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

The Wilsonian Legacy

Fall 1999

Eric Alterman
Cornell University Press, 1998, xii + 244 pgs.

In the 1930s, a coalescence took place between the Old Right and certain elements of the left. Some intellectuals in the "progressive" camp, such as the historians Charles A. Beard and Harry Elmer Barnes, thought that the domestic reform measures they favored would be crippled from the start if the government had constantly to cope with foreign crises. The United States ought to avoid meddling in European politics and instead to pursue a policy of "continentalism," in Beard's term.

This notion of foreign affairs was of course entirely in accord with that of the Old Right; and Beard found himself acclaimed a hero by those who had once denounced him as a dangerous radical. Today, we may have to admit another leftist to the right-wing pantheon. Mr. Alterman's book, though flawed, vigorously defends our traditional foreign policy of peace and nonintervention.

How does a leftist arrive at non-leftist conclusions? In Mr. Alterman's case the process takes place through asking what democracy entails. Modern liberals are supposed to be democrats; but it is often assumed that democracy ends at the nation's borders. Why must this arbitrary limit be accepted? Surely a democrat in good standing should be unwilling to leave so vital an area of political affairs to the control of supposed "experts."

But, it is alleged, we have no choice. The vast majority of the public cannot grasp the complex realities of foreign affairs. As Walter Lippmann long ago argued, the public lacks the information on which to base informed judgments of foreign affairs. "According to Lippmann...[o]nly through incomplete, poorly comprehended media reports are these events made accessible. `Public opinion', therefore, is shaped in response to people's `maps' or `images' of the world and not to the world itself" (p. 65).

Not everyone has accepted Lippmann's skepticism about the public's competence to judge foreign relations. John Dewey, in reply to Lippmann, accused him of accepting a "spectator theory of knowledge" (p. 68). True learning takes place through communication and participation. Even our author, an admirer of Dewey, is constrained to admit that Dewey's "penetrating critique" of Lippmann "was never fortified by a workable notion of how, exactly, to inspire the culture of communication" (p. 69).

Mr. Alterman's own response to the antidemocratic assault is much better than Dewey's. He acknowledges the public's ignorance of the details of foreign relations. Nevertheless, the public, by contrast with their supposedly more expert "betters" has a sound grasp of the basic principles that should govern foreign policy.

These principles are those that guided the fathers of our constitutional republic. "[C]ommon American men and women continue to see the world in much the same terms as the country's founders.... Americans believe first and foremost in preserving peace.... They prefer to avoid political entanglements in the affairs of other nations and wish to promote the values of democratic capitalism by example rather than compulsion" (p.181).

Thus, Mr. Alterman has neatly turned aside Lippmann's criticism. Even if the public knows little and cares less about foreign affairs, does this matter so long as we adhere to sound principles? We may here draw a parallel between our author's point and the operation of the free market. As Friedrich Hayek has again and again reminded us, actors in the market do not consciously possess the detailed knowledge needed to coordinate prices. So long as people adhere to fixed rules of conduct, the automatic operation of the market will take care of the rest. (I suspect that our socialist author will not like this comparison.)

Unfortunately, many American pre-sidents have seen fit in their wisdom to depart from our founding principles; and Mr. Alterman's principal contribution is his clear and cogent account of a long string of betrayals.

He rightly emphasizes James Polk's usurpation of power during the Mexican War. "What Polk demonstrated, as John Quincy Adams noted at the time, was that `the President of the United States has but to declare that War exists with any nation and the War is essentially declared.' Congress never declared war against Mexico. Indeed, in January, 1848, the House nearly passed a resolution proclaiming that the conflict had been `unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States'" (pp. 42-43).

Polk's administration, then, was a watershed. The Founding Fathers based American foreign policy on seeking "to avoid war at almost all costs, lest it lead naturally to impoverishment, tyranny, and the destruction of the necessary physical foundations of republican virtue" (p. 43). Polk thought he knew better; and a disastrous precedent had been set.

Though our author deserves great credit for his insight, an attack on Polk does not call for exceptional courage. Mr. Alterman displays that virtue in abundance, however, in his challenge to three of our supposed "great" presidents: Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. Mr. Alterman notes that Hegel, in his lectures on the philosophy of history, did not recognize that a state, as he defined it, existed in early nineteenth-century America. But the Civil War changed all that. "With the institution of the draft, the income tax, and the massive logistical and propaganda efforts necessary to defeat the secessionist states, the American government began to acquire the accoutrements of power that would later preclude even the possibility of a democratic foreign policy debate" (p. 65). Bravo! So what if our author cannot spell habeas corpus correctly: he opposes Lincoln's suspension of it.

Is Mr. Alterman a closet libertarian? We can only wonder, given his Rothbardian assessment of Woodrow Wilson. He, like Rothbard, ties Wilson's foreign policy to the Progressive movement. "Not surprisingly, many Progressives viewed America's entry into World War I as yet another opportunity to jumpstart domestic reform at home....Progressives had so imbibed the wine of Wilsonianism that they championed imperialism as the prelude to world government" (p. 60).

But all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Mr. Alterman gives us an excellent short account of Franklin Roosevelt's deceptive tactics designed to involve the United States in World War II. I shall not discuss these, as our author's account resembles the more comprehensive treatment in Thomas Mahl's Desperate Deception, reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Unfortunately, he maintains that Roosevelt acted for "brave and farsighted reasons between 1939 and 1941" (p. 17). He had to "escape the foreign policy handcuffs" (p. 72) in order to confront "the Nazi threat to civilization" (p. 17). Here Mr. Alterman casts his usual principles aside.

Am I unfair to Mr. Alterman to criticize him for these remarks? After all, almost everyone except resolute revisionists makes an exception for World War II. But I have raised the criticism not to be mean-unfair readers will say not only to be mean-but to expose what seems to me the fundamental failing of Mr. Alterman's book. His ultimate commitment seems to be to democracy rather than to principled noninterventionism. Since the Nazi regime extended the boundaries of dictatorship in Europe, was not intervention against it justified? If the American people mistakenly adhered to isolation, was it undemocratic to deceive them for their long-term well-being?

The foregoing, I freely acknowledge, is speculative: I may mistake Mr. Alterman's line of reasoning entirely. But, if I am right, he has made a crucial mistake. Once we allow that a president was right to deceive the American public in order to halt a threat to democracy, we have arrived back at Wilsonianism. Our author needs to take the message of his own excellent book more to heart in this instance. A closing note: readers should study Mr. Alterman's provocative remarks about American policy in the Mideast (pp. 140ff) and ignore his economic illiteracy about free trade (pp. 184-85).


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