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  /  Top News   /  The Old Right on War and Peace

The Old Right on War and Peace

As the force of the New Deal reached its heights, both foreign and domestic, during World War II, a beleaguered and tiny libertarian opposition began to emerge and to formulate its total critique of prevailing trends in America. Unfortunately, the Left, almost totally committed to the cause of World War II as well as to extensions of the domestic New Deal, saw in the opposition not a principled and reasoned stand for liberty, but a mere blind “isolationism” at best, and, at worst, a conscious or unconscious “parroting of the Goebbels line.”

It should not be forgotten that the Left, not so long ago, was not above engaging in its own form of plot hunting and guilt by association. If the Right had its McCarthys and Dillings, the Left had its John Roy Carlsons.

Now it is certainly true that much of this nascent and emerging libertarian Right was tainted with blind chauvinism, with scorn of “foreigners,” etc., and that even then an unfortunate bent for plot hunting was becoming evident. But still the prevailing trend, certainly among the intellectuals of the Right, was a principled and trenchant opposition to war and to its concomitant destruction of life and liberty, and of human values.

The Beardian ideal of abstention from European wars was essentially not a chauvinist scorn of the stranger, but a call for America to harken to its ancient aim of serving the world as a beacon light of peace and liberty, rather than as master of a house of correction to set everyone in the world aright by force of bayonet. If the “isolationists” were not themselves libertarian, they were at least moving in that direction, and their ideas needed only refinement and systematization to arrive at that goal.

In the devotion to peace, in the anxiety to limit and confine state military interventions and consequent wars, there was little difference between the right-wing principle of neutrality a generation ago, and the left-wing principle of neutralism today. When we realize this, the essential obsolescence of the old categories of “Right” and “Left” begins to become clear.

The intellectual leaders of this Old Right of World War II and the immediate aftermath were then and remain today almost unknown among the larger body of American intellectuals: Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Frank Chodorov, Garet Garrett. It almost takes a great effort of the will to recall the principles and objectives of the Old Right, so different is the current right wing today.

The stress, as we have noted, was on individual liberty in all its aspects as against state power: on freedom of speech and action, on economic liberty, on voluntary relations as opposed to coercion, on a peaceful foreign policy. The great threat to that liberty was state power, in its invasion of personal freedom and private property and in its burgeoning military despotism.

Philosophically, the major emphasis was on the natural rights of man, arrived at by an investigation through reason of the laws of man’s nature. Historically, the intellectual heroes of the Old Right were such libertarians as John Locke, the Levellers, Jefferson, Paine, Thoreau, Cobden, Spencer, and Bastiat.

In short, this libertarian Right based itself on 18th- and 19th-century liberalism, and began systematically to extend that doctrine even further. The contemporary canon of the Right consisted of Nock’s Our Enemy the Stateand Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Paterson’s The God of the Machine (the chapter, “Our Japanized Educational System,” virtually launched the postwar reaction against progressive education), and H. L. Mencken’s A Mencken Chrestomathy. Its organ of opinion was the now-forgotten monthly broadsheet analysis, edited by Nock’s leading disciple, Frank Chodorov. The political thought of this group was well summarized by Chodorov:

The state is an antisocial organization, originating in conquest and concerned only with confiscating production.… There are two ways of making a living, Nock explained. One is the economic means, the other the political means. The first consists of the application of human effort to raw materials so as to bring into being things that people want; the second is the confiscation of the rightful property of others.…

The state is that group of people, who having got hold of the machinery of compulsion, legally or otherwise, use it to better their circumstances; that is the political means.

Nock would hasten to explain that the state consists not only of politicians, but also those who make use of the politicians for their own ends; that would include those we call pressure groups, lobbyists, and all who wrangle special privileges out of the politicians. All the injustices that plague “advanced” societies, he maintained, are traceable to the workings of the state organizations that attach themselves to these societies.

