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Is Capitalism Why We Fight?

04/06/2006Gregory Bresiger

Rome was a republic that once knew the rule of law. It acquired an empire by accident. It became an empire in which one man reigned and wars were endless as they were in almost every empire. The Roman Senate ended up losing most of its powers.

The United States was born a republic. Yet our nation, ignoring the warnings of the founding fathers and of President Eisenhower in 1961, has mutated into an empire. Such is the thesis of "Why We Fight " (98 minutes, Rated PG-13 for disturbing war images; Directed by Eugene Jarecki). This is an interesting but sometimes flawed documentary on the war in Iraq and America's relentless empire building efforts around the globe.

The United States, the producers of this work believe, is an empire in which an imperial presidency, backed by a military industrial complex, decides just about everything of consequence. Congress, just like the Roman Senate in the days of empire, usually makes no substantive decisions in matters of war of peace.

Then again, Congress usually doesn't want to do any foreign policy heavy lifting. One thinks of Congresses during much of the Vietnam War, sometimes objecting to the war, but rarely exerting its power of the purse to stop president Johnson or Nixon. I think of the two Democratic senators from my state who, in theory, should be yelling bloody murder about this war. Neither has joined the end-the-war movement. And the junior senator, Hillary Clinton, has actually called for sending more troops!

Members of Congress normally go along with the president, either Republican or Democrat. That's provided the civilian and defense pork is well distributed in their districts. Our Solons on Capitol Hill only ask questions after the fact when a war or the latest adventure in nation-building turns disastrous. After all, most Americans don't want to be accused of a lack of patriotism, or of not "supporting our boys" once a war begins, no matter how unjust or ridiculous the war.

The title "Why We Fight" is a play on the World War II training films of the same name by the legendary filmmaker Frank Capra. The secondary thesis of the documentary is that we Americans are in this mess because most of us don't study our history, no less the history of Rome. Americans are dolts, the creators of this documentary obviously believe.

Repeatedly, the documentarians go around asking average Joes why we fight. Again and again, people usually give moronic answers, or answers that are a mindless rehash of pathetic justifications offered by the Bush administration. It is doubtful that they polled any libertarians. And if they had done so, their opinions probably ended up on the cutting room floor. The documentary cries out for the comments of a maverick member of Congress like Ron Paul, a Republican from Texas who opposed the Iraq incursion from day one and whose inspired consistent opposition to American empire has so often been ignored or trivialized in the mainstream press.

Nevertheless, the documentary's authors insist that the average citizen can't understand why America has so many enemies in the world because he or she doesn't know anything about the history of American interventions around the globe. The average American, the documentary contends in countless ways, is a boob. His or her eyes glaze over if someone mentions the word history. Obviously the producers of the documentary think Americans are human blanks, something straight out of an essay by H.L. Mencken or a Sinclair Lewis novel (e.g., Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry).

Indeed, novelist Gore Vidal chimes in with his characterization of our country as "The United States of Amnesia." So far so good. But unfortunately the filmmakers — who I would guess are radical leftists — then blame capitalism for the woes of our nation when the opposite is actually the case.

Charles Lewis, an official of a leftist think tank who believes the problem is not enough democracy and too much capitalism, is given lots of time to make a quasi-Leninist case that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. This doctrine among Marxists is seen as incontrovertible, with the Monthly Review having asserted it yet again in its most recent issue ("In a world where everything has been turned over to the market, that is, to capital accumulation, the fundamental problems dividing and endangering human society and the planet are bound to worsen").

This is an idea that was destroyed many years ago by the great economist Joseph Schumpeter in his brilliant essays "Imperialism" and "Social Classes." Capitalism wants peace, Schumpeter argued. Wherever capitalism was the purest, wherever laissez-faire reigned, there were considerable peace parties. But we have come a long way from laissez-faire. The producers of this documentary don't seem to understand that.

This capitalism-is-imperialism idea is also supported through "Why We Fight" by historian Chalmers Johnson. His book "Blowback" has documented American interventions around the world. But these interventions are anything but the fault of unsubsidized elements of the American business community.

Did the average American businessperson—often struggling to pay the huge costs of empire—actually want the United States to embark on this path of empire? The producers have no answer to that question.

Although "Why We Fight" sometimes attacks capitalism, we rarely hear from American capitalists, who historically have opposed much of the inflation and disasters that have been the result of the imperial policies of at least the last half-century. Their opposition was well founded.

War, and its concomitant inflation, is bad for those capitalists who are not on the government dole, bad for those who are not court intellectuals, bad for anyone who isn't an enthusiastic part of Leviathan. Indeed, if one goes by the stock market, probably the worst extended recent period was in the mid 1960s to mid 1970s during the height of the Vietnam War. That's when stocks went through a very difficult time.

Another problem of "Why We Fight" is the authors of this disturbing film never get to the root of this "historical amnesia." This is a point that they raise and leave hanging. Yes, many Americans are historical illiterates. Next question: Why? Answer supplied by me: The greater and greater power of state education.

The producers don't seem to understand the connection between the dominance of state education and the lack of even the most rudimentary understanding of history.

American children today, in public schools that receive billions of federal dollars, often don't study history. Instead, they have social studies classes, with the result that many young people graduate from college without knowing when the American Civil War was fought.

Many students think Latin America is a place where Latin is spoken. Many students don't know which side the Soviet Union was on in World War II or when the Spanish-American War was fought or why.

If Americans are ignorant about history, then this documentary should ask why. State education, the philosopher J.S. Mill warned in "On Liberty," inevitably leads to tyranny.

By the way, it's not just history in which public education is exposed as lousy. As a business journalist I see the same problem every day with people who don't understand basic investments or economics, yet graduated from supposedly good universities. Should we also discuss foreign language study or the arts in this formerly free republic? You could write reams of books about this subject or do quite a documentary but would the producers of "Why We Fight" want to do it? I doubt it.

Nevertheless, with these and other criticisms, I still believe "Why We Fight" is well worth one's time. That's because sometimes one finds truth by discovering falsehoods. Also, it deserves credit because it seriously tries to discuss what is arguably the most important issue of our time: the militarization of America, a nation that once had a strong, classical liberal, anti-militarist tradition.

Still, the documentarians, in true American fashion, do not want to go deep into how this militarization of America came about, a militarization that showed itself even before the feature started when the spare audience at my movie house was treated to — you guessed it — an ad for why everyone should join the National Guard.

The producers of "Why We Fight, I believe, actually want to appear as anything but leftist. So they use a major address of a famous Republican president as the centerpiece of the film. They eulogize Dwight Eisenhower, who spoke of the military industry complex in his farewell speech of January 17, 1961.

"In the councils of government," he warned, "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted," warned Eisenhower, making many arguments made by classical liberals over centuries from George Washington to Richard Cobden.

Fair enough, but there are a few caveats. Eisenhower said this after eight years in office in which he had done little to reverse the warfare/welfare state. He was no classical liberal, steeped in the non-interventionist position as enunciated by George Washington.

He helped reverse — along with countless other presidents — or at least did little to restore traditional American isolationism. This was a tradition once outlined by secretary of state John Quincy Adams in a Fourth of July speech. He said, "The United States does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

Besides this considerable oversight, the producers seem not to understand something else critical to the premise of the documentary: Eisenhower was no hero of liberty. He accepted the alliance and welfare state system he inherited from Truman and FDR. Indeed, he opposed those within his own party who actually wanted to jettison them.

Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 as an "internationalist" who embraced NATO and the whole ridiculous, over expanded, system of military alliances. These myriad commitments meant it was inevitable that the United States would be bogged down in conflicts all over the world. He installed a reactionary secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who openly advocated brinkmanship. This was a dangerous policy that involved threatening nuclear war to bring the Soviets to heel to offset America's inferiority in conventional forces.

Dulles, along with vice president Richard Nixon, even wanted the United States to intervene in Vietnam after the French were defeated there in 1954, according to General Matthew Ridgeway in his memoir Soldier. This send-American-troops-to-Vietnam-and-save-the-French-Empire proposal was even too ridiculous for Eisenhower, but not, unfortunately, for Jack Kennedy, who followed him in the presidency in 1961.

The Iraq war is the latest attempt of the United States to engage in that foreign social engineering called nation-building. This is a kind of rule of the self-anointed. Today we know them as neocons. Forty-five years ago — at the same time Ike was giving the speech so celebrated in "Why We Fight" — they were the New Frontiersmen, the men of the Kennedy administration. They were going "to get the country moving again." Why weren't they mentioned in the documentary?

Again, another gross oversight of this movie, an oversight so ludicrous that one wonders if it is part of a plan to manipulate the audience, is the action of the president who followed Eisenhower.

John Kennedy fought and narrowly won the 1960 campaign on the specious issue of the missile gap. Kennedy and his minions depicted the United States as virtually a helpless giant that had to spend more money on nuclear and conventional arms to keep up with the Soviets.

But here was a Three-Card Monte of American politics. The United States was actually far ahead of the Soviets in nuclear capabilities. And, if Kennedy didn't know that on the hustings, which I doubt, he certainly knew it when he became president. Countless books on the Kennedy administration verify this. For example, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., one of Kennedy's in-house intellectuals, concedes in his book, A Thousand Days, that there was no missile gap. Yet Kennedy gave an inaugural speech in which he basically said he was ready to go to war, then proceeded with the superfluous arms buildup.

Still, up until the early 1960s, there had been an anti-militarist tradition of American politics. This is news to the producers of "Why We Fight." The leading Republican to stand against that imperial philosophy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Senator Robert Taft, was branded an "isolationist" because he opposed NATO, the Korean War, and the whole global system, which he called "globaloney."

Taft also warned, in a sentiment that all liberty-loving people should remember, that "a man who is against war when everyone else is for war becomes very unpopular indeed."

Taft, surveying the unprecedented military alliances entered into by the Truman administration and signed off by Eisenhower, warned that Americans would have their "fingers in every pie" around the globe. Taft, like Ron Paul, is never mentioned in "Why We Fight."

Unfortunately, Taft lost the 1952 GOP nomination and died soon after. But it would have been nice if the producers of "Why We Fight" had at least acknowledged this group of courageous men and women — people such as historian Harry Elmer Barnes, John T. Flynn, and journalist Oswald Garrison Villard — who predicted our alliance system would lead to "an endless war for an endless peace." How about a documentary about them? There are plenty of sources the producers could tap.

Much of this is detailed in books such as Prophets on the Right by Ronald Radosh, Justin Raimondo's Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, and in Patrick Buchanan's A Republic not an Empire. But that would have required the historical literacy the producers complain Americans don't have.

The producers of "Why We Fight," through their own oversights and biases, have inadvertently proven their point.

Yes, many Americans are historical naifs.


Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger (GregoryBresiger.com) is an independent business journalist who has worked for the New York Post and is the author of a history of Social Security, “The Revolution of 1935, available at Mises.org.