The Past and Future of American Antimilitarism

We should be encouraged by the Rasmussen poll finding that 2/3 of Americans oppose intervention in the Arab nations. However imperfect a reading, it reflects in the national culture a lingering strain of America First sentiment—that disposition against U.S. intervention in foreign squabbles that are not Americans’ business, or at least not our government’s business.

This reluctance to commit seems paradoxical in light of America’s nearly thousand overseas military bases, its footprint in virtually every corner of the populated world, its two wars and expanding crusade against terrorism. The history of U.S. wars is equally difficult to square with a supposed national aversion to intervention: Has any other state gone to war with as many different countries as has the United States in the last century? And surely, the sheer size of the U.S. defense establishment, rivaling those of the rest of the world combined, belies any attempt to call Americans particularly antimilitaristic.

Yet there is a tradition of American antimilitarism, one that has been forgotten but one we could hope could be reclaimed. Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., has the classic definite history on it, The Civilian and the Military. The Independent Institute has just released a reprinting of this important work, complete with a new foreword by the great historian Ralph Raico.

Ekirch traces the legacy of antimilitarism from the origins of the United States all the way to the early 1950s. Along the way we come across plenty of gems:

• Even during the American Revolution, an antimilitarism permeated the culture. This was true not only in the Continental Army, where “the American soldier was often too deeply imbued with revolutionary ideas of individual liberty. . . to take kindly to strict military discipline.” Congress and the states were similarly reluctant “to provide a more efficient military establishment,” aware of “the popular opposition to any concentration of power in the hands of military men” (p. 15).

• One of the greatest libertarian contributions of the Constitution’s framers was their rejection of a large standing army and their embrace, instead, of citizen militias.

• Throughout the early history of the republic, there was a struggle over whether the U.S. would be a militant state or a peaceful one, with even the rhetorically pro-peace Jeffersonians making unfortunate concessions to war and militarism.

• Tocqueville was impressed by America’s general resistance toward militarism, but prophetically warned that “in spite of all precautions, a large army in the midst of a democratic people will always be a great danger” (p. 73).

• Just as with U.S. wars today, the Mexican War relied on a “voluntary army, ” which had one negative effect: the weakening of the antiwar cause.

• The U.S. Civil War was as much a conflict between those who wanted peace and those who demanded victory at all costs, as it was a battle between two geographic regions.

• Domestic militarism remained after the Civil War, thanks largely to Reconstruction, forever altering American conceptions on the proper role of the military in society.

• A convergence of economic, nationalist and political forces defeated the antimilitarists in the Spanish-American and Philippine wars, and we see the story of how perpetual foreign interventionism was forged in the national identity.

• Although Teddy Roosevelt was eminently popular, his militarist drive did not gain a total consensus. “The revolt against Roosevelt navalism” was real, and even “continued over into the succeeding Taft administration” (p. 149).

• The call for “preparedness” in America, as benign as it might have seemed compared to the outright militarism in Europe, paved the way for U.S. entry into World War I.

• We see the story behind the mass draft of soldiers for World War I, which symbolically hailed the beginning of 20th century American militarism.

• The great return of antimilitarism in the interwar years is brought to life. “The American people, profoundly disillusioned by the experience of 1917 and 1918, remained confident that the United States, at least, could avoid the chaos and destruction of a new struggle” (p. 216). This most disparaged isolationist trend is given the historical context it deserves.

• To this day it is neglected how intimately the school system is plugged into the military system. Gloriously, Ekirch explores the disturbing trend of militarism in education, with its roots in the interwar period.

• New Dealers, conservatives, classical liberals, the Old Right and many normal Americans were at first opposed to the military build up to World War II. But there was a lack of radicalism in the antiwar movement of the 1930s. “Opposed to war, and yet apprehensive of its coming, many isolationists united with interventionists to support American rearmament” (p. 253). While today, the prewar isolationists are reviled for their supposed stubbornness and naivety about the fascist threat, in fact they were ultimately compromising.

• World War II is what decisively changed everything. “Under the impact of World War II, the American people largely discarded the antimilitarist convictions of the past. On all matters involving war and preparedness. . . there had been a complete change of opinion as against the 1930s” (p. 270).

• The U.S. has not shied from its militarist, at-siege stance since World War II. The early Cold War creation of the garrison state under which we still live is described in Ekirch’s last chapter.

This is the book on antimilitarism, and every student of U.S. history, foreign policy and war should read it. Too often we debate the wars and policies of today with no sense of how we got here. For every peacenik (or hawk) who thinks that history began on 9/11 or with the Iraq war, it is time to look back on one of America’s oldest and most glorious traditions, and see how it is that our country strayed so far from the peaceful commercial republic it might have become and remained had the last two centuries not handed so many defeats to the antimilitarists. If we learn the right lessons from the past, perhaps we could look forward to a much more peaceful and free future.

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