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La Follette’s Lessons in Empire

How a WWI-era senator turned from unreflective interventionism to prudential foreign policy
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The title of this very fine study is peculiarly apt: its subject is political education. Others have written full-length biographies of Sen. Robert Marion La Follette (1855-1925), with Nancy Unger’s Fighting Bob La Follette preeminent among them. Richard Drake, professor of history at the University of Montana, makes a contribution of a different order. In The Education of an Anti-Imperialist, he describes La Follette’s transformation from an unreflective supporter of U.S. foreign policy into an ardent opponent of American imperialism. In effect, Drake traces the impact of critical ideas on one formidable politician’s understanding of statecraft.

La Follette seems to have possessed a quality rare among politicians in our own day: He was educable. That is, he was open to learning, freely drawing on insights formulated by others to hone his own perspective. Although Drake does not speculate on the source of La Follette’s willingness to reexamine preconceived notions, the demands of filling the pages of La Follette’s Weekly, founded in 1909, may have had something to do with it. To put out a magazine that he edited until his death, La Follette was constantly trawling for suitable material, always on the lookout for writers offering a fresh perspective—not necessarily in harmony with his own—for articles suitable for reprinting, or for books meriting review. The roster of scholars, journalists, and activists La Follette encountered, either directly or indirectly, included Adolph Berle, Edwin Borchard, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, Frederic Howe, Albert Jay Nock, Amos Pinchot, Walter Rauschenbusch, John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, and Thorstein Veblen, among others—a strikingly heterodox group.

Remembered as a rabble-rousing insurgent, La Follette actually began his career in public life as a stalwart party regular, chiefly interested in bread-and-butter issues affecting his home state of Wisconsin. Over time, he embraced progressivism. Doing battle with the “Money Power”—the corporate and financial oligarchy that seemingly owned the government and ran the country—became his abiding cause.

When it came to foreign policy, however, both as a young member of Congress and as Wisconsin governor, he took his cues from Republican Party elders, above all from President William McKinley, who ranked in La Follette’s eyes alongside Lincoln and just below Washington in the hierarchy of American Greats. So La Follette interpreted McKinley’s war against Spain in 1898 and subsequent annexation of various bits of real estate as an exercise in liberation and uplift. “Our fathers planned territorial expansion and enlargement from the beginning,” he remarked at the time. For La Follette at this juncture, the purchase of Louisiana in 1803 provided ample precedent for colonizing the Philippines a century later.

With La Follette’s elevation to the U.S. Senate in 1905, his foreign-policy education commenced in earnest. The Mexican Revolution and then the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 persuaded him that the Money Power’s tentacles reached far beyond the confines of the United States. La Follette’s inclination to let Mexicans determine their own fate, despite objections from Wall Street, placed him at odds with William Howard Taft, a pro-business Republican whose “dollar diplomacy” he despised. La Follette’s determination to steer clear of Europe’s war—rather than treating it as an opportunity to turn a buck—put him on a collision course with Woodrow Wilson, a Democratic progressive whose lofty rhetoric he admired.

La Follette’s problem with Wilson was the disconnect between words and actions. U.S. policy toward the European war was nominally one of neutrality, which La Follette fully supported. Yet when it came to trade, loans, and enforcing the “laws” of war, the administration charted a course that favored Great Britain and France. When Wilson, having successfully campaigned for reelection on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” soon thereafter declared it imperative for the United States to intervene on behalf of the Allies to whom Wall Street had loaned billions, La Follette saw the Money Power at work.

Wilson’s request for a declaration of war against Germany in April 1917 spurred La Follette to take to the Senate floor in opposition. But his epic four-hour speech achieved little apart from marking him in the eyes of super-patriots as “the German ambassador from Wisconsin.” Back home, members of the gentlemanly Madison Club expelled him from its precincts for “unpatriotic conduct and giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” The faculty of the University of Wisconsin, keen for their students to have a go at the Hun, voted 421-2 to condemn La Follette for disloyalty.

As Drake makes clear, the condemnation was misplaced. Once Congress voted for war, La Follette took the position that he and every other American citizen had an obligation to accede to that decision. Although critical of legislation infringing on civil liberties, such as the infamous Espionage and Sedition Acts, he nonetheless supported the war effort, accepting Wilson’s depiction of the stakes at issue and warmly endorsing the president’s vision for peace. La Follette, writes Drake, “had become convinced that the Fourteen Points justified the war.” If so, he had apparently shelved his concern about the Money Power for the duration. More likely, La Follette judged it inexpedient to pursue an antiwar crusade certain to be futile and likely to put his own position at risk.

When the peace conference at Paris found Wilson abandoning principles previously declared sacrosanct, La Follette concluded that “he and the other believers had been hoodwinked.” Perhaps, but an element of opportunistic self-deception also figured in the process. At any rate, La Follette now turned on the president. “The declaration that we were fighting for democracy,” he announced, “was the boldest, most wicked lie ever imposed upon a people.” The doughboys sent to France had fought at the behest of “Big Business for Bigger Business,” he now insisted. “It was a war for trade routes and commercial advantages. It was a war for new territory and the right to exploit weaker peoples. It was a mean, sordid, mercenary war.” Why, he wondered, did Wilson’s vaunted right to self-determination not apply to Ireland, India, Korea, or the peoples of the Middle East? The question answered itself. marapr-issuethumb

By the time Wilson presented the Versailles Treaty for Senate ratification, the political climate at home had changed. By 1919, depicting the League of Nations as a means to guarantee peace was proving to be a tough sell. When La Follette described it instead as an instrument condemning “nine-tenths of humanity to serve as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the remaining one-tenth,” he was no longer tagged as a German apologist. The imperialist shoe was now on the other foot, most notably, as Drake points out, in the Middle East that Great Britain and France had cynically carved up to serve their own purposes.

In the fight over the Versailles Treaty, La Follette’s side prevailed. Yet this political victory signaled not a revival of progressivism, but its eclipse. With the election of Warren G. Harding to the presidency in 1920, the Money Power tightened its hold on Washington, as the infamous Teapot Dome scandal would soon reveal. An ailing La Follette made a gallant if futile run for the White House on a third party ticket in 1924 but died soon thereafter. Back in Madison, the university faculty mourned his passing.

What can we say of La Follette’s foreign-policy legacy? In practical terms, it qualifies as nil. Generations of schoolchildren have been instructed to see the Senate’s refusal to join the League of Nations as making another, even more destructive world war inevitable, an error laid at the feet of mischief-makers who opposed Woodrow Wilson and thereby prevented the United States from donning the mantle of global leadership. Even today that myth-history prevails in Washington, where the mantle has long since become a blindfold, as vividly illustrated by bumbling U.S. policies in the Middle East that Britain and France bequeathed to the United States.

Removing that blindfold poses real challenges given the continuing influence of the Money Power and its intimate collaboration with a sprawling and well-endowed national-security apparatus that seems less concerned with the nation’s security than with its own perpetuation. Still, the passage of time has not lessened the value of La Follette’s prophetic warning that global leadership “would make us the object of endless jealousies and hazards, involve us in perpetual war, and lead to the extinction of our domestic liberty.” As to formulating an alternative approach, there’s this:

I would carry democracy to the rest of the world, not upon the point of a bayonet, but by furnishing the most perfect example of a Government of liberty and equality of opportunity for every man, woman, and child in these United States.

May our next president post that on the door of her refrigerator.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.