Peace-Loving Conservatives


August 16, 2008

In my hometown, the peace rallies are always sponsored by the Unitarians. Actually, it is they who are the participants too.

Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism
By Bill Kauffman, Metropolitan Books, $25, 304 pages
In my hometown, the peace rallies are always sponsored by the Unitarians. Actually, it is they who are the participants too. This is not a highly heterogeneous group. In fact, you know them already: highly educated, ideologically driven according to conventional left-wing moorings, attracted to fashionable causes like global warming and the mortal threat posed by plastic grocery bags, and hyper-tolerant of all points of view except those with which they disagree.
In some way, they stand in proxy for all the “gownies” in this college town, but distinguish themselves for actually practicing what they preach. Most of the professors are sympathetic to their antiwar cause, and are rather disgusted by the dumbed-down and reflexive foreign-policy belligerence of the “townies,” who regard every new war as a test of national pride. The professors are not activists, so they let the Unitarians do the heavy lifting of driving the townies crazy with “unpatriotic” protests.
In this, they are united against the bourgeois Baptists at the middle-brow churches in town, who hear sermons about the how God is a man of war and how Islam threatens our very way of life, so we had better get them before they get us. Their “patriotism” is summed up by hyper-loyalty to the Republican Party and pledging allegiance to the flag and treating it and other symbols of the nation-state as if they were holy relics.
This is a summary of my town’s politics concerning war, and I suspect that it is not unlike your town. The intellectuals of the Left are antiwar; the average Joe on the street is pro-war. So entrenched is this demographic that we just take it for granted and presume it has never been otherwise.
The world as portrayed in Bill Kauffman’s fantastic new book is radically different, even upside from the one we know. And yet the world he presents seems to make more intuitive sense. The title gives you the flavor: Ain’t My America: The Long, Nobel History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism. He has written in 304 pages a super-entertaining, very well-researched, and enormously enlightening history of how middle America has traditionally been the largest and more effective force of resistance to the imperial Garrison state.
This has been true from the early years of the Republic, in which founders warned not only against foreign intervention but even any standing army at all, through the interwar period, when the largest mass movement in American history to the point rallied against entering World War II. In great detail, he alerts us to the politics of the least-discussed and least-understood war of them all: the Great War or World War I.
In this episode, the Left was on the side of the war, with the hope that the state would try an experiment in national economic planning, crush Old-World forms of government abroad, and usher in progressive policies such as income taxes, central banking, and presidential dictatorship. They got their way, while the group we might call the Right cried foul. Opposition came from farmers, main street Republicans, and old-school classical liberals. The author provides fantastic quotations from speeches in Congress that opposed entry into war, generally viewing it as a war by and for elites against the people. Patriotism drove the opposition. “As I love my country,” said Isaac Sherwood of Ohio, “I feel it is my sacred duty to keep the stalwart young men of today out of a barbarous war 3,500 miles away in which we have no vital interest.”
Many of the speeches Kauffman quotes are downright inspiring, not only because of the words but also because it is great to see them all resurrected again. Official historians have tended to act as if the opposition had no good points or didn’t exist at all. Kauffman shows that they were principled, even prophetic. More than that, he demonstrates that the opposition to war stemmed from conservative values.
But this turned out to be a warm-up for the opposition to entry into World War II. We are supposed to believe that because we won that one unequivocally, the opponents of entry had nothing to say worth remembering. In fact, they considered FDR’s war the second part of the New Deal: Instead of dealing with unemployment, send them to foreign lands to kill and be killed. The drive to war was opposed by the American First movement, which was huge and marvelous in so many ways, even if they did get crushed by wicked propaganda then and now.
The author revisits their arguments and refutes the myths surrounding them, e.g. they were fascistic or ignorant or provincial or underestimating risk abroad. But his main point is demographic and intellectual: Here, to be against war was to be for America, for patriotism, for the love of home and liberty.
Kauffman goes further to dip into the early history of the Cold War, showing that the American Right was against intervention. They had seen the way war politics was used to build the state, and were done giving up their liberty. Many heroes emerge here from the early 1950s, with Right-wing pundits and politicians sounding not that much different from how the New Left sounded only a decade and a half later.
What Kauffman has done is more than merely sketch a history, though it is wonderful and detailed history. He has fashioned a new way to look at the breakdown of the politics of war. I found it interesting that during the 1990s, the Republicans re-emerged as the anti-nation building party and the Democrats embraced their Wilsonian heritage. After 9/11, the roles switched yet again, and today the Republicans are guilty of trafficking in the worst forms of jingoistic patriotism-baiting.
The author urges us to rethink what it means to be a conservative. In part it is to favor the human scale and oppose far-flung attempts to remake the world. Is it really so unreasonable that conservatives should make the anti-war cause their own? Read Kauffman and see if you rethink your position.
“There is nothing conservative about the American Empire,” he writes. “It seeks to destroy — which is why good American conservatives, those loyal to family and home and neighborhood and our best traditions, should wish, and work toward, its peaceful destruction. We have nothing to lose but the chains and taxes of empire. And we have a country to regain.”

Jeffrey Tucker is editor of Contact him at [email protected].

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