All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 1996

War and Liberty in American History

Wars Bring the Many Under the Domination of the Few

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. . . . [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and . . . degeneracy of manners and of morals. . . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, said those words in 1795.[1] Today, renewed interest in the topic of war follows renewed interest in the subject of liberty. Indeed, a critical component of the republican ideology that gave birth to this country deals with war and comes to us from classical antiquity through the filter of the libertarian English Whig tradition.

Clearly, the effects of war described by Madison are contrary to the interest of liberty, unless a country fights to free itself or defend its freedom from an aggressor. War typically endangers liberty—at least the way it was understood by our philosophical forebears. For as Thomas Gordon wrote in Cato’s Letters (No. 62, January 20, 1721), liberty is “the power which every man has over his own actions, and his right to enjoy the fruit of his labour, art, and industry, as far as by it he hurts not the society, or any members of it, by taking from any member, or by hindering him from enjoying what he himself enjoys.”

It is precisely because war suspends normal, peaceful, voluntary interactions that it is a usurpation of liberty. Moreover, war is likely to infringe liberty at all levels of exchange and development—individual, societal, and international. Conscription; command economic policies; government propaganda; restricted rights of speech and assembly; surveillance of private citizens; curfews and blackouts—these are all common forms of usurpation, along with debts and taxes. Indeed, it is partly because this nation has been continuously at war for so long that we have come so close to losing all our most precious freedoms. (“No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”) But the Founders were cognizant of the dangers posed by war to liberty and to a liberal republic, and they designed the Constitution with them in mind.

Constitutional Abandonment

It is partly because this nation has so flagrantly abandoned the Constitution of original intent that we face the current crisis. For instance, Madison wrote in 1793 that it is a fundamental doctrine of the Constitution that the power to declare war belongs fully and exclusively “to Congress alone.”[2] Thomas Jefferson said the intended purpose was to place an “effectual check to the dog of war, by transferring the power of declaring war from the executive to the legislative body.”[3] Moreover, none other than Alexander Hamilton—a fierce nationalist and advocate of strong executive power—agreed that the Constitution prevented the president from singly committing the nation to war and that “the history of human conduct” warranted that restraint (Federalist No. 75).

Obviously, there are unclear cases, but the Constitution is unambiguous in requiring congressional approval for defending, say, South Korea from North Korean attack; for warring a decade in the jungles of Vietnam; for invading Panama; attacking Iraq; or for intervening in the Balkans.[4] There are arguments advanced for the extra-constitutional executive power it takes to deal with these and other contingencies, but they are weak and sometimes illogical. Congress dealt four times with similar instances by approving conditional declarations of war, a method that prevents tipping off adversaries to the imminence of military action. In three cases, disputes were peacefully resolved by the executive branch; war ensued in the fourth instance when Spain refused the demand to withdraw troops from Cuba in 1898. The president could ask Congress for permission to use force—in Haiti, Serbia, or wherever—if certain conditions were unmet after some designated amount of time.[5]

Congress’s failure to officially declare war in post-World War II conflicts may have partly been a function of the Cold War and the consequent fear of precipitating Soviet involvement. Now that the Cold War is over, it is critical that we recur to constitutional provisions in this regard. Almost certainly, congressional decision-making would decrease U.S. involvement in war. Nevertheless, even congressional approval will not necessarily make war wise or just. War is always inimical to the Republic. Two examples will serve to illustrate.

The Mexican-American War

Following the admission of Texas to the Union in December 1845, President James K. Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande River. The Polk administration claimed the river as America’s border, but the claim was disputed by Mexico. Instead of pursuing good faith efforts to resolve the question diplomatically or, say, settling for a more reasonable southern limit at the Nueces River, Polk—Jacksonian Democrat and advocate of Manifest Destiny—almost certainly hoped to incite the Mexican attack on American forces, which did occur in April 1846. Congress then authorized men and matériel to prosecute the Mexican-American War. U.S. forces performed superbly under the able leadership of Taylor and General Winfield Scott, whose force landed at Veracruz in 1847, marched inland against forceful opposition, and occupied Mexico City. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in February 1848. For $15 million and 13,000 dead, most to disease, America gained the Rio Grande border with Mexico, as well as all of present-day California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. However, that was not the full extent of “payment” we would eventually make.[6]

The Mexican-American War produced serious domestic divisions. In fact, the war polarized the nation in a way not seen again until the Vietnam War. The Mexican-American War provided the genesis for American traditions of conscientious objection and civil disobedience. The Whig Party’s national journal, The American Whig Review, criticized “Manifest Destiny” and the Chief Executive’s manner of involving the country in war with a bordering Christian republic. The publication asserted that the initial placement of soldiers in harm’s way, as well as other covert military preparations, had constituted “one of the greatest crimes that can degrade a country.”[7] War with Mexico transformed American forces into an “army of occupation”[8] and violated “first principles” of moral nations.[9] The war pressed a “conscience” faction to break from the party and join with abolitionists; other dissenting Whig elements maintained only a tenuous loyalty. Moreover, expansion into newly acquired territories forced bitter confrontations over a range of issues involving slavery, competing free labor, Founders’ intent, and the nation’s future in the largest sense. The rapid expansion of the Union eventually placed the whole Union at risk.

In the political battles following the Mexican-American War, ideology became both more sectional and less compromising. The War Between the States was the price we ultimately paid for the Mexican War. The American Whig Review recognized a prospective link between expansion and sectional conflict,[10] and the Whiggish New Englander actually predicted that war with Mexico would disturb the delicate balance in “relations between the States and the Union” and so risk another war.[11] In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant wrote: “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican War. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”[12]

Indeed. Those familiar with the history of American federalism will also know that the Civil War marked a critical shift in the locus of power from states to the federal government. Twentieth-century “progressives” have since led the nation on a path of ever more centralization, reaching an extent of consolidation even John C. Calhoun could not have imagined.

World War I

The Great War has faded in the collective memory of Americans. Yet to the extent that World War I is almost universally cited by historians to explain the origins of World War II, it is fitting—indeed essential—that any analysis of modern American history include some discussion of the American experience during the First World War. Otherwise, new appreciations might be shallow or incomplete, and the historical lessons drawn could be the wrong ones. Although America’s direct involvement in World War I was relatively brief, it signaled a dramatic departure from U.S. precedent at home and abroad.

The Progressive Era may have been a bridge to modern times,[13] but World War I blew up the bridge and left us stranded on the other side. All previous American conflicts had involved plausible threats to American security, even if some were misperceived or overstated. Notwithstanding some German espionage and potential sabotage from bases inside Mexico, Germany in World War I did not pose a security threat to the United States or to this hemisphere. Furthermore, American involvement marked the first explicit rejection of George Washington’s advice to avoid entanglement in purely European disputes. World War I is also the first American war to depend primarily upon conscripts, three million of whom filled 72 percent of wartime Army ranks.

American entry into the war is all the more remarkable since Woodrow Wilson was re-elected President in November 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Barely five months later he asked the Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. The same month, the Administration established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the government propaganda agency headed by progressive muckraking journalist George Creel.

Wilson had insisted on trading with belligerents, but France and England continued to enforce a blockade of Germany. The English also mined the North Sea. These steps violated neutral rights, but the United States continued to trade—theoretically with both sides. Over time, however, it was clear the United States dealt almost solely with the Allies. Practically speaking, American neutrality became decidedly one-sided; however, this fact did not ruffle Wilson’s Anglophile sensibilities.[14] While France and England put Germany in an economic stranglehold, the Allies were dependent on the goods shipped from the United States. Germany responded by sinking American and Allied merchant vessels with her U-boats. Indeed, it was this submarine warfare, more than any other factor, that prompted U.S. involvement in the war: according to the propagandists, submarine warfare was sneaky; submarine warfare aimed at ships suspected of hauling military cargo was indiscriminate; women and children were amongst the 1,198 passengers lost when the Lusitania went under (not mentioned was the secret load of munitions). Yellow journalists had a field day.

World War I also changed the domestic social, political, and economic environment. Because the American people were naturally averse to involvement in a European war, the CPI helped mobilize and sustain the right kind of public opinion. It did so by commissioning an army of 75,000 speakers to tour the country to drum up support for government wartime policies. The CPI also distributed 75 million pamphlets and produced dozens of anti-German films and expositions. Other government agencies employed similar propaganda. The Food Administration found that “meatless Mondays” and “wheatless Wednesdays,” as well as other conservation measures, went over better in an atmosphere of patriotic frenzy. Likewise, the Treasury Department held mass rallies even Goebbels might have appreciated, to encourage the purchase of war bonds.

Extra-Legal Power

These techniques were highly successful. The government found that overt and subtle forms of propaganda fanned the requisite passions of pride and prejudice to fight a total war in Europe. Indeed, this enabled the executive to skirt dubious Constitutional bases and statutory limitations in carrying out its wartime policies—policies which would never pass rational scrutiny in peacetime. It also proved that government propaganda aimed at selected aspects of American nationalism could facilitate government’s exercise of extra-legal and extra-Constitutional power.[15]

In one instance, for example, the Wilson Administration nationalized the railroads (1917). In another, a German-American was actually bound in an American flag and lynched by a St. Louis mob (1918). Civil liberties were regularly constricted through official policy and social sanctions, indirectly encouraged by government propaganda. Both means enhanced the government’s power to wage war “over there.” The Administration quashed leftist political opposition by seizing membership lists and arresting some leaders, especially socialists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Liberal and conservative criticism was quelled by legislation that made “disloyal speech” illegal in wartime. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were used to prosecute and punish pacifists and all sorts of religious and secular groups opposed to the war. Certain alien opponents were summarily rounded up and deported in the notorious Palmer raids immediately after the war.

