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Home | Blog | Rothbard: World War I as the Triumph of Progressive Intellectuals

Rothbard: World War I as the Triumph of Progressive Intellectuals

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November 11 (Veteran's Day) in the US was once known as Armistice Day, the day set aside to celebrate the end of the modern era's bloodiest war (up to that time). In his essay "World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals," Murray Rothbard discusses the war as the triumph of several Progressive intellectual strains from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the section "The New Republic Collectivists":

The New Republic magazine, founded in 1914 as the leading intellectual organ of progressivism, was a living embodiment of the burgeoning alliance between big-business interests, in particular the House of Morgan, and the growing legion of collectivist intellectuals. Founder and publisher of the New Republic was Willard W. Straight, partner of J.P. Morgan & Co., and its financier was Straight's wife, the heiress Dorothy Whitney. Major editor of the influential new weekly was the veteran collectivist and theoretician of Teddy Roosevelt's New Nationalism, Herbert David Croly. Croly's two coeditors were Walter Edward Weyl, another theoretician of the New Nationalism, and the young, ambitious former official of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, the future pundit Walter Lippmann. As Woodrow Wilson began to take America into World War I, the New Republic, though originally Rooseveltian, became an enthusiastic supporter of the war, and a virtual spokesman for the Wilson war effort, the wartime collectivist economy, and the new society molded by the war.

On the higher levels of ratiocination, unquestionably the leading progressive intellectual, before, during, and after World War I, was the champion of pragmatism, Professor John Dewey of Columbia University. Dewey wrote frequently for the New Republic in this period and was clearly its leading theoretician. A Yankee born in 1859, Dewey was, as Mencken put it, "of indestructible Vermont stock and a man of the highest bearable sobriety." John Dewey was the son of a small town Vermont grocer. Although he was a pragmatist and a secular humanist most of his life, it is not as well known that Dewey, in the years before 1900, was a postmillennial pietist, seeking the gradual development of a Christianized social order and Kingdom of God on earth via the expansion of science, community, and the State. During the 1890s, Dewey, as professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, expounded his vision of postmillennial pietism in a series of lectures before the Students' Christian Association. Dewey argued that the growth of modem science now makes it possible for man to establish the biblical idea of the Kingdom of God on earth. Once humans had broken free of the restraints of orthodox Christianity, a truly religious Kingdom of God could be realized in "the common incarnate Life, the purpose animating all men and binding them together into one harmonious whole of sympathy.

Religion would thus work in tandem with science and democracy, all of which would break down the barriers between men and establish the Kingdom. After 1900 it was easy for John Dewey, along with most other postmillennial intellectuals of the period, to shift gradually but decisively from postmillennial progressive Christian statism to progressive secular statism. The path, the expansion of statism and "social control" and planning, remained the same. And even though the Christian creed dropped out of the picture, the intellectuals and activists continued to possess the same evangelical zeal for the salvation of the world that their parents and they themselves had once possessed. The world would and must still be saved through progress and statism.

A pacifist while in the midst of peace, John Dewey prepared himself to lead the parade for war as America drew nearer to armed intervention in the European struggle. First, in January 1916 in the New Republic, Dewey attacked the "professional pacifist's" outright condemnation of war as a "sentimental phantasy," a confusion of means and ends. Force, he declared, was simply "a means of getting results," and therefore would neither be lauded or condemned per se. Next, in April Dewey signed a pro-Allied manifesto, not only cheering for an Allied victory but also proclaiming that the Allies were "struggling to preserve the liberties of the world and the highest ideals of civilization." And though Dewey supported US entry into the war so that Germany could be defeated, "a hard job, but one which had to be done," he was far more interested in the wonderful changes that the war would surely bring about in the domestic American polity. In particular, war offered a golden opportunity to bring about collectivist social control in the interest of social justice. As one historian put it,

because war demanded paramount commitment to the national interest and necessitated an unprecedented degree of government planning and economic regulation in that interest, Dewey saw the prospect of permanent socialization, permanent replacement of private and possessive interest by public and social interest, both within and among nations.

In an interview with the New York World a few months after US entry into the war, Dewey exulted that "this war may easily be the beginning of the end of business." For out of the needs of the war, "we are beginning to produce for use, not for sale, and the capitalist is not a capitalist [in the face of] the war." Capitalist conditions of production and sale are now under government control, and "there is no reason to believe that the old principle will ever be resumed…. Private property had already lost its sanctity …industrial democracy is on the way."

In short, intelligence is at last being used to tackle social problems, and this practice is destroying the old order and creating a new social order of "democratic integrated control." Labor is acquiring more power, science is at last being socially mobilized, and massive government controls are socializing industry. These developments, Dewey proclaimed, were precisely what we are fighting for.

Furthermore, John Dewey saw great possibilities opened by the war for the advent of worldwide collectivism. To Dewey, America's entrance into the war created a "plastic juncture" in the world, a world marked by a "world organization and the beginnings of a public control which crosses nationalistic boundaries and interests," and which would also "outlaw war."

The editors of the New Republic took a position similar to Dewey's, except that they arrived at it even earlier. In his editorial in the magazine's first issue in November 1914, Herbert Croly cheerily prophesied that the war would stimulate America's spirit of nationalism and therefore bring it closer to democracy. At first hesitant about the collectivist war economies in Europe, the New Republic soon began to cheer and urged the United States to follow the lead of the warring European nations and socialize its economy and expand the powers of the State.

As America prepared to enter the war, the New Republic, examining war collectivism in Europe, rejoiced that "on its administrative side socialism [had] won a victory that [was] superb and compelling." True, European war collectivism was a bit grim and autocratic, but never fear, America could use the selfsame means for "democratic" goals.

The New Republic intellectuals also delighted in the "war spirit" in America, for that spirit meant "the substitution of national and social and organic forces for the more or less mechanical private forces operative in peace." The purposes of war and social reform might be a bit different, but, after all, "they are both purposes, and luckily for mankind a social organization which is efficient is as useful for the one as for the other." Lucky indeed.

As America prepared to enter the war, the New Republic eagerly looked forward to imminent collectivization, sure that it would bring "immense gains in national efficiency and happiness." After war was declared, the magazine urged that the war be used as "an aggressive tool of democracy."

"Why should not the war serve," the magazine asked, "as a pretext to be used to foist innovations upon the country?" In that way, progressive intellectuals could lead the way in abolishing "the typical evils of the sprawling half-educated competitive capitalism."

Convinced that the United States would attain socialism through war, Walter Lippmann, in a public address shortly after American entry, trumpeted his apocalyptic vision of the future:

We who have gone to war to insure democracy in the world will have raised an aspiration here that will not end with the overthrow of the Prussian autocracy. We shall turn with fresh interests to our own tyrannies — to our Colorado mines, our autocratic steel industries, sweatshops, and our slums. A force is loose in America. Our own reactionaries will not assuage it. We shall know how to deal with them.

Walter Lippmann, indeed, had been the foremost hawk among the New Republic intellectuals. He had pushed Croly into backing Wilson and into supporting intervention, and then had collaborated with Colonel House in pushing Wilson into entering the war. Soon Lippmann, an enthusiast for conscription, had to confront the fact that he himself, only twenty-seven years old and in fine health, was eminently eligible for the draft. Somehow, however, Lippmann failed to unite theory and praxis.

Young Felix Frankfurter, progressive Harvard Law Professor and a close associate of the New Republic editorial staff, had just been selected as a special assistant to Secretary of War Baker. Lippmann somehow felt that his own inestimable services could be better used planning the postwar world than battling in the trenches. And so he wrote to Frankfurter asking for a job in Baker's office. "What I want to do," he pleaded, "is to devote all my time to studying and speculating on the approaches to peace and the reaction from the peace. Do you think you can get me an exemption on such highfalutin grounds?" He then rushed to reassure Frankfurter that there was nothing "personal" in this request. After all, he explained, "the things that need to be thought out, are so big that there must be no personal element mixed up with this." Frankfurter having paved the way, Lippmann wrote to Secretary Baker. He assured Baker that he was only applying for a job and draft exemption on the pleading of others and in stern submission to the national interest. As Lippmann put it in a remarkable demonstration of cant:

I have consulted all the people whose advice I value and they urge me to apply for exemption. You can well understand that this is not a pleasant thing to do, and yet, after searching my soul as candidly as I know how, I am convinced that I can serve my bit much more effectively than as a private in the new armies.

No doubt.

As icing on the cake, Lippmann added an important bit of "disinformation." For, he piteously wrote to Baker, the fact is "that my father is dying and my mother is absolutely alone in the world. She does not know what his condition is, and I cannot tell anyone for fear it would become known."

