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Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Mere Isolationism: The Foreign Policy of the Old Right

One of the “lost causes” to which libertarians are attached—and one of the most important—is that of the “isolationist” Old Right. As used by the late Murray Rothbard, among others, the term “Old Right” refers to a loose coalition opposed to the New Deal in both its domestic and foreign aspects. While not following a strict party line, Old Rightists largely spoke from the ground of classical liberalism and classical republicanism. This earned them epithets like “conservative” and “reactionary” since those two outlooks were rooted in actual American life. Having something to conserve made them “conservatives”—a terrible thing from the standpoint of the Party of Progress. This was a label that many on the Old Right rejected, arguing with a certain dogged futility that they were the real American “liberals.”1

The Old Right was effectively dead by 1955 with the death, electoral defeat, or retirement of many of its prominent figures. More important, the Right was undergoing an ideological makeover as new spokesmen (hereafter called the “New Right”) rushed headlong into interventionism and overseas empire under Cold War slogans and policies largely invented by Establishment Liberals.2 In an interesting case of cultural lag, the American press continued to refer to the “conservatives” or whatever as “isolationists” well into the later 1950s. They didn’t fully take on board the transformation of the Right until 1964, when they had to denounce Barry Goldwater as an inhumane, trigger-happy fellow who wanted to immolate poor flower-picking little girls in nuclear Armageddon, unlike Ole LBJ, who would never, never get us into a wider war anywhere. But at least they finally noticed the existence of the New Right. As Carl Oglesby pointed out (speaking of Vietnam), the Goldwaterite New Right “accepts the political description [of the war] and therefore wants the war to be more fiercely waged”3—a point that applies to the entire Cold War. For the Goldwaterites, far more active policies were necessary to “win” that great cosmic struggle than those undertaken by the inept Liberals.

Problematic Premises

The problem was in the premises, and this brings me back to the Old Right’s distinctive take on foreign policies. It was hard to stampede the Old Right into futile crusades involving Total Good vs. Total Evil. As critics of our intervention in World War I, they were aware of the costs of grand ideological crusades and of war itself. This—rather than some unexplained fondness for foreign governments known for big parades and funny salutes—accounts for their participation in the America First movement.4 Actually, the Liberals “explained” it on the view that everyone to their Right has bad motives (fascists! Nazis!), whereas those to their Left—the Stalinists come to mind—are basically good but in too much of a hurry. (I think we can reject this construct.) For some Old Rightists the aversion to intervention and world-saviorhood continued into the early Cold War period.

These so-called “isolationists” (to use the term foisted on them by their interventionist enemies) worried about the risk of war, the costs of war, and the domestic consequences of imperial policy. They well understood Randolph Bourne’s statement that “war is the health of the state.” Permanent mobilization in time of peace—the essence of the Cold War—fostered many undesirable policies. Conscription was especially evil. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio called it “essentially totalitarian” and added, “it is the most extreme test of our whole philosophy . . . . We shall have fought to abolish totalitarianism in the world, only to set it up in the United States.” When the Truman administration brought in legislation for peacetime conscription, or UMT (universal military training), Representative Howard Buffett of Nebraska argued that Selective Service “would prove to the world that Hitler was right—that the threat of communism externally justifies militarism and regimentation at home.” It rested on “the totalitarian concept that the state owns the individual.” Representative Lawrence Smith of Wisconsin complained that there would be “no escape” from “economic controls, manpower controls, and the regimentation that goes with dictatorial power.”5

Felix Morley, president of Haverford College, wrote in 1955 that centralization must accompany our increasingly imperial foreign policy. Our institutions, “rather than our imperial policy . . . will be modified.” Congress was becoming a mere rubber-stamp for agencies working in pitch-black secrecy like the CIA and AEC (Atomic Energy Commission). In 1957, Morley wrote in Modern Age that America had reached a point where “we have a vested interest in preparation for war.” Defense spending was a major prop of full employment and we were dangerously addicted to it. Behind the screen of secrecy which the Cold War made possible, we were “losing the substance of self-government” to a rising “self-perpetuating managerial elite.”6

Veteran anti-New Deal writer John T. Flynn, a central Old Right figure, wrote in 1955:

  • Joseph R. Stromberg is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and has held the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A columnist for, his research interests include U.S. foreign policy and the "War on Terrorism". He received his B.A. and M.A. from Florida Atlantic University, and his further graduate work was completed at the University of Florida.