“We assert that no nation can long endure half republic and half empire.”
—Democratic National Platform, 1900
According to Godfrey Hodgson, Henry L. Stimson—secretary of war for William Howard Taft, secretary of state for Herbert Hoover, and, again, secretary of war, this time under Franklin D. Roosevelt—”was identified with the dangerous idea that it is America’s destiny to lead the world, and the drives that had led him to that conviction come from deep in the American past. But, when all else is said and done, he was one of the great guardians of the Republic, one of those to whom Plato said the fullest honor should be given because he preserved us from our enemies.” If only he had preserved us from ourselves as well.
Godfrey Hodgson, who is currently foreign editor of The Independent in London, was Washington correspondent for the London Observer from 1967 to 1971; also he has taught at Harvard, Yale, and other American universities and is described by his American publisher as a frequent lecturer in the United States. Thus credentialed, he has included in his biography of this distinguished American statesman and warrior glib glosses on the topic of isolationism in the United States in the 20th century and a silly summary of American immigration reform in the 1920’s; an equation of American isolationists between the two World Wars with H.L. Mencken’s booboisie (Mencken!—who loathed the Brits and in 1914 hoped that the Germans would be in Paris before Christmas); and a declaration that “Stimson, in 1939 and 1940, was the American Churchill. He was articulating the New Deal Democrats’ instincts more clearly than their own leaders. Beyond Left and Right, above Republican and Democrat, he was setting forth the lasting principles of the American tradition.” Elsewhere, he remarks in passing: “In the last analysis [isolationism] was not about world politics, but about American politics.” That is, of course, a profoundly true statement. Why didn’t Mr. Hodgson pay due attention to it in his book?
Henry Stimson was indeed a grand old man of a type (morally, not intellectually) that today is as dead as the dodo. And it is indisputable, as Hodgson amply shows, that by keeping Roosevelt’s mind opposed to Churchill’s passion for military feints and parryings and directed instead toward an all-out assault on what Hodgson calls “the citadel of Nazism,” he made a major contribution to the Allied war effort. Yet to praise Stimson so unstintingly as the preserver of the “Republic” is much less a rash act than it is an uninformed one. For this “Republican” was a man who held ideas of republican government that were incongruent, in many important ways, with the republicans who had designed the American Republic and set it in motion. “His conception of the role of the executive in constitutional law,” Hodgson writes, “was robust, to say the least: it could verge on the scarcely disguised expression of the ancient and profoundly un-American code of statecraft that is summed up in the phrase raison d’être.” And: “[Nothing] in Stimson’s long experience—from the affair of General Ainsworth by way of the Versailles Treaty and the foreign policy of the Hoover administration to his own recent confirmation hearings [at which the Senate isolationists had given him a rough time]—[had] imbued him with any very high regard for Congress’s prerogatives in foreign affairs.” Henry Stimson was a great patriot surely, but was he a great republican as well?
It is unsurprising to find Mr. Hodgson—a citizen of a country that has been so great a beneficiary of Colonel Stimson’s anti-isolationist policies—heartily approving of the interventionist program. However, the facility with which he fudges the nature of that program is dismaying, and finally offensive. Hodgson explains that, “Of all the men who helped to steer the United States from the real isolation of 1867 or even 1911, through the unsustained commitment of 1917-19 and the delusion of isolationism, to the firm commitment to support the ideology of democracy by global political and military involvement. Colonel Stimson was one of the half-dozen most important and perhaps the most representative.” This is emphatically not the same thing with which he credits Stimson in the 30’s, when “he had stood up to the tempting appeals of the isolationists and insisted that the United States could never avoid the world’s quarrels.” Yet Hodgson seems either to confuse the two policies or else to assume that the first one is necessarily derivative of the second.
Mr. Hodgson’s line on Colonel Stimson is that he was the link between the New Nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt, compounded with the New Internationalism of Woodrow Wilson, and the “liberal internationalism” of the American foreign policy “Establishment” between 1945 and 1965 whose fundamental assumptions were Henry Stimson’s legacy to his country. Stimson in his youth was a friend, in fact a protégé, of Roosevelt’s; according to Hodgson he “fully shared the imperialists’ world view and attitudes,” having like them come to manhood in the period when the United States “was acquiring the strength to be a world power, without having acquired the intention to be one.” Stimson’s lifelong effort was to help his country to attain that status, though he was finally ambivalent enough about empire to be unwilling in the 40’s to fight to save the British Empire, while striving to rescue from the holocaust Britain herself. He was essentially, Hodgson argues, a liberal imperialist of the kind represented in England by Joseph Chamberlain; from liberal imperialism developed the liberal internationalism of post-war America, whose proponents’ aim, writes Hodgson admiringly, “was quite simply the moral and political leadership of the world.” Stimson himself in his retirement wrote in Foreign Affairs that, “How soon this nation will fully understand the size and nature of its present mission, I dare not say. But I venture to assert that in very large degree the future of mankind depends on the answer to this question.” In years to come, his former deputies and assistants refined the doctrines of “liberal internationalism” from positions of power within the Truman administration and subsequent ones; around 1965, so runs Hodgson’s story, this consensual legacy was shattered by the Vietnam War and in the 1980’s finally replaced by what Hodgson calls Ronald Reagan’s “new conservatives,” whom he believes had a lot more in common with the isolationist Republicans of the 20’s and 30’s than with the internationalist ones of the 50’s and early 60’s. (To this peculiar reading of recent American history, I shall return.) For as long as the American foreign policy establishment lasted, how.ever, “Its history was [Henry Stimson’s] history,” in Hodgson’s blunt formulation.
