Bill Kauffman writes prose—history, novels, journalism—but he is a poet and a prophet. His task in Ain’t My America is to remind us of who we are: a Republic, not an empire, a nation of families and towns, not barracks and bases. Kauffman writes to restore conservatives to their senses. No more war, please. Remember your ancestors. Remember Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. What has passed for the Right since the Cold War isn’t right in any sense, and Kauffman sets out to prove it.
Antiwar, “Little America” conservatism was present at the creation of the Republic. Revolutionaries like Patrick Henry, having thrown off the yoke of British empire, were not about to set up a centralized fiscal-military state in the former colonies. “I abominate and detest the idea of government, where there is a standing army,” George Mason told Virginia’s ratifying convention.
Unfortunately, Anti-Federalists like Mason and Henry set the practical as well as philosophical precedent for future conservatives—they failed. A stronger central government with heightened war-making powers, sufficient to put down Whiskey rebels—tax rebels, actually—and Daniel Shays, took root. Even so, the victorious Federalists were no imperialists. On the contrary, they opposed Thomas Jefferson’s designs to build an inland “Empire of Liberty” with the Louisiana Purchase. “As you extend your limits you increase the difficulties arising from a want of that similarity of customs, habits, and manners so essential for its support,” warned Connecticut Federalist Roger Griswold. Neighbors might be friends; strangers had to be unified by laws.
Neither Federalists nor Jeffersonian Republicans were consistently antiwar. The former raised a navy, and taxes, under John Adams to fight a Quasi-War with France. Republicans invaded Canada and kicked off the War of 1812. The most implacable opponent of that conflict—a foe of almost all militarism and expansion, in fact—was John Randolph of Roanoke, a Republican himself, as well as “a habitual opium user, a bachelor who seems to have nurtured a crush on Andrew Jackson,” Kauffman tells us, and an exemplary American conservative. The history of Randolph and his fellow dissident Republicans, the Tertium Quids, is samizdat in George Bush’s America. “Today, most of those old battles are forgotten,” neocon Robert Kagan assures us, “No one recalls that John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline—more Jeffersonian than Jefferson himself—railed against the War of 1812.” Not so, Bob. Bill Kauffman remembers, and he won’t let America forget.
Partisans of peace in the Old Republic included poets as well as statesmen. Kauffman not only writes with literary flair of his own, he quotes generously from antiwar poets and songwriters. “Once upon a time in America,” he says, “poets engaged in public discourse and sought consulates instead of endowed chairs.” William Cullen Bryant abominated the War of 1812; Emerson and John Greenleaf Whittier took their stands against the Mexican War.
The Little America tradition remained strong, if at all turns unsuccessful, through the Spanish-American War, the opposition to which, most notably the Anti-Imperialist League, was filled with classical liberals like Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner and was funded by (mostly) small businessmen—a conservative coalition. “They spoke for … a land of creeks, not oceans; shops, not factories; modesty and sly humor, not bluster and brass,” Kauffman writes. And this was no mere protest movement: prominent politicians like Democratic ex-president Grover Cleveland and such stalwart Republicans as Senators Justin Morrill of Vermont—a founder of the Grand Old Party, no less—and George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts supported the cause.
Resistance to U.S. entry into World War I arose from many of the same segments of society that had stood against the Spanish-American War. “The opposition to the war came mostly from farmers, old-school classical liberals, pacifists, Main Street Republican isolationists, and socialists,” Kauffman relates. But this time, “The balance tilted leftward”:
The Left distinguished itself in 1917, while the Right, as it would in future conflicts, threw in with a liberal war president. That it took Socialists to circulate a pamphlet with the libertarian title No Conscription, No Involuntary Servitude, No Slavery is an indictment of the individualistic Right.
The ranks of old-guard Republicans like Morrill and Hoar had thinned by 1917, leaving right-wing antiwar sentiment to be expressed by such unsavory figures as Mississippi arch-segregationist Sen. James Vardaman. He damned Wilson’s interventionism and denounced “the un-American principle of compulsory military training.” That cost him his Senate seat—an equally segregationist hawk replaced him.
After Woodrow Wilson’s misadventure, opposition to further bleeding America for Europe multiplied. The anti-interventionists of the interwar years had a sense of humor: satirical Veterans of Future Wars chapters sprang up on 584 college campuses, along with local variations such as the Future Profiteers and Future Golddiggers. These young doves were also budget hawks; according to Kauffman, they believed “a policy of preemptive fiscal conservatism would stop war before it started.”
