-style. He judged Wilson to be the great genius of American politics, in that the president had fulfilled its potential as a delusional system. He had led his people into the war with stirring phrases about the coming apotheosis of democracy. They had foolishly believed him. Instead of the promised results, however, the fighting had ended in a depressingly familiar imperialist division of spoils among the victors.
Nock’s Myth of a Guilty Nation reinforced the revisionist rebuttal to official interpretations of the war. He had already played an important role in promoting revisionism earlier by arranging for the U.S. publication of Francis Neilson’s How Diplomats Make War in 1915. A pacifist and a former member of the British Parliament, Neilson documented how foreign office machinations, particularly in Britain, had led to the war. He would become Nock’s partner in founding The Freeman.
Significantly influenced by Nock, La Follette became a zealous convert to the revisionist cause. He felt the need to go to Europe to see for himself the war’s appalling consequences and gain a deeper understanding of world affairs. La Follette had never been out of the country, but in August 1923 he embarked on a three-month trip that took him to England, France, Germany, Russia, and Italy, among several other countries. He most wanted to see for himself conditions in war-ravaged Germany and the communist experiment in revolutionary Russia.
What La Follette found in Europe left him aghast. Reading an American vice-consul’s report about the turmoil in Germany, he became aware of Adolf Hitler’s existence. It did not surprise him that the evil postwar order had given rise to fanatical movements, such as the Nazis. La Follette witnessed the horrors of the Allied occupation in Germany—the starving children, the unemployed men, the cruelty of the occupying French troops, the frightful effects of the criminally stupid decision to maintain a blockade of the country long after the war had ended as leverage for the collecting extortionate reparations from a people unable to feed themselves or to provide fuel for the approaching winter. Such a taunt to the gods would earn retribution, he felt certain.
La Follette’s travels in the Soviet Union and fascist Italy introduced him to the tyranny of communism and fascism. He condemned both dictatorships, observing that political systems without freedom, especially for critics of the government, did not deserve to survive. He returned home in October 1923 and began to think about running for president. In an age of ascendant dictatorships left and right, America, it seemed to him, did not possess a real democratic polity with which to oppose fascism and communism effectively. He feared that the American system had degenerated into a business dictatorship under the real control of Wall Street. That the Democrats chose John Davis, a lawyer for the corporations, to oppose Calvin Coolidge, who thought that the chief business of the American people was business, confirmed La Follette in his belief that the country existed now only for the benefit of the tycoons.
La Follette based his 1924 third-party Progressive campaign for the presidency on an anti-corruption and revisionist platform. He had been tempted to leave the Republican Party but always before had decided to stay in the hope that its reform impulse could be revived. The Harding-Coolidge regime, a dream come true for the financial sector and a new golden age for American economic imperialism in Latin America and Asia, convinced him that the spirit of Lincoln no longer had a home in the Republican Party.
Nock, by contrast, had no interest in supporting the cause of progressivism or any political party. Before the war, he had worked alongside many of the leading progressive muckrakers at The American Magazine, as one of them. He shared their repugnance for the trusts then monopolizing American economic life, but progressive panaceas seemed to him hopeless. He remembered in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man: “Their acceptance of the State as a social institution amazed me, since its anti-social character was so plainly visible.”
La Follette’s vision of a government truly controlled by the people, Nock contended, always would be a pipe dream. Government regulation of business in the progressive manner would end by augmenting the power of the master class, who always control any state system. Money, as La Follette should have learned after all his decades in politics, was a permanent part of Washington’s ecology. Nock recalled how he once had praised La Follette for some action of his in the Senate. La Follette had replied, “Yes, but the trouble is you don’t believe what I am doing amounts to a damn.” Nock had to admit, “It was true enough, and I was sorry…”
Their disagreement about the role of the federal government in American society would persist until La Follette’s heart stopped beating on June 18, 1925, just after he reached his 70th birthday. Yet the two men came to the same conclusions about the moral, military, and financial disaster sure to ensue from American imperialism. La Follette went into his final campaign with a critique of American foreign policy based on his own travel experiences and his extensive reading, in which Nock figured as a major influence.
Coolidge won reelection easily in 1924, despite the burden of the Teapot Dome scandal borne by the Republicans. The Roaring Twenties drowned out La Follette’s valedictory warnings to the American people about their rendezvous with decline and fall under the leadership of corrupt Washington imperialists. That same year, Nock resigned from The Freeman and resumed a peripatetic existence as an author of whom it could not be said, as he observed in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, that his books ever had enriched a publisher. In the following decade he became obsessed with FDR’s “coup d’ètat of 1932.” He continued to see the state as the nemesis of mankind. The New Deal, fascism, and communism all seemed to be different aspects of the same phenomenon to him: the unstoppable march of mankind toward enslavement.
The last pages of Nock’s memoirs, published in 1943, make for extremely depressing reading. Nothing ever could be done for society, the activities of reformers generally producing pernicious results. Men habitually fight and exploit each other as an irremediable condition of life. Democrats and Republicans differ in such insignificant ways that elections no longer need be held. Western culture today is at about the point in its historical trajectory where ancient Rome was in the fourth century A.D. The world is moving steadily toward collectivism, which inevitably will result in military despotism and re-barbarization.
Nock could not think of a single positive remark to make in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man about “the present period of disintegration and dissolution.” He personally had enjoyed a good and happy life, which was nearing its end—he would die on August 19, 1945 at the age of 74. In Nock’s last years, libertarianism seemed like a lost cause to him. He still believed in it but without any hope for its triumph.
All Nock had to fall back on as he contemplated World War II, and the certainty of its outcome in the drastic augmentation of state power, was the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, whom he quoted often in the autobiography. The Roman emperor had taught him how to endure heartbreak and the dashing of hope by responding to the vicissitudes of life impassively, come what may. For Nock, politics, foreign policy, wars, and empires had by then lost their significance. La Follette never reached such a point. He lived up to his nickname, “Fighting Bob,” to the end, wanting only more time to warn the American people about their peril and to expose the imperialist greed and hubris that threatened to destroy the last best hope of earth.
At their best, La Follette and Nock stood in the front rank of the old Republic’s defenders. They did not fight shoulder-to-shoulder—their differences were too great for a relationship of that kind. Together, however, they gave eloquent voice to the classic progressive and libertarian elements of a noble anti-imperialist American tradition.
Richard Drake is the author of The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion.