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A Return to the Peace Party

Republicans once stood for peace through strength, not endless war.
Dwight Eisenhower portrait

A few weeks ago, I spoke to about 200 people at the famous Willard Hotel in Washington in a program put on by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. I had been told that this was a group of CEOs and owners of major companies in Southern California, obviously a very upper-income group.

I got to a point in my speech where I said: “It is long past the time when we need to stop trying to run the whole world and start putting our own people and our own Country first once again.”

Much to my surprise, the audience broke into applause. Middle- and lower-income groups have applauded when I have said similar things in my district and around the country. But many upper-income people claim to be moderates, and, contrary to popular belief, conservatives lose most very wealthy areas two-to-one or worse.

I have spoken to a very wide variety of groups in Washington, around the country, and in my district, and I have gotten an overwhelmingly positive response every time I have said that it has been a horrible mistake to spend trillions on unnecessary wars in the Middle East.

When I was a teenager, I remember reading a publication from the Republican National Committee that said, “Democrats start wars, Republicans end them.”

There was a time, until recent years, that the Republican Party could make a legitimate claim to being the Peace Party.

I sent my first paycheck as a bag boy at the A & P—$19 and some cents—as a contribution to the Barry Goldwater campaign. I have worked in Republican campaigns at the national state and local levels for over 50 years. And it saddens me to hear almost all the Republican candidates for President try to outdo each other in their hawkishness.

Based on the response I have gotten, I think it is a recipe for defeat if my Republican party becomes known as a party favoring permanent, forever wars—war without end.

All of our candidates try to convince people that they are like Ronald Reagan. President Reagan once wrote that we should follow these four principles:

(1) The United States should not commit its forces to military action overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest;

(2) If the decision is made to commit our forces to combat abroad, it must be done with the clear intent and support needed to win … and there must be clearly defined and realistic objectives;

(3) Before we commit our troops to combat, there must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the support of the American people and Congress, and

(4) Even after all these other tests are met, our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort, when no other choice is available.

Reagan was certainly no warmonger Republican, or a man eager to go to war.

President Eisenhower, one of our greatest military leaders, was another “Peacenik” Republican. He knew the horrors of war, unlike many modern-day chickenhawks.

He famously warned us at the end of his Presidency about the dangers of being controlled by a very powerful military-industrial complex. I think he would be shocked at how far we have gone down the road that he warned us against.

In his book Ike’s Bluff, Evan Thomas shared this story:

When Defense Secretary Neil McElroy warned him that further budget cuts could harm national security, Eisenhower acerbically replied, ‘If you go to any military installation in the world where the American flag is flying and tell the commander that Ike says he’ll give him an extra star for his shoulder if he cuts his budget, there’ll be such a rush to cut costs that you’ll have to get out of the way.’

Thomas added that Eisenhower “would periodically sigh to Andy Goodpaster, ‘God help the Nation when it has a President who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do.’”

Pat Buchanan wrote in these pages on March 20, “In November 1956, President Eisenhower, enraged he had not been forewarned of their invasion of Egypt, ordered the British, French and Israelis to get out of Suez and Sinai. They did as told. How far we have fallen from the America of Ike…”

Sen. Robert Taft, who was sometimes referred to as Mr. Republican in the 1940s and ‘50s, once said, “No foreign policy can be justified except a policy devoted… to the protection of the liberty of the American people, with war only as the last resort and only to preserve that liberty.”

Most of the Republican presidential candidates have attacked President Obama for acting in some ways that are unconstitutional, and he has. But where in our constitution does it give us the authority to run other countries as we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, even making small business loans and training local police forces?

My Republican party was always the party of fiscal conservatism. Yet with a national debt of over $18 trillion, how can we justify continually spending mega-billions in religious civil wars between Shia and Sunni?

Some people and companies that make money off an interventionist foreign policy always very quickly fall back on the slur of isolationism.

But I and probably almost all readers of The American Conservative believe in trade and tourism and cultural and educational exchange with other countries, and in helping out during humanitarian crises. We just don’t believe in endless war.

We are told that if we don’t support an interventionist foreign policy, that this means we don’t believe in American exceptionalism. But this nation did not become exceptional because we got involved in every little war around the globe. It became exceptional because of our great system of free enterprise and because we gave our people more individual freedom than any other country.

I have said in thousands of speeches that we are blessed beyond belief to live in this country, and that the United States is without question the greatest country in the history of the world.

But there was much less anti-Americanism around the world when we tried to mind our own business and take care of our own people. And this nation had more friends when we followed a policy of peace through strength, not one of peace through endless war.

Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. represents the 2nd District of Tennessee in the U.S. House of Representatives.