William R. Hawkins, in "Isolationism, Properly Understood," (Summer 1991) seems convinced that the current "consensus" among conservatives favoring a vigorous American presence around the globe is the sole heir to America's conservative legacy. Pat Buchanan, Joseph Sobran, et. al., have therefore become political apostates on the right. While Hawkins' essay is certainly provocative, it misrepresents the history of modern American conservatism and its natural ties to both a policy of non-intervention in foreign affairs and the classical liberal philosophical tradition.
Hawkins' first error is minimizing the significance of conservative isolationism during the interwar period. Members of America First, such as Robert Taft and Herbert Hoover, were among the most prominent conservative politicians in the country. In addition, the conservative isolationist movement attracted many figures who would play central roles in the conservative movement after the war: Intercollegiate Society of Individualists' (now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute) founder Frank Chodorov, John Chamberlain, Russell Kirk, William Henry Chamberlain, and Human Events co-founder Henry Regnery, for example. Even the young William F. Buckley, Jr. was a member of America First in 1941.
Probably the most prominent America Firster of the time was Robert Taft. Just as Taft led the fight against the federal government's rapid domestic expansion under Franklin Roosevelt, he fought tirelessly against state encroachment under the pretense of national interests overseas. As it is conservative to oppose a burgeoning welfare state, it is equally as conservative to oppose government expansion because of international ambitions. While Hawkins may wish to call such views "unrealistic," they are in no way unconservative.
Hawkins commits a greater error in minimizing the influence of classical liberalism on the conservative tradition. The modern conservative intellectual movement was greatly influenced by men such as Chodorov, F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, and Leonard Read who were all profoundly influenced by classical liberal ideas. From Frank Meyer and M. Stanton Evans to William F. Buckley and even Irving Kristol, there are very few conservative intellectuals who have not paid homage to the ideas of John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison, all liberals in the classical tradition.
Contemporary "isolationism" on the Right is not a utopian advocacy of an America truly "isolated" from the world. It is an approach that can best be understood as noninterventionism, that is, not involving American forces in other parts of the world unless America's vital interests are directly threatened. That is isolationism, properly understood.
Jonathan H. Adler
Washington, DC.Essay Types: Essay