Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

War As Secular Salvation

Summer 1999

AMERICA'S IMPERIAL BURDEN: IS THE PAST PROLOGUE?
Ernest W. Lefever
Westview Press, 1999, xi + 196 pgs.

This book rests on a false antithesis. The author, with beguiling charm, declares himself a hardheaded realist and excoriates assorted Wilsonians and do-gooders. Yet the foreign policy he advocates betrays our traditional doctrine of nonintervention and is antipodal to true realism.

Few could quarrel with Mr. Lefever's professed philosophy: "[H]istorical realists emphasize the finite limits of human nature and history. Their approach stems from biblical ethics and from St. Augustine, John Calvin, Edmund Burke, James Madison, and most other classical thinkers. Rejecting all religious and secular utopias, they contend that all political achievements are constrained by resistance to drastic reconstruction" (p. 140).

In contrast with historians like Henry Steele Commager who view America as an endeavor to enact the Enlightenment, our author offers an appropriate corrective: "James Madison, influenced by Calvinist theologian John Witherspoon, emphasized the tenacity of original sin and the potential for corruption in all institutions" (p. 9).

Given this salutary emphasis on realism and sin, one might be tempted to guess that Mr. Lefever's approach to foreign policy would be along these lines: Because human beings are tainted by original sin, they readily grasp at power, cloaking personal ambition in righteous rhetoric. To avoid this snare, government must be strictly limited. Foreign adventures must be avoided: only rigorous adherence to nonintervention properly respects man's nature. In short, America's traditional foreign policy--avoid entangling foreign commitments and wars--would be on the agenda. If power is a sinful temptation, stay away from it: what could be simpler?

Unfortunately, Mr. Lefever does not move from his realistic premise to the foreign policy conclusions just suggested. Quite the contrary, he uses his "realism" to defend a policy of massive intervention, both when he evaluates the past and prescribes for the future. One can readily see that something is amiss if one examines the concluding sentence of Mr. Lefever's encomium to historical realism: "Lincoln was the personification of a humane realist" (p. 140).

There you have it. Mr. Lefever begins from original sin and human limits, and he ends with praise for the instigator of the bloodiest war in American history. Is not Lincoln's messianic moralism the antithesis of the respect for human limits our author claims to favor? What has gone wrong?

Much of the answer lies in a single name--Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian by whom Mr. Lefever has been much influenced. According to Niebuhr, utopian schemes for social reform manifest their authors' corruption by power. In foreign affairs, Niebuhr held, Woodrow Wilson's scheme for replacing power politics with a League of Nations epitomized the illusions of Enlightenment reason.

Niebuhr's stress on original sin raised important issues, but, unfortunately, he, and Lefever following him, drew the wrong conclusions. Original sin taints supposedly rational plans to escape power politics; therefore, politics should "realistically" engage in the struggle for power.

Would it not have been wiser to conclude that, since power politics also is an expression of man's fallen nature, one should steer clear of it, as well as of the Wilsonian schemes Niebuhr rightly condemned? This is all too much for Mr. Lefever. Instead, he credits Niebuhr's thought, along with his experience of the devastation of Europe after World War II, for awakening him from his religious pacifist illusions. Having acquired the wisdom of "humane realism," Mr. Lefever believes himself in a position to pass out grades to past and present American statesmen for their adherence, or lack of it, to Niebuhr's realism.

As we shall see, Mr. Lefever's evaluation of history partakes more than a little of the bizarre. But before joining our author on his tour through history, I pause to remark two anomalies. First, he states that at Yale Divinity School, "[h]alf of my professors...held essentially the same position [of religious pacifism]. Richard Nie-buhr, Reinhold's older brother who taught Christian ethics, was the principal exception" (pp. 52-53). One suspects that Mr. Lefever was not always wide awake during class. In a famous debate in The Christian Century, H. Richard Niebuhr criticized his brother for taking leave of pacifism.

More importantly, how can Mr. Lefever possibly claim that seeing the destruction wrought by World War II turned him away from religious pacifism? Is not the natural reaction to the horrors of war revulsion from it, rather than avidity to crusade anew? Here is what our author says: "A month after Hiroshima, I sailed for three years of voluntary relief work in war-ravaged Europe. The overwhelming physical and spiritual devastation there forced me to surrender my pacifist stance and replace it with the traditional Judeo-Christian just war position" (p. ix).

