Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism, by Bill Kauffman, New York: Metropolitan Books, 304 pages, $25
If you are trying to discover how a particular conservative understands conservatism, a good place to start is to ask him what he thinks about Ron Paul. Paul’s admirers on the right don’t just consider the 10-term congressman from Texas a conservative. They tend to think the libertarian favorite was by far the most conservative of this year’s Republican presidential candidates. Former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), now making a presidential run himself as a Libertarian, told the Conservative Political Action Conference that Paul is “the gold standard of conservatism.” (If you are a Paul supporter, then you already know the gold standard is a good thing.)
Paul’s detractors on the right take a different view, to put it mildly. When not likening him to the Branch Davidians, they dismiss him as a crazed liberal. Free Republic founder Jim Robinson told site members that Paul was no different from Hillary Clinton on the Iraq war, a verdict that either exaggerates Clinton’s anti-war credentials or dramatically understates Paul’s. Upon hearing his famous foreign policy exchange with Rudy Giuliani, in which Paul argued that the 9/11 attacks were “blowback” from U.S. interventions abroad, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis called for Paul’s exclusion from future GOP presidential debates, saying, “I think he would have felt much more comfortable on the stage with the Democrats in what he said last night.”
Even some Paul voters seemed to feel the same way. In New Hampshire this year, exit polls showed Paul carrying 16 percent of the primary’s self-described liberals—second only to John McCain—and just 6 percent of conservatives. While 7 percent of Paul’s voters considered themselves “very conservative,” more than twice as many (15 percent) were “somewhat liberal.” Paul’s conservative supporters thought they were challenging the Republican establishment from the right in the tradition of Barry Goldwater, John Ashbrook, and Patrick Buchanan. Others saw something more analogous to long-shot liberal campaigns by Pete McCloskey and John Anderson.
No matter how often Paul invoked Robert Taft’s noninterventionism, Dwight Eisenhower’s warnings against the military-industrial complex, Ronald Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and a fellow Texan’s campaign promise of a “humble foreign policy,” the Hannity-and-Coulter set did not budge from this simple formulation: Opposing the war is liberal; shock and awe is conservative. Or as the antiwar journalist Bill Kauffman puts it in the opening line to his most recent book, “Left stands for peace, right for war; liberals are pacific, conservatives bellicose.”
Kauffman spends the next 300 or so pages of Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism exploding this myth and celebrating a long, neglected anti-war tradition on the American right. Frequently informative, often sentimental, and sometimes quixotic, Ain’t My America is always engaging. Kauffman (a reason staffer from 1985 to 1988) is at his best when extolling the virtues of ordinary people stuck under the boot of big, faceless institutions or denouncing wooly abstractions that threaten to swallow whole little platoons.
The story begins, as it so often does with Kauffman-style conservatives, with the Founding Fathers. George Mason warned against maintaining peacetime standing armies—”I abominate and detest the idea of a government, where there is a standing army,” to quote him exactly—but James Madison thought that a “government of a federal nature” could be entrusted with “one of the greatest mischiefs that can possibly happen.” Madison argued that not even the “most arbitrary despot” would “drag the militia unnecessarily to an immense distance.”
Oops. Kauffman moves on to George Washington’s Farewell Address, with its injunctions to “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations” but avoid “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues.” Bearing the “editorial mark of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and thus as close to an expression of early American political omnifariousness as one might find,” Washington’s address more importantly “still stands as a sacred text among conservative critics of empire.” Kauffman laments, “One doubts if any secular sutra has ever been violated with such brutal regularity…especially in its foreign-policy injunctions.”
Kauffman doesn’t hesitate to point out some of the more egregious violators, but in Ain’t My America he is more interested in those who tried to heed George Washington’s counsel. He starts with the noble few who opposed Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase as being not expressly authorized by the Constitution, though it doubled the country for just $15 million. Seven senators voted against ratifying the deal and 25 congressmen voted against funding it, fearing it would lead to an American empire. The Massachusetts Federalist Fisher Ames, described by the author as “a first-class Jefferson hater,” asked, “Having bought an empire, who is to be emperor?”
From the War of 1812 to the 1898 Spanish-American War, the main opponents of foreign military adventures were people motivated by aversion to either empire or emperor. But their anti-imperial critique wasn’t obviously leftist or proto-Chomskyite. The characters Kauffman sketches are decentralist, traditionalist, and constitutionalist. Many were businessmen with fairly conservative politics. The Anti-Imperialist League, for instance, was funded in part by Andrew Carnegie; it nearly fractured when it endorsed William Jennings Bryan for president 1900, because he opposed—wait for it—the gold standard.
Progressives played a leading role in agitating for both the Spanish-American War and Woodrow Wilson’s subsequent crusade to the make the world safe for democracy, although their ranks also included some notable dissenters, such as Hull House founder Jane Addams and the radical essayist Randolph Bourne. People on the right were also active in opposing those wars and the subsequent fight against Hitler as well. Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio), “Mr. Republican,” opposed U.S. entry into World War II until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he wanted to keep American troops out of Korea.
Taft-style conservatism didn’t completely die with the man himself, but it certainly became more marginal politically. While Kauffman lavishes praise on outliers such as Rep. Eugene Siler (R-Ky.), an anti–Vietnam War conservative in the mold of Ron Paul, during the Cold War he shifts his focus to trans-ideological peace movements in which the right played a much smaller role than the left. He also has to do a bit of padding to make anti-war conservatism seem relevant during the ideological struggle with the Soviets.
Any Republican who opposed the Vietnam War is conscripted into the anti-war right, no matter how liberal. Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon was close to a pacifist and deeply interested in both the Old Right and libertarianism. Kauffman calls Hatfield a “neo-Taftie,” much as the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard once described the senator as “a nineteenth century liberal devoted to a creed of strictly limited government, limited at home and abroad.” But Hatfield mostly voted like a moderate Rockefeller Republican, and even Rothbard concluded in 1972 that Hatfield’s voting record was “very good on foreign policy and the draft, but it’s not too great on other things.” Similarly, Sen. Thurston Morton (R-Ky.) may have been “no squishy John Lindsay liberal Republican turncoat nursing a secret desire to join the Democrats,” but neither was he Mr. Republican.
Kauffman’s definition of the anti-war right becomes so elastic that it includes George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, and elements of the New Left. McGovern and McCarthy were certainly more traditional (and unpredictable) than their hippie followers, and they took some conservative positions in retirement: McGovern on economic regulation, McCarthy on immigration. But setting aside their nice words about decentralization, it makes less sense for paleoconservatives to adopt them than it does for neoconservatives to claim Harry Truman. McGovern did not just alienate Scoop Jackson’s Senate staff from the Democratic Party. He repelled millions of Kauffman’s Middle Americans.
Which raises the question: Is there still such a thing as an anti-war right, at least as a political rather than an intellectual phenomenon? That’s been a debatable proposition since Barry Goldwater’s hawkish presidential campaign of 1964. Taftian tendencies do re-emerge during Democratic administrations, and in the 1990s a real revival of noninterventionist conservatism seemed possible. Pat Buchanan didn’t even support the first war against Iraq, but that was no impediment to him launching a stronger-than-expected Republican primary challenge to President George H.W. Bush in 1992. In his second presidential bid, Buchanan attracted strong support from social conservatives and evangelical Christians, giving Bob Dole a scare in New Hampshire—and scaring more than a few neoconservatives who feared that “Buchananism” might have an even larger following on the right than Buchanan himself.