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

Beard did not believe that among the various parties contending for
advantage in the 1930s any one nation had a lock on either wickedness
or virtue. Beard was not an apologist for Germany or Japan. Yet he
hesitated to characterize the successive European and Asian crises of
the 1930s strictly in black-and-white terms. As he observed in 1936,
"greed, lust and ambition in Europe and Asia do not seem to be
confined to Italy, Germany and Japan; nor does good seem to be
monopolized by Great Britain, France and Russia." History seemed to
teach that the high ideals for which nations professed to fight had
all too often been a facade covering greed and duplicity. The
diplomacy of World War I, exposed during the Twenties and Thirties in
all its unseemly detail, persuaded Beard and many others that the
moral issues of 1917-1918 had been simply a gloss contrived to induce
American intervention.

"Tilling Our Own Garden"

Conditioning Beard's assessment of how the United States should
respond to a world that was complex, conflictive, and morally
ambiguous were his very considered views of his own country. They
retain considerable resonance today.

Writing at a time when an unprecedented economic crisis gripped the
United States, Beard saw American democracy as flawed and fragile, a
political system whose own survival was not to be taken for granted.
More than a few Americans struggling to cope with the Great
Depression and to make sense of such a stunning economic failure
agreed with him.

Beard's basic theme, to which he returned again and again, was to
urge his countrymen to "concentrate on tilling our own garden," which
he described as "a big garden and a good garden, though horribly
managed and trampled by our greedy folly"("In Time of Peace Prepare
for War," p. 158). Beard thought it absurd that those who questioned
the wisdom of involving the United States in foreign quarrels should
be indicted for "shirking 'moral responsibility'" or for "displaying
a lack of sensibility." America's own imperfections gaped too large
to permit such hubris. In Beard's view, "anybody who feels hot with
morals and is affected with delicate sensibilities can find enough to
do at home, considering the misery of the 10,000,000 unemployed, the
tramps, the beggars, the sharecroppers, tenants and field hands right
here at our door. It is easy to get into a great moral passion over
the distant Chinese. It costs nothing much now," he warned, "though
[ultimately] it may cost the blood of countless American boys."
("Collective Security," p. 359).

That Americans would become exercised over the fate of distant
Chinese while ignoring oppressed minorities in their own country
astonished Beard. Considering "the condition of several million
Negroes in the United States," suggested Beard, "those who are deeply
move in the virtuous sense implied by 'the White Man's burden' can...
find extensive outlets for their moral urges at home..., thus
postponing for a considerable time the necessity for acquiring by
force additional congeries of 'brown brothers.'"(The Open Door at
Home, pp. 55-56). Instead of trying to solve the world's problems,
Beard summoned Americans to the task of building in the United States
a "bona fide civilization" rather than a mere "combination of
aggregated wealth, economic distresses, almshouses, work relief and
public doles." Surely such an undertaking would be preferable to
dispatching Americans soldiers to referee "a struggle over the bean
crop in Manchuria."

As Beard's reference to creating a bona fide civilization suggests,
his critique of the nation's problems included a dimension beyond
economic health. In Beard's day as in our own, the fissures dividing
Americans along lines of race, class, and culture raised doubts about
the very fabric of American society. Lacking "the cement of a
long-established monarchy, State Church, or fixed landed
aristocracy," the United States needed a "great cohesion among the
population and an enlarging capacity for cooperation." That cohesion
would necessarily be grounded in certain core values, "common
conceptions of rights and wrongs" that in Beard's view, "must be
further developed, if American society is to endure."

To Beard, it was self-evident that meddling in far-flung foreign
adventures would only undermine efforts to build that cohesion. When
meddling led to war, the American polity was likely to sustain severe
damage. Experience suggested that the passions provoked by war were
less likely to enhance national unity than to exacerbate divisions
within American society. All too often, war fed a massive disregard
of civil liberties and led to the harassment of scapegoats, the home
front hysteria of 1917-1918 and the infamous Red Scare that followed
the war being recent examples. Even the relatively mild war scares of
the mid-1930s, noted Beard, were sufficient to provoke the
introduction of "a whole flock of alien and sedition bills" in
Congress, "bills which, by their harsh and sweeping terms, made the
old laws of 1798 look pale and harmless."