When the Cold War so swiftly succeeded World War II, the Old Right was not bemused — let alone did it lead the war cry. It is difficult to conceive now that the main political opposition to the Cold War was led, not by the Left, then being brought into the war camp by the ADA, but by the “extreme-right-wing Republicans” of that era: by the Howard Buffetts and the Frederick C. Smiths.

It was this group that opposed the Truman Doctrine, NATO, conscription and American entry into the Korean War — with little grateful acknowledgement by left-wing peace groups then or now. In attacking the Truman Doctrine on the floor of Congress, Rep. Buffett, who was to be Taft’s Midwestern campaign manager in 1952, declared:

Even if it were desirable, America is not strong enough to police the world by military force. If that attempt is made, the blessings of liberty will be replaced by coercion and tyranny at home. 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, and if we believe in Christianity we should try to advance our ideals by his methods. We cannot practice might and force abroad and retain freedom at home. We cannot talk world cooperation and practice power politics.

Among the intellectual leadership of the Old Right, Frank Chodorov vigorously set forth the libertarian position on both the Cold War and the suppression of communists at home. The latter was summed up in the aphorism, “The way to get rid of communists in government jobs is to abolish the jobs.” Or, more extensively:

And now we come to the spy hunt — which is, in reality, a heresy trial. What is it that perturbs the inquisitors? They do not ask the suspects: Do you believe in Power? Do you adhere to the idea that the individual exists for the glory of the state?… Are you against taxes, or would you raise them until they absorbed the entire output of the country?… Are you opposed to the principle of conscription? Do you favor more “social gains” under the aegis of an enlarged bureaucracy?…

Such questions might prove embarrassing to the investigators. The answers might bring out a similarity between their ideas and purposes and those of the suspected. They too worship Power.

Under the circumstances, they limit themselves to one question: Are you a member of the Communist Party? And this turns out to mean, have you aligned yourselves with the Moscow branch of the church?

Power worship is presently sectarianized along nationalistic lines… each nation guards its orthodoxy.… Where Power is attainable, the contest between rival sects is unavoidable. If, as seems likely, the American and Russian cults come into violent conflict, apostasy will disappear.… War is the apotheosis of Power, the ultimate expression of the faith and solidification of its achievement.…

The case against the communists involves a principle of freedom that is of transcending importance. It is the right to be wrong. Heterodoxy is a necessary condition of a free society.… The right to make a choice … is important to me, for the freedom of selection is necessary to my sense of personality; it is important to society, because only from the juxtaposition of ideas can we hope to approach the ideal of truth.

Whenever I choose an idea or label it “right,” I imply the prerogative of another to reject that idea and label it “wrong.” To invalidate his right is to invalidate mine.… If men are punished for espousing communism, shall we stop there? Once we deny the right to be wrong we put a vise on the human mind and put the temptation to turn the handle into the hands of ruthlessness.

And, in May 1949, Chodorov, praising a pamphlet on The Militarization of America issued by The National Council Against Conscription, wrote that “The state cannot intervene in the economic affairs of society without building up its coercive machinery, and that, after all, is militarism. Power is the correlative of politics.”

The Old Right reached its full flower in devotion to peace during the Korean War, which provoked several trenchant efforts during the early 1950s. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), generally concerned with free-market economics, devoted several studies to the problem. Thus, Leonard E. Read wrote in Conscience on the Battlefield (1951),

It is strange that war, the most brutal of man’s activities, requires the utmost delicacy in discussion.… War is liberty’s greatest enemy, and the deadly foe of economic progress.… To fight evil with evil is only to make evil general.

In the same year, Dr. F. A. Harper published an FEE pamphlet, In Search of Peace, in which he wrote,

Charges of pacifism are likely to be hurled at anyone who in troubled times raises any question about the race into war. If pacifism means embracing the objective of peace, I am willing to accept the charge. If it means opposing all aggression against others, I am willing to accept the charge also. It is now urgent in the interest of liberty that many persons become “peacemongers.”

So the nation goes to war, and while war is going on, the real enemy [the idea of slavery] — long ago forgotten and camouflaged by the processes of war — rides on to victory in both camps.… Further evidence that in war the attack is not leveled at the real enemy is the fact that we seem never to know what to do with “victory.”

