Conservatives Against Empire

The forgotten tradition of the antiwar right


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.

A majority of congressional Republicans opposed military intervention in the Balkans—including, initially, John McCain—and bitterly opposed the Kosovo War. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) of "bomb Mecca" fame was among the legislators to join peaceniks Paul and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) in a lawsuit against the administration over its military actions.

Back then, it was the hawks who felt out of place in the party. The Weekly Standard published editorials urging Republican congressmen to ignore "the conservative street" and support Clinton on Bosnia, with little to show for it beyond lost subscribers. The New York Post was left sputtering about "Kay Bailey Isolationist," their nickname for the Republican senator from Texas who didn't take their line on the Balkans. Even George W. Bush ran for president promising a "humble foreign policy," exit strategies, and an end to nation-building.

With the Cold War over, many conservatives were ready to follow McGovern's advice and "Come home, America." Jeane Kirkpatrick hoped the United States could "become a normal country in a normal time." But the normalcy ended quickly. When terrorists struck on 9/11, the right's reluctant warriors lost their voice. A Republican president was now commander in chief and the War on Terror replaced the Cold War. Antiwar conservatives have been a beleaguered group ever since.

Only six Republican congressmen and one GOP senator voted against authorizing the Iraq war. The upper chamber nay vote was cast by Lincoln Chafee, the most liberal Republican in the Senate. The six House members were divided evenly between noninterventionist conservatives (Paul, Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee, and John Hostettler of Indiana) and Rockefellerites (Jim Leach of Iowa, Connie Morella of Maryland, and Amo Houghton of New York). Almost six years later, after more than 60 percent of the American people have concluded that our Mesopotamian adventure was a fiasco, there are exactly four consistently anti-war Republicans in Congress.

As Kauffman points out, Democrats right now are twice as likely as Republicans to believe "the U.S. should mind its own business internationally." In the 1990s, there was no significant partisan difference. Kauffman jokes that he is "the least influential political writer since Wavy Gravy," but he cannot quite bring himself to write in his own voice the words he quotes from my former American Conservative colleague Daniel McCarthy: "There is no antiwar Right, at least not beyond the very limited number of contributors to and readers of magazines like Chronicles and The American Conservative. We could all fit into a football stadium and still have plenty of seats to spare."

To this, Kauffman offers no real answer and no way forward for the tradition he so eloquently defends. That's not surprising. Kauffman is not a political strategist. He is the St. Jude of journalism, the patron saint of lost causes. He writes skillfully about colorful characters and shouts from the rooftops rather than wading into wonkish details or Rovian strategy.

Politically speaking, modern anti-war conservatives are men without a country, a fact that Ron Paul's presidential campaign illustrated brutally. When Paul started talking about foreign policy at GOP debates, he could not have made less sense to his audience had he been speaking in a language of his own creation.

A conservatism that identifies with McGovern more than Reagan, Gore Vidal more than William F. Buckley Jr., and the New Left more than the religious right probably has no political future. Neither does a Kauffmanesque coalition of libertarians and socialists, segregationists and Black Panthers, hippies and Birchers, however interesting that coalition might be. And there are better reasons than Kauffman acknowledges to question whether Middle America's hearths and homes could have been protected by a completely laissez-faire approach to Hitler, the Soviet Union, and those who would emulate the 9/11 murderers.

Yet this remains a country that prefers baseball diamonds to global hegemony, bringing the boys home in victory to sending them in search of monsters to destroy. That American character cannot be preserved in a garrison society. Nor can crusades to transform faraway regions of the world be undertaken lightly without changing our nature. The limits of the U.S. government's power, wisdom, and competence do not stop at the water's edge, a fact too many conservatives have forgotten.

Kauffman is correct that the warfare state is as injurious to many conservative goals—keeping government small and taxes low, promoting free enterprise, maintaining stable families, affirming the value of human life—as the welfare state. It's an odd conservatism that doesn't seek to conserve the people's blood and treasure.

Does Ain't My America have anything to say to the vast majority of conservatives who have moved decidedly in the opposite direction? Buckley, George Will, and Robert Novak are hardly paleo noninterventionists, yet they did dust off some Old Right principles in criticizing the Iraq war. During his 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan said that his political message could be summed up in "Just five words: family, work, neighborhood, freedom, and peace." When the right applies these principles more consistently to foreign policy, it will be morning in Bill Kauffman's America.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.