Friday Philosophy

Opposing Military Intervention: Loving Dictators or Hating War?

America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators
by Jacob Heilbrunn
Liveright, 2024; 249 pp.

Jacob Heilbrunn, who is the editor of The National Interest, is dismayed that some leading figures on the American Right show an affinity for European dictators; he has in mind especially the “Hungarian strongman” Viktor Orbán and the Russian president Vladimir Putin. This admiration, not the foreign policy realism they claim to champion, leads these figures on the Right to sympathize with Putin’s expansionist war against Ukraine rather than defend democracy by coming to the victim’s aid. The affinity is nothing new, Heilbrunn argues, but has been a pattern for over a century. Heilbrunn writes:

A variety of politicians on the Right, too, have regularly embarked upon quixotic quests for a utopia abroad, whether in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy, in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile or Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. The desire to live in a personal dream palace has repeatedly manifested itself over the decades, and usually ended in blaming rather than celebrating America first. Aggrieved, or at least disappointed, by what they perceived as their own society’s failings—its liberalism, its tolerance, its increasing secularism—conservatives have searched for a paradise abroad that can serve as a model at home.

Heilbrunn’s book is a veritable maze of conceptual confusions, and though Heilbrunn has read a considerable amount, he is often inaccurate and misleading. In what follows, I will give a few examples of these confusions and mistakes.

Probably the most important of these confusions involves war. When a war breaks out outside the United States, it faces a choice on whether to get involved. Until Woodrow Wilson decided otherwise, the policy of the United States was to stay out of European wars, and the so-called isolationists and “America firsters” wished—in continuation of traditional US foreign policy—to stay out of both of the world wars. This desire to do so must be distinguished from admiring the German kaiser, much less Adolf Hitler. One can claim that these leaders posed no direct threat to America without admiring them, and one can admire aspects of their personalities or rule while rejecting others.

Heilbrunn’s failure to distinguish between the wish to stay out of war and admiration for an authoritarian ruler is particularly evident in what he says about historical revisionism, the movement of prominent American historians that rejected Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles, which assigned exclusive responsibility for World War I to Germany. It was not devotion to the kaiser that led Sidney Bradshaw Fay, Harry Elmer Barnes, and other leading historians to their accounts of the war’s origins but rather their study of the documents and memoirs now available to them after the war had ended. One strong indication that this is so is that by no means did Fay and Barnes exonerate Germany from blame for the war, though they did put the primary responsibility elsewhere.

The view that Heilbrunn takes of the war’s origins is the opposite of the one he attributes to the revisionists. He thinks that they exonerate Germany because they love the kaiser; he blames Germany because he hates the kaiser: “Kaiser Wilhelm II was a monster.” He says that had Wilson failed to enter the war, the result would have been disaster for the world. The opponents of entering the war feared the malign consequence of doing so for domestic liberty, and they were right. Nevertheless, Wilson’s policy was justified:

[The opponent of the war] opposed militarism and maintained that entry into the war would destroy Wilson’s domestic reform program. It did. After he led the US into the war in April 1917, Wilson rapidly established a surveillance state to quash domestic dissent and whipped up a good deal of hysteria about the loyalty of German Americans. . . .

What [Michael] Kazin calls the “anti-warriors” had legitimate grounds for balking at America’s involvement in Europe’s horrific war, but they refused to recognize that it would have been tantamount to abandoning Europe to German tyranny, an outcome that would only have heightened the Kaiser’s desire for world supremacy and, eventually, led to a direct military confrontation between Berlin and Washington.

This conjuration of doom is belied by Germany’s peace offer in late 1916 and early 1917, which Heilbrunn does not mention. In his account of Wilson’s policy, Heilbrunn stresses Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, but the illegal British starvation blockade of Germany—and Wilson’s unneutral condonation of it—is ignored.

Heilbrunn’s treatment of America’s entry into World War II is, if anything, worse. He mentions with apparent incredulity George Morgenstern’s brilliantly written Pearl Harbor: The Story of the Secret War, but he does not tell readers that its thesis that Franklin Roosevelt willfully exposed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor to a Japanese attack was endorsed by Charles Beard, America’s most renowned historian at the time of the book’s publication. Heilbrunn also takes it as obvious that the historian William Henry Chamberlin, whose surname he misspells, is mistaken in arguing that the war against Hitler paved the way for Joseph Stalin’s conquest of Eastern Europe. For Heilbrunn, it must be true that such a view is motivated by admiration for Hitler.

Heilbrunn cannot distinguish between “Stalin is no better, and perhaps worse, than Hitler” and “Hitler is a great leader whom we ought to venerate.” He should have been able to do so, since he himself mentions that some opponents of Roosevelt’s New Deal argued that it was bringing fascism to America. One can hardly use this argument and at the same time like fascism, but Heilbrunn oddly does not take this consideration to be a reason against his own view that these foes of Roosevelt were fascist sympathizers.

It is apparent that Heilbrunn has no interest in a careful analysis of the noninterventionists. He is simply looking for ammunition against them. To show my own exemplary fairness, by contrast, I’ll mention two cases in which Heilbrunn overlooked material that would have helped him. He does not note that Harry Elmer Barnes and Henry Ford were friends, and in his indictment of Pat Buchanan for questioning the prevailing orthodoxy about World War II, he does not mention Buchanan’s book Churchill, Hitler, and the “Unnecessary War.” Perhaps it is just as well, considering the hash he would have made of it.

I shall close with two howlers. Heilbrunn has the wrong king appointing Benito Mussolini prime minister, and the “benedict option” of Rod Dreher refers to Benedict of Nursia, not Pope Benedict XVI.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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