Are conservatism and anti-militarism antithetical positions? To most Americans today, yes they are. However, despite what the Heritage Foundation, National Review, the Republican Party, Fox News, and Talk Radio tell you, conservatism was traditionally very skeptical of militarism, foreign interventionism, and war. Conservatism today stands for little more than ever increasing military budgets and perpetual war; this is largely a betrayal of one of the most fundamental principles of American conservatism.
One of the influences on modern conservatism is the Old Right (although, admittedly, not as influential as I’d like). Needless to say, the Old Right was staunchly anti-interventionist at home and abroad. They were bitterly opposed to FDR and to American entry into World War II. Think on that a moment – the war that today is celebrated by all conservatives as a noble effort to drive out Nazism from the earth was initially opposed by the Right. These men were not pacifists, but were believers in defensive warfare only. Although most supported entering the conflict after Pearl Harbor, there was still much opposition regarding numerous policies of FDR’s.
The bigger influence upon modern conservatism is what is sometimes called the Post-War Conservative Movement. Three of the most influential figures within this movement were Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver, and Russell Kirk. And what do this three have to say about war? Well, Nisbet wrote in 1986 that
Of all the misascriptions of the word ‘conservative’ during the last four years, the most amusing, in an historical light, is surely the application of ‘conservative’ to the last-named. For in America throughout the twentieth century, and including four substantial wars abroad, conservatives had been steadfastly the voices of non-inflationary military budgets, and of an emphasis on trade in the world instead of American nationalism. In the two World Wars, in Korea, and in Viet Nam, the leaders of American entry into war were such renowned liberal-progressives as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. In all four episodes conservatives, both in the national government and in the rank and file, were largely hostile to intervention; were isolationists indeed.
In another work, Nisbet wrote at length of the “lure of military society” and detailed how militaristic societies have common psychological links with communism and totalitarianism. He wrote how World War I had transformed America:
A great deal of the spirit of localism, of grass roots, and of pluralism that had characterized so much of American reform thought, ranging from anarchist utopianism to the special forms of socialism that characterized, for example, Eugene Debs and the editors of The Masses, disappeared with the war. A very different spirit, rooted in the centralized power of the national government and which in a sense took war-society minus war as its ideal of planned economy, replaced the older one.
Elsewhere in the same text, he wrote
War and the military are, without question, among the very worst of the earth’s afflictions, responsible for the majority of the torments, oppressions, tyrannies, and suffocations of thought the West has for long been exposed to. In military or war society anything resembling true freedom of thought, true individual initiative in the intellectual and cultural and economic areas, is made impossible — not only cut off when they threaten to appear but, worse, extinguished more or less at root. Between military and civil values there is, and always has been, relentless opposition. Nothing has proved more destructive of kinship, religion, and local patriotisms than has war and the accompanying military mind. Basic social institutions can, on the incontestable record, survive depression, plague, famine, and catastrophe. They have countless times in history. What these and related institutions cannot survive is the transfer of their inherent functions and authorities to a body such as the military….
Yet, evil as war and the military are as the pillars of society, there are, in ages of twilight such as our own, worse afflictions, at least in the imaginations of those who feel threatened by breakdown, corruption, moral erosion, and downright physical danger. War society — with its promised protection from these, its proffer of security to civil populations, its guise of revolutionary achievement, as in China, Russia, Cuba and many another nation, its repudiation of all the economic and social values which have become repugnant to people under depression or inflation, its manifest means of relieving the terrible weight of boredom that modern democratic and industrial populations increasingly find themselves enduring, and, perhaps foremost, its sense of mission or crusade — can be, indeed already shows vivid signs of being, almost redemptive in appearance.
Militarism, thus, is scarcely different from communism in its Messianic outlook. People will have an emotional attachment to a militarized society and will become convinced that Enemies are everywhere and that only the State can protect them.