Meanwhile, the persecution of Germans in American society was so pronounced that Germans were forced to abandon their language and customs, at least in public. German books were burned outside numerous libraries, while Beethoven was banned from symphonic repertories. The atmosphere was such that Germans hid the fact they were German and changed their own names—Schmitz to Smith, and so on. For its part, the public renamed almost every German street and landmark and even altered menus, so that sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage, and so on.[16]

The War Industries Board (WIB) orchestrated American industrial production. The WIB set production schedules, allocated resources, standardized procedures, coordinated purchases, covered costs, and guaranteed profits. In tandem, the National War Labor Board (NWLB) arbitrated labor disputes, stipulated working conditions, established overtime pay, and encouraged union organization. Although the federal government had assumed a great deal of power during and after the Civil War, the government achieved the first true command economy in America during World War I.[17] Furthermore, the war established certain precedents for future peacetime emergencies. The New Deal’s National Recovery Administration was patterned on the WIB; the Wagner National Labor Relations Act of the Second New Deal was based on NWLB legislation. The 1917 Selective Service Act raised the size of the Army from 200,000 to nearly 4 million and was the precursor in form and substance for what would be the first peacetime draft in the country.

Government-sponsored intolerance and hysteria, encouraged for wartime purposes, continued to grow even after the conflict ended. Conscription and command economic policies, as well as government hiring practices, contributed to severe labor shortages, which drew hundreds of thousands of African-Americans out of the South into the industrial North. The government even sent labor agents to recruit from the South. The result was interracial friction and violence. When the war ended and the huge numbers of veterans returned home again, tensions flared anew.[18] Large race riots occurred in East St. Louis in July 1917, and Chicago and 19 other cities in 1919. Post-war labor dislocations also caused strikes to spread across the country in 1919.

Political nativism crested in the early 1920s, curtailing open immigration. At the same time, segregation in the South was formalized into its most rigid legal form ever. Jim Crow literally became an American system of apartheid. Anti-Semitism also spread. Intolerance married with government power had still another interesting political ramification: the Prohibition amendment (1919) invaded people’s privacy and freedom to choose by banning alcoholic drink.

In the United States, the death toll from World War I numbered 112,432. The war’s direct financial cost came to about $112 billion. Also dramatic was psychic and cultural disillusionment.[19] Everywhere, the Modern Age after the war was characterized by the renunciation of old values, something Ayn Rand called the “spiritual treason” of our century.[20]

Moreover, the history of U.S. government after World War I reads like the proverbial growth of a giant snowball. The so-called “roaring” nature of the 1920s obscured the impact of the war in “stimulating collectivist thinking and boosting public support for collectivist solutions.”[21] Hence the experience of the First World War paved the way for public support of the New Deal and statist remedies for the Great Depression—itself caused by misguided government intervention.

First Principles

The fate of our republic hangs in a balance, and peace keeps her steady. What we must do is recur to first principles, restoring the Constitution to its original intent and devolving power from the central government back to states and the people. As Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address: “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

But whether we can reconstruct the bulwarks of liberty to meet the challenges of a post-Cold War epoch depends in part on our keeping out of unnecessary wars. Our first responsibility to the world should be to be worthy of emulation—like a “Shining City set upon a Hill.” Jefferson exhorted us in the same inaugural address to pursue what he termed an essential principle of our government, namely, “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”[21] We should take the following passage from George Washington’s Farewell Address and again make it the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”[22]

Washington continued: “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world, so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it.”[23] His point is of such present moment because we are at liberty to do it, and the chance may not soon come again. This is the first time since the onset of the Cold War 50 years ago that we have an opportunity to correct the numerous social, political, and economic distortions created in large part by our participation in prior wars. Minimizing our foreign entanglements would not mean disengaging from the world, nor, unfortunately, necessarily ending all war. It would, however, keep decisions for war within the purview of American sovereignty and eliminate superfluous military obligations and automatic triggers that might precipitate our involvement in conflict. It would reinforce the imperative that, in a republic, military force should be a policy of last resort.

