Douglas Wilder made a splash in New Hampshire last August, when he devoted a pre-campaign speech to the theme of putting America first. “We cannot focus all our energies on the international arena at the expense of America’s finances and economic health.” Denying he is an isolationist, Wilder asked, “If jobs are going to be found, why not for Americans? If schools are going to be built, why not schools for Americans?”
In part, Wilder’s patriotic rhetoric derives from the Democratic strategy of conceding Mr. Bush his foreign policy successes and scoring off his poor showing on domestic issues. But there is a growing sentiment that the Republicans want to hold on to the White House not in order to run the country but only to control the State Department. Peace in the Middle East occupied so much of their time that they have none to spare on bringing peace to Brooklyn or Los Angeles. What is left of the U.S.S.R. is important, the Republicans insist, because of its potential for world markets, but in America SAT scores continue to decline. How are these ignorant savages—that is, our children—going to compete against European children who learn math, foreign languages, and the habits of discipline?
William Bennett, upon resigning his position as Secretary of Education, declared victory in the SAT battle. Later on as “Drug Czar,” he presumably licked the drug problem in the United States. On the strength of these victories, he now holds multiple positions on foundations as the Republican Party’s guru on American culture. His groups hold meetings on the state of American culture and invite all the usual journalists and report-writers from D.C. and New York. All that’s missing are novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, musicians, and film directors—anyone, in short, who has anything practical to do with American culture.
There, in a nutshell, is the Republican Party in the 90’s: speeches without substance, policies without results, distinctions without differences. They are allowed to go on in this way for two reasons: first, because the Democrats are too cowardly to oppose the President on any fundamental point; they showed a whole warbonnet full of white feathers during the so-called Gulf War. Secondly, the American people of all classes and levels of income are a lot dumber than H.L. Mencken ever dreamed. Give him a bellyful of instant food, a case of beer (or Chardonnay), and a medicine cabinet full of prescription dope, titillate him with a steady stream of soft porn on his VCR, and the American voter will ignore the evidence of his senses and support the Tweedledums or Tweedledees offered by the two wings of the ruling party.
The Democrats, give them their due, have some faint notion of what is wrong. American voters, they must believe, will grow tired of watching the evening news: Serbs killing Croats, Zulus killing Xhosa, amateur night in the Kremlin, and who knows what bogus international crisis will be used to boost the ratings next week. It is a cozy little conspiracy between the networks desperate for viewers and the administration desperate for votes, although my wife insists that the various Eastern European and Third World thugs hold scheduling conferences to determine who gets to take over the headlines this week. Eventually, the Democrats hope, the mob will get tired of their circuses and begin to worry more about their bread, their schools, their highways, and their personal safety. Personally, I doubt it. If an American man can no longer earn an income sufficient to support a family, he can always send his wife out to work, and if she loses her job, there is always the government to turn to. Most of the country—workers almost as much as AFDC mothers—is now made up of dependents, negotiating benefits, planning for retirement, demanding their rights. Who ever heard of zombies making a revolution?
“You may say I’m a dreamer,” but I would like to imagine there is a sufficient number of Americans who would rather live free or die. If the decent elements could take over either major party or, what is more probable, start their own, what would this new America First Committee be like?
In domestic affairs, the committee could not improve much upon Doug Wilder’s statement. When Patrick Buchanan made a similar statement in an America First manifesto in the Washington Post, his liberal critics asked why the people of Nebraska or Alabama should have to foot the bills for the South Bronx. Presumably, they would rather spend the money on foreign aid and cannot distinguish between poor Americans and Pakistanis. But there is a better answer to this question than nationalism. If Americans should put American interests above those of Pakistan, New Yorkers should take care of New York. To put it in more familiar terms for Governor Wilder, Virginians—not Americans in general—should look after the interests of Virginia, and the people of Winchester ought to assume responsibility for their city. Governor Wilder, who is not known for his devotion to Catholic theology, may be unfamiliar with the principle of subsidiarity, but that principle—in America we used to call it federalism, the old federalism—is the best guide to follow in making political arrangements. Let every competent level of society—individual, family, neighborhood, town, county, state, and nation—manage its own affairs. America First also means my family first, Charleston first, South Carolina first. (I know, Charleston lost the war, but we are talking revolution.)