Richard Weaver deplored the growing barbarism that modern warfare entailed. Looking back prior to the French Revolution, Weaver had, similar to the military historian Michael Howard, written how Europe had ‘civilized’ warfare. For example, wars had territorial objectives, not ideological ones; wars were not about exterminating people, but rather about outmaneuvering an enemy in the least costly, both in terms of money and men, way possible. This all changed with the French Revolution. In it, conscription, nationalism, and total warfare – a “return to barbarism” – was unleashed upon the West. This mindset of nihilism was seen under General Sherman’s barbaric actions against the Southern Confederacy, World War I enlarged it yet again, and the concept of nihilistic total war was finally perfected with World War II. The Second World War, according to Weaver, had “reduced the word ‘noncombatant’ almost to meaninglessness.” Ludwig von Mises, a libertarian that was also highly influential upon conservatism, wrote that
How far we are today from the rules of international law developed in the age of limited warfare! Modern war is merciless, it does not spare pregnant women or infants; it is indiscriminate killing and destroying. It does not respect the rights of neutrals. Millions are killed, enslaved, or expelled from the dwelling places in which their ancestors lived for centuries. Nobody can foretell what will happen in the next chapter of this endless struggle….
Likewise, military historian Major General J. F. C. Fuller, a British Fascist, wrote approvingly of modern warfare and recognized it for exactly what it is
The influence of the spirit of nationality, that is of democracy, on war was profound, … [it] emotionalized war and, consequently, brutalized it; …. National armies fight nations, royal armies fight their like, the first obey a mob – always demented, the second a king, generally sane. … All this developed out of the French Revolution, which also gave to the world conscription – herd warfare, and the herd coupling with finance and commerce has begotten new realms of war. For when once the whole nation fights, then is the whole national credit available for the purpose of war.
So, the Fascists praised democratic total warfare (no surprise there), while the conservatives were horrified by it!
Russell Kirk is quite possibly the most influential figure in all of modern American conservatism. And what was his opinion on the notion that militarism was inextricably linked with conservatism? In a speech he gave in 1991, he stated
Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were enthusiasts for American domination of the world. Now George Bush appears to be emulating those eminent Democrats. When the Republicans, once upon a time, nominated for the presidency a ‘One World’ candidate, Wendell Willkie, they were sadly trounced. In general, Republicans throughout the twentieth century have been advocates of prudence and restraint in the conduct of foreign affairs.
Kirk severely criticized President Bush for setting in motion “a radical course of intervention in the region of the Persian Gulf. After carpet-bombing the Cradle of Civilization as no country ever had been bombed before, Mr. Bush sent in hundreds of thousands of soldiers to overrun the Iraqi bunkers — that were garrisoned by dead men, asphyxiated.” He went on to say
Now indubitably Saddam Hussein is unrighteous but so are nearly all the masters of the “emergent” African states (with the Ivory Coast as a rare exception), and so are the grim ideologues who rule China, and the hard men in the Kremlin, and a great many other public figures in various quarters of the world. Why, I fancy that there are some few unrighteous men, conceivably, in the domestic politics of the United States. Are we to saturation-bomb most of Africa and Asia into righteousness, freedom, and democracy? And, having accomplished that, however would we ensure persons yet more unrighteous might not rise up instead of the ogres we had swept away? Just that is what happened in the Congo, remember, three decades ago; and nowadays in Zaire, once called the Belgian Congo, we zealously uphold with American funds the dictator Mobutu, more blood-stained than Saddam. And have we forgotten Castro in Cuba?
And the kicker? Here is Kirk “blaming America first” and “siding with the Jihadists” when he states that
We must expect to suffer during a very long period of widespread hostility toward the United States — even, or perhaps especially, from the people of certain states that America bribed or bullied into combining against Iraq. In Egypt, in Syria, in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Morocco, in all of the world of Islam, the masses now regard the United States as their arrogant adversary; while the Soviet Union, by virtue of its endeavors to mediate the quarrel in its later stages, may pose again as the friend of Moslem lands. Nor is this all: for now, in every continent, the United States is resented increasingly as the last and most formidable of imperial systems.
This isn’t some anti-Establishment libertarian like Murray Rothbard making these statements – it is one of the foremost conservative intellectuals in America! Consider this other gem that Kirk stated, as well: “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace comes to pass in an era of Righteousness — that is, national or ideological self-righteousness in which the public is persuaded that ‘God is on our side,’ and that those who disagree should be brought here before the bar as war criminals.”
Now, let us turn to the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There is almost 100% solidarity among conservatives today that the nuclear bombings were necessary, just, and deserved. Not only are the bombings justified, but they are even celebrated today. Criticize the atomic bombings, and you’ll be quickly labeled a leftist, anti-American, pinko-communist. But what have prominent conservatives had to say about Nagasaki and Hiroshima that you’ve never heard Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin quote?
