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The Progressive Peacenik Myth

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, American imperialism is, at its roots, a left-wing disorder rather than a conservative impulse.

A seemingly ceaseless supply of new books and radio talk-show commentary in support of George W. Bush and his foreign policy give the impression that the only controversy in America worth mentioning involves patriotic Bush supporters and knee-jerk opposition to war by liberals.

Two arguments are being made here: that the Iraq War and foreign-policy aggressiveness constitute the self-evidently correct conservative position and that liberals are philosophically and historically squeamish about going to war. The first of these arguments has been addressed at length in these pages. It is the second claim, involving the American Left’s alleged aversion to war, that remains to be overturned, for ever since the Spanish-American War of 1898, leftists have more often than not been at the forefront of calls for American military intervention abroad.

The progressive movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was overwhelmingly sympathetic to the tendency toward American territorial expansion and foreign-policy aggrandizement. Domestic reform and foreign intervention, to many progressives, were simply two sides of the same coin: just as an invigorated federal government would achieve order and social justice at home, an interventionist foreign policy would spread the benefits of progressivism around the world. “At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War,” explains historian William Leuchtenburg, “few men saw any conflict between social reform and democratic striving at home and the new imperialist mission; indeed, the war seemed nothing so much as an extension of democracy to new parts of the world, and few political figures exceeded the enthusiasm of William Jennings Bryan for the Spanish war.”

The Spanish-American War lasted a mere three months. The humanitarian aspect—namely, liberating Cuba from Spanish rule—was bound to appeal to progressives. And support it the progressives did. Feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton was typical: “Though I hate war per se,” she wrote, “I am glad that it has come in this instance. I would like to see Spain … swept from the face of the earth.”

One of the war’s outcomes was the American acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Once it became clear that the United States would not grant immediate independence to the Philippines, where a struggle against Spanish rule had been under way for some time, rebel fighters turned on the Americans with whom they had fought side by side against the Spanish. The result was a protracted conflict, known to history as the Philippine insurrection, far longer and more costly (in money and in lives) than the Spanish-American War. Forrest McDonald estimates that some 200,000 Filipinos perished, either as a direct result of the fighting or because of a cholera epidemic that was aggravated by wartime conditions.

Events in the Philippines evoked concern and soul-searching among Americans of all political persuasions: what was America, born in a war for independence from its own European mother country, doing holding colonies? This was the question that the Anti-Imperialist League, formed in Boston in June 1898, proposed to ask.

Although a short-lived phenomenon, the anti-imperialist movement in the United States was an especially intriguing one. “It would be no mean task,” says historian Robert Beisner, “to think of another issue that has united such a collection of Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, party stalwarts and independents, businessmen and labor-union chiefs.” But for all their diversity, Beisner says, most of them were “traditionalists who believed imperialism to be in sharp conflict with established ideals and practices,” and who continued to believe, along with such 19th-century predecessors as John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, that America’s proper role was to “serve the world not through force but through the force of her example.”

Although a few progressives were consistently antiwar, Leuchtenburg notes, “first and last, it was the conservatives who bore the burden of the anti-imperialist campaign.”

This newfound application of the federal government’s power abroad was bound to have its domestic counterpart. Herbert Croly, whose book The Promise of American Life (1909) was one of the most influential and revealing progressive texts, pointed to a connection between an aggressive foreign policy abroad and “social reform at home.” He wrote that it was the war that had made Hamiltonianism—that is, the philosophy of a strong central government—once again fashionable at home. “Not until the end of the Spanish War,” he wrote, “was a condition of public feeling created, which made it possible to revive Hamiltonianism. That war and its resulting policy of extra-territorial expansion, so far from hindering the process of democratic amelioration, availed, from the sheer force of the national aspirations it aroused, to give a tremendous impulse to the work of national reform.”

Big government at home went philosophically hand in hand with big government abroad. As Leuchtenburg explains:

    The Progressives believed in the Hamiltonian concept of positive government, of a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government …

Half a century later, American conservatives like Richard Weaver and journalist Felix Morley could still be found who considered 1898 an unfortunate and portentous departure from the noninterventionist foreign policy recommended by the Founding Fathers. They also sensed a connection between intervention abroad and big government at home. Weaver, described in George Nash’s book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 as one of the three most influential traditionalist thinkers in the U.S. during the postwar period, believed that the old America had suffered a regrettable blow in that fateful year:

    One cannot feign surprise, therefore, that thirty years after the great struggle to consolidate and unionize American power [i.e., the War Between the States], the nation embarked on its career of imperialism. The new nationalism enabled Theodore Roosevelt, than whom there was no more staunch advocate of union, to strut and bluster and intimidate our weaker neighbors. Ultimately it launched America upon its career of world imperialism, whose results are now being seen in indefinite military conscription, mountainous debt, restriction of dissent, and other abridgments of classical liberty.

