Lela Answers on Interventionism and World Wars   3 comments

Lela Markham Davidson Ditch CorrectedThom Stark and I are continuing our conversation. Last week he upheld the progressive position on interventionism. This week, I’m examining some history on that and then probably coming back for a double dip tomorrow because HUGE subject. Lela

We are in total agreement that the country is in serious trouble, Thom. We experiencing the consequences of a national addiction to spending, but this addiction has been going on so long that it’s hard to remember where it started. We don’t even remember that spending is actually the symptom of a larger issue, not the real issue at all. Maybe some self-awareness and historical perspective would help.

We don’t remember that there was a time when Americans, individually and collectively, minded their own business. It’s been more than a 100 years since we’ve done that. You and I belabored the War for Southern Independence to death, so we shouldn’t return to it except to say that it was a watershed event in our national history that still negatively affects us today. We learned to interfere and to reap the benefits of our interference.

At the turn of the 20th century, there was a movement afoot in the elite classes of the United States. Rich men and well-to-do intellectuals like Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, and John Dewey were meeting casually in Catskills and Smoky Mountain resorts and discussing what they thought was wrong with society. It’s a big topic, but you can boil it down to “the elites aren’t in control, the unwashed rabble don’t know their place and they are leading us over a cliff.” You can’t completely hang it on Woodrow Wilson, but he’s the face of the Progressive movement, which started with elitists who used propaganda techniques to convince populists to get on board with programs we never would have agreed to if we hadn’t been manipulated into it.

Before becoming President, Woodrow Wilson was a political scientist who wrote in praise of the administrative state operating in Europe at the time. Over the years, he was greatly admired for his “clear view” of what the United States needed to bring her into the “modern” era. In 1887, he didn’t have the power to institute what he suggested and the people of the United States would have rejected it soundly. As a country, we were individualists who preferred to make our own decisions. We could starve or become wealthy; what mattered was that our life circumstances were within our power. We were also inveterate “neutralists.” The US did not involve itself in the wars of other nations, which was largely the normal state of affairs in the world in general. International law favored neutrality and expected warring countries not to involve neutral nations in their conflicts.

By the early-1910s, there was a growing movement of progressives including intellectuals, big business interests, mainstream Protestants and government cronies. Wilson was both an intellectual and a Protestant pietist, but he certainly had friends in business and government and they helped him get elected. The idea was that Big Government and big business would form a coalition with technocrats and intellectuals to create a “progressive” state government. Big business would use the government to cartelize the economy, restrict competition, regulate production and prices and wield a militaristic and imperialistic foreign policy to force open markets abroad while protecting foreign investments. Intellectuals would be able to use the government to restrict entry into their professions and to assume jobs in Big Government to help plan and staff government operations. These groups believed that this fusion would create a Big State that could harmonize and interpret the “national interest” and provide a “middle way between the extremes of laissez faire and the bitter conflicts of Marxism. The Puritan pietists would also be able to use government to coerce those around them into being “good”. It’s all in the history books, but is not a popular view today that Wilson and his friends staged a coup.

Never let a serious crisis go to waste, a famous politician of our own time said. Well, if there isn’t a crisis … create one or get yourself involved in one. The people of the United States liked the system they had. Maybe it didn’t have all the soft feather beds of the European system, but you were largely free to make your way in the world. Starve or become insanely rich … it was all up to your individual effort. Results would indeed vary, but hard work and out of the box thinking would often lead to a vast improvement in your standard of living.

There’d been some legislative reforms in the early 1900s that had entangled Big Business with government. Trust me, anti-trust legislation worked out well for the big corporations. In Wilson’s first administration he worked on getting an income tax and providing for direct election of Senators. These were keys to the progressive agenda, which needed more money than excise taxes could raise and a Congress not beholden to the state legislatures when asked to declare war. The elite knew that war offered a unique opportunity to move the country in the direction they wanted it to go. Most of them had lived through the Civil War and knew that militarism, conscription, massive intervention at home and abroad, a collectivized war economy all became allowable during times of war. What better opportunity to create a mighty cartelized system and to convince people to walk in lockstep against their own interests? Find a threat, create a crisis and make full use of it.

