Charles Beard, Properly Understood

Charles Beard, Properly Understood

Mini Teaser: It is time to readmit Charles Beard's critique into the canon of permissible opinion.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

To be sure, that adverse reputation is not entirely undeserved. No
amount of historical revisionism is likely to revive support for such
centerpieces of the isolationist agenda as the Ludlow Amendment
(requiring a plebiscite as a prerequisite for declaring war) or the
Neutrality Acts of the 1930s (aimed at curbing warmongering by
"merchants of death")--proposals crafted with an eye toward
preventing a war even then already twenty years in the past. Nor is
there any denying that isolationists utterly misjudged Hitler,
failing to understand that Nazism constituted a threat that the
United States could not ignore. If the Second World War was not a
Good War, Hitler made it emphatically a necessary one. Finally, no
amount of revisionism can conceal the fact that the isolationist
movement contained a dark side, personified by the anti-Semitism and
demagoguery of the radio priest Father Charles E. Coughlin. All that
having been said, however, by assuming that every facet of
isolationist thinking is tainted, Americans have erased from memory
the critique of internationalism that formed the essence of
isolationism in the 1930s. And that is unfortunate.

Americans today could profit from availing themselves to such a
critique. For it becomes increasingly clear that the epic of the
United States leading humankind to Wolrd Peace bids fair to be a
melodrama with no denouement. Act II plays on with no conclusion in
sight. Despite the West's historic victory over communism, the peaqce
envisioned by Wilson remains as improbable today as it was in 1918 or
1945; rather than peace, a succession of new crises leads Americans
to understand that the burden of fixing the world's problems will
remain theirs. Public opinion has responded to this prospect with
muted enthusiasm. Yet suggestions that American priorities may lie
elsewhere or that American resources might be finite trigger fevered
predictions that the United States is about to retreat into
isolationism, that it will forfeit its rightful place in the front
rank of the world's powers, that Americans will shirk their
responsiblities. The unspecified but presumably baleful consequences
of such developments have sufficed--thus far, at least--to dissuade
Americans from breaking faith with internationalism.

In truth, they hardly know what else to do. Confinedby the
straitjacket of historical orthodoxy, Americans have lost their
capacity to envision a basis for foreign policy other than the
billowy promises and large obligations of Wilson and Franklin
Roosevelt. It is this inability to envision reponsible alternatives
to internationalism that ought to lead Americans to give
isolationists a second look. Wrong on many things in the 1930s,
isolationists were arguably ahead of their time in deciphering the
illusions on which internationalism was grounded.

Beard's Critique

Were Americans willing to look beyond the parody of isolationism, a
useful starting point would be the writings of Charles A. Beard
(1874-1948). A scholar and publicist of impeccable progressive
credentials, Beard was the acknowledged dean of American historians
throughout most of the interwar period. Cosmopolitan in outlook,
impatient with cant and with historians given to excessive piety,
strikingly original in his own interpretations of the past, Beard was
about as different from Father Coughlin as anyone could be. He was an
astonishingly prolific writer. Two works in particular--the massively
influential An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution and The
Rise of American Civilization--virtually defined the progressive
school of history. As such, they provided inspiration for much of
what passed for advanced thinking among American political
intellectuals during the first three decades of this century:
impatience with the status quo, preoccupation with economic
self-interest as political motive, advocacy of bold reformist
experiments, and certainty that government was the preferred
instrument for ameliorating social injustice and inequity. Personally
committed to political and economic reform, he was an early and vocal
supporter of fdr's New Deal. Yet in the twilight of his long and
distinguished career, Beard turned against Roosevelt. Fearing the
destructive impact of American involvement in a second world war,
Charles Beard aligned himself with the isolationists and became one
of the movement's most articulate and insightful critics of

As reflected in Beard's extensive writings--as opposed to the
writings of those who railed against him--what did isolationists
actually stand for? To begin with, he did not call for the United
States to cut itself off ostrich-like from the rest of the world.
Indeed, isolationists like Beard considered such a course to be
neither feasible nor desirable. Summarizing his case for a realistic
foreign policy, Beard wrote in 1940 that it "did not seek to make a
'hermit' nation out of America....[I]t never had embraced that
impossible conception.... It did not deny the obvious fact that wars
in Europe and Asia 'affect' or 'concern' the United States. It did
not mean 'indifference' to the sufferings of Europe or China (or
India or Ethiopia)." Beard complained (to no avail) that the term
"isolationism" was itself a misnomer. If critics intended the term to
represent "the creed that America owes nothing to other countries and
has no moral responsibilities in the world; that foreign wars are
none of our business; that the United States should shrink behind
high nationalist walls, let the world go hang, and refuse to
cooperate in efforts to maintain peace in the world," then, remarked
Beard, isolation was "indeed dead; or rather it never came to life."