The idea of compulsory military training in America also emerged from the progressive movement. And no wonder: it contained the spirit of nationalism and of service to the central government that was so fundamental to progressivism. Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Clinton’s favorite Republican president, endorsed it. Raymond Robins said that compulsory universal military training “will do more in one generation to break down class and section prejudice, develop disciplined, vigorous and efficient citizenship, and to unify the diverse groups of our national life in a vital Americanism than all other forces combined.” (That the leftism of yesteryear sounds eerily similar to present-day neoconservatism is not to be overlooked.)

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Woodrow Wilson’s hideously failed crusade to “make the world safe for democracy,” which contributed to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power just over a decade after the president’s death, was leftist in its very nature. Wilson proposed to fight not for specific and finite objectives like the defense of his country and people but rather on behalf of ideology and abstract principles. To those who feared that his proposed League of Nations would compromise American sovereignty, Wilson replied that he looked forward to the day “when men would be just as eager partisans of the sovereignty of mankind as they were now of their own national sovereignty.”

George W. Bush is far from the first president to refuse to acknowledge an obvious foreign-policy blunder: when the disastrous peace settlement made perfectly clear that Wilson’s grandiose visions for self-determination, “peace without victory,” and world order—on behalf of which he had sent 120,000 of his countrymen to their graves—were as dead as could be, he simply denied the evidence of his senses and praised the Treaty of Versailles anyway. It was the “incomparable consummation of the hopes of mankind,” he said; at one point he even called it an “enterprise of divine mercy.” As Sigmund Freud said of Wilson, “He was rapidly nearing that psychic land from which few travelers return, the land in which facts are the products of wishes, in which friends betray and in which an asylum chair may be the throne of God.”

Few were more bloodthirsty and savage in their support for total war against Germany than leftist clergy, as historian Richard Gamble shows in The War for Righteousness. Having lost whatever belief they once may have had in the orthodox faith, they nevertheless continued to think and speak in a Christian idiom. Except this time, Satan was Germany and Christ was the United States.

Historians have sometimes suggested that World War I marked the end of progressivism. To the contrary, the war in fact represented the culmination, even the fulfillment, of the progressive program. With the exception of people like Jane Addams and Randolph Bourne, the political Left in America was delighted with the war, not only because it was being waged for what in their view was a righteous cause but also because wartime conditions would give them the opportunity to manage the U.S. economy and, they hoped, leave the free economy behind forever.

Shortly after American entry into the war, philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey exclaimed with delight, “this war may easily be the beginning of the end for business.” Matters involving production and sales had passed from private hands into those of the government, Dewey observed, and “there is no reason to believe that the old principle will ever be resumed …. Private property had already lost its sanctity.” The New Republic magazine, perhaps the chief repository of progressive thought in America, was pleased to see the massive increase in state control over the economy that the war had brought about in European countries, and looked for the same result in America.

The wartime spirit brought with it “the substitution of national and social and organic forces for the more or less mechanical private forces operative in peace.” Although war and social reform obviously had different purposes, “they are both purposes, and luckily for mankind a social organization which is efficient is as useful for the one as for the other.” No wonder wartime analogies were so prevalent in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s “War” on Poverty, and Jimmy Carter’s energy policy (the “moral equivalent of war”)—these domestic crusades involved massive material and ideological mobilizations analogous to those of a foreign war.

Support for military interventionism among liberals persisted into the post-World War II period and into the Cold War. It was Harry Truman whose administration set the stage for the global interventionism of the Cold War. The false impression that American leftists have been traditionally reluctant to use military power, therefore, must come not from Truman but from left-wing opposition to the Vietnam War.

It is important to remember, though, that Vietnam was in fact the brainchild of establishment liberals. As historian Walter McDougall argues, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society had its foreign-policy analogue in the Vietnam War. In the attempt to protect South Vietnam’s anti-Communist government from overthrow by a Communist insurgency tied to the North, the U.S. government sought to defeat the enemy by establishing good liberal government in the South that would win the undisputed allegiance of the South Vietnamese. The National Security Council declared in 1961 that U.S. policy in South Vietnam would be “to create in that country a viable and increasingly democratic society.”

