Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

George W. Carey’s “‘Redefining America’: Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman”

Editorial Note: This review was written by George W. Carey, and it is republished here with permission form ISI. Although both Carey’s review and Kauffman’s book were written during the recent Iraq War, their themes and discussion span far beyond that moment of trial. Please read and enjoy. Merry Christmas!

Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman (New York: Henry Holt, 2008). 268 pp.

Readers will find this work witty, informative, humorous, and irreverent. Kauffman’s accounts and anecdotes about the famous and not so famous—principally those over the course of our history with the courage and good sense to oppose America’s wars and imperial policies—coupled with his frequent light-hearted editorial interjections, are alone sufficient to engage readers. His style, however, in no way detracts from the central themes of his book that concern matters of profoundest import.

Kauffman is among the growing number convinced that George W. Bush has betrayed conservative principles of long standing by initiating a preventive war and in pursuing an interventionist foreign policy to achieve goals well beyond even those envisioned by Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, Bush’s betrayal may well have served as the catalyst for this book. Kauffman writes of the “cockeyed militarism of the Bush administration” and of “the ignorance and cowardice of the subsidized Right that…cheered him on” and that “have poisoned the word conservative for years…to come.” Citing a Pew survey that reveals “Democrats are ‘twice as likely as Republicans to say that the United States ought to mind its own business internationally’,” he comments on the success of “Bush and the neoconservatives” in bringing the rank-and-file Republicans around to support interventionist policies. The upshot of these and like developments, Kauffman maintains, is that conservatism is now linked with war, interventionism, and imperialism; that is, with the very activities and policies that erode and ultimately destroy those “values once associated with conservatism—decentralization, liberty, economy in government, religious faith, family-centeredness, parochialism, smallness.”

Kauffman’s concerns, however, range beyond those associated with President Bush, his neoconservative allies, and how they have managed to denigrate conservatism. Instead, his primary mission is to show the devastating costs of those policies engendered by war and our seemingly ceaseless quest for empire over the course of our history; costs that extend beyond the customary measures of blood and treasure to the degradation of traditional communities, humane values, and civil liberty— that is, the very foundations of a decent and orderly society. He presents his case in five chapters bracketed by an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter one deals with the birth of the American empire (“The Greatest Curse That Ever Befell Us”) and traces its development from the time of the Louisiana Purchase, through the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and, finally, to the Spanish-American War (“the highwater mark of naked U.S. imperialism”). The middle chapters are largely concerned with American involvement in the wars that followed the Spanish-American and our entry upon the world stage. Chapter two deals with our involvement in the First and Second World Wars and contains a highly informative and sympathetic treatment of the America First organization and movement; chapter three with the Korean and Vietnam wars; and a short chapter four with the Iraq War and our actions in the Balkans. The costs of war and empire in terms of “Blood, Treasure, Time, and Family” is the focus of the final chapter. Of particular interest here is his discussion of the impact on both children and the family.

There is considerable value in Kauffman’s undertaking. It surveys very adequately the grounds upon which critics of American interventionism over the years have based their arguments and, as intimated above, points to others that have been slighted or ignored. In terms of substance, to be sure, students familiar with the more extensive critical works on American interventionism probably will not find much that is new; that is, Kauffman takes the reader through well explored territory. Nevertheless, this work, free from the tedious and often irrelevant accounts of the diplomacy preceding and following our interventions, is well suited for general readers and could even serve as required reading at both the high school and college levels in those courses dealing with America’s role in the world. Quite aside from the fact that it reveals the darker side of America’s involvement in the world, it stimulates thinking about critical issues and problems central to the health and future of the American Republic. Kauffman’s treatment of the Louisiana Purchase, for instance, raises anew the question of how extensive a republic can be without sacrificing the presumed benefits historically associated with republican government. If, as Kauffman details, prominent New England “Yankees” could contend at the time of the purchase that it “would plant ‘the seed of division’ in American soil,” that “the enlarged country would be too big, its sections too various, to exist under any common government beyond the loosest confederation,” even the most casual reader might wonder about the character of our republic today, extending as it does to Hawaii. To what extent, for example, do the travails of empire—interventions and periodic wars—compensate for the lack of common chords of union by providing a sense of oneness and unity. And if so, to what extent do our political leaders exploit this state of affairs to their advantage? On the basis of Kauffman’s presentation, a strong case could be made that the United States ought to be divided up into six or seven small regional republics (e.g., New England, the Northwest) joined in a loose confederacy, an arrangement which, inter alia, would probably serve to put imperial ambitions to rest.

