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From World War I to Rand Paul

The rise and fall and rise of America’s anti-war right

What does Rand Paul believe? His recent foreign policy address, a thinly veiled audition for his 2016 presidential candidacy, made one thing plain: Paul wants to scale back American involvement in foreign wars. To understand why, you have to understand where his ideas come from. Paul is the heir to a tradition, dating at least back to the 1890s, of conservative non-interventionism: the idea that it is not America's place to be involved in the affairs of the world. The history of this movement is complicated. So I spoke to Daniel McCarthy, editor of prominent non-interventionist magazine The American Conservative, about the non-interventionist movement's history — and its influence on Paul.


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Paul doesn't call himself a non-interventionist. In his recent foreign policy address, he used the phrase "conservative realism" to describe his approach to the world. But according to McCarthy, the branding is Rand's attempt to make non-interventionism palatable to the modern Republican electorate, which has a pretty hawkish worldview. "Even though he likes the non-interventionist roadmap, he's willing to deviate from it if he thinks it's realistic in policy terms, let alone political ones," McCarthy says.

In practice, that means you'll see Paul defending some pretty aggressive policies (e.g., his declaration that "I support a strategy of air strikes against ISIS") even while staying on the non-interventionist side of the Washington consensus (e.g., opposing arming the Syrian rebels and ground troops). It wasn't always that way. In the past, Paul wouldn't have needed to qualify his non-interventionist position so much. The American conservative mainstream was once far more skeptical of the use of American force abroad than it was today.

How World War I created non-interventionism

Pacifism anti-war world war i

Since the American founding, and maybe even before then, there's been a deep tension in America's impulses on foreign policy. On the one hand, Americans were deeply skeptical of getting involved in European power politics. On the other hand, American policy towards its neighbors — particularly American Indians and Latin American nations — was aggressively, violently imperialist. There's never been a truly isolationist America, or even a particularly peaceful one.

That said, concern about getting involved outside of the Americas — see George Washington's famous criticism of "permanent alliances" in his Farewell Address — has had a real impact on American foreign policy. The sentiment behind it began to develop into a coherent ideology in the 1890s, when the US launched the Spanish-American war and started looking more like a global imperial power.

As McCarthy tells it, the movement that would one day birth Rand Paul is the child of two different parents: World War I and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Each plays a critically important, but different, role in creating a uniquely conservative critique of American empire.

The Great War's pointless slaughter, according to McCarthy, galvanized American critics of foreign entanglement. "After World War I," he says, there are many "former progressives, people who were on their way to becoming the forerunners of modern libertarianism, who are now strongly, strongly anti-war." The American public was deeply sympathetic to their cause. Though the idea that America became "isolationist" after World War I is largely ahistorical, public opposition to foreign wars sharply limited both Woodrow Wilson's and FDR's ability to get the US involved in the world wars.

The skepticism was, to a degree, cross-ideological: neither the American left nor the right liked what they saw in 1918. It took FDR for conservative non-interventionism to become a unique ideology.

The right goes to war

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The anti-FDR backlash is the key historical development for understanding Rand Paul." In the 1930s, the right becomes defined by being opposed to the New Deal," McCarthy says. "A lot of these guys who came out of the progressive tradition and had been individualist people of the left, because they really don't like the New Deal, wind up gravitating towards some of the commercial interests that are opposed to the New Deal." The opposition to foreign wars and the expansion of the US government becomes linked.

The backbone of Paul's worldview is that foreign policy is just like any other big government project: wasteful, opposed to freedom, and, by and large, counterproductive. While George W. Bush-style neoconservatives believe that a heavy dose of American might can improve the world, Paul's conservatism worries about America acting as a global welfare state.

This version of conservatism has been out of vogue since World War II. Its last major elected proponent was Sen. Robert A. Taft, the son of President William Taft, who died in 1953.

The reason conservative non-interventionism collapsed in the 1940s is pretty simple: it was utterly, spectacularly wrong about World War II. Right up until Pearl Harbor, the movement was "still thinking in terms of the war they've seen before, as opposed to the new questions involved in World War II," McCarthy says.

Then the Cold War began, and non-interventionism gave way to anti-Communism. As articulated in the late '40s, this conservatism felt "kind of archaic, out of date" McCarthy says. "It doesn't have a lot of cache, and the people who expound it are pretty old — they're in their '60s or their '70s." Cold Warriors, like National Review's William F. Buckley, carry the day.

The Cold War Right and Rand Paul

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The Cold War turned conservative non-interventionism into what McCarthy calls a "sub-culture;" or, more accurately, sub-cultures. As mainstream conservatism became more hawkish, a variety of non-interventionisms flourished on the margins. Each of these had, in McCarthy's estimation, a degree of influence on Rand Paul's worldview.

First, a group of libertarians centered on Murray Rothbard, a leading light of American libertarianism during the 20th century, developed an absolutist critique of American interventionism: the United States, according to Rothbard, needed to end the Cold War and withdraw almost entirely from military involvement in the world. The most influential elected avatar of the Rothbardian position is Rand's father, former Congressman Ron Paul. "Rand is also aware of where his father's coming from," McCarthy says, and has "sort of absorbed it indirectly from his father."

That said, Rand is very much not his father. "Things like NATO exist," McCarthy says, and "the Rothbardian position is we can just abolish all of this." That's impossible, and it's not clear Rand even wants to go that far. Instead, Rand's position is much more moderate — something he shares in common with post-world War II conservatives like Robert Nisbet and Russell Kirk. These conservatives saw non-interventionism as sort of a guiding principle; the United States should minimize its involvement in world affairs as much as possible, but some problems — in their case, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — required a vigorous American response. Paul's support for military measures against terrorist groups like ISIS shows that he shares that pragmatism, in stark contrast to his Rothbardian father.

There's also a darker element of the American non-interventionist right. McCarthy delicately calls this a "populist" strain, which is true, but it's also paranoid and xenophobic. From Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt to the John Birch Society's outright racism, this group is suspicious of so-called foreigners and wants America to avoid being contaminated by them. There's zero reason to believe Rand Paul shares any of this group's truly toxic beliefs, but what McCarthy calls "the kind of populist right that dislikes the idea that we're involved with foreign cultures" has undeniably been a major part of the anti-war right.

Paul's worldview, though, is more modern than all that. He owes a lot to the so-called paleoconservatives of the 1990s, who believed America's mission in the world collapsed with the Berlin Wall. These paleocons were temporarily marginalized after 9/11, but the Iraq War revived non-interventionism with a vengeance. Paleocons and libertarians were joined by more establishmentarian realists, people who support America acting globally to advance its interests but were appalled by Bush's counter-productive and deadly use of force.

Paul's foreign policy reflects all of these beliefs, both out of genuine influence and political necessity. He needs to build a non-interventionism that can unify these groups and challenge Bush-era neoconservatism for control over the Republican Party. "Every indication I see from his speeches is that he's someone who wants to think through this step-by-step," McCarthy says.

Remaking a political party is a monumental task. But Paul has about a century of conservative foreign policy thinking at his back.

Zack Beauchamp:How do you trace the history of the non-interventionist movement? Where did it originate in the United States?

Daniel McCarthy:For much of its history, the United States didn't need to be involved very deeply in European affairs. That was true for most of the 19th century, and I think that created a kind of conscious feeling among Americans in general that getting involved in world affairs was not part of our national calling.

So when you get to the point of the 1890s, you have the US getting into the Spanish-American war and starting to take over some of Spain's colonies — and there are already a number of Americans who are primed to resist this. They do so with all sorts of ideological justifications: the Anti-Imperial League of the 1890s had left-wing and right-wing components.

As we get towards World War I, you get a number of classical liberals — proto-libertarians — who are opposed to getting the US involved in World War I, and others that are converted by the war. Take H.L. Mencken.

Mencken had been somewhat more Anglophile before World War I — and somewhat more pro-war. He has a famous essay called "The Mailed Fist," where he talks about how wonderful another war was going to be. But when we get out of World War I, Mencken and people like him that kind of attitude is a lot less common among people like Mencken — proto-libertarians or classical liberals.

Zack Beauchamp:The pre-World War II years are usually seen as the high-water mark for right-wing American non-interventionism — or, pejoratively, isolationism. What happened?

Daniel McCarthy:After World War I, you've got a lot of people: former progressives, people who were on their way to becoming the forerunners of modern libertarianism, who are now strongly, strongly anti-war. This is the genesis of libertarian and old right strains of non-interventionism — partly to the 1890s, and much more to World War I. Before the anti-New Deal right forms, I wouldn't say there really is an anti-war right distinct from other kinds of anti-war perspectives.

It's only once you have the New Deal, and you're heading towards World War II, that you're getting a definite sort of right-wing strain of non-interventionism.  In the 1930s, the right becomes defined by being opposed to the New Deal. A lot of these guys who came out of the progressive tradition and had been individualist people of the left, because they really don't like the New Deal, wind up gravitating towards some of the commercial interests that are opposed to the New Deal. The way politics changes in the 1930s makes them more right-wing in their affections and their alliances, and that gets folded into the anti-war perspective.

World War I kind of sets the pattern for World War II. They're still thinking in terms of the war they've seen before, as opposed to the new questions involved in World War II. Groups like America First, which opposed American entry into World War II, had a lot of ideological diversity: people like Gerald Ford and Joseph Kennedy were members. This is part of the old-time American belief that we don't have to be involved in world affairs.

American First called it a day after Pearl Harbor. And it became a sort of quiescent period for non-interventionists during World War II. After World War II, you get the question of communism — and the right, which had a strong libertarian anti-war component, is really divided.

Some people, of an older generation, wanted to go straight back to non-interventionism. They're pretty strongly anti-Cold War: they experienced the hysteria of World War I, and saw how it turned out and all of the disillusionment Americans felt about the outcome.

But then you have a change of world circumstances with World War II and then the Cold War. This perspective is just kind of archaic, out of date. It doesn't have a lot of cache, and the people who expound it are pretty old — they're in their 60s or their 70s. Whereas young people, like William F. Buckley, have a different perspective, and are really the ones shaping the right at that point.

Zack Beauchamp:What happens to the non-interventionist movement during the Cold War, as mainstream conservatism gets more and more interventionist and aggressively anti-Communist?

Daniel McCarthy:It becomes a kind of sub-culture. Murray Rothbard becomes a towering figure in terms of building a libertarian movement that's distinct from the conservative movement. In the '50s, Rothbard is very closely tied in with conservatives; there's not really a separate libertarian movement. Rothbard retains the old right position; he's very opposed to the Cold War and US interventionism generally.

From the '50s to the '70s, Rothbard is kind of a one-man institution. He starts a number of publications, he's involved in founding the Cato Institute, and he gets involved in the Libertarian Party pretty soon after its founding. He's also a very charismatic and dynamic figure, so he brings a number of disciples around himself.

So you have a non-interventionist strain that survives, gets new blood from Rothbard, and becomes an undercurrent on the right. Ron Paul actually kind of reflects this today.

Not only do you have a small-but-intense libertarian cadre that's strongly non-interventionist, but you also have these more traditionalist conservatives, like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet. They're willing to make an exception for the Cold War and retrospectively World War II, but they also have a lot of emotional attachment to the idea that this is really a departure from our tradition. They're looking forward to a time where America can come home again.

Nisbet and Kirk live into the '90s, and they become some of the people who help revive non-interventionism again on the non-libertarian side.

Zack Beauchamp:Ron Paul is the most famous conservative non-interventionist alive today, aside from perhaps his son. Did his ideas come mostly from Rothbard?

Daniel McCarthy:Oh yeah, he's very much coming from the Rothbard perspective. But sometimes that can be exaggerated: there's another economist, named Hans Sennholz, who's as influential if not more so on Ron Paul as Rothbard. I wouldn't say that Ron Paul is simply translating Rothbard's politics into politics today, but he is strongly influenced by Rothbard and the larger pool of thought on which he was an example.

There's another angle that's worth highlighting: a general conservative distrust of American foreign policy elites. During the Cold War, conservatives become pro-intervention as part of anti-Communism. But at the same time, you had just had a very long run of Democratic administrations under FDR and Truman. And the right wasn't even all that fond of Dwight Eisenhower; he defeats Robert Taft, who's seen as the great hope for non-interventionist conservatives, during the 1950s.

As a result, you get a new kind of critique of American foreign policy start to develop during the '50s on the right. What I'm talking about is symbolized by McCarthyism. Joe McCarthy was attacking the State Department, saying it's influenced by Communists. This sounds like a hysterical "let's go to war with the Commies" thing, and it is that. But it also has an anti-war component to it, in a sense, because it's saying that our Cold War policies are actually counterproductive and un-American. McCarthy gets taken down, after all, after he says the US Army is infiltrated by Communists.

So vociferous anti-Communism combines with the idea that the American foreign policy establishment is anti-American. It gets reflected in the John Birch Society, for example, and a number of institutions on the grassroots and far-right. You can see that there is a bridge between this sort of paranoia about the foreign policy establishment and non-interventionism later on. For example, grassroots conservative concern about the UN or foreign aid.

Ron Paul isn't necessarily intellectually influenced by that, but in a rhetorical or emotional sense, he is.

Zack Beauchamp:Ron Paul was first elected in the late '70s. What happened to the non-interventionist movement after that — in the '80s, '90s, and going into the war on terror?

Daniel McCarthy:That's really when it revives. Going into the 1990s, you already have a split on the right about globalization: neoconservatives are more open to trade, while the more non-interventionist wing is more skeptical. Once the Cold War ends, foreign policy then becomes a very strong component of this division. The neocons say, "Look, the American idea still has to be exported to the world in the same way that it does during the Cold War; we still have to go out and transform repressive regimes."

The paleoconservatives — the newest incarnation of the non-interventionist movement —  say, "Wait a minute, we're a nation-state, we're not really about exporting our ideas and trying to revolutionize the world." That's how you get a very strong division between neocons and paleocons on foreign policy.

The paleocons become in part a brain trust for Pat Buchanan, who gets close, in 1996, to actually wresting the [presidential] nomination away from Bob Dole. People forget that the 1996 election was a real fight for a while there.

You also have a lot of Republican congressmen, elected in 1994, who are not necessarily all the way to being non-interventionist, but who are much less favorable towards interventionism than neoconservatives would like. Opposing Clinton in every way included opposing Clinton's foreign policy, and part of Clinton's foreign policy was his interventionism in the Balkans and a few other places.

So that becomes a dimension, but it's kind of muted. There's not really a direct pipeline from these explicitly anti-war elements on the right to Republican congressmen. But there's definitely a kind of osmotic influence: these anti-war institutions on the right are changing the way things are discussed among conservatives, and that has a knock-on effect among conservatives themselves.

Zack Beauchamp:: And then you have 9/11.

Daniel McCarthy:In some ways, 9/11 is kind of an aberrant period. It's really the Iraq war that transforms the right even more than 9/11 itself. As we approach the Iraq war, the people who opposed American interventionism on the right are still strongly opposed to going to war in Iraq under President Bush. But President Bush has basically a blank check from Congressional Republicans — and Democrats — to do what he wants.

But the Iraq war [created] a whole new set of anti-war people on the right. A lot of conservatives who had been Cold Warriors and sort of quiet during the 1990s were just appalled: not only by Bush's rush to war in Iraq, but also by the fact that the conservative movement didn't do any kind of due diligence, any kind of vetting of Bush's claims. They were monolithically going to support Bush's war.

Zack Beauchamp:: Do you see, in Rand Paul's current political incarnation, influences from any of these debates or any particular elements of these different non-interventionisms?

Daniel McCarthy:I think you can see different elements of these threads in Paul. So, for example, you can see an appeal to the kind of populist right that dislikes the idea that we're involved with foreign cultures in his critique of foreign aid.

Rand is also aware of where his father's coming from, and he shares some of the cold war libertarian skepticism about American interventionism. But I don't think that Rand is someone who reads Rothbard on a regular basis or something like that. I think Rand more has absorbed it indirectly from his father, but he's aware that it doesn't quite mesh with political reality in the Republican Party or what America's existing commitments are.

Things like NATO exist. The Rothbardian position is we can just abolish all of this, but those are things that'll take a very long time if they can ever be achieved at all. I don't think Rand is hell-bent on trying to get there by taking some kind of shortcut.

Every indication I see from his speeches is that he's someone who wants to think through this step-by-step. Even though he likes the non-interventionist roadmap, he's willing to deviate from it if he thinks it's realistic in policy terms, let alone political ones.


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