Beard worried about the militarization of American society produced
by endless foreign crusades. Were the nation "to devote immense
energies and a large part of its annual wealth production to wars,
preparation for wars, and to paying for past wars," he predicted,
"then its civilian and cultural interests, like those of Sparta, will
become the servants of military purpose and the military mind"(The
Open Door at Home, p. 241).

There were other dangers as well. Increasingly disenchanted with the
rhetoric and actions of Franklin Roosevelt, Beard warned that the
supposed imperative of intervening in foreign crises, real or
fabricated, could offer an unscrupulous president a pretext for
diverting attention from bothersome troubles at home. War, noted
Beard, "postpones any domestic crises at hand, and silences the voice
of domestic dissent."

In addition, Beard warned that harnessing military power to
internationalist ambitions could undermine constitutional checks
intended to prevent the abuse of executive authority. By allowing the
president routinely to decide on whether and how to employ the
military, Congress effectively forfeited its warmaking powers. By
1940, Roosevelt's at times disingenuous efforts to aid Great Britain
had persuaded Beard that this had effectively occurred. "Our fate,"
he wrote, "is no longer in the hands of the people or of Congress
.... In fact wars are no longer declared. Situations exist or are
created. Actions are taken by authorities in a position to act. The
people wait for their portion." Thus did Beard foresee what was
actually to happen in the cases of the Korean and Vietnam wars.

By attending to its own business, the United States could "command
more respect and affection in other countries than by intermeddling
with its neighbors' affairs, whether under the formulas of
Machtpolitik or those of democracy, beneficence, and world peace"(The
Open Door at Home, p. 300). In other words, Beard expressed the
belief--the hope, really--that by tending first to its own affairs
the United States might come closer to achieving its self-imposed
mission than it would by forcing itself on a world less malleable and
less accommodating than the heirs of Woodrow Wilson let on.

Realism and Restraint

Acutely sensitive to problems at home that had eluded solution,
isolationists like Beard also suggested that the ability of the
United States to solve intractable problems away from home might not
be as great as internationalists fancied. With Americans hard-pressed
to deal with their own economic and social ills, asked Beard, "how
can we have the effrontery to assume that we can solve the problems
of Asia and Europe, encrusted in the blood-rust of fifty centuries?"
("Collective Security," p. 359). Beard pointed to what he called "the
hard fact that the United States either alone or in any coalition,
did not possess the power to force peace on Europe and Asia, to
assure the establishment of democratic and pacific governments there,
or to provide the social and economic underwriting necessary to the
perdurance of such governments"(A Foreign Policy for America, p.
152). As Beard saw it, internationalists both overestimated American
power and underestimated the capabilities of other friendly nations
to deal with their own problems.

Viewing America as beset by its own maladies and possessing only a
limited capacity to cure those of a nasty, violent world,
isolationists like Beard allowed themselves limited room for describing the policies that the United States should follow.
Of one thing at least Beard was certain: the American propensity for preaching to the
rest of the world was unseemly, ineffective, and wrong-headed. Beard
pleaded for American officials "to avoid vain and verbose
dissertations on the manners and morals of other countries."(A
Foreign Policy for America, p. 153). He detested Franklin Roosevelt's
inclination, as evidenced by his loftier flights of oratory, to
become "intoxicated by moral exuberance." ("'Going Ahead' With
Roosevelt," p. 12). Such moralizing fueled the "theological
assertion" that "American law, order, civilization and flag (force)
are agencies of God," feeding in turn the notion that "the creed that
the United States must do good all around the world."

Moralizing served only to raise impossible expectations about the
prospects for peace. Beard mocked what he called "the devil theory of
war"--as much a fixture in public discourse of the Thirties as it
remains today--according to which "the masses of the people are
viewed as loving peace" and where wars and the threats of war are
therefore laid at the feet of the dastardly politician, a "strange
kind of demon, coming from the nether region and making the people do
things they would never think of doing otherwise." Nonsense said
Beard; the people themselves were not to be absolved of

Essay Types: Essay