The progressives tried to substitute war with other threats, usually stemming from the risky behaviors made possible by personal liberty. Not just Wilson, but men like Josiah Strong insisted that personal liberty destroyed the social conscience and must be dampened in the interest of protecting society from itself. Of course, government couldn’t leave people to their own devices because only the elite really understood the world and the unwashed masses needed guidance. The problem was that the unwashed didn’t agree and they voted.

World War I started … oddly. Seriously, a guy with no real power gets killed and half the world goes to war? Sounds like a conspiracy theory when you look at it rationally.

Congress adopted a policy of neutrality, which was fully supported by the American people. While Wilson certainly acted like he agreed with this policy, many of his cronies were making bank on selling arms to both sides of the conflict. Under international law, neutral country merchants were allowed unrestricted shipping to all ports of call, except for arms and ammunitions. The United States got away with it because they were selling to both sides, but then a British blockade of Germany meant American vessels couldn’t reach Germany. Was that our fault? No, but under longstanding international law we should have stopped shipping to Britain as well and we didn’t, even though Britain’s blockade was in clear violation of international law.

Wilson, the political scientist, believed that nations (the US) had an obligation to determine “aggressors” and “victims” in a military conflict and “good” nations had a higher moral obligation to come in on the side of the “victim” against the “aggressor”.  This discussion was academic unless he could manuever us into war. Propaganda films and yellow journalism assured that Americans would see that Germany was the “aggressor” and Britain and France were the “victims” despite the actual reality. As soon as Wilson won reelection (ironically on the slogan “he kept us out of war”), he began working to involve the US in the war, because war gives government special powers and they needed that unique opportunity to change our political dynamic.

It didn’t completely work … not immediately. People objected to the progressive tax structure that took as much as 68% from high-income earners. It’s really hard to get rich … or even financially comfortable –when a large percentage of your income is taken from you before you even have a chance to use it. Seeing that acted as a disincentive to low-income earners to strive to enter that class. The Depression of 1920 gave a clear warning sign that taxation was harming the economy, so taxes and government spending were rolled back by more conservative presidents and advisors. However, the experiement was largely a success for those patient enough to wait for their next turn. War allows government to get away with all sorts of nasty behavior – shutting down dissidents, conscripting people into military slavery (uh, service), controlling the economy, even stepping into people’s daily lives to dictate what they eat and drink.

When we turn to World War 2, however …

Can war ever be just, Thom? Like that California death penalty you mentioned, there’s more than a single side to murder and war and it’s hard for mere observers or even participants to parse the fact from the fiction. Heck, we’re 70 years removed from the events. Are you sure your high school history teacher knew what the heck he/she was talking about?

One of my history professors was from England and he had a different view of the American Revolution. I’m not saying he was right. I’m simply saying that we aren’t always told the full story.

Let’s get this straight. I am not a pacifist. If someone attacks me I will fight back, including using deadly force. Until Alaska secedes from the union, I value living in the United States and if the United States is attacked, I think we should fight back. But … when is the United States being attacked and when are countries simply defending themselves from our aggressions?

What Hitler did and the people of Germany let him do was horrible, but we need to recognize our own culpibility in that series of events. A 10-year-old boy starving in Munich in 1918 was a 22-year-old man in 1930. He watched siblings and friends die as hunger gnawed at his belly because of the British blockade of Germany which lasted years, not months. All the propaganda in the world wasn’t going to wipe away that memory. England (and by extention, her ally the United States) starved him!

England then further ruined his young life by imposing crushing economic sanctions after the war. The country never really recovered – industrial production in 1923 was only 54% compared to industrial production in 1914. The loss of land under the Treaty of Versailles saw 10% of Germans living outside of the borders of Germany. The Weimar Republic, new and fragile, overspent and caused a hyperinflation crisis in 1923. Unemployment was almost 30%.

The US did somewhat make up for our part in the mess by propping up the Weimar Republic with loans throughout the 1920s, but when the Great Depression started, those loans stopped, sending Germany into a deeper depression that even we were in. Maybe we had no choice, but maybe that’s not how a 20-year-old German felt about it.

And it’s not like we weren’t, once again, providing food and arms to Britain while allowing Germans to go hungry. We supported the English blockade of Germany, once again. We also provided pilots for the RAF. The Rhineland had been German before the Treaty of Vesaille. Germany and Austria shared a language and so many family connections that many Austrians considered themselves to be Germans – including Hitler himself. Part of Germany had been ceded to Poland in 1919 and some ethnic Germans there were persecuted by the Poles. That doesn’t excuse the abuses Hitler committed. I’m just trying to show that there was some legitimacy to the actions of Germans in the early years of the war.