Are the “liberated” peoples to be shot, or all put in prison camps, or what? Is the national boundary to be moved? Is there to be further destruction of the property of the defeated? Or what?…

False ideas can be attacked only with counter-ideas, facts, and logic.… Nor can the ideas of [Karl Marx] be destroyed today by murder or suicide of their leading exponent, or of any thousands or millions of the devotees.… Least of all can the ideas of Karl Marx be destroyed by murdering innocent victims of the form of slavery he advocated, whether they be conscripts in armies or victims caught in the path of battle.

Ideas must be met by ideas, on the battlefield of belief. And, as late as May 1955, Dean Russell wrote, in FEE’s The Conscription Idea,

Those who advocate the “temporary loss” of our freedom in order to preserve it permanently are advocating only one thing: the abolition of liberty.… However good their intentions may be, those people are enemies of your freedom and my freedom; and I fear them far more than I fear any potential Russian threat to my liberty. These sincere but highly emotional patriots are clear and present threats to freedom; the Russians are still thousands of miles away.…

The Russians would only attack us for either of two reasons: fear of our intentions or retaliation to our acts.… As long as we keep troops in countries on Russia’s borders, the Russians can be expected to act somewhat as we would act if Russia were to station troops in Guatemala or Mexico.…

I can see no more logic in fighting Russia over Korea or Outer Mongolia, than in fighting England over Cyprus, or France over Morocco.… The historical facts of imperialism … are not sufficient reasons to justify the destruction of freedom within the United States by turning ourselves into a permanent garrison state.… We are rapidly becoming a caricature of the thing we profess to hate.

There is no need to multiply examples. Frank Chodorov consistently worked against the war drive in analysis and later, in 1954, as editor of the Freeman. The right-wing libertarian journal Faith and Freedom featured, in April, 1954, an all-peace issue, with contributions by Garet Garrett, Robert LeFevre, the industrialist Ernest T. Weir, and the present writer.

We might elaborate here on two neglected contributions in that period. One was an essay by Garrett (“The Rise of Empire,” 1952, reprinted in The People’s Pottage, 1953) which pinpointed the main issue of our time as the rise of a deplorable American imperialism: “We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire.”

The other was a relatively unnoticed book by Louis Bromfield, A New Pattern for a Tired World (1954), which decried statism, war, conscription, and imperialism. Bromfield wrote with conviction of imperialism and of the revolution of the undeveloped countries:

One of the great failures of our foreign policy throughout the world arises from the fact that we have permitted ourselves to be identified everywhere with the old, doomed, and rotting colonial-imperialist small European nations which once imposed upon so much of the world the pattern of exploitation and economic and political domination.… None of these rebellious, awakening peoples will … trust us or cooperate in any way so long as we remain identified with the economic colonial system of Europe, which represents, even in its capitalistic pattern, the last remnants of feudalism.… We leave these awakening peoples with no choice but to turn to Russian and communist comfort and promise of Utopia.

And on American Cold War policy, Bromfield charged,

Our warmongers and the military apparently believe … that all other nations are unimportant and can be trampled under foot the moment either Russia or the U.S. sees fit to precipitate a war.… To this faction [the warmongers and the military] it seems of small concern that the nations lying between us and Russia would be the most terrible sufferers.…

The growing “neutralism” of the European nations is merely a reasonable, sensible, and civilized reaction, legitimate in every respect when all the factors from Russia’s inherent weaknesses to our own meddling and aggressiveness are taken into consideration.… The Korean situation … will not be settled until we withdraw entirely from an area in which we have no right to be and leave the peoples of that area to work out their own problems.

These quotations give the flavor of an era that is so remote as to make it seem incredible that such views should have dominated the American right wing. To the current right wing, which has virtually obliterated its own former position from its memory, such views today would be branded, at the very least, as “soft on communism.”

This article is a selection from “Transformation of the American Right,” first published in Continuum, Summer 1964.

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