Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in The Cold War Era, by Justus D. Doenecke, Lewisburg, Penna.: Bucknell University Press, 1979, 289 pp., $17.50. Menlo Park, Calif.: Institute for Humane Studies, 1979, 289 pp., $6.95 (paper).
Many advocates of noninterventionism with reference to the Second World War had been active opponents of the US entry into the First World War. Later, they had fought strongly against the Versailles Treaty on the ground that its harshness would cause the Germans to demand revision, Allied resistance to which would cause a second world war. How did these people respond to the Cold War? That is the question addressed here by Justus Doenecke, as a part of his long-term study of American noninterventionism before Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
When the First World War had ended with European capitalism devastated by war collectivism and taxes, Herbert Hoover established the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace to study how war causes social revolutions such as Russian communism or German or Italian fascism. Hoover and his former aide at Versailles, Robert Taft, believed strongly that a negotiated peace between Britain and Germany was preferable to a war prolonged by American entry. War, they contended, would lead to increased collectivism in America and to the victory of communism in Europe and Asia.
During and after the Second World War, the noninterventionists advocated a negotiated peace, support for the German underground to depose Hitler, and limitation on bombing of civilians. There was strong criticism of the Nuremberg trials by Taft; many felt that they could not be justified unless the judges came entirely from neutral nations. Oswald Garrison Villard asked why a court had never been called to try war-causing Americans like Polk and Lincoln. The isolationist Progressive featured William B. Hesseltine's implicit comparison of mythical atrocity stories of the Civil War to atrocity accounts from the Second World War. Isolationists protested the Yalta Agreement's condoning of slave labor by the Soviet Union, whether for German prisoners or for forcibly returned Russian anticommunist troops.
The way in which the Second World War ended alarmed the noninterventionists. Felix Morley called the use of the atom bomb an "infamous act." Rev. James Gillis, in the Catholic World, said America had struck "the most powerful blow ever delivered against Christian civilization and the moral law." Joseph P. Kennedy and the Chicago Tribune viewed it as senseless and brutal, while isolationist financier Robert Young claimed the atom bomb was used to "serve frightful warning upon possible Russian postwar ambitions in Europe and Asia."
The strong interest of noninterventionists in revisionism in opposition to official history extended from the origins of the Second World War to the origins of the Cold War. Revisionist histories by Charles A. Beard, Harry Elmer Barnes, etc., became the center of a controversial "battle of the books." Attacked in the establishment press, revisionist history received a hearing in the Progressive, Human Events, Christian Century, American Journal of International Law, and analysis.
Doenecke devotes much of his study to Cold War crises such as the Truman Doctrine and the Korean War. Rep. Lawrence H. Smith of Wisconsin found the Truman Doctrine "smelling" of oil politics. Sen. Edwin Johnson of Colorado concurred, calling it "a political insurance policy for the Standard Oil companies," which had established their dominance in Saudi Arabia a few months earlier. Time magazine noted: "The loud talk was all of Greece and Turkey, but the whispers behind the talk were of the ocean of oil to the south." Taft noted that America's assumption of dominance in Greece and Turkey undermined the basis of objections to Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. The Truman Doctrine, he argued, would initiate a program of military and foreign spending that would endanger capitalism in America by spending the nation into bankruptcy.
Yale law professor Edwin M. Borchard insisted that America could do more to defeat communism by doing less abroad and concentrating on developing America's free economy. Whether because of human nature, economic laws of the free market, or the balance of power, any expansion—by the Soviet Union or the United States—would cause the expanding country eventually to withdraw. And since communism was a failure as an economic system, expansion would place greater pressures on its economy.
Noninterventionists also questioned whether the Truman administration's black-and-white dichotomy with reference to China was correct. Did not Russia, they asked, prefer a divided and distracted China to one unified under Mao, who had shown independence of Moscow and would become a rival to the Soviet Union? The fall of China proved the correctness of the noninterventionist position in 1941. Chiang's regime hardly deserved support against the Japanese or Mao. Chiang had made it to Taiwan with plenty of gold and "other negotiable trinkets," noted Frank Chodorov. "These should keep him in eats, now that the taxing power has passed on to other hands."
The Korean war was met with immediate challenge from Taft, who questioned the constitutionality of Truman's intervention. Soon after, a Great Debate on foreign policy was launched by Joseph P. Kennedy at the University of Virginia. He called for American military withdrawal from Europe and Asia, from Germany and Korea. Contending that the Soviet Union was burdened by a grave internal crisis due to communism itself and to overexpansion, Kennedy asked: "What business is it of ours to support the French colonial policy in Indo-China or to achieve Mr. Syngman Rhee's concepts of democracy in Korea?" Hoover and Taft reiterated the same themes. To quote Doenecke: "The Ohioan asserted that the Soviet Union was planning no war with the United States; rather, it relied solely upon satellite armies and local Communist parties to extend its power overseas. American foreign policy, he maintained, must center on "the liberty of our people," not efforts to "reform the entire world." Walter Lippmann endorsed much of the analysis of Hoover and Taft.
In a national broadcast in January 1952, Hoover summed up the arguments of the Great Debate. Europeans, he noted, felt less threatened by the Soviet Union than did Washington propagandists. The reasons? Russia could overrun Europe anytime and does not because of the vast difficulties following on expansion; the Russians know they cannot defeat the United States; invasion of Europe would add another dozen nationalities to the centrifugal forces of the 30-odd nations they rule; an invaded Europe would be less productive for Russia; Russia knows that communism cannot win the hearts of Europeans and is turning to Asia; existing American policies create economic confusion that is satisfying to the Kremlin.
In his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1952, Taft published A Foreign Policy for America. Freda Utely regretted Taft's failure to understand that war needs to be continually risked. Likewise James Burnham, Robert Strausz-Hupe, and McGeorge Bundy attacked Taft. Historian Richard Current welcomed Taft's forthright constitutionalism and attack on Truman's policies but was sad that Taft's position resembled George Kennan's containment policy rather than the rigorous analysis of Charles Beard. But a thorough examination of the Cold War critiques of Taft and Beard, as well as Villard, John T. Flynn, and Lawrence Dennis is yet another project. It may be found, in fact, in Ronald Radosh's Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism, recently issued in paperback by Free Life Editions. Doenecke's work is a fine complement to Radosh's outstanding contribution.
Leonard Liggio is the president of the Institute for Humane Studies and a historian.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "US Liberty versus World Reform".