As World War II approached, the America First Committee assembled. It was the largest antiwar organization in U.S. history—and is perhaps the most maligned. Drawing on the work of historians Wayne Cole and Justus Doenecke, Kauffman sets the record straight: America First was not anti-Semitic or pro-German. A single unvetted speech by Charles Lindbergh asserted that “the three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.” Lindbergh had his defenders, a young Kurt Vonnegut among them, but leaders of America First like John T. Flynn, the anti-New Deal journalist who was head of the New York chapter, were aghast. Kauffman argues that this anomalous speech should not besmirch the organization: Lindbergh “was one man in the last broad peace movement in American history, almost a million strong.”
Even during the Cold War, when an interventionist anti-Communism largely defined the Right, antiwar conservatives persevered. Felix Morley, co-founder of Human Events, was one of them. Others included traditionalist conservatives Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, who made little attempt to conceal their thoughts about what militarism meant for the nation’s social order. “Nothing has proved more destructive of kinship, religion, and local patriotism,” wrote Nisbet, “than has war and the accompanying military mind.”
In Congress, there was Sen. Robert A. Taft—known as “Mr. Republican,” though he narrowly lost the party’s presidential nomination in 1952—and Taft’s even more anti-interventionist ’52 campaign manager, Nebraska Congressman Howard Buffett, father of Warren and an uncompromising foe of war and government growth (or do I repeat myself?). There was also Congressman H.R. Gross (R-Ind.), noted in his New York Times obituary for his “tight-fisted approach to fiscal matters and his strong isolationist views on foreign policy.” Gross “railed against the space program, foreign aid, congressional junkets abroad, and every post office and bridge he could find,” says Kauffman. And Kentucky Republican Eugene Siler, a devout Baptist, cast the sole “no” vote in the House against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. (Gross voted “present.”)
Taft died in 1953, Buffet in 1964. Siler retired in ’65, and Gross stepped down a decade later. A new crop of antiwar Republicans succeeded them—Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, Illinois Sen. Charles Percy, Kentucky Sens. John Sherman Cooper and Thruston B. Morton. But the real spiritual successors to the Old Right, Kauffman argues, were on the other side of the political spectrum: “The words of Buffett, of Morley, of Taft, could be discerned in the tunes of the New Left.” Not coincidentally, the only antiwar candidate to win the nomination of either major party during the Cold War was a man of the Left, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern.
Then again, Kauffman suggests, this “soft-spoken man of the prairies” may have been “the most conservative of the serious presidential aspirants” of the era, “after Bob Taft and Eugene McCarthy.” Kauffman is a persuasive McGovern revisionist, and old George’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed “Freedom Means Responsibility” certainly struck a libertarian chord: “under the guise of protecting us from ourselves,” he wrote, “the right and the left are becoming ever more aggressive in regulating behavior.” Acid, amnesty, and abortion? Or antiwar, anti-centralist, and authentically American?
The end of the Cold War should have been the end of the imperial Right. But it wasn’t. Instead things got worse instead of better under two Bushes and two terms of Clinton. Today, writes Kauffman,
The Republicans in the age of George W. Bush have become a war party, nothing less and certainly nothing more. Dissident GOP voices are rare and unwelcome echoes. Among the Democrats, it is the most culturally conservative national figures (Senators Robert Byrd of West Virginia and James Webb of Virginia) who have the guts and convictions to take on the Bush policy of hyperinterventionism.
Eleven House Republicans voted against Gulf War 2: The Phantom Menace. Only two of them are still in office—though, thankfully, they are the two most conservative: Ron Paul of Texas and Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee. They have since been joined in dissent by North Carolina’s Walter Jones, who has owned up to making a mistake in voting for the war. These three almost seem the last of their breed. “Together, the Christian Right and the neoconservatives dedicated the GOP—exiled from Main Street—to war and empire” Kauffman laments. “Iraq II was only the beginning—or so they prayed.”
The antiwar Right is used to losing: we have about 200 years’ experience in that line. The marvel is that we have survived at all against the most efficient killing machine ever invented—the modern state. Failure has had a steep price, but the cost of not resisting would have been even greater. Kauffman’s last chapter shows what war has done to our families, our towns, our culture—even our night skies, as war-perverts dream of planting missiles on the moon. “The social costs, in forms ranging from the nationalization of child care to booming divorce rates are monuments to the hypocrisy of conservatives,” Kauffman writes. That some of the most trenchant conservative critics of militarism have been sociologists—William Graham Sumner, Robert Nisbet, Allan Carlson—is no accident. Taxes, divorce, juvenile delinquency, anomie, and rootlessness are just a few of the wages of war. “No agency of the government has done as much to destroy the traditional American family as has the Department of Defense,” Kauffman concludes.
Like our once-federated Republic, we’ve been folded, spindled, and mutilated, but the antiwar Right is not giving up. The cause of Little America—of Batavia, New York and Sedalia, Missouri, and everywhere dear to a native son’s heart—is too great to surrender. Ain’t My America is a book every conservative, and certainly every TAC reader, should own—and give to friends. For Bill Kauffman reminds us that we have a long and joyous tradition to live up to.