Here we must meet an obvious objection. Is Mr. Lefever quite the fool I have been making him out to be? What is wrong with the just war position? Was not his reaction to Europe's devastation an appropriate one?

Happily for me, the objection cannot stand. By the "just war" position, Mr. Lefever does not mean what Aquinas and Suarez intended. Instead, he means exactly the Niebuhrian immersion in power politics already described. If we are true followers of the great Reinhold, we must see that America's mission is to carry out our imperial mission in proper fashion. If we do the job right, we can attain the glories of the Roman and British Empires. (This is what he gets from contemplating original sin?)

Before reaching his sage advice to present policymakers, Mr. Lefever, as I have mentioned, undertakes a historical survey. He gets off to a bad start. As you might expect, he can find next to nothing in the early history of the Republic to lay the groundwork for his imperialist counsel. The Farewell Address is hardly a manifesto for empire.

Our author, however, does not exit the eighteenth century emptyhanded. He comes up with this nugget: "Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist (no. 1) with extraordinary prescience referred to the United States as 'an empire, in many respects the most interesting one in the world'" (p. 10). Our latter-day empire builder is not quite so outrageous, is he? Mr. Lefever stands in good Hamiltonian company.

Our author has neglected to notice that "empire," in the eighteenth century and earlier, often meant a nation not governed by an external power. The term was not restricted to countries that held colonies. Perhaps Mr. Lefever, not hitherto known as a student of early modern Europe, was unaware of this. But simple common sense should have sufficed to tell him that Hamilton cannot be read as a proto-imperialist in the modern sense. Need our author be reminded that when Hamilton wrote, the United States had no colonies and so was not an empire as we use the term today?

Mr. Lefever's history does not really get going until he reaches the twentieth century. Here one must give him credit: he transcends the level of fatuity he attained in his use of the Hamilton quotation. As everyone knows, America's entry into World War I was a watershed in our abandonment of noninterventionist foreign policy.

How does Mr. Lefever deal with this crucial turning point? We. of course. would not expect him to defend nonintervention: his purpose is to attack it. Do we at least get a carefully considered Niebuhrian defense of intervention? Not at all. Mr. Lefever treats Wilson's intervention as if it were a matter of course.

In his coverage of Wilson's war aims, Mr. Lefever mocks a supposedly naive Wilson, blind to the realities of European politics. Yet our supposed realist Lefever offers not one word to justify U.S. entry into the war. Grant him, if you will, his Niebuhrian premises. How does it follow from them that America ought to have joined in the European conflagration? He does not tell us.

Our author's performance does not improve when he arrives at World War II. The very existence of opponents of American entry into the war induces in him a mild state of shock. "Providentially, the iron grip of American isolationism was finally broken up by Japan's sudden attack on Pearl Harbor. The arguments for a Fortress America collapsed like a ruptured balloon, and our past aloofness surrendered to a demanding common purpose" (p. 53, emphasis added).

Mr. Lefever displays no inkling of Roosevelt's provocative diplomacy that induced the Japanese assault. This aside, what in his view is supposed to be so unrealistic about the isolationist view? Mr. Lefever's response does not inspire confidence. "On a deeper level, the pragmatic interventionists were rediscovering the political realism of classical thinkers from Aristotle onward--especially the need for military power to defend the state.... Journalist Walter Lippmann declared that Britain and the Royal Navy were America's first line of defense." (p. 52).

As Mr. Lefever acknowledges on the previous page, the dominant isolationist position favored a strong national defense. What then is the proof of their lack of realism? An ex parte statement by the inveterate Anglophile Walter Lippmann suffices for our author as proof of his case.

I do not think it necessary to recount in detail our author's story of the cold war. Mr. Lefever relentlessly refights the war, with Nixon and Kissinger starring as his Niebuhrian heroes. I find it difficult to imagine either of these worthies contemplating the perils of original sin, guided by the wisdom of St. Augustine. But this may be a failure of imagination on my part. No doubt our author's acquaintance with these eminent statesmen far surpasses my own.

Readers of this bizarre blend of Niebuhrian wisdom and potted diplomatic history will, if our author has succeeded, be equipped to confront America's imperial burden. Those with at least a dash of skepticism will I trust see that Mr. Lefever's case for imperialism rests on nothing at all.


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