Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Recalling James Burnham

I’ve been re-reading James Burnham’s classic Suicide of the West in the evenings recently (I really need to switch to P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh in these dark times), and the following passage jumped out as being even more true and relevant today than when he wrote it 45 years ago:

"Liberals, unless they are professional politicians needing votes in the hinterland, are not subject to strong feelings of national patriotism and are likely to feel uneasy at patriotic ceremonies. These, like the organizations in whose conduct they are still manifest, are dismissed by liberals rather scornfully as ’flag-waving’ and ’100 percent Americanism.’ When a liberal journalist uses the phrase ’patriotic organization,’ the adjective is equivalent in meaning to ’stupid, reactionary and rather ludicrous.’ The rise of liberalism to predominance in the controlling sectors of American opinion is in almost exact correlation with the decline in the ceremonial celebration of the Fourth of July, traditionally regarded as the nation’s major holiday. To the liberal mind, the patrioic oratory is not only banal but subversive of rational ideals; and judged by liberalism’s humanitarian morality, the enthusiasm and pleasures that simple souls might have got from the fireworks could not compensate the occasional damage to the eye or finger of an unwary youngster. The purer liberals of the Norman Cousins strain, in the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt, are more likely to celebrate UN Day than the Fourth of July."

Substitute "red states" for "hinterlands," John Kerry for Norman Cousins, and you have an up-to-date description of the present moment.

Discussions - 9 Comments


"Suicide of the West" should be required
reading for conservatives. Today’s generation of conservatives has missed
a brilliant analysis of our adversaries, and of the crisis we face. Some things have changed in the 40 years
since Burnham wrote this classic, but a great deal has not.

I’m kinda surprized by Burnham’s observation from 45 years ago. I thought this "likely to feel uneasy at patriotic ceremonies" defined the post-sixties liberalism. Could FDR, father of the cornerstone of liberalism, the New Deal, have been this schizophrenic to have become "Dr. Win-the-war"?

I’m baffled.

Mr. Lamb asks a good question, one that illustrates the crucial importance of conservatives knowing more history. Today’s conservative writers tend to give pre-60s liberals a pass in many respects. But the reality is that "The Sixties" didn’t come out of nowhere.

Burnham is speaking, in this quote, not about the economically liberal working class and the presidents it elected -- Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson. He means the liberal ideologues whose influence in the Democratic party was growing even before, say, the events of 1968 or the 1972 McGovern crusade. Neoconservatives abandoned liberalism only in this latter period, when its results became so obviously noxious and extreme. And therefore, they often have trouble seeing the continuities between what they call "McGovernism" and the older, Eleanor Roosevelt/UN-worshiping globalism in foreign policy.

More generally, conservative writers of today -- e.g., in the Weekly Standard --are often too generous to the entire pre-60s, or pre-70s, Democratic party. The party, and its presidents, were not the steadfast hawks that neoconservatives tend to imagine. FDR failed to understand the nature of Stalin and the Soviet Union, Truman did not adequately support Chiang Kai-shek
in mainland China and failed to destroy the enemy in North Korea, Roosevelt’s administration included numerous communists (and, for four years, the pro-Soviet Henry Wallace as vice president), Truman’s crossed various ethical lines in resisting legitimate congressional investigations of the "loyalty" issue, Kennedy failed to support the Bay of Pigs invasion, and Johnson allowed tens of thousands of American boys to die in Vietnam with no serious attempt to win that tragic war.

All of this was clear to James Burnham, who understood that non-patriots (which, admittedly, the Cold War-era Democratic presidents cannot be called) really did belong in the Democratic party, even then. He described the liberal’s relationship to national defense in this way: The liberal, Burnham said, does not always oppose the use of force. But because he’s uncomfortable with it, he often uses it at the wrong times and in the wrong ways, and often does not use it at the right times in the right ways.

"The party, and its presidents, were not the steadfast hawks that neoconservatives tend to imagine. FDR failed to understand the nature of Stalin..."

Here is how Truman summed up the U.S. approach to Japan, in August of 1945:

"The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid manyfold. We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks. We shall destroy their factories. We shall destroy their communications. Let there be no mistake. We shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war."

That’s pretty heady stuff there. Furthmore, two years into the Cold War, one finds a notable book called The Liberal Imagination by the leading intellectual, Lionel Trilling. Trilling wrote:

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism... but [they] do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

One must note, when considering mainstream liberalism before McGovern, what mainstream conservatism was all about. I’m talking about the isolationist Robert Taft conservatives, who virtually isolated themselves on the fringe of mainstream America. One could respect a Taft, but his ideas were still stuck in the 1920s.

