Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal, Ralph Raico, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 246 pages

By David Gordon

Ralph Raico is our foremost historian of classical liberalism; and in this masterly collection of essays, he follows the practice of his great predecessor Lord Acton. In a letter to Bishop Creighton, Acton said: “Here are the greatest names coupled with the greatest crimes; you would spare those criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice, still more, still higher for the sake of historical science.” Raico has taken to heart this counsel. Walter Hines Page, the American Ambassador to London during World War I, “in his abject eagerness to please his hosts, displayed all the qualities of a good English spaniel.” He agrees with John T. Flynn that Franklin Roosevelt was “a failure, a liar, and a fraud.” Of Roosevelt’s successor he remarks, “If Harry Truman was not a war criminal, then no one ever was.”

Raico’s severe judgments stem from a carefully considered view of foreign policy. Classical liberals see war as a principal means to enhance the power of the predatory state. We should shun that false god, military glory, and instead seek peaceful cooperation among all peoples. Here Raico’s guide is another champion of classical liberalism in the nineteenth century, Richard Cobden. “He looked forward to a time when the slogan ‘no foreign politics’ would become the watchword of all who aspired to be the representatives of a free people.” Such a policy of nonintervention stands squarely in accord with American tradition. Washington Farewell Address, Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, and John Quincy Adams’s declaration in 1821 that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” clearly demonstrate that what is derisively termed “isolationism” has firm roots in our history.

Must not contemporary defenders of peace and nonintervention confront an objection? Isolation, it is all-too-frequently contended, cannot cope the global challenges that a great nation must inevitably confront. Whatever its merits when America was a mere backwater, nonintervention had to be abandoned with the onset of the twentieth century. In 1914, Germany embarked on a war of European conquest. America first endeavored to remain neutral; but, faced with Germany’s U-boat assaults, could not for long remain aloof from the cause of democracy and civilization. Following the war, America sought to retreat from European affairs and to return to its traditional policy of nonintervention; but again, this proved an untenable prescription. Once more Germany threatened to overturn the world order, this time under the leadership of the uniquely malevolent Adolf Hitler. After Pearl Harbor, America responded to the challenge, which, once surmounted, led to a Cold War of forty-five years duration. Only unrealistic dreamers could support nonintervention today.

To confront this objection, the historical claims on which it rests must be overturned; and it is the principal aim of Raico’s collection to do precisely that. In pursuing this end, Raico revives the revisionist movement in post-World War I historiography, supported by such scholars as Sidney B. Fay and Charles C. Tansill. For Raico, revisionist history did not begin with the challenge to the war-guilt clause of the Treaty of Versailles but extends much farther back into the past. “Revisionism and classical liberalism, today called libertarianism, have always been closely linked.”

Raico rejects the thesis of unique German guilt for World War I. In doing so, he puts himself squarely at odds with Fritz Fischer and his school. In his immensely influential Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1961) and subsequent works, Fischer contended that Germany used the pretext of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to seek European hegemony through a preventive war against Russia and her ally France. Raico does not deny that Germany acted hastily and unwisely in its “blank check” to Austria; but he returns to the pre-Fischer consensus that the Entente powers shared responsibility for the war with Germany. In particular, he stresses Russia’s general mobilization in July 1914, which to a large extent forced Germany’s hand; and, from a less immediate perspective, Germany’s by no means groundless fears of encirclement by the Entente powers.

If responsibility for the onset of war in 1914 raises difficult questions of judgment, the case as regards American entry into the war is much clearer cut.  America entered the war in large part because of Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare, but Germany was provoked to this desperate measure by Woodrow Wilson’s unneutral policies. Britain in 1914 imposed a hunger blockade against Germany, illegally seeking to interdict food from the civilian population. The Anglophilic American President, Woodrow Wilson, turned a blind eye to Britain’s gross violation of international law, while insisting on the strictest accountability for all German countermeasures. Entry into the war permitted Wilson the opportunity to “make the world safe for democracy.” Raico describes the situation in his characteristic mordant style: “Given his war speech, Wilson may be described as the anti-[George] Washington . . .Wilson was also the anti-John Quincy Adams… Discarding this whole tradition, Wilson put forward the vision of an America that was entangled in countless political connections with foreign powers and on perpetual patrol for monsters to destroy.”

