|Montreal, November 22, 2003 / No 133|
by Chris Leithner
Labels, as Thomas Sowell teaches us in The Vision of the Anointed, are both convenient and dangerous things. Carefully and dispassionately used, vocabulary helps to transmit complex ideas accurately and efficiently. Employed carelessly, however, terminology creates vagueness, ambiguity and misunderstanding; and utilised malevolently, it can obstruct reasoning, obscure corroborating evidence and thereby set the stage for mistakes – and sometimes catastrophes.
"American Isolationism" is a label that has long been used malevolently by its opponents. Non-interventionism, a less emotive phrase, denotes disapproval, ranging from scepticism to outright opposition, with respect to a cluster of related issues: war (particularly ideological wars and crusades) and other government interventions (alliances, "aid," posting of military personnel, etc.) in foreign lands; the eclipse of the authority of the U.S. Congress to declare war, the concentration of authority and discretion in the Executive and the consequent ability of a President to execute war deceptively and secretly; America's abandonment of republicanism and limited government and embrace of imperialism and a welfare-warfare state; the erosion of civil and political liberties for the sake of "security;" and the linkages between a large military establishment and permanent war economy, industry, government and bureaucracy.(1)
Congressman Howard H. Buffett, (R-Nebraska), the Midwestern campaign manager for "Mr. Republican" Senator Robert Taft in 1952, was a leading opponent of America's increasingly interventionist policies, foreign and domestic, during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Criticising the proposal of FDR's Secretary of the Interior (whose bailiwick, one would have thought, could not extend beyond the then-forty-eight states) to build a $165m oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Buffett stated on 24 March 1944 "it would terminate the inspiring period of America's history as a great nation not resorting to intercontinental imperialism. This venture would end the influence exercised by the United States as a government not participating in the exploitation of small lands and countries … It may be that the American people would rather forego the use of a questionable amount of gasoline at some time in the remote future than follow a foreign policy practically guaranteed to send many of their sons … to die in faraway places in defence of the trade of Standard Oil or the international dreams of our one-world planners."
Congressman Buffett was a staunch anti-Communist who nevertheless questioned the morality as well as the efficacy of America's Cold War crusade. He declared "our Christian ideals cannot be exported to other lands by dollars and guns. Persuasion and example are the methods taught by the Carpenter of Nazareth … We cannot practice might and force abroad and retain freedom at home. We cannot talk co-operation and practice power politics …"
Patrick J. Buchanan uttered similar sentiments and outlined a stark choice during the 2000 U.S. Presidential campaign. "How can all our meddling not fail to spark some horrible retribution … Have we not suffered enough – from PanAm 103, to the World Trade Center [bombing of 1993], to the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam – not to know that interventionism is the incubator of terrorism? Or will it take some cataclysmic atrocity on U.S. soil to awaken our global gamesmen to the going price of empire? America today faces a choice of destinies. We can choose to be a peacemaker of the world, or its policeman who goes about night-sticking troublemakers until we, too, find ourselves in some bloody brawl we cannot handle."
Yet presently in America, as for most of the past half-century, few things provoke more indignation, ridicule and denunciation from political, academic and journalistic élites (as opposed to consumers and taxpayers) than scepticism towards America's interventionist foreign policy. To be associated with isolationism is, in privileged quarters, to be cast outside the perimeter of serious conversation. American journalist Ted Koppel struck such a note on 2 November 2001. Introducing his Nightline audience to critics of the American bombing of Afghanistan, he said "some of you, many of you, are not going to like what you hear tonight. You don't have to listen."
During the past couple of years, leading politicians and commentators and prominent organs of mass communication have glorified "internationalism" and denigrated "isolationism." In the first major interview after his election, on CBS' 60 Minutes II, President George W. Bush stated that "the principal threat facing America is isolationism … America can't go it alone." Robert Kagan wrote in The Washington Post (29 January 2002) "Sept. 11th must spur us to launch a new era of American internationalism. Let's not squander this opportunity."
Michael Hirsh, in an article entitled "The Death of a Founding Myth" (Newsweek/MSNBC, January 2002), went further. "The terrorist attacks permanently altered America's self-identity. We must now embrace the global community we ourselves built … While the isolationists – the Charles Lindberghs, Father Coughlins and Pat Buchanans – tempted millions with their siren's appeal to nativism, the internationalists were always hard at work in quiet places making plans for a more perfect global community. In the end the internationalists have always dominated national policy. Even so, they haven't bragged about their globe-building for fear of reawakening the other half of the American psyche, our berserker nativism."
Hirsh is simply wrong: interventionism has not always prevailed; non-interventionism is not nativism; and it is arguable whether the consequences of interventionism have been positive.(2) What is presently derided as "isolationism" was once as prominent as it was respected. Indeed, until the last quarter of the nineteenth century it was unshakeable orthodoxy. Thereafter, and for several reasons, it weakened. During the first half of the twentieth century, most American politicians, academics and journalists implicitly (and in the latter half explicitly) abandoned the Founders' non-interventionism. Today's policy, embraced by "liberal" Democrats, "conservative" Republicans and the bureaucratic behemoth within the Beltway, is worldwide, open-ended interventionism. No matter the place and whatever the "problem," America's diplomacy, money or armed forces (or a combination of the three) will be brought to bear and find a "solution."
This policy, as Garet Garrett warned from the 1920s to 1950s, has transformed the United States from a Republic to an Empire.(3) As John Flynn prophesied from the 1930s to 1950s, and as Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) now laments,(4) it has gravely weakened the Constitution and unleashed a Leviathan welfare-warfare state.(5) And as Murray Rothbard demonstrated, it has oppressed American taxpayers and wasted the lives of its youth.(6)Ignorance of the Founders
It is embarrassing for the élites who coined the term "isolationism," and hence rarely mentioned by them, that interventionism plays poorly in Peoria. Most Americans, in other words, historically were and today remain non-interventionists. Polls have shown consistently that Americans generally disdain foreign entanglements and overwhelmingly oppose foreign "aid." As the events of 11 September 2001 illustrated, interventionist policies have also generated the hostility and enmity of people not predisposed to appreciate the peculiarities and finer points of American institutions and history.(7)
Steve Bonta's chronicle of America's abandonment of non-interventionism and embrace of interventionism, entitled "Minding Our Own Business," provides excellent reading for Americans and admirers of the United States. It emphasises that America's Founders possessed an acute – and prescient – understanding of the dangers of governmental meddling in foreign lands. Bonta shows that the Founders espoused political non-interventionism. Far from being backward, xenophobic and the like, many possessed a keen interest in foreign languages, history, culture, technical and economic developments. Indeed, several ranked among the best literary, technical and commercial minds of the late-eighteenth century. On cultural, scientific and economic grounds, most (Hamiltonians were perhaps an exception) favoured extensive and unfettered private associations with foreigners.
To say that non-interventionism proposes to "turn America's back on the world" is therefore to proclaim one's ignorance of America's Founders, the principles upon which the Great Republic was based, the long success of those principles and the more recent trials, tribulations and catastrophes that have resulted from their overturn.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the wake of 11 September 2001, apart from the lives lost, children orphaned and adults widow(er)ed, is that the citizens of the very country that has one of the noblest histories of political non-interventionism are apparently ignorant of that history. For many Americans and their admirers, Bonta's article and the writings of Garrett, Flynn, Rothbard and other non-interventionists may confirm a point that Harry Truman put best: "there is nothing new in the world but the history you do not know."
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