As liberalism per say has always had a problem with war and undue patriotic fluff, one can still admire their taking world and national issues seriously at a time when events forced Coolidge-era conservatism off the stage. FDR and the those who followed his lead made plenty of mistakes, caused a lot of needless agony and certainly they had no corner on the market to a name like "the best and the brightest," especially wrt their arrogant approach to Vietnam. But it also seems to me that Hilton Kramer, of the New Criterion, probably has it right when he said liberalism was "born again" in the 1970s. Thus they left the national stage, and became a mere shadow of their former selves, much like Mr. Republican, Robert Taft, himself.

I think both sides are missing the point here. Republican opposition to FDR’s foreign policy was motivated to a considerable extent by simple partisanship--it did not pay political dividends to support the president’s foreign policy if that president is from the other party. One might say the same for the Democrats’ opposition to Reagan’s foreign policy, or the GOP’s opposition to Clinton’s.

It’s wrong to portray Coolidge and the GOP of the 1920s as "isolationist"; indeed, they were highly interventionist when it came to Latin America, and economic policy toward Europe. In fact, one of the GOP’s platform points in the 1920s was the need for naval construction. Republican isolationism was a product of the 1930s, and driven by animosity toward Roosevelt. It dried up pretty darn quickly when a Republican found his way into the White House.

"It’s wrong to portray Coolidge and the GOP of the 1920s as "isolationist"; indeed, they were highly interventionist when it came to Latin America, and economic policy toward Europe."

With all due respect, I’m not sure how you can make that claim. Herbert Hoover’s first words in his Memoirs "In the large sense, the primary cause of the Great Depression was the war of 1914-1918." As one writer put it:

The reparations forced on Germany by the Versailles Treaty weakened the European economy. The key to relief lay in the United States, which had extended $10 billion in loans to the Allies. To finance those loans, the French and British dunned Germany for reparations payments. Canceling or restructuring the Allies’ war debt would have ended this punitive cycle, allowing Germany to recover and permitting Europe as a whole to buy more U.S.-made goods—crucial to the health of an economy haunted by overproduction. Yet, well before his depression, Coolidge rejected sensible advice to restructure the debt, saying, "They hired the money, didn’t they?" That country-store economic fundamentalism, as much as any single U.S. action, was responsible for the Depression.

Bookend that with Harding’s Normacly campaign, based upon Washington’s dictum of avoiding Europe’s entanglements, and Hoover’s own folly with the big Tariff Bill in 1930 and this should settle the matter concerning Coolidge era isolationism.

"The very premise of this book has played out on the world scene since its writing. The liberal approach towards Communism (i.e. appeasement) in the 1970s had weakened the Western resolve to contain Communism just as Burnham predicted it would."

I have not read this book (I pulled the above quote off an Amazon.com review), but I really find it’s premise confusing. It is as if one must conclude that the Truman Doctrine was all wrong! Or... that liberals were in fact pretending back in 1948! That the "Vital Center" was not really real; that Schlesinger’s "dough-faced progressivism," of 1939, before Stalin’s "pact" with Hitler, was still the real New Deal, but liberals opted to pretend it wasn’t, to stay relavent to the post-war period.

Is this the truth? If so, does this not give credence to often made defense of LBJ, that he really was forced by some "military industrial complex" conspiracy to escalate the quagmire in Vietnam? After all, Johnson was secretly wishing to merely "appease" the Commies! He meant them no harm! No, secretly he hoped that America would embrace some form of Communism somewhere down the line. Ok, perhaps I’m overstating the case. Chamberlin wasn’t wishing that Britain become like Nazi Germany in 1938, with his "peace in our time," right? He just naively wished to avoid war, like Spain circa 2004, with a tyrant. Still, something tells me that Burnham’s liberalism, circa 1944 or 1964, was something entirely different than the liberalism we see today. And that includes how liberals looked then, and look today, at the flag of the United States of America as well.

With all due respect, I’m not sure how you can make that claim.

I don’t have time to offer a full response to this, except to say that historians have pretty well debunked the notion of an isolationist 1920s. See, for example, Michael Hogan’s Informal Entente, Warren Cohen’s Empire without Tears, and Frank Costigliola’s Awkward Dominion. All agree that what we call "isolationism" was essentially the creation of the Great Depression--and was, in fact, the policy of FDR until roughly 1937.

Thanks, I’ll check ’em out.

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