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For the Love of War

December 17, 2001

Every wartime president is hailed as one of the great ones, including Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, and, now, Bush. In polls of presidential "greatness," the former three constantly rank at or near the top. In presidential popularity polls since 9/11, Bush's fashionableness has skyrocketed. The talk is that he is another one certain to "go down in history as one of the great presidents." Where have we heard that before.

In The President Within, a gushing piece for the WSJ.com Opinion Journal, Peggy Noonan--the articulate and sometimes interesting neoconservative journalist--tells us that George W. has "found the president within." In essence, she tells us, he is the next Harry Truman.

Like Truman, Bush emanates a modest demeanor and presents himself as kinfolk to all of us. Down-to-earth and somewhat hackneyed, they both lack the stature and charisma of other Oval Office inhabitants. However, Ms. Noonan finds in Truman a man of wondrous processes; a go-getter who was determined in

pushing through the Marshall Plan to save Europe and getting the money for it from a depleted American public, fighting a land war in Korea. All this when his exhausted nation--we had been through two world wars in 25 years--did not want another war, and needed to be rallied.

So here we have it: coercing the public and enabling government growth are what make a great leader. Ms. Noonan finds even more legend in the war career of Truman. Though Truman inherited FDR`s war and got us into another quagmire a few years later, leave it to Noonan to find such greatness in his fiascos:

He stopped or thwarted communism wherever he could, fought like a tiger, faced down the most admired American general of the day and canned him for overstepping his bounds, made the crucial and horrific decision to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and took the responsibility himself to the extent that when the head of the Manhattan Project came to him and said he feared he had blood on his hands, Truman took out his handkerchief and wiped J. Robert  Oppenheimer's hands, and said no, I made the decision, the responsibility is mine.

There is no mention by Noonan--a purported social conservative--of Truman's national health insurance cabal, his call for a more federalized education system, or his New Deal augmentations and the rest of his leftist social agenda. After all, Truman was a dedicated social engineer who integrated the military and the federal Civil Service as a precursor to forming the Civil Rights Commission for the imposition of across-the-board social intervention.

Then there was the celebrated Truman Fair Deal. This was his domestic agenda, which proposed the expansion of FDR's Social Security system, a full-employment program, an increase in the minimum wage, and a permanent Fair Employment Practices Act. The Fair Deal, Truman wrote, "symbolizes for me my assumption of the office of President in my own right."  It was only the hardline Southern Democrats and their Republican allies who, as a last line of defense, managed to keep the worst aspects of the Fair Deal from taking hold.

However, Noonan completely ignores her own Republican instincts on domestic approach in favor of glorifying a Trumanesque quest for world supremacy. After all, the enlargement of Empire is seen as a virtue in the mainstream; it is the epitome of great leadership. Therefore, one senses that warmaking, propagandizing the citizenry into supporting war, and destroying foreign States only to turn around and rebuild them are all immaculate acts on the part of the chief executive.

Hence, to Noonan and her ilk, the forward thrust of the American Empire and its military machinations is all that matters in the larger sense. Therefore, we should ignore the triviality of domestic policymaking.

Now it is true that Bush is a bit gentler on the eradication of our domestic liberties than would be a guy like McCain, or even a Gore-Lieberman deal. Bush has also exercised spots of restraint where those in his party, and his administration, would prefer a full-scale war on targets to be named later. The choice of Colin Powell as secretary of state has proved to be the one great neutralizing effect in an otherwise all-out War Party.

However, to cascade onto George W. Bush the title of "great one" is merely a way of linking greatness with the ability to wage conflict and perpetuate the growth of the State. And nowhere is liberty infringed upon more than in times of war, a president's most useful crisis for manipulating power to the advantage of his office and its administrators. From this cause, according to the party apologists, advancing statism--and not adherence to the libertarian foundations of the Republic--determines who we are expected to deify as our redeemer.


Karen De Coster, who lives in Michigan, is a business professional, freelance writer, and graduate student in economics. She highly recommends Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom, a full scale revision of the history of the presidency.  Send her MAIL and See her Mises.org Article Archive.


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