Still another concern, more directly related to the thrust of Kauffman’s charges, can be put as follows: He provides abundant evidence to show that Americans are not an imperial people who relish the prospects of war, that they are at best reluctant warriors. Yet, in an important sense, they have been betrayed by their presidents. As Kauffman remarks, Woodrow Wilson, who ran on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War,” “took his reelection as license to plunge the nation into a foreign conflict he had pledged to avoid.” As he notes, the same can be said of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Nor, as he goes on to show, have presidents and elected leaders been attentive to public attitudes about commitments to war. As late as October 1941, for example, a Gallup poll showed that 79 percent of Americans wanted to “stay out” of the European war, down from a high of 84 percent in June 1940. Equally revealing, a 1938 Gallup poll showed that 68 percent of the American people, perhaps sensing what was to come, supported the Ludlow Amendment that would have required, as Kauffman puts it, “a national referendum on any congressional declaration of war.” But this amendment failed to receive even a majority vote in the House, which was determined to block any limitations on its constitutional prerogatives. In sum, during the twentieth century at least, there has been a gulf between the goals of presidents and those of a majority of the people. One might think, by way of emphasizing the seriousness and extent of this gap, that presidents attentive to the welfare of the people and the people’s views would regard war as a last resort, an alternative to be avoided at almost any cost. Yet the very opposite has been the case: Lacking public support for war, presidents have used their powers and position to “lead”—some might say “push”—the nation into wars.

If we view Kauffman’s account from this perspective, serious questions arise. The most basic relate to the reasons for this gulf between the people and their leaders. Are there strong, organized interests in the country that are inclined to come down on the side of war when circumstances seem ripe? Does, say, the existence and growth of the military-industrial complex render the option of war more acceptable? Are presidents inclined to commit to war in hopes of securing a place in the pantheon of “strong” presidents? Is there any way to check or control presidents in this respect, given their constitutional powers and capacities to mobilize public opinion?

Kauffman’s plea, “Come Home, America” —a plea borrowed from George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign that resonates in various ways throughout his presentation— reflects his yearnings for a return to simple, family-friendly, Norman Rockwell-like communities, free from the ravages of war. In this, as he points out at some length, he finds support in the writings of major conservative thinkers: for example, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Allan Carlson. What seems clear, however, is that his dream will remain unfulfilled unless there is a paradigm shift in thinking among the political elite and much of the intellectual class about America’s responsibilities in the world.

There is an interventionist, imperialist mindset—for some amounting to an ideol ogy—that prevails today at the highest levels of government, as well as in our higher institutions of learning, which holds that the United States has special responsibilities that require and justify interventionism and, if need be, even preventive wars. We may infer from Kauffman’s narrative that this mindset has various roots. Some under its sway, no doubt, sincerely believe in an active, even militant, version of American “exceptionalism”: that we are God’s people and that, as such, we have a unique obligation to advance democracy, eradicate evil, eliminate tyranny, and so forth. Others see the United States as the most powerful nation in the world and the appointed guardian of the values of the West, whose enemies are legion. Still others simply want to secure American’s pre-eminent position in the world, whether for reasons of control, exploitation, or security, and they profess idealistic ends only in order to conceal these baser motivations. But no matter what the source of this mindset, it is responsible for the conditions Kauffman details, and it constitutes a barrier to their amelioration. Beyond this, even, it contributes to an American arrogance and sense of entitlement; that is, that America knows what is best for the world and those who differ with it do so out of ignorance or with evil intent.

That those, like Kauffman, who challenge this mindset are labeled “isolationist” or even unpatriotic should come as no surprise given the orthodoxy concerning America’s role in the world that prevails in the major “think” tanks and among our elected leaders. These labels are, of course, intended to marginalize and discredit those who take exception to our present imperialist stance. Yet on Kauffman’s showing, it is imperative that we re-open the question of what role the United States should play in the world because the costs of continuing down the road our present leaders seem to have marked out for us are simply too great. For this, and for reminding us that our interventionist policies contravene the basic values long associated with traditional conservatism and humane societies, Kauffman deserves great praise.

The late GEORGE W. CAREY was a Professor of Government at Georgetown UniversityThis review was originally published in the  Fall 2008 issue of Modern Age, and it is republished here with permission from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

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