America Under the Caesars

America Under the Caesars

Mini Teaser: Anti-interventionists allege our leaders traded a strong, austere republic for a weak and sprawling empire predicated on a military might that could not match our own ambitions. This narrative negates real threats and real victories.

by Author(s): Michael Lind

Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), 304 pp., $25.00.


[amazon 0805091416 full] IN THE waning years of the Vietnam War, leftist and liberal opponents of the Cold War discovered that they shared much in common with the critics of these policies on the libertarian or traditionalist right. The result was a rebirth of a current of thinking about American foreign policy that is usually labeled isolationism but which, out of deference to members of this school who reject such a term as perhaps far too loaded, I shall instead describe as “anti-interventionism.”

This is a tradition that has long dominated American politics, and one that can find its heartland in the small-town America of the Midwest. In fact, its political eclipse lasted for a very short period of time indeed—from the selection of Dwight D. Eisenhower over Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft for president by the Republican Party in 1952 to the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1972 of George McGovern, with his slogan “Come Home, America.” Taft and McGovern were both products of the Midwest, which along with much of New England had been the center of opposition to U.S. participation in both world wars and the battle with the Soviet Union. The supporters of these conflicts were disproportionately found in the South and Southwest and among the Atlanticist financial and commercial elites of the northeastern cities. During the Cold War, the former diplomat George Kennan and the scholar William Appleman Williams argued for drastically reducing America’s military interventions and foreign commitments, as the influential historian and Indiana native Charles Beard had done in the 1930s and 1940s. Kennan and Williams, too, were products of the Midwest. Williams was an Iowan; Kennan hailed from Wisconsin and wrote elegantly about his pioneer roots. Whether they were on the left or right, all of these thinkers lamented the passing of pastoral, small-town Middle America and blamed social change in part on the effects of what they saw as American imperialism.

According to these men, the United States was once a country with a public-spirited, frugal citizenry and a limited government that abstained from aggression abroad. Then, at some point, the Republic was betrayed by elites who steered the United States on the course to perpetual empire and war. It is a narrative whose origins lie in a parallel between the United States and ancient Rome, which lost its republican government and became an autocratic empire under the Caesars.

Anti-interventionists do not agree on the exact moment when the American Republic gave way to the American empire. For some, the transition came with the rise of the Cold War “national-security state” during the administration of Harry Truman. For others, it was William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt’s “splendid little war” against Spain in 1898.

Nor is there universal agreement among anti-interventionists as to the motives of those who turned the Republic into an empire. For Williams, it was the desire of American mass-production industries to obtain foreign markets through a global Open Door economic policy. For Beard, it was the lust for power on the part of politicians like Franklin Roosevelt, whom Beard detested and accused of knowing about Pearl Harbor in advance (an accusation only slightly less deranged than the claim of “truthers” that 9/11 was staged by the U.S. government).

Yet whatever their differences, members of this school share the hope that a repudiation of most or all U.S. foreign-policy commitments and a dramatic reduction in armed forces can make possible a restoration of something like the idealized, small-town America of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Midwest.


IN RECENT years, this venerable American tradition has found its most eloquent and influential champion in Andrew Bacevich. Now a professor of international relations and history at Boston University, Bacevich served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, retiring from the army with the rank of colonel. Although he is a traditionalist conservative, or “paleoconservative,” Bacevich has found his audience chiefly on the liberal left, where he has filled the role of Kennan, another conservative and former insider whose views seemed to validate the Left’s critique of U.S. foreign policy.

In a number of books and articles, Bacevich has sought to revive the anti-interventionist approach. He has written sympathetically about Beard and wrote an introduction to a reprint of a book by Williams. He has also authored a series of polemics criticizing contemporary U.S. foreign policy, including The New American Militarism (Oxford University Press, 2006) and The Limits of Power (Metropolitan Books, 2008). Washington Rules is the latest salvo in this campaign.

Bacevich claims that the foreign policy of both parties is determined by four “Washington rules.” According to him, “Every president since Harry Truman has faithfully subscribed to these four assertions and Obama is no exception.”

Essay Types: Book Review