On the national level, we would expect the federal government to begin performing the important duties it has arrogated to itself. The Interstate Highway system is in need of repair. The Border Patrol needs beefing up. The national parks are being destroyed by the tourists who are turning them into RV tracts. On the other hand, when the federal government quits wasting our money on welfare, AIDS research, and the defense of Europe against imaginary enemies, and when state and local governments are free to carry out their own projects and policies without the burden of federal mandates and guidelines, the old federalism might begin to work again. A depressed city like Rockford, Illinois, might just be able to spend its own money in taking care of its own people. As it is we pay taxes to support Chicago schools, comfort AIDS patients in San Francisco, and provide arms to Egypt and lavish welfare to Tel Aviv.
Governor Wilder declares he is not an isolationist. If that is true, then his “putting America first” is a hollow gesture. We cannot be free or prosperous at home, so long as our Presidents continue to gratify their vanity with international power games. It is now a year since we started bombing Iraq back into the Stone Age, and what do we think we gained by it? Bush and Baker, it is true, now have a freer hand to carry out their long-held dream of bringing Israel to heel, but those of us who do not harbor ill will against our ally in the Middle East will not regard this as a great benefit. The Shamir government is, admittedly, less than kind in its treatment of the Palestinians, and the foreign policy dictators of the only remaining “superpower” must be constantly irritated by Israel’s refusal to take orders from the nation that pays its bills. The proper American response, however, should be to cut off the flow of aid, the billions and billions of dollars wasted in foreign aid everywhere, not to bully one of the few successful countries outside Europe.
If leverage over Israel is the only plus, what are the minuses? No one dares total up the dollar amount of the bills. Some economists are saying that the Gulf War cost each American citizen some three hundred fifty dollars. In my family of six citizens, that adds up to twenty-one hundred dollars, but the figure does not include the cost of financing the debt. I suspect my family’s share will cost out to five to ten thousand dollars. For that amount, I could take all six of us for a vacation in some spot a great deal more pleasant than the Middle East.
Humanitarians will have been horrified by the results of the war, not so much by the slaughter of the Kurds as by the evidence of what our “surgical” bombing did to the Iraqi people. The monster Hussein has repressed liberties, invaded a neighbor, and killed civilians. But after killing thousands upon thousands of civilians—men, women, and children—and after destroying Iraq’s ability to feed itself or live with even the minimum decency they had achieved before the “war,” after all this—and you can look at the pictures, if you like—we have left the monster Hussein in power. It still requires threats of a new invasion to force Iraq to comply with UN resolutions. I wonder, though, how readily George Bush or Mr. Shamir would comply with resolutions that infringed upon the sovereignty of their countries.
What a country we have become, with our patriotic songs and yellow ribbons commemorating something like a genocidal slaughter of a primitive people who happened to get in the way of Mr. Bush’s rhetoric. For the next four years we will be treating ourselves to encomia upon the triumph of American arms over the barbaric Germans, who committed war crimes, bombed civilians, slaughtered the innocent, simply because they were Slavs, Jews, or gypsies. It is good for a nation to remember its victories, and I shall join the celebration, but if we ever thought we were somehow different as a nation, unwilling to soil our hands in the blood of empire, that illusion should be dissipated now.
Robinson Jeffers thought our entry in World War II was sufficient evidence that we had finally completed the leap from republic to empire. His thoughts on Pearl Harbor sum up the feelings of many decent Americans who served their country without believing Roosevelt’s lies:
The war that we have carefully for years provoked catches us unprepared, amazed, and indignant. Our warships are shot like sitting ducks and our planes like nest-birds, both our coasts ridiculously panicked. And our leaders make orations. This is the people that hopes to impose on the whole planetary world an American peace.
