Come Home, Conservatives!—to the Antiwar Conservative Movement

Under Consideration: Bill Kauffman, Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism, Metropolitan Book (2008), 304 pages.

Winston Churchill once described the Soviet Union as the only country in the world with an unpredictable past.  It was an impressive racket, really, in which the official version of history changed in accordance with the political demands of the present. If something in the past discomfited the regime and its propaganda, then it never happened, or happened quite differently.

In our own country, teachers and ordinary citizens alike are expected to conform to the Official Version of our history. Book publishers, to be sure, do not conspire behind closed doors to come up with ways to enslave the American people to their government.  But suppose they did, and American history textbooks were written for the express purpose of turning American students into zombies who mindlessly repeated government propaganda and believed the state existed to protect the common good. How would the books be any different?

For a maverick historian, though, an ossified Official History has a silver lining: he can make a career out of exposing and correcting it, or filling in the gaps that court historians choose to ignore. Until Bill Watkins’ 2004 volume Reclaiming the American Revolution, for instance, there had not been a single book on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 in a hundred years—as scores of studies of every bit of useless trivia lined the shelves.

Bill Kauffman has filled another such gap in delightful and dramatic style with Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism. Kauffman’s book joins only a handful of titles on this interesting and important subject, including Justin Raimondo’s excellent Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (which is being re-released with additional material this month), Justus Doenecke’s Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era, and Ronald Radosh’s Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism. (Radosh, now a neoconservative, has doubtless repudiated this useful book, which is further indication of its worth.)

The figures and organizations Kauffman profiles do not fit into the received version of American history, in which only “leftists” who “hate America” might object to spending trillions of dollars feeding imperial ambition. The conservative John Randolph of Roanoke, who opposed the War of 1812, and Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president who had earlier opposed war with Mexico, are just two of the people discussed in Ain’t My America who refuse to fit themselves into the proper categories.

A strange omission from this book is the War Between the States, for if violently suppressing the peaceful secession of sovereign states does not smack of imperialism—especially in the context of the nation-building nineteenth century—then nothing does.  The depiction of that war as glorious and righteous is a central ingredient in the current regime’s flattering portrayal of itself, and in the civic religion taught in the institutions of propaganda to which some still entrust their young. Robert E. Lee made the connection explicit, predicting that the “consolidation of the states into one vast republic” would produce an entity that was “sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home.” This should have been perfect grist for Kauffman’s mill.

The cross-ideological American Anti-Imperialist League, formed in the wake of the American acquisition of (among other territory) the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, is right up Kauffman’s alley. He gives us lively vignettes of its more colorful figures, such as the laissez-faire businessman Edward Atkinson, who asked the War Department for some addresses so he could send his antiwar pamphlets to the troops.  Now once in a while the anti-imperialists are taken to task for their alleged lack of racial enlightenment (the pro-war forces, of course, being their usual models of toleration).  This description of the anti-imperialists is not even accurate in the first place; Moorfield Storey, a leader of the NAACP, is one of many obvious counter-examples.  But Kauffman, who is able to put such matters into perspective, suggests that mass murder may actually be a worse crime than racial insensitivity: “If neither side distinguished itself by the elevated moral standards of the twenty-first century, when all men are brothers and peace rules our planet, at least the anti-imperialists wanted to leave the Filipinos alone rather than conquer and slaughter them.”

Along the same lines Kauffman cites Sen. James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, who like most Americans at the time believed neither in integration nor racial equality but who sacrificed his career for the cause of peace as Woodrow Wilson was pushing his country into the Great War. His friends tried in vain to persuade him to support the president, but he would not budge. Losing his Senate seat was as nothing, he said, compared to the lives and liberties that Americans would lose if the country entered the war. In 1918 he was defeated for re-election by Democrat Pat Harrison—who, by the way, was pro-war and pro-segregation. (Wilson himself was not exactly known as a champion of the oppressed black man, but is still ranked among the “near great” presidents; taking the country to war evidently covers a multitude of sins.)

Vardaman, says Kauffman, “understood that standing athwart the empire would destroy his career.”  How easy it would have been “to trim, to temporize, to dissemble, to quietly slip out of the peace camp and vote for Death.  But to his eternal credit, he did not.”  As he left the Senate, Vardaman called on the nations of the world to abolish conscription and to establish national referenda to decide on war.

That latter suggestion would reappear in the 1930s in the form of the Ludlow Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have required just such a referendum in the United States.  I once favored that solution as a way to keep the war machine in check, and I suspect Kauffman does as well.  I was talked out of it by the argument that if a war should actually be approved by such a vote (and in the weeks leading up to it the machinery of propaganda would whir like never before), the referendum would then become a potent rhetorical weapon in favor of the war.  The war would have all the sanction it could need; and we’d never hear the end of all the people-have-spokens.  The Ludlow Amendment, I suspect, would have been just another casualty of Donald Livingston’s observation that most efforts to limit the central government’s power usually wind up increasing it.

