What image comes to mind when you hear the phrase "peace movement"? Bearded, intense young college profs extolling the accomplishments of the Cuban literacy campaign? Adorable little Samantha Smith (RIP) chatting amiably with pig-tailed Russian teens in the Kremlin? A line of wealthy white matrons, arms locked, bleating an off-key "We Shall Overcome"?
Unless you're older than anyone in his right mind would care to admit, it's unlikely that the term evokes midwestern industrialists and retired military officers, publishing giants and Texas oilmen, or minerals executives and Great Plains farmers. Yet these are the kinds of people who once dominated movements to keep the U.S. government out of foreign wars, an inconvenient fact that has been consigned to the memory hole by left and right alike.
Indeed, the sad irony of American politics is that custodianship of one of our long-standing and wisest principles-that the United States should enjoy "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none," in Jefferson's words-has been hijacked by Sandinista sympathizers and the granola left. The fanciful sketches of peace activists above are not caricatures, as anyone who has attended a U.S. Out of Nicaragua rally can attest.
But if today's organized peace movement is dominated by woolly-headed leftists, for whom nonintervention is just one tile in a grand mosaic of socialism, ecologism, holistic feminism, etc., the vast majority of ordinary Americans retain a patriotic, Jeffersonian view of foreign entanglements. Despite the best efforts of an immensely popular president to demonize the admittedly repressive Nicaraguan government, a CBS News/New York Times poll last April indicated public opposition to the Reagan administration's contra aid request running at a 62-25 percent margin. The Roper Organization's 1985 survey of foreign-policy opinion revealed that huge majorities would oppose sending troops to thwart an invasion of South Korea (61-23 percent), Honduras (59-21 percent), Israel (53-31 percent), or Thailand (67-16 percent). Even our NATO obligations enjoy desultory support: a full 35 percent of Americans would object to getting involved if the Soviet Union were to attack Western Europe.
The open but unspoken secret in the debate over U.S. foreign policy is that the American people are today and always have been, in the best sense of the word, isolationist. They do not wish their government to muck around in the affairs of other nations. Thomas Wolfe, relating a provincial discussion of World War I in Look Homeward, Angel, captured the national spirit with customary verisimilitude: " 'It's not our fight,' said Mr. Bob Webster. 'I don't want to send my boys three thousand miles across the sea to get shot for those foreigners. If they come over here, I'll shoulder a gun with the best of them, but until they do they can fight it out among themselves.' "
Oddly, these mainstream noninterventionist sentiments go unvoiced in national political discourse. In Congress, support for an unbelligerent foreign policy comes almost entirely from liberals who would spend us into bankruptcy at home. Democratic mavericks William Proxmire (Wis.) and Ed Zorinsky (Neb.) are the only senators opposed to contra aid who rate consistently well on the annual antispending scorecards issued by the the frugal National Taxpayers Union. Clearly, leadership of this land's enormous but often-mute anti-intervention community is not about to come from the politicians.
if history is a reliable guide, the obvious candidates to lead a non-leftist peace movement are businessmen, primarily those who run small and medium-sized concerns. Many of their ancestors, desirous of a free economy and limited government and fearful that global crusades might endanger domestic liberties, took up the anti-intervention causes of their day.
The anti-interventionist tendency has always been strongest among small businessmen. Political scientist John Bunzel, in his classic study of the business mind, explains: "What particularly angers the small businessman about all of America's commitments around the world is that he can see no profitable ending for any of them." Rather than toss money down foreign ratholes, the American merchant believes that "America should devote her energies to strengthening her own free-enterprise economy at home and preserving the economic rights and liberties of Americans."
Big businesses, in contrast, have often been supportive of interventionist economic and foreign policies. Business-inspired intervention abroad has usually been designed either to open export markets or to install complaisant Third World governments. Marine Corps Commander Smedley Butler once bemoaned big business's baneful influence on foreign policy:
"I spent 33 years and four months in active service in the country's most agile military force, the Marines.... And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. Thus I helped make Mexico, and especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped in the raping of half-a-dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers and Co. in 1909 -12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the sugar interests in 1916.1 helped make Honduras 'right' for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested." Small and medium-sized businesses have a far more honorable record. Former Republican Congressman Ron Paul, who until he left the House in 1984 compiled its most consistent anti-interventionist record, maintains: "Smaller businessmen are much better on foreign policy....They don't have big contracts from the government, they don't have military contracts, they're not into the military-industrial complex."
And it is from the ranks of such business people that the core of a genuine, effective peace movement, based on traditional American values like liberty, trade, and limited government, could be drawn. In the current political climate, this may sound like a pipe dream. But it happened once; the raw materials are still there, and there are hints, just hints, that it can happen again.
When the US . government rushed headlong into the nasty, brutish, and short Spanish-American War of 1898, and the resulting suppression of the Philippine independence movement, the most significant civilian opposition came from the forthrightly named Anti-Imperialist League. The League was not composed of the socialist professors or Third World fetishists the name suggests to us today; its membership, writes historian Robert Beisner, "subscribed to the principles of laissez-faire economics laid down by Adam Smith in the eighteenth century." |
This should come as no surprise; the classical liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries generally recognized that war and preparation for war require considerable government management of the economy, with resulting high taxes, inflation, and deficits, as well as clampdowns on the rights of dissenters. In Randolph Bourne's aphorism, "War is the health of the state."
The Anti-Imperialist League's biggest bankroller was steel magnate Andrew Carnegie; its leading spokesman was insurance executive and inventor Edward Atkinson, a devout free-trader. Both men feared the deleterious effects of armaments spending on the American economy and of imperialism on the American soul. (Prophetically, much of the Anti-Imperialist fire was aimed at schemes to subjugate Latin Americans-in Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, and Uncle Sam's old favorite, Nicaragua.)
The Anti-Imperialists proposed, as an alternative to military empire, an "empire of trade"-the United States would prosper by sending goods, not troops, across borders. (Melvyn Krauss proposed a modern variation on this theme in "No More Rich Bully," Reason, Nov. 1986.) Their warnings were ignored; the Declaration of Independence, the principles of which underlay the Anti-Imperialists' objections, was dismissed, in philosopher George Santayana's words, as "a piece of literature, a salad of illusions" by those who pined for an American empire. But the Anti-Imperialists delivered, in Beisner's words, an anguished admonition to the generations to come: "Future wars and the permanent maintenance of forces strong enough to wage them would require a vast amount of money, discourage industry, impose heavy tax burdens on the American people, and distract attention from...domestic problems."