The world remains awash in troubles— more, not fewer—since the collapse of the Soviet empire. But few vitally concern the United States. In contrast, there are, to use Friedrich Hayek’s words, “totalitarians in our midst.” The Welfare State in fact bears the fundamental characteristics of fascism, that is, government control of the use and disposal of private property and confiscation of private wealth to support welfare schemes and buy political patronage.[24]

Those bent on maintaining the Welfare State will be tempted to rejuvenate collectivist thinking by resort to war. If this rhetoric sounds alarmist, recall that Germany was quite different a hundred years before German nationalism delivered the German people to autarchy, militarism, and self-immolation, much of the rest of the world to war, and the Jews to the Holocaust. Ludwig von Mises reminds us that the German leitmotiv was once liberty, not oppression and conquest. Many years before Hitler, Germany had been the land of Schiller, Goethe, Herder, Kant, Mozart, Beethoven. Linking war to the rise of the total state, Mises identified “stages of [a] process which transformed the nation once styled by foreign observers that of the poets and thinkers into that of ruthless gangs of the Nazi Storm Troops.”[25]

Nevertheless, if there are enough good people willing to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to prevent the triumph of evil, then a rebirth of freedom can take hold in this country, which can define the new millennium. The last two centuries are littered with dead patriots from this country’s wars. The best way to honor them is to reclaim that nation of liberty for which they gave their lives.

1.   See James Madison, “Bloodless War: The Power of Commerce,” in Marvin Meyers, ed., The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1973), pp. 287-8.

2.   Letter to Gouverneur Morris, Philadelphia, August 16, 1793.

3.   Letter to James Madison, Paris, September 6, 1789.

4.   Doug Bandow, “The Power to Declare War—Who Speaks for the Constitution?: Part I,” Freedom Daily, vol. 6, no. 6 (June 1995), p. 35.

5.   Ibid., “Part II,” vol. 6, no. 7 (July 1995), pp. 33-4.

6.   See K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War, 1846-1848 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974); Robert W. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezuma: The Mexican War in the American Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); and David M. Pletcher, The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1973).

7.   The American Whig Review, vol. VI, no. 4 (October 1847), pp. 332 and 338 [see also vol. XI, no. 6 (June 1850), p. 570]; vol. III, no. 1 (January 1846), p. 20; vol. IV, no. 1 (July 1846), p. 1 [see also vol. V, no. 3 (March 1847), pp. 217-30]; vol. III, no. 6 (June 1846), pp. 571-80; quote from vol. II, no. 3 (September 1845), p. 229.

8.   Ibid., vol. IV, no. 2 (August 1846), pp. 171-9.

9.   Ibid., vol. VII, no. 3 (March 1848), p. 219.

10.   See Ibid., vol. I, no. 1 (January 1845), p. 78.

11.   The New Englander, vol. V (1847), see pp. 604-12.

12.   Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1894), p. 38.

13.   Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), chapter 6.

14.   Robert H. Ferrell, Woodrow Wilson and World War I, 1917-1921 (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985), pp. 8-9.

15.   See David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), chapter 1.

16.   Ibid.; and Wesley Allen Riddle, “War and Individual Liberty in American History,” in Edmund A. Opitz, ed., Leviathan at War (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1995), p. 141. See also Ronald Schaffer, America in the Great War: The Rise of the War Welfare State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), chapters 1 and 2.

17.   See Kennedy, chapter 2, and Schaffer, chapters 3 and 4.

18.   See Daniel M. Johnson and Rex R. Campbell, Black Migration in America: A Social Demographic History (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1981); and Alferdteen Harrison, ed., Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the Great American South (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1991).

19.   See Kennedy, chapter 4; and Mark A. Stoler and Marshall True, Explorations in American History, vol. 2 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), pp. 96-97.

20.   Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, rev. ed. (New York: Signet, 1975), p. vii. See also Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (New York: Doubleday, 1990).

21.   Bruce D. Porter, War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics (New York: The Free Press, 1994), p. 275.

22.   Thomas Jefferson, “First Inaugural Address” (March 4, 1801), in Henry Steele Commager, ed., Documents of American History, 7th ed. (New York: Meredith Publishing Company, 1963), p. 188.

23.   George Washington, “Farewell Address” (September 17, 1796), in Commager, Documents of American History, p. 174.

24.   Ayn Rand, “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus,” p. 211, and Alan Greenspan, “Gold and Economic Freedom,” p. 100, in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: New American Library, 1966); and “A Preview,” in The Ayn Rand Letter, I, 23 (August 14, 1972), p. 1.

25.   Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War (Spring Mills, Pa.: Libertarian Press, Inc., 1985), p. 8.

Photo: Ulysses S. Grant

Photo: Woodrow Wilson

This essay is based on excerpts from remarks presented at a FEE summer seminar in Irvington-on-Hudson, August 14, 1995.