But if that proposal held more potential peril than promise, opponents of the warfare state in the 1930s possessed equal parts cleverness, cynicism, and dark humor.  Kauffman reminds us of the Veterans of Future Wars, a group organized at Princeton University in 1936 that went on to boast 584 chapters around the country.  Then there was the Association of Gold Star Mothers of Future Veterans, born at Vassar College, as well as the Foreign Correspondents of Future Wars, established at the City College of New York.  This latter group proposed “to establish training courses for members of the association in the writing of atrocity stories and garbled war dispatches for patriotic purposes.”  If only our own opposition to war and propaganda could be half as inspired.

Thanks to Ron Paul’s campaign the term “Taft Republican” is being tossed around once again, and Kauffman reintroduces us to the Ohio senator.  Taft, known in his day as Mr. Republican, declared on the Senate floor in January 1951 that “the principal purpose of the foreign policy of the United States is to maintain the liberty of our people. … Its purpose is not to reform the entire world or spread sweetness and light and economic prosperity to peoples who have lived and worked out their own salvation for centuries, according to their customs, and to the best of their abilities.”  Taft identified the second goal of American foreign policy as peace.  Writes Kauffman: “Liberty and peace; with those two words, [Taft] had placed himself as far outside postwar discourse as one could reasonably stand.”

We are also treated to a sympathetic account of the anti-militarist side of Russell Kirk, whose seminal work The Conservative Mind became a revered text in the conservative canon.  Among other things, Kirk was a staunch opponent of the first Persian Gulf War, writing privately to a friend that George H.W. Bush should be strung up on the White House lawn for war crimes.  His lectures at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s decrying war and militarism were allowed, no doubt, only because the aging Kirk was considered too iconic not to be granted respect.  Those speeches would never be permitted today, it hardly need be said, with war and bankruptcy now the most urgent conservative goals.

Kirk, who had earlier dismissed libertarians as “chirping sectaries,” praised them in the 1990s for having an “understanding of foreign policy that the elder Robert Taft represented.”  That was a position he had long respected.  In his 1951 biography of Randolph of Roanoke, Kirk spoke sympathetically of his subject’s aversion to war and expansionism, for men of “sturdy conservative convictions…were naturally lovers of tranquility and foes of aggression.”  Skepticism of global intervention can also be found in 1954’s A Program for Conservatives, a fact the conservative establishment does not typically go out of its way to point out.

For whatever reason, Ron Paul barely registers in Ain’t My America—perhaps because, compared to the others featured here, he is already relatively well known.  Kauffman instead interviews Congressman Jimmy Duncan (R-TN), who agrees with the Texas congressman that there was nothing conservative about the Iraq war. Duncan also has the crazy idea that the U.S. government might engage in too much military spending: “My goodness, we’re spending as much as all other countries of the world combined on defense spending—and they always want more.” This alone makes Duncan a “liberal,” according to the automatons.

Kauffman’s writing style is a perfect medium for transmitting the flavor of these times and the character of these men. The old republic practically courses through his veins, and the words flow effortlessly from his pen—even if they happen to be words like amaranthine, mephitic, esurient, and nepenthe. At times an understandable exasperation comes through. Thus: “War effaces and perverts everything that traditionalist conservatives profess. Every damn thing, from motherhood to the country church. And yet postwar conservatives, and especially the scowling ninnies of the Bush Right, revere war above all other values. It trumps the First Amendment; it razes the home; it decks the decalogue.  And they don’t care.”

Nor do most Americans, if their voting patterns and apathy are any indication.  “The American Century, alas, did not belong to the likes of Moorfield Storey, Murray Rothbard, or Russell Kirk,” Kauffman laments.  “But the American soul does.”

I agree, or at least I want to.  Ours is a great anti-colonial tradition, and our founders cautioned us about the perils of war and entangling alliances.  Charles Pinckney warned his countrymen that global ambition was incompatible with republicanism.  And the feisty individualism, the aversion to propaganda, and the plain-speaking common sense of the conservatives who populate Bill Kauffman’s book have a distinctly American flavor.

Yet one nagging argument just won’t go away: if this truly is the American soul, someone must have forgotten to tell the American people.  William James, aghast at the colonial occupation of the Philippines that followed the Spanish-American War, declared that the U.S. had “puked up its ancient soul…in five minutes.”  That soul, such as it is, has been sold time and again.  And not to particularly high bidders, either: what people possessed of an antiwar, anti-imperial soul, that wishes only to do justice and pursue the ordinary things of life, could have been led into an immoral absurdity like the Iraq war?

With very rare exceptions, Kauffman observes, the American people have never really been presented with a choice for or against the empire.  All too true – but are the people really blameless here?  Some of their stupid electoral decisions may be the result of an ignorance for which they are not entirely responsible, but what remotely educated or even half-conscious living being could consider John McCain a fit candidate for anything?

I’m not entirely sure why the old America is so unpopular, though part of the reason is that few Americans have been allowed to discover it.  When they do, many want to recover it.  That’s why, if I were looking to transform a neoconservative into a normal human being, Ain’t My America would be one of the first books I’d hand him in my proselytizing mission.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask and, most recently, Sacred Then and Sacred Now: The Return of the Old Latin Mass.

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