The British hunger blockade continued after the armistice of November 11, 1918; not until Germany acceded to the hash settlement of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 was the blockade fully lifted. In a brilliant essay, Raico suggests that the bitterness and suffering created in Germany by the blockade aided the growth of the Nazi party, with its defiant reassertion of the national will to reverse the verdict of the hated treaty. “It seems much more plausible to seek for the mediating connections between exposure to starvation and the other torments caused by the blockade and later fanatical and brutal German behavior in commonly intelligible–though, of course, not thereby justifiable–human attitudes generated by the early experiences. These would include hatred, bitterness, and resentment. . .”

As if this were not enough, the manifold violations of the principle of self-determination by the victorious allies also fueled fierce nationalist resentments. The rump state of Austria that remained after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire wished to unite with Germany but was in effect forbidden by the Treaty to do so. Germans in the Sudetenland faced discrimination from the Czechs; and ethnic rivalries in East Prussia between Poles and Germans added yet another controversy. German grievances over Versailles, just like the hunger blockade, paved the way for Hitler.

Once Hitler had come to power, though, does not the objection previously raised to nonintervention recur? Surely it was necessary to stop Hitler: was World War II also an unnecessary war? Raico neatly deflects the objection. In response to Hitler’s growing might during the 1930s, a policy of watchful waiting and rearmament was clearly indicated; but the bellicose blustering of Winston Churchill served only to exacerbate a situation fraught with difficulty. “For all the claptrap about Churchill’s ‘farsightedness’ in the ’30s in opposing the ‘appeasers’, in the end the policy of the Chamberlain government–to rearm as quickly as possible, while testing the chances for peace with Germany–was more realistic than Churchill’s”

Raico is fully aware of Churchill’s immense rhetorical gifts but maintains that his single-minded determination to crush Hitler at all costs led him to cast to one side essential political aspects of the Second World War Churchill turned a blind eye to Stalin’s murderous tyranny. Churchill’s decisions during the war led inevitably to Communist domination of Eastern Europe after 1945.  “‘Victory–victory at all costs’, understood literally, was his policy practically to the end. This points to Churchill’s fundamental and fatal mistake during World War II: his separation of operational from political strategy. . .Stalin, on the other hand, understood perfectly that the purpose of war is to enforce certain political claims. This is the meaning of Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means.” In his naïveté toward Stalin, Churchill was more than matched by Franklin Roosevelt. “Robert Nisbet reinforced [John T.] Flynn’s case, laying out in detail FDR’s fatuousness in regarding Stalin–Stalin–as a friend and fellow progressive, his main ally in constructing the New World Order.”

Raico’s fervent anti-communism is not open to doubt, but he dissents from the common verdict that American policy in the Cold War was a necessary defensive reaction to Communist aggression. To the contrary, once Stalin seized control of Eastern Europe, he pursued a largely defensive policy, endeavoring to consolidate his gains. “That after World War II the Soviet Union would be predominant in Europe was inevitable, given the goals pursued by Roosevelt and Churchill: Germany’s unconditional surrender and its annihilation as a factor in the balance of power.”

The sum and substance of Raico’s argument is that the wars of the twentieth century, far from demonstrating that nonintervention is an outmoded ideal overtaken by events, triumphantly vindicate it. Power-seeking politicians, whether they portray themselves as idealistic world-savers like Wilson and Roosevelt or openly revel in war for its own sake like Churchill, ought not to be viewed as models for future policy; rather, they should be shunned as enemies of peace and progress.

Raico writes with complete command of the relevant scholarship and presents his arguments with high literary art. He is a master of the apt quotation, whether from Trotsky, A.E. Housman, or this: “there took place the immortal Hungarian Revolution [of 1956] when they did ‘high deeds in Hungary/ To pass all men’s believing.’” (The lines are from Ezra Pound.) Great Wars and Great Victories is an indispensable guide to the sad history of a terrible century.

David Gordon is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute.