Dominion Over the World (VIII): Unwelcome History -- Religion, the Progressives, Empire and the Drug War
There is no better epigraph for the remainder of this paper than a congratulatory note sent to President Wilson after the delivery of his war message on April 2, 1917. The note was sent by Wilson's son-in-law and fellow Southern pietist and progressive, Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo, a man who had spent his entire life as an industrialist in New York City, solidly in the J.P. Morgan ambit. McAdoo wrote to Wilson: "You have done a great thing nobly! I firmly believe that it is God's will that America should do this transcendent service for humanity throughout the world and that you are His chosen instrument." It was not a sentiment with which the president could disagree. -- Murray N. Rothbard, "World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals," in The Costs of War: America's Pyrrhic VictoriesIn Part VI of this series, I briefly discussed the religious beliefs that significantly informed Woodrow Wilson's calamitous and entirely unnecessary decision to drag the United States into World War I (a decision about which I will have much more soon). From the time of the earliest European settlements, America had always had a strongly religious conception of itself, and of its role in the world. With Wilson and World War I, the religious element became firmly grafted onto the ideology underlying our foreign policy, one which now intentionally cast us as the world's protector and ultimate savior. In that earlier essay, I quoted William Pfaff on this point:
During the first century and a half of the United States' history, the influence of the national myth of divine election and mission was generally harmless, a reassuring and inspiring untruth. During that period the country remained largely isolated from international affairs. The myth found expression in the idea of a "manifest destiny" of continental expansion— including annexation of Mexican land north of the Rio Grande—with no need to plead a divine commission. [I think Pfaff is wrong, at least to some extent, on this particular point. See the Hampton Sides' excerpts here.]The U.S. entrance into The Great War made impossible a negotiated end to the conflict that had turned Europe into a vast charnel house: the prolongation of the war set in motion the events that led to the rise of Soviet Russia, and the hugely and unjustifiably punitive peace that followed played a very significant role in the rise of Nazi Germany. Thus, Wilson's fateful act led to World War II, which in turn led to the Cold War, which led to endless "small" wars across the globe (including in Afghanistan) -- which led us to the disasters of today.
With Woodrow Wilson, this changed. The national myth became a philosophy of international action, and has remained so. In the great crisis of World War I the United States and Wilson personally had thrust upon them seemingly providential international roles; Wilson said that he believed he had been chosen by God to lead America in showing "the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." The war's carnage and futility largely destroyed the existing European order and undermined confidence in European civilization.
As I continue to read and write about our national myths and misconceptions and their impact upon developments both domestically and abroad, I am constantly struck anew by the unrelenting, trivial superficiality of today's political debates. To read or hear most commentators and bloggers who address the catastrophe of Iraq, as the most obvious of current topics, you would think there is a world of difference between the foreign policy methods and objectives advanced by the Democratic and Republican parties. In terms of every issue of importance, there is not a shred of truth to this view, but it continues to be advanced simply because it serves narrow partisan purposes. The fact is that neither party wants to change our foreign policy in any way that matters -- just as it becomes clearer with every day that passes that the Democrats don't seriously object in principle to the government's assertion and amalgamation of dictatorial powers. In November, we had "An Election Conceived in Nausea" -- and now a Republican executive branch and a Democratic Congress deliver undiluted nausea to us with every day's news. I remain correct in my predictions on all three major points in that article from last fall. I would be happy beyond description to be proven wrong on even one of them, and I would offer my most sincere apology for having underestimated the Democrats' devotion to liberty and peace. I am almost certain I shall not be making such an apology any time soon, if ever.