David Lawrence, the prominent conservative publisher (who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Nixon), believed that Japan’s surrender was inevitable and that the nuclear bombings were not necessary to end the War. Days after the bombings, he wrote that any military justifications would “never erase from our minds the simple truth that we, of all civilized nations . . . did not hesitate to employ the most destructive weapon of all times indiscriminately against men, women and children.”
Shortly after Japan’s surrender, an article was published in the conservative magazine Human Events that stated that Hiroshima might be morally “more shameful” and “more degrading” than Japan’s “indefensible and infamous act of aggression” at Pearl Harbor. The Chicago Tribune, at the time another conservative mouthpiece, accused President Truman of “crimes against humanity” for “the utterly unnecessary killing of uncounted Japanese.” Henry Luce, another prominent conservative publisher, stated that “[i]f, instead of our doctrine of ‘unconditional surrender,’ we had all along made our conditions clear, I have little doubt that the war with Japan would have ended soon without the bomb explosion which so jarred the Christian conscience.”
Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a man of the Right if there ever was one, wrote that
The dropping of the [atomic] bomb on a populated center was another totally superfluous crime. Even if callous arguments for the annihilation of Hiroshima could be made, there was no necessity for the slaughter in Nagasaki, cradle of Japanese Christianity. Within a split second the bomb wiped out one-eighth of Japan’s Catholic Christians. Here the argument resurfaces—Truman wanted to impress the Soviets, just as Churchill had with Dresden. But how could any butcher impress the arch-butcher from the Caucasus? Not even the late Adolf Hitler had succeeded.
(Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn elsewhere contrasted the differences between limited monarchical warfare and democratic total warfare).
Even National Review, the conservative Establishment magazine, published an article in 1959 that stated, “The indefensibility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming a part of the national conservative creed.” George S. Schuyler, a prominent conservative journalist that contributed to National Review at times, wrote in his Pittsburgh Courier column of August 14, 1945 that
Not satisfied with being able to kill people by the thousand, we have now achieved the supreme triumph of being able to slaughter whole cities at a time. In this connection it is interesting to note that there is no longer any pretense that only military installations are targets. Skimming through in the skies over Hiroshima, one of our bombing planes dropped the fearsome atomic bomb to murder 200,000 or Japanese mothers, fathers and children indiscriminately. It seems that just yesterday we were bemoaning German barbarism in bombing Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and other industrial centers, and citing as evidence of the Japanese savagery the slaughter of a few thousand innocents in Shanghai.
Richard Weaver wrote of the atomic bombings that they were “inimical to the foundations on which civilization is built,” and criticized “the spectacle of young boys fresh out of Kansas and Texas turning nonmilitary Dresden into a holocaust . . . pulverizing ancient shrines like Monte Cassino and Nuremberg, and bringing atomic annihilation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Republican Senator Robert Taft declared in 1949, as the Cold War was beginning to take shape, that
I am opposed to the whole idea of giving the President power to arm the world against Russia or anyone else, or even to arm Western Europe, except where there is a real threat of aggression. We are stimulating an armament race. We are trying to restore a military balance of power on the European continent. Such policies in the past have always led to war rather than to peace.
The original conservative position was nuclear disarmament, not proliferation!
Getting back to the theme of warfare in general, Felix Morley wrote in 1959 that, “Every war in which the United States has engaged since 1815 was waged in the name of democracy. Each has contributed to that centralization of power which tends to destroy that local self-government which is what most Americans have in mind when they acclaim democracy.” Conservatives used to understand this. They knew that militarism abroad centralized and aggrandized the State at home. They knew that the biggest threat to liberty, culture, and the family was not a foreign foe, but the State, especially under some pretext of war. Now they claim to be for ‘limited-government’ while supporting massive military spending and endless bombing campaigns. And then everyone wonders why domestic government grew at the rate it did under President George W. Bush.
Republican Congressman Howard Buffett stated in 1952 on the House Floor that
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.
J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings and a staunch traditionalist conservative, wrote to his son in 1945 that
We were supposed to have reached a stage of civilization in which it might still be necessary to execute a criminal, but not to gloat, or to hang his wife and child by him while the orc-crowd hooted. The destruction of Germany, be it 100 times merited, is one of the most appalling world-catastrophes. Well, well,—you and I can do nothing about it. And that [should] be a measure of the amount of guilt that can justly be assumed to attach to any member of a country who is not a member of its actual Government. Well the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter—leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines.