Yet if isolationists like Beard would not ignore the world, neither
were they optimistic that engagement in the world would remedy the
ills afflicting it. Beard rejected outright the assumption--accepted
among internationalists as an article of faith--that mankind was
advancing, however slowly, toward a harmonious order based on
universal ideals, ideals assumed to be indistinguishable from the
secular creed of Western political thought. Isolationists like Beard
portrayed the global landscape as diverse and turbulent, a world in
which change was endemic, arbitrary, and too diffuse to be described
as conforming to some unified pattern. Writing in 1935, for example,
Beard faulted internationalism for its "exclusion of the national
cultures--ideas, loyalties, passions, political traditions, the
development and clash of races and nations" that in Beard's view were
not likely to disappear anytime soon. Similarly, optimism about the
prospects for the spread of democracy "gave too little consideration
to the differences in the stages of civilization which existed in
Europe and other parts of the world...." To say that democracy was
the preferred system of government was not to say that all peoples
were equally capable of making democracy work. The reality of the
world was simply too complicated "to treat it as something
mechanical, on a plane surface, to be maintained in status quo or
restored if damaged." If such a reality implied "a complexity of
institutions and occurrences too vast for the human mind to encompass
by formulas," argued Beard, then "nothing is to be gained by any
false simplification."

Beard did not dispute the fact that modern communications and
commercial ties were creating a "universal web" joining nations to
one another. Along with many others then and since, Beard had once
speculated that such developments might presage an end to war. Events
of the early 1930s disabused him of that hope. "Notwithstanding this
growing interdependence," he observed in 1934, "the tendency of
nations to engage in armed conflict has not disappeared." Indeed,
Beard challenged the commonly held expectation that modernization
would soften the sharp edges of human affairs, encouraging nations to
view as partners or collaborators those whom they had previously seen
as rivals. Beard was not persuaded that "the mere adoption and use of
the machines and gadgets of modern industrialism" would suffice to
transform "the ancient heritages of Europe and Africa and Asia." Nor
did he believe that "the common use of machines make men, women, and
children of all nations alike in traditions, habits, sentiments, and
values...." Thus, Beard rejected the proposition that "the closer
nations are drawn together by commerce and intercourse, the more
alike they become intellectually, morally, and spiritually"(The
Republic, p. 316). Material advances alone would not eliminate the
roots of conflict.

That the rich and powerful nations standing at the forefront of
modernization should profess great interest in maintaining "peace and
the possession of all they have gathered up in the way of empire" did
not surprise Beard. Yet was it not true, he asked, that the nations
possessing wealth and power had achieved their position "by methods
not entirely different" from those being employed by the predators of
the 1930s? Beard thought it unrealistic to expect that disadvantaged
nations would respect calls that they accept the status quo out of
sheer regard for the higher claims of world peace. On the contrary,
the have-nots would insist upon their fair share. "In the future as
in the past," wrote Beard, these demands would raise the prospect of
"profound changes in the distribution of populations, resources and
imperial possessions...." With this prospect in mind, "the question
for the United States" was "whether it wants to be involved in every
conflict that arises in this historical movement."

Beard conceded that overriding moral issues could impel the United
States to involve itself in situations that it would otherwise avoid.
Yet he was not persuaded that the right and wrong of any specific
dispute was as straightforward as it was typically portrayed. However
obscure or ancient the dispute, competing propagandists bombarded
Americans with competing versions of the truth, each one as
self-serving and over-simplified as the next. Playing a leading part
in this ritual of distortion were those for whom "advocacy of
American interventionism and adventurism has become a huge vested
interest": the professoriate specializing in the new discipline of
international relations, the private groups and associations devoted
to fostering interest in foreign affairs, and, above all, "the daily
press and radio, thriving on hourly sensations" while proving
abysmally deficient in both attention span and historical perspective.

Essay Types: Essay