With regard to foreign policy, both parties and almost all national political leaders subscribe to America's hegemonic global role. And it is important to remember that the explicitly religious component of our nation's mythical world role can be eliminated and the deadly program of endless war and destruction remains the same, as I have pointed out:
So even Bush's messianic streak is not unique to him. It should be emphasized that the explicitly religious element can be stripped from this approach, as many politicians and writers do -- but, in certain key respects, the Open Door model is only the secular version of the same idea. The Open Door world rests on the idea that freedom in the particularly Western-American form embodies history's "ultimate solution," and that it is one the entire world must embrace, if it is to survive and be at peace. That such "peace" is to be achieved by endless war is only one of many contradictions the advocates of this notion choose not to address. (I've discussed the phenomenon of secular versions of religious ideas before, especially as regards the largely identical "Idea of Progress"; see, for example, Part III of my Iran series.)In Part IV, I discussed some fundamental distortions of our history that are typically offered by conservatives and liberals. On the conservative side, advocates usually demonstrate little, if any, knowledge about or appreciation of the development of state capitalism in the United States -- that is, how certain business interests became more and more intertwined with the workings of government. This intermingling began in the late nineteenth century, and it became the dominant force in American political-social-cultural life with the Progressive movement in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Most liberals reveal a corresponding failure of analysis: they continue to view the Progressive movement (and Wilson, and even our entrance into World War I) as a triumph of "the people," as the ascendancy to power of those who had previously been disempowered and exploited. This is unequivocally wrong: as I will explain in further detail in an upcoming installment of this series, the Progressive movement culminated in the consolidation of the power of already vested business interests, a consolidation achieved by alliance with government. The new industry regulations, countless new laws, and the U.S. entrance into World War I had nothing to do with "the people" or what they wanted -- but they were exactly what the already entrenched elites wanted. Those elites got virtually all of it -- and we still are paying the price today.
I confess that I find it more than mildly amusing that many liberal and progressive writers and bloggers decry (as they should) the campaign of many conservatives to vastly increase the influence of religion in our political life -- while they also continue to herald the great achievements of the Progressive era, and often of Wilson, a particular hero. Many of these same liberals seek to emulate, at least in general terms, the Progressives' "triumphs" today. To say such people need to learn and understand considerably more about the history they tout with such ignorant assurance is to dramatically understate the severity of the intellectual failure involved.
As the passages above indicate, a belief in an explicitly religious mission was central to Wilson's view of the United States, and of himself. But the fuller history is infinitely worse than this, for a virtual religious mania was a fundamental element of the Progressive program. From the Murray Rothbard article excerpted above (the Higgs book referred to here, and which Rothbard earlier describes as an "outstanding work" -- and it is all that and more -- is Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government):
One of the few important omissions in Professor Higgs's book is the crucial role of postmillenial pietist Protestantism in the drive toward statism in the United States. Dominant in the Yankee areas of the North from the 1830s on, the aggressive evangelical form of pietism conquered Southern Protestantism by the 1890s and played a crucial role in progressivism after the turn of the century and through World War I. Evangelical pietism held that requisite to any man's salvation is that he do his best to see to it that everyone else is saved, and doing one's best inevitably meant that the state becomes a crucial instrument in maximizing people's chances for salvation. In particular, the states plays a pivotal role in stamping out sin, and in "making America holy." To the pietists, sin was very broadly defined as any force that might cloud men's minds so that they could not exercise their theological free will to achieve salvation.This is the set of beliefs (in either the religious or more secular version) that continues to propel our foreign policy today (and much of domestic policy, as well). And in one the most striking ironies of all, Barack Obama, one of the great new hopes of many liberals and progressives, has reinvigorated these beliefs -- and he has injected a fervently religious vision directly into his conception of the United States' controlling role in the world, as his recent address makes appallingly clear. It thus appears that many liberals and progressives do not object to religion in politics and international relations per se: they only want to make certain that it is religion advanced by one of "their own," in a form and for purposes they find acceptable. In this manner, a concern for principles and genuine seriousness about the gravity of the issues involved continue to be entirely ejected from our national discussion.
As true crusaders, the pietists were not content to stop with the stamping out of sin in the United States alone. If American pietism was convinced that Americans were God's chosen people, destined to establish a Kingdom of God within the United States, surely the pietists' religious and moral duty could not stop there. In a sense, the world was America's oyster. As Professor Timberlake put it, once the Kingdom of God was in the course of being established in the United States,it was therefore America's mission to spread these ideals and institutions abroad so that the Kingdom could be established throughout the world. American Protestants were accordingly not content merely to work for the Kingdom of God in America, but felt compelled to assist in the reformation of the rest of the world also.