It is an interesting fact that almost all the best American poets of the time—Pound, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, and Jeffers—despised FDR. In this sentiment they were joined, generally, by many of the best and brightest in the country. The America First Committee, described in several fine historical articles in this number, was a loose coalition of Americans who did not wish to send young men off to war on behalf of Joseph Stalin or Winston Churchill, however admirable those two statesmen might have been. The response of FDR and his lackeys in the press revealed that by 1940 America had taken on some of the qualities of a police state. Dismissals and boycotts of anti-interventionist journalists were arranged by the White House. America’s greatest hero, Charles A. Lindbergh, was slandered by administration officials, and those slanders continue to be repeated by the Establishment press even today.
Whether or not America might have stayed out or ought to have stayed out of the war is a subject for historians to debate, but the motives and integrity of most America Firsters cannot be honestly impugned. The committee’s rank and file may have been predominantly “conservative,” which in those days meant pro-business and antisocialist, but they were joined by a great many liberals. Some were attracted to the committee because of their opposition to war in general; more were Anglophobes—Midwestern Germans as well as the second son of Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who preserved his shanty Irish forebears’ hostility to England. (Only the worst of the Irish ever become Anglophiles.) New Dealer General Hugh Johnson signed up, and the dominant intellectual force was probably the New Republic columnist John T. Flynn, who was never entirely comfortable with such genuine conservatives as Charles Lindbergh, by far the committee’s most effective speaker, and Dudley Swim, the heart and soul of the New York chapter.
My point in stressing the diversity of the America First Committee is simple. Neither party affiliation nor ideology gave the movement its cohesion. It was opposition to the war and affection for their country that bound the members together into a movement. A new, patriotic political movement might have emerged, but for World War II and the Cold War that followed. So long as the conservative opposition defined itself in essentially anticommunist terms, there could be no real counterforce to check the Republican-Democrat ruling establishment.
The collapse of the Soviet Empire has meant, in terms of practical American politics, the complete triumph of the Cold War liberals who constructed the welfare state as a means of pacifying the poor. But nature abhors a vacuum, and even as the Soviet Empire breaks up into pieces, patriotic and regionalist parties are making gains in France, Germany, Italy, and—most recently—in Sweden. In America, on the other hand, we have yet to get beyond the level of speculation, although Sam Francis and Pat Buchanan have both outlined the possible shape of such a movement. The first hurdle is the little matter of the politicians we have in power. The America First Committee could point to some very important congressional allies in both parties—Senators Wheeler, Nye, and Taft, for example. Why can we discover no politicians willing to capitalize on the widespread popular resentment against free trade, open borders, and militant internationalism?
The explanation is very simple. So long as voters continue to cry in their beer and vote for Howard Metzenbaum, Joe Biden, and Arlen Specter, there is no motivation for disturbing a comfortable and lucrative status quo that ensures safe seats and freedom from censure or scrutiny. The Senate is riddled with corruption, and even one man of middling courage could make life miserable for the other 99. There may even be such middling honest men sitting now among the tired war-horses of that undistinguished body, but until their seismographs can detect the first tremors of a popular earthquake, they are right to take no risks.
If there is a saving remnant of independent Americans, now if ever is the time for them to express their discontent with what the Italians call partitocrazia. We must learn to throw away our votes on impossible Third Party challenges. But, I am always told, we can’t let Mondale or Dukakis into the White House. Nonsense. If the country can survive Jimmy Carter and George Bush, it can survive anything. Of course. President Dukakis would have ruined the American economy as he ruined Massachusetts, but he would have also created an angry opposition. Without that opposition, the American Empire will continue to harden its silos and fortify its positions until no one, on either the left or right, will dare speak out against it.
Until one or the other party picks up the standard of rebellion, they both must be rejected by every American who opposes the current regime. In one respect, both parties are right, and that is in their mutual accusations and condemnations. The GOP is, in fact, turning into the party of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky; the Democrats are, in fact, a rainbow coalition of everyone who is not white, straight, married, moral, or religious. They ought to be induced to kill each other off. If (speaking now as a straight white male addicted to blood sports)—if I may use a hunting metaphor, what we need is a trick shot: we have to shoot the elephant in such a way that he falls on the donkey and crushes it. It might take a generation just to haul away the rotting carcasses, but we would be able, for the first time since 1932, to breathe clean air. How many of us, I wonder, are so used to the pollution that we have begun to like it? We shall never know, until we have created the first real opposition since 1941.