U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ending the American Century

In light of the good comments my post on Andrew Bacevich received (and I am always grateful for the response we get here at this blog), I wanted to highlight the role conservatism might play in assessing recent American history with war. I just read a great review essay by Robert Westbrook in Raritan about the legacy of anti-interventionism in the context of the American Century. Westbrook’s initial focus is a book entitled Ain’t My America: the Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism by Bill Kauffman. Kauffman might also be known by his blog: “Front Porch Republic.” Westbrook and Kauffman are neighbors (a town apart) in upstate New York. And, as Westbrook notes, they share similar leanings in their critique of American adventurism abroad. Kauffman regards himself as a protector of a certain kind of conservatism that, he argues vigorously in many books and essays, has been undermined by a very dangerous impostor. Westbrook writes, “For [Kauffman], nothing is less conservative than the quest for empire, a quest that threatens everything that a genuine American conservative would hope to preserve. Conservatism–love of the traditional, the local, the small, the modest–has been highjacked by power-hungry ideologues whose immodest, abstract, global ambitions are at least the equal of those liberals they assail.” In short, Kauffman asks: what is conservative about invading Iraq?

Westbrook is generous to his neighbor but critical of Kauffman’s limited vision of conservatism and, even more, of his inability to get to the heart of the matter. Kauffman wants to protect the homeland by decrying imperialism abroad. Fair enough, but such an argument lumps Kauffman in with some curious company–making Pat Buchanan middle-of-the-road. Moreover, Kauffman’s wistful vision harkens back to an era that is simply gone. Westbrook notes: “Indeed, one the most important consequences of World War II for the American moral imagination was the complete displacement by war’s end of the anti-interventionists’ narrow, ‘continentalist’ conceptions of ‘national defense’ by their opponents’ expansive, ‘globalist’ conceptions of ‘national security’ and democratic obligation–conceptions that remain dominant to this day.” Westbrook wrote about this transition from another angle in is a great brief volume of essays entitled, Why We Fought” Forging American Obligations in World War II.

Westbrook contends that there was, of course, a very vigorous and legitimate debate to be had over the transition hastened by World War II. And while that debate was won by great persuaders such as Henry Luce and intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann, it is worth considering a statement historian Charles Beard made in response to the “ornate, glistening, masculine words” of the champions of the American Century.

He explained that those Americans who resisted rushing into wars the world over did “not propose to withdraw from the world, but…propose[d] to deal with the world as it is and not as romantic propagandists picture it…America is not to be Rome or Britain,” Beard declared, “it is to be America.”

Westbrook seems to share the cautious, perhaps humble sentiments of Beard and, by extension, Kauffman and Andrew Bacevich (with whom Kauffman at times shares a stage in debates against neoconservatives). Yet Westbrook also distinguishes between those who echo the arguments made by the America First Committee and its successors, and those who understood the exceptional nature of World War II. In short, sometimes America needs to intervene in the world, despite the cost and sacrifice. And while Westbrook sympathizes with the instincts of Beard, Kauffman, and Bacevich, he also wonders what new ideology would replace the one that has existed since Luce’s vision of an American Century. Decrying the mistakes of the past has clearly not been enough to bring that vision to an end. What we need to ask is what will replace it?

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Ray: Good stuff! Here’s _an_ answer (just one) to your final question—anything cooperative that is ~not~ centered on America. I realize that’s a vague answer. So I’ll go historical. The world federal government folks had an answer: a United Nations in which all nations substantially invested not just money, but time, energy, and—most importantly—some portion of their national sovereignty. – TL

  2. As always Tim, thanks for your comments. Who is the successor to the world federal government folks of the early cold war? And won’t the folks who Kauffman represents see Blue Helmets amassing on the Mexican border yet again?

  3. Ray: Agreed on the paranoia of old-school, front-porch conservatives in relation to the world federal government. That crowd was there in the 1940s and 1950s, and of course still exists today. Over the past several years, as I’ve observed the writings of Front Porchers and other extreme fans of subsidiarity, I’ve become convinced that they are actually enemies of the United States ~as a quantity~. They profess qualitative patriotism and other minimalist connections to the federal government, but in practice they are enemies of the United States as it currently exists. Though Front Porchers profess adherence to community and common values, those values expire as they cross a 5-10 mile mental border in relation to their homes. And if that mentality doesn’t _actually_ exist among Front Porchers, it does appear in their writings. At the very least, folks like Bill Kauffman and Patrick Deneen possess an internal paradox that they can’t resolve rhetorically. – TL

  4. Ray: On a related note, I think that Front Porcher subsidiarity leans toward philosophical anarchism. I have wondered (only partly seriously) if this has been absorbed, among the Catholic and/or fiction reading Front Porchers, from J.R.R. Tolkien. Knowing your familiarity with First Things, this article on the subject may be of interest. Notice a few of the comments on that FT article come from Front Porch Republic blog contributors. Anyway, this FT article may lead off my future article/book idea I’ve tentatively titled “Tolkien in America: An Intellectual History.” – TL

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