From their perspective, we were aggressing on them. Damned right, they had a right to defend themselves. Maybe if we had stopped that – or acted like an actual neutral party before World War 1 – Germany and England would have worked it out among themselves and we wouldn’t have set up World War 2 to happen.

Of course, we don’t think like that.  Since 1914 it has been standard practice for every fight between countries to be considered the business of all other countries. We insist that it is our moral obligation to get involved, figure out which country is the “bad guy” and then rush in on the side of the “good guy” country and beat the stuffing out of the alleged “aggressor” in defense of the alleged “victim.” It’s led to ridiculous scenarios such as where the US first funds Iraq to fight Iran and then declares Iraq to be an aggressor state, thus giving us an excuse to invade it twice, destabilize its government and then blame it for the ensuing civil war.

In that toxic soup of inventionism, neutrality gets a bad name, but prior to 1914 the charge of “he kept us out of war” was high tribute. Neutral states had “rights” which were mainly upheld since almost every warring country knew that someday it would be neutral once more. Under international law, a warring state could not interfere with neutral shipping to an enemy state, so long as the neutral shipping did not include arms and ammunitions. So countries had an incentive to make peace, but they also had an incentive to not start wars.

Then along came Woodrow Wilson with the the idea of “collective security against aggression.” Every war must have one “aggressor” and one or more “victims”. Nations obligated to “collective security” arrangements (League of Nations, United Nations, NATO) identify the “aggressor” nation and then join together in an “international police action” to stop the aggression.

Of course, in real life, it’s not that easy to identify one warring “aggressor”, which is why Wilson’s second rationale of foreign policy is so dangerous. The idea that the United States and other countries have a moral obligation to impose “democracy” and “human rights” throughout the globe has led to our perpetual wartime footing since World War 2. We must bring Utopia to the world with guns, tanks and bombs. Remember our “humanitarian” intervention in Somalia. The United States hadn’t a scrap of national interest in the “civil war” there. It wasn’t even really a civil war, just a collection of tribal alliances we insisted upon calling a country. But, hey, we had to establish peace there by imposing universal love at the end of a bayonet. We were ging to sort out the situation and bring governmental order back to Somalia … even if the Somalians didn’t want that. My, were we surprised when the “good” guys and the “bad” guys in Somalia joined forces to shoot down our helicopters using American guns and then expelled us from their city so they could go on conducting their tribal interests their own way! The international community has since managed to enforce a federal government that is rumored to be as tyrannical as the Somali Democratic Republic was. But, hey, we can tell the “good” guys from the “bad” guys and we know better than other countries how they should conduct their internal affairs because we’re standing on high moral ground. Our moral clarity justifies mass murder, destruction of institutions and property and general wreaking of havoc.

Thom StarkThe United States was anything but a neutral power prior to World War 2, despite our official stance. I’m not arguing that Hitler wasn’t an insane dictator who needed to be stopped by someone. My uncle was front lines in Europe, including liberating one of the concentration camps. My father was a mercant mariner who worked in the Pacific and got to see Nanking, the brutality of which shocked him, but didn’t change his general view that war is rarely the answer to anything. Like most of his generation, I don’t think he really understood why we got into the war. He felt guilty that we hadn’t entered the war sooner to save the lives of Jews and Chinese. He told me about the German sub war on Eastern Merchant fleet 30 years before any history books were talking abou it.

Thom StarkThe question we should ask ourselves is what was the US doing prior to our entry into the War to piss off Germany and Japan? Like before World War 1, we were providing arms to combatant nations, but this time round we were picking the winners and losers. I don’t think that is the action of a neutral nation and when you’re taking sides, you got to expect the “enemy” to start taking pot shots at you.

I am WAY over the word limit on this, so I will tackle how American interventionism does NOT make the world a safer place in a separate post.

3 responses to “Lela Answers on Interventionism and World Wars

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  1. Pingback: The Conversation Continues … | aurorawatcherak

  2. Pingback: Lela Responds on Interventionism | aurorawatcherak

  3. Pingback: Thom Responds on Interventionism | aurorawatcherak

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