So be it. Now, however, I want to take up again Hodgson’s throwaway remark concerning isolationism having been about American, not world, politics, and to juxtapose it with a phrase that appears on the immediately preceding page, “the enigma of isolationism.” These two need to be considered together, because American politics and the “enigma” that strikes Godfrey Hodgson as unfathomable are really one and the same thing.
It is perhaps true that the case for American isolationism was for the most part not stated with great thoughtfulness, great learning, or profundity. But while “America First!” was a slogan, it was also—rather it ought to have been—a truism, at the heart of both American polity in particular and of the principle of national sovereignty in general. In order to express what he calls “the pure milk of ‘liberal imperialism,'” Hodgson relies on Anchises’ lines in the Aeneid:
Roman, do not forget to rule the people in your sway; those will be your arts, to impose the habit of peace; to spare the subject, and beat down the proud.
That these sentiments are noble and high-minded cannot be denied, but that they necessarily justify the burdens of imperialism may be questioned by recalling the fate of the Roman Empire—or, for that matter, of the British. While the example of Rome has been a hackneyed one for many centuries, the truth is that the United States at the end of the 20th century, with its own imperial problems of race and ethnicity, “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” uncontrolled immigration, and the general weakening and fragmentation of its culture, of its morals, and of its belief, finds itself in circumstances alarmingly similar to those in which its precursor in the ancient world perished.
The United States of America has never been suited either to “liberal internationalism” or to imperialism for the obvious and simple reason that it was designed not for, but rather against, them. Probably the American zenith was reached at the Constitutional Convention of 1787; probably also the early decades of the Republic, when it was in terms of power and influence (though not of course in terms of culture) the equivalent of a modern Third World country, were its happiest and most prosperous, if not its most affluent; perhaps, finally, the Civil War, which caused the destruction of the federal system as it was originally intended and the unqualified victory of industrialism and nationalism, leading in turn to imperialism and internationalism, marked the beginning of the end of the Founders’ handiwork and of the society that had made them possible. It is arguable that these developments together with the price they entailed—the damage done to the fabric of American society and to the structure and polity of American government—were historically “inevitable.” Yet man does not live by concepts of inevitability, and American isolationists in the interwar period especially ought not to be faulted for their fears and reservations based, perhaps, for the most part on a perception of historical forces they recognized only dimly. Certainly they do not deserve the obloquy heaped on them by Colonel Stimson when he wrote after the attack on Pearl Harbor that “This country united has practically nothing to fear, while the apathy-and divisions stirred up by unpatriotic men have been hitherto very discouraging.” These same “unpatriotic men,” as with the clarity of hindsight we can see today, had better historical foresight than he. Theoretical isolationism may be as dangerous (almost) as compulsive interventionism, but strategic isolationism is prudent statecraft; intervention in the interest of national security is one thing, intervention on behalf of national “ideals” another. And if the Borahs and Smoots and Rankins were indeed wrong, as probably they were, about World War II, their anti-interventionist heirs were probably right about Korea, Vietnam, Panama, and Kuwait.
On the penultimate page of the text of The Colonel, Godfrey Hodgson takes out after what he calls “the new conservatives,” the “right-wing operatives who trooped into Washington to advise Ronald Reagan in 1980.” These people, Hodgson claims, were essentially the heirs of the isolationists whom Stimson
fought so vigorously in public and despised so heartily in private. They did not oppose foreign intervention; they approved of it, so long as it was short, cheap and effective. But they did not share Stimson’s picture of a world kept peaceful by collective security, guaranteed by American power but striving for international alliances. Their aspiration was not so much to the leadership of the world, moral or otherwise, as to the building of a system that would protect America from the contamination of foreign entanglements and the persistent perversity and troublesome ingratitude of foreigners. . . . Above all, their instinct was not for the center but for the extreme.
And he quotes the “first hero” of these “new conservatives,” Barry Goldwater: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the defense of liberty is no virtue”!
In the words of Colonel Stimson, on the occasion of a Texas attorney telling him that he hoped he had spent the night before in sin, as the Texan himself had done: “What is this man talking about?” Where did Mr. Hodgson spend the 1980’s? (In England, apparently.) Who are these “new conservatives” whose first hero was Barry Goldwater? Surely not Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ken Adelman, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, and their numerous supporters in the media and in the foundations who, early on in the Reagan years, captured the administration’s foreign policy and put it in global service to the “ideology of democracy” that Henry Stimson helped to develop and that Godfrey Hodgson extols.
[The Colonel: The Life and Wars of Henry Stimson, 1867-1950, by Godfrey Hodgson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 402 pp., $24.95]