The crucial role of religion in the Progressive program also illuminates the great danger of taking up a just cause for the wrong reasons. As Rothbard describes, one of the pietists' primary concerns before the Civil War had been the eradication of slavery. That was a truly noble battle, for slavery is one of the greatest evils known to mankind. But the pietists took up this great cause out of religious convictions of a particular kind -- and those convictions later led to a host of different evils. One phrase of Rothbard's may have alerted you to the trouble that quickly arose: "sin was very broadly defined as any force that might cloud men's minds..." Alcohol prohibition became one of the major goals for the Progressive movement. What followed was the abominable combination of mutually reinforcing factors. In the drive to stamp out sin, an increasingly authoritarian and repressive role for government and the state was indispensable. From Rothbard:
American entry into World War I provided the fulfillment of prohibitionist dreams. In the first place, all food production was placed under the control of Herbert Hoover, Food Administration czar. But if the U.S. government was to control and allocate food resources, shall it permit the precious scarce supply of grain to be siphoned off into the waste, if not the sin, of the manufacture of liquor? Even though less than two percent of American cereal production went into the manufacture of alcohol, think of the starving children of the world who might otherwise be fed. As the progressive weekly the Independent demagogically phrased it, "Shall the many have food, or the few have drink?"And the combination of prohibition, an authoritarian state, and the ceaseless need for war propaganda directly fed into the government's calculated and comprehensive efforts to stoke irrational hatred of everything German. The beer brewers tried to save themselves from what was coming by distinguishing their product from "hard liquors." As is always true, cowardice and the avoidance of a fight on the terms that matter only strengthen your enemies. Rothbard again:
But this craven attitude would do the brewers no good. After all, one of the major objectives of the drys was to smash the brewers, once and for all, they whose product was the very embodiment of the drinking habits of the hated German-American masses both Catholic and Lutheran, liturgicals and beer drinkers all. German-Americans were now fair game. Were they not all agents of the satanic Kaiser, bent on conquering the world? Were they not conscious agents of the dreaded Hun Kultur, out to destroy American civilization? And were not most brewers German?So we see that unreasoning hatred, coupled with its necessary partners, an aggressive anti-intellectualism and a repellent triviality, are nothing at all new in American politics. And about the "war on Prussian militarism" (a central piece of World War I propaganda that I will soon analyze further), I remind you of this passage from Jim Bovard, in his debunking of the obviously false notion that "democracies" are peaceful and don't go to war with each other:
And so the Anti-Saloon League thundered that "German brewers in this country have rendered thousands of men inefficient and are thus crippling the Republic in its war on Prussian militarism." Apparently, the Anti-Saloon League took no heed of the work of German brewers in Germany, who were presumably performing the estimable service of rendering Prussian militarism helpless. The brewers were accused of being pro-German, and of subsidizing the press (apparently it was all right to be pro-English or to subsidize the press if one were not a brewer). The acme of the accusations came from one prohibitionist: "We have German enemies," he warned, "in this country too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller."
The only way that history supports this doctrine is to exclude all the cases of wars between democracies. This theory can survive only as long as people look at history in a way that is so contorted that it makes the typical political campaign speech look honest. Some of the advocates of the "democratic peace" doctrine are slippery regarding categories, as if the fact that a nation starts a war proves that it is not a democracy.On the general theme of these interwoven strands -- domestic and foreign interventionism, an increasingly repressive government, and a religiously-informed moral code that leads, among many other consequences, to prohibitionism -- we must go back to an earlier period, prior to World War I. As is almost always the case, we return once more to the Philippines, and to the horrors perpetrated by the United States. If you wonder about some of the earliest causes and manifestations of the despicable "War on Drugs," an entirely phony war that continues to cause untold suffering to literally millions of people who have never harmed another human being, you need look no further: this is yet another example of monstrousness that can be laid in significant part at the feet of Empire.