It would have been very easy to quote at length anti-war arguments from such libertarians as Murray Rothbard and Frank Chodorov, or paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak; but these individuals are far enough out of the Republican mainstream that “conservatives” such as David Frum can ignore and criticize them as being ‘unpatriotic.’ What is harder to ignore and rebuke, however, is the fact that the very founders of conservatism in America held a deep skepticism to militarism, foreign interventionism, total war, and atomic weaponry.
So, what happened to conservatism that transformed it from an anti-interventionist philosophy to an interventionist one? Much has been written on this very topic elsewhere (see here, here, here, and here) but briefly what happened was that National Review came onto the scene in 1955. It was a magazine for all factions of the right-wing in America at that time – libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-Communists. Unfortunately, the arguments of the anti-Communists (who primarily argued for foreign interventionism, while rarely speaking on any other subject that was vital to libertarians and traditionalists) won the heart of William F. Buckley and National Review became predominately a magazine for perpetual war. The influx of the neoconservatives into the right-wing in the 1970s and the Moral Majority / Jesus is Coming Tomorrow / Start Armageddon social conservatives in the 1980s only further solidified the right-wing’s transformation into a movement of militarism.
Now, let’s look to see what the American right-wing stands for today: a few minutes over at RedState, PJ Media, American Spectator, or Little Green Footballs will leave a bad taste in the mouth of most decent Americans. And if you’re really in the mood for some utter filth, head on over to JihadWatch. This is what today’s interventionist conservative intellectuals (ie, The Weekly Standard, National Review, The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute) have bequeathed to America – a rabid mob of nationalistic, blood thirsty Americans, that boo mentions of peace, but cheer promises of bombing campaigns. And what’s even more amazing here is that these conservatives – both the elites and the masses – rarely go to war themselves. They love to send others to war, but refuse to go themselves. They ignore all grounds to reason when one can point out, incidentally enough, that the troops overwhelmingly contribute money to the staunchest anti-interventionist Presidential candidate in the entire race – Ron Paul. They ignore all grounds to reason when you can cite ex-CIA operatives and consultants, such as Michael Scheuer and Chalmers Johnson, who agree with the foreign policy positions of Ron Paul. And then you have pieces like these, that routinely castigate Ron Paul’s foreign policy views as Leftist!
Conservatives need to remember their heritage! If you don’t care to read the intellectual leaders of the entire conservative movement, then just go back to the 1990s and listen to what Republican Politicians and Talking Heads said then. Here’s George W. Bush and John McCain, for starters. During the lead-up to Clinton’s actions in Kosovo, Sean Hannity stated, “But you know what? There’s a lot of massacres going on in the world. As you know, 37,000 Kurds in Turkey, over a million people in Sudan. We have hundreds of thousands in Rwanda and Burundi. I mean, where do we stop?” He also stated
Slobodan Milosevic is a bad guy. He’s an evil man. Horrible things are happening. I agree with that. Is Bill O’Reilly then saying we go to Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Sudan? Where does this stop? And when you look at sheer numbers, 2,000 — and I’m not minimizing death. It’s horrible. What this man is doing with ethnic cleansing is abhorrent, but sheer numbers — 2,000 killed in the last year versus hundreds of thousands, millions in some cases in other parts of the world. Are you saying the United States should go to all those places?
What about Rick Santorum, possibly the most rabid defender of bombing Iran in the current Presidential race, what did he have to say about Kosovo?
President Clinton is once again releasing American military might on a foreign country with an ill-defined objective and no exit strategy. He has yet to tell the Congress how much this operation will cost. And he has not informed our nation’s armed forces about how long they will be away from home. These strikes do not make for a sound foreign policy.
Amazing how everything changes in a few short years, huh? In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Republican Party actually looked like they may regain some of their anti-interventionist roots. But it was not to be. They opposed Clinton’s foreign actions simply because he was a Democrat, not out of any principled stance to restrained foreign adventurism.
It would do well for the conservative movement to recall the traditionalist, libertarian, Christian, and constitutional arguments against American Imperialism. We need to remember our intellectual forebears (see here, here, here, here, and here) and what conservatism is truly about (hint: it is not about bombing brown people indefinitely, rooting out every tyrant in the world through military action, or even bringing democracy to foreigners).