Reasons for thinking that war is a good thing

Eric Foner

  • The Strange Death of American Liberalism by H.W. Brands
    Yale, 200 pp, £16.00, January 2002, ISBN 0 300 09021 8

‘In the United States at this time,’ Lionel Trilling announced in 1950, ‘liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.’ How things have changed. Today in the US, liberalism seems extinct, except as a term of political abuse. Since Bush the Elder struck political gold during the 1988 Presidential campaign by castigating his opponent, Michael Dukakis, as a liberal, virtually no American politician will voluntarily accept the label. One unlikely exception is Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s new billionaire Republican Mayor, who during the campaign proclaimed: ‘I am a liberal.’ In New York, liberalism still survives – and, besides, Bloomberg is so rich he can say anything he pleases.

There are almost as many explanations for liberalism’s demise as historians who have written on the subject. Some blame the liberals for misreading human nature, promising far more improvement in American life than they could possibly deliver, and alienating ordinary citizens by relying on unelected experts and the courts to engineer social change. Others hold liberals responsible for the alleged collapse of social order and traditional family life during the 1960s, which turned upstanding Middle Americans towards conservatism. Liberals themselves tend to blame a white backlash against their efforts to secure racial justice. Doing good, they believe, did them in.

There is some truth in each of these explanations. H.W. Brands, a prolific scholar of modern American history, adds his own contribution to the list. In this latest book, he defines liberalism as confidence in the ability of the national government to pursue the social good, and argues that in a country whose default position is distrust of an activist state, it is something of an anomaly. What needs to be explained, in other words, is not why modern liberalism died, but how it survived for so long.

‘War,’ Randolph Bourne wrote when the United States entered World War One, ‘is the health of the state.’ It is also, for Brands, the seedbed of American liberalism. In wartime, Americans accept the necessity for vigorous national action to achieve common goals. When a war emergency ends, they resume their hostility to government activism. The Civil War era greatly expanded the powers of the national government. But it was soon succeeded by the Gilded Age, when laissez-faire reigned supreme. During World War One, the Government conscripted soldiers, increased taxes, regulated industry and labour and suppressed dissent. But in 1920, Americans elected a President – Warren Harding – who promised a return to ‘normalcy’, defined as individualism free from public intervention.

World War Two witnessed an even more striking expansion of government power. It would quickly have been followed by another era of political inaction but for the advent of the Cold War. What enabled modern liberalism to persist as long as it did, Brands argues, was the longevity of the battle against Communism. Americans became so accustomed to looking to the national government to protect them from foreign threats that they set aside their aversion to state activism at home. But when the national consensus supporting the Cold War shattered over Vietnam in the late 1960s, liberalism could not survive.

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