Apparently, no one else "knew" his father's condition either, including his father and the medical profession, for the elder Lippmann managed to peg along successfully for the next ten years.

Secure in his draft exemption, Walter Lippmann hied off in high excitement to Washington, there to help run the war and, a few months later, to help direct Colonel House's secret conclave of historians and social scientists setting out to plan the shape of the future peace treaty and the postwar world. Let others fight and die in the trenches; Walter Lippmann had the satisfaction of knowing that his talents, at least, would be put to their best use by the newly emerging collectivist State.

As the war went on, Croly and the other editors, having lost Lippmann to the great world beyond, cheered every new development of the massively controlled war economy. The nationalization of railroads and shipping, the priorities and allocation system, the total domination of all parts of the food industry achieved by Herbert Hoover and the Food Administration, the pro-union policy, the high taxes, and the draft were all hailed by the New Republic as an expansion of democracy's power to plan for the general good. As the Armistice ushered in the postwar world, the New Republic looked back on the handiwork of the war and found it good: "We revolutionized our society." All that remained was to organize a new constitutional convention to complete the job of reconstructing America.

But the revolution had not been fully completed. Despite the objections of Bernard Baruch and other wartime planners, the government decided not to make most of the war collectivist machinery permanent. From then on, the fondest ambition of Baruch and the others was to make the World War I system a permanent institution of American life. The most trenchant epitaph on the World War I polity was delivered by Rexford Guy Tugwell, the most frankly collectivist of the Brain Trusters of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Looking back on "America's wartime socialism" in 1927, Tugwell lamented that if only the war had lasted longer, that great "experiment" could have been completed: "We were on the verge of having an international industrial machine when peace broke," Tugwell mourned. "Only the Armistice prevented a great experiment in control of production, control of prices, and control of consumption." Tugwell need not have been troubled; there would soon be other emergencies, other wars.

At the end of the war, Lippmann was to go on to become America's foremost journalistic pundit. Croly, having broken with the Wilson Administration on the harshness of the Versailles Treaty, was bereft to find the New Republic no longer the spokesman for some great political leader. During the late 1920s he was to discover an exemplary national collectivist leader abroad — in Benito Mussolini.That Croly ended his years as an admirer of Mussolini comes as no surprise when we realize that from early childhood he had been steeped by a doting father in the authoritarian socialist doctrines of Auguste Comte's Positivism. These views were to mark Croly throughout his life. Thus, Herbert's father, David, the founder of Positivism in the United States, advocated the establishment of vast powers of government over everyone's life. David Croly favored the growth of trusts and monopolies as a means both to that end and also to eliminate the evils of individual competition and "selfishness." Like his son, David Croly railed at the Jeffersonian "fear of government" in America, and looked to Hamilton as an example to counter that trend.

And what of Professor Dewey, the doyen of the pacifist intellectuals — turned drumbeaters for war? In a little known period of his life, John Dewey spent the immediate postwar years, 1919–21, teaching at Peking University and traveling in the Far East. China was then in a period of turmoil over the clauses of the Versailles Treaty that transferred the rights of dominance in Shantung from Germany to Japan. Japan had been promised this reward by the British and French in secret treaties in return for entering the war against Germany.

The Wilson Administration was torn between the two camps. On the one hand were those who wished to stand by the Allies' decision and who envisioned using Japan as a club against Bolshevik Russia in Asia. On the other were those who had already begun to sound the alarm about a Japanese menace and who were committed to China, often because of connections with the American Protestant missionaries who wished to defend and expand their extraterritorial powers of governance in China. The Wilson Administration, which had originally taken a pro-Chinese stand, reversed itself in the spring of 1919 and endorsed the Versailles provisions.

Into this complex situation John Dewey plunged, seeing no complexity and of course considering it unthinkable for either him or the United States to stay out of the entire fray. Dewey leaped into total support of the Chinese nationalist position, hailing the aggressive Young China movement and even endorsing the pro-missionary YMCA in China as "social workers." Dewey thundered that while "I didn't expect to be a jingo," that Japan must be called to account and that Japan is the great menace in Asia. Thus, scarcely had Dewey ceased being a champion of one terrible world war than he began to pave the way for an even greater one.

Read the full essay, "World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals."

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