There are plenty of cases to dismiss the democratic peace imperative. . . .
Britain's Boer War, 1899-1902, involved the brutal crushing by one democratic government of another democratic government, as well as pioneering concentration camps and other methods of suppression that would become far more widespread in the twentieth century.
The First World War was by far the bloodiest conflict in human history up to that time. Schwartz and Kiner noted, "Woodrow Wilson proclaimed a war for democracy against 'Prussian dictatorship,' but that was propaganda. Germany had civil rights, an elected parliament, competing parties, universal male suffrage, and an unparalleled system of social democracy." Germany was far more democratic than either the British or French empires.
I direct your attention to a fascinating article by Dale Gieringer, "America's Hundred Years War on Drugs," the subtitle of which is: "Centennial of the 1st Congressional Anti-Drug Law, Prohibiting Opium in the Philippines, Mar. 3rd 1905 - 2005." You should read the entire piece. Here are a few key excerpts:
The time has come to commemorate the centennial of drug prohibition. One hundred years ago, on March 3rd, 1905. Congress enacted the first federal anti-narcotics law, an act aimed at ending opium commerce in the Philippines. The act marked the first step in a decade-long campaign that would culminate in the enactment of national narcotics prohibition through the Harrison Act of 1914.The lessons are very simple, so I will state them simply.
Most Americans have now forgotten that drugs were legal for most of the nation's history. At the turn of the last century, Americans could generally buy cocaine, morphine, or heroin over the counter at most any pharmacy. That situation began to change one hundred ago, when a combination of evangelical prohibitionists and Progressive era reformers mounted a successful campaign for federal anti-narcotics legislation.
The movement toward prohibition was not precipitated by any crisis in narcotics use or abuse; indeed, drug use was on the decline by the early 1900s . Nor was it fueled by any widespread public demand for narcotics control; newspapers of the day record far greater interest in alcohol prohibition. Rather, it was initiated by a small but committed band of prohibitionist Protestant missionaries in response to America's colonial venture in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War.
The Far East was at that time the center of the anti-opium movement, an international movement organized chiefly by Protestant missionaries dedicated to halting the traffic in smoking opium in China. When the U.S. acquired the Philippines, there existed a subpopulation of non-native Chinese opium smokers who were patrons of a legal opium trade. Under Spanish rule, the opium trade had been farmed out to state-licensed opium monopolists, taxes from whom generated a substantial portion of the government's revenues. After the U.S. assumed control, Governor William Howard Taft and the Philippines Commission proposed reviving the Spanish tax farming system. This policy had been recommended by the collector of customs in order to enhance revenues and avoid costly anti-smuggling measures.
The proposal was within two weeks of final adoption when it was derailed by a last-minute campaign by Manila's missionaries, appalled at the notion that the U.S. might sanction the opium evil. On May 31, 1903, they contacted Wilbur Crafts, president of the International Reform Bureau, a prohibitionist missionary lobby in Washington, D.C. Crafts dispatched 2,000 telegraphic petitions to prominent supporters calling on President Roosevelt to block the move. Roosevelt, impressed by this outburst of public moral indignation, ordered the Philippines government to withdraw the legislation for further study. Governor Taft appointed a three-man Opium Committee to investigate the situation. The most prominent member of the committee was Charles Brent, the Episcopal bishop of Manila, who was destined to play a key role in future U.S. narcotics policy.
As a demonstration of American cooperation, the Congress concurrently enacted a landmark piece of legislation, the Opium Exclusion Act, totally prohibiting the importation of smoking opium into the U.S. The Act, which took effect on April 1, 1909, marked the true beginning of national drug prohibition. From that point on, the U.S. government became progressively involved in the business of suppressing illicit substances. There ensued an escalating government policy of seizures, raids, prosecution, imprisonment, and progressive criminalization. One immediate consequence of the Opium Exclusion Act was a rapid shift in the drug market from smoking opium to morphine, heroin, and other drugs that were still not regulated.
In the end, the drug laws were the work of a handful of lobbyists, missionaries, prohibitionists, Progressive era bureaucrats and pharmacy boards working behind the scenes. Press coverage of their efforts was remarkably scant and generally occurred after the fact. Anti-narcotics bills were approved with little public debate or dissent, and with remarkably little serious consideration to potential adverse effects of prohibition, such as creation of a criminal black market, increased enforcement costs, crime and violence, etc. Such evils would not be widely appreciated until the advent of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.
Assessed by its results, America's one hundred years' war on drugs ranks as one of the man-made disasters of the 20th century. ... Every year, some 20 million Americans commit drug crimes, and nearly half have done so sometime in their lifetime. In sum, the war on drugs ranks as the nation's number one crime-creation program.
The centenary of prohibition is a fit occasion for 21st-century drug reformers to ponder the task ahead. Unlike the movements for alcohol prohibition, women's suffrage, or civil rights, the narcotics control movement never figured centrally in U.S. politics. Prohibition was not the result of a democratic mass movement, but the adoption of new public policy values by influential elites. It remains to be seen how and when drug reformers might effect such a transformation again. One thing is clear, though: success will not come overnight. From the first rumblings of the Philippine missionaries to the final passage of the Harrison Act required a full decade. Prohibition was not made in a day, and will not be unmade quickly. But reformers can take heart from the lesson of one hundred years ago, that a small band of dedicated reformers acting at the propitious moment can make a crucial difference.
Utilizing the power of the state to constrain or forbid individual action, when the targeted individuals and behavior harm no one else, is wrong. The effects are always significantly worse than the alleged problem the state action was proposed to solve.
Using the power of the state to conquer foreign lands and to coerce other governments and peoples into acting in accordance with our dictates is wrong. The effects are uniformly terrible, and evil: large-scale death and suffering, and an endless number of bodies and souls that are destroyed, crippled and damaged forever.
Forging an alliance between the power of the state and one particular set of moral beliefs, either religious in nature or in a secular variant, is wrong. If your personal beliefs are so important to you, then live your life in the manner they require. Unless they demonstrably harm someone else, what other people do is none of your damned business. That you might convince certain members of the ruling class to use the power of the state to coerce your fellow citizens into living their lives as you demand multiplies the evil involved a thousandfold.
The United States does not have a monopoly on virtue or on an "ideal" political system, and it never did. No country whose origins include the slaughter of the native population and the enslavement of millions of human beings ever could. The United States is "the last, best hope" of precisely nothing. Even today, and in many critical ways especially today, we desperately need to set our own house in order. Until and unless that monumental task is achieved in large part, morality and the practical realities demand that we leave the rest of the world the hell alone. Genuinely free trade and travel are good in themselves and very positive in their effects, and should be encouraged. Embargoes, sanctions and all similar restrictions are always extraordinarily damaging, and aggressive, non-defensive war is a loathsome evil; such acts are profoundly damaging not only to the countries that are the targets, but to the country that initiates them.
The drive to world hegemony and Empire is evil, in its motives and in all its effects.
But our ruling elites agree with none of these propositions. If we continue on our present course, we will finally destroy ourselves; before we do, we may well destroy large parts of the world. Yet even at this late date, we could begin to change our direction, if we chose to. But do a sufficient number of people want to?
On the evidence available at present, the answer is a resounding, "No."
The latest installment in this series:
Part IX: The Elites Who Rule Us
Part I: Iraq Is the Democrats' War, Too
Part II: Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much
Part III: The Open Door to Worldwide Hegemony
Part IV: A "Splendid People" Set Out for Empire
Part V: A Global Empire of Bases
(Sidebar): Ah, Democracy...Ah, Peace
Part VI: Global Interventionism -- A Disastrous Policy Supported by Indefensible Ideas
Part VII: The Mythology of the "Good Guy" American