Such war aims went well beyond anything that even Truman had asked for from recipient countries when aiding Greece and Turkey or defending South Korea against Communist aggression. But members of the liberal generation that went to war in the 1960s were exponents of what McDougall calls “global meliorism,” an ideological model of global uplift based on American cultural, economic, and political models. He declares that “those who thought the war symptomatic of a fascistic ‘Amerika’ were wrong: Vietnam was a liberal war.”

Novelist Graham Greene, who hated the war, was nevertheless attracted to the social-work aspect of the American intervention. “Our foreign policy must always be an extension of our domestic policy,” he wrote in 1966. “Our safest guide to what we do abroad is always what we do at home.” The American presence in Vietnam, he said, “had its origins in the same presidential impulses that gave birth to the Great Society and the April 1965 offer to North Vietnam of a billion-dollar economic development program for the Mekong River.”

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Since the 1990s, some on the Right have observed wryly that the political Left is indeed willing to use military force after all, just so long as no discernible American interest is at stake. This point carries a certain weight, to be sure; recall Robert Frost’s playful description of a liberal as someone who refuses to take his own side in an argument. The American Left by and large supported Bill Clinton’s interventions in the Balkans, whose connection to American security and national interests were essentially nonexistent.

But this point can only be applied so far. After all, it was not Clinton but George H.W. Bush, during the waning months of his presidency, who initiated American military action in Somalia, perhaps the most frequently cited example of a purely “humanitarian” intervention. Conversely, the establishment Left, along with the overwhelming majority of the media, strongly supported the recent war with Iraq, which was justified primarily in terms of American security. Hillary Clinton was still defending the flawed pre-war intelligence long after most normal people had grown embarrassed by it.

“Even today,” admits neocon stalwart Dinesh D’Souza, “there is surprising consensus of opinion regarding Iraq within our national leadership. Even the New York Times recently reported that the Iraq policies of Bush and Kerry share many similarities. They both support the June 30 transition to civilian power, an increase in U.S. troops if necessary, and no deadline for bringing our troops home.” This is why the term “War Party” is so apt: the architects of the warfare state and American empire transcend the superficial boundaries of party politics in America.

Neoconservatives typically claim that they are not naïve Wilsonians but hard-headed realists concerned to use American military might for the sake of American security and the country’s national interest. But just like Wilsonianism itself, the neoconservative conception of the American national interest is so malleable and imprecise that it can be called into service to justify whatever intervention is being contemplated. It has become for American foreign policy what the general welfare and interstate commerce clauses are for the U.S. Constitution: a term once intended to delimit government power that is now invoked to justify that power.

Thus the neoconservative Project for a New American Century made the case for empire in the Middle East in the name of American security. Yet the connection between the two is far from obvious, and in fact there is more likely an inverse relationship between American security and the exercise of American hegemony in the Middle East. Phase one of the neoconservative plan, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, has served American interests in no identifiable way. The United States is more diplomatically isolated than at any time in recent memory. The secular regime of Saddam Hussein, detestable as it was, was nevertheless among the more liberal states of the region. As many observers predicted at the time, in the absence of Saddam it may now be replaced by an Islamic state. That is what American security and the “American national interest” have gained from a conflict whose financial cost alone will surpass the cost of America’s share of World War I sometime next year.

It is rather a subtle distinction to make between a Wilsonian left wing that advocates global democracy as an end in itself and a right wing that advocates global democracy because American security is said to be best served by a world of democracies (since they are supposed to be so peace-loving). Practically speaking, what is the difference between these positions?

And for all their supposed realism, the fact is that plenty of figures who describe themselves as conservative, including Bill Kristol and Sen. John McCain, favored Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans, griping only that it was not severe or overwhelming enough for their tastes.

That was no anomaly. “Humanitarian” rhetoric is never far from the surface of the neoconservative apologia: ever since the wheels started to come off the most recent Iraq intervention, the oft-heard refrain from the usual suspects has been to accuse their opponents of not wanting to liberate the Iraqi people, and to say that at least Saddam has been removed from power. In practice, Wilsonianism turns out to be the last refuge of the neocon.

In foreign policy, the typical liberal shares much more in common with the Fox News brand of conservative than the likes of Rush Limbaugh may care to acknowledge. The real ideological divide in America is not between aggressive “conservatives” and supposedly war-averse liberals, but rather between the bipartisan War Party—to which establishment liberals and establishment conservatives jointly belong —and the only real conservatives worth mentioning: the noninterventionists.


Thomas E. Woods Jr. is the author of The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era.



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