Liberalism and the Morality of War

Don’t get it twisted, in terms of the progressive silence on the new Cold War. For nearly a century, commentators have closely associated liberalism with progressivism. For instance, in a 1931 piece in The New Republic, Edmund Wilson identifies the latter as that which “which has generally become known as liberalism” to contemporaries. Liberal philosophy also contains what its supporters would consider a benevolent nationalism, that is, a system to both export self-determination to indigenous peoples and produce abundance at home. This abundance would be spread out benignly enough, thanks to an “American spirit strong enough to compel… Capitalism to restrain… itself.” Of necessity, then, the liberal makes the moral assumption of an underlying harmony of interests, in which, in the phrase of C. Wright Mills, “greed and ruthlessness are reconciled with justice and progress.”

On the other hand, journalist Gerard Colby-Zilg—also identifying progressivism with corporate liberalism—defines the first as an “instrument of conservatism,” in the sense that it is the “rationalization of the old order to meet the needs of the new monopolistic order.” This radical view presupposes a psychological derivation of the idea of progress in terms of political ideology, as in Karl Polanyi: “Hope—the vision of perfectibility—was distilled out of the nightmare of population and wage laws, and was embodied in a concept of progress so inspiring that it appeared to justify the vast and painful dislocations to come.” This interpretation locates a cynicism at the heart of the modern liberal project, a dark twin to its much-vaunted idealism, and would therefore read the original progressive rhetoric for empire as textbook delusions of grandeur. These delusions would be leveraged to crush indigenous initiatives toward self-sufficiency around the world while hiding behind platitudes of support for the self-determination of all peoples.

Consider that the archetypal elements of American Third World thuggery emerge fully formed—like Athena from the head of Zeus—in the period 1898-1901, between the dust-up to the Spanish-American War and the defeat of the Filipino insurrection:

* The inevitably debunked pretext for a declaration of war

* American dismissal of natives’ capacity for self-governance

* Hints of treason against dissenters over American war dead

* The rhetoric of disinterested dedication to the regeneration of humanity

This last is suddenly flipped into barbaric atrocities once met with native resistance, which presumably does not feel the need to be regenerated. Thus, resonating across a whole century is the U.S. Senate Investigating Committee on the Philippines’s conclusion on Aug 29, 1902 that “the destruction of Filipino life during the war has been so frightful that it cannot be explained as the result of ordinary civilized warfare.” Let us find other explanations, then.

The unexamined gargoyles that lay between what Henry Cabot Lodge called “the world-redeeming work of our imperial race” and his anticipation of “a vast future trade and wealth and power” through China’s “illimitable markets,” lead us off the psychological grid, and here, rusticating, lurk those primordial American delusions of grandeur. Sen. Albert Beveridge, in an iconic speech on the Senate floor in 1900, reveals the basis for the expansionist’s rhetoric of historical mission:

It is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation…. He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction…. He has made us adepts at government that we may administer government among savage peoples…. He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America.

The delusions of grandeur at the root of the progressive campaign for an overseas empire presume an unquestioned morality of war which, of necessity, refuses to acknowledge a legitimate basis for dissent; a built-in, hermetically-sealed intolerance prefiguring the paranoia that would drive the moral repugnance of both the war hysteria and the Red Scare a generation later, and the Cold War beyond. In his speech, Beveridge draws the association, with subtle misdirection, between dissent and treason: “The Filipinos do not understand free speech,” he begins, explaining that when the anti- expansionist critique was revealed to the natives, their takeaway was that “our President is in the minority or he would not permit what appears to them such treasonable [emphasis added] criticism.”

The presumption—and, eventually, the paranoia—of a conspiracy lurking behind dissent, sinister and beholden to alien interests, is mere psychological projection. What is it that supporters of the wars of empire can’t bear to hear? At the heart of the “civilizing mission” lies the necessity for the dispossession of others, a job made easier through the psychological mechanism of dehumanization. A grotesque distortion of the humanity of others. Those seeking to unmask the hypocrisy behind the platitudes must—another necessity—be “simply unhung traitors,” as TR referred to the anti-imperialists of his day.

The disproportionate revenge meted out against Filipinos in the Balangiga Massacre of 1901, in which Gen. Jacoby Smith declared that he would accept no prisoners, like the “gay moral imbecility” of indiscriminate napalming of Koreans later documented by I.F. Stone, and, most famously, the atrocities at My Lai, for which, as Noam Chomsky reports, charges were “dismissed on the grounds that this was merely a normal operation in which a village was destroyed and its population murdered”—these supposedly rogue, yet persistent, atrocities suggest an inscrutable linkage between hypocrisy and slaughter.

Even before the outbreak of the First World War, the Nationalist Progressives at the New Republic viewed war as a regenerative crusade, and put indecisiveness or pacifism down to an “abject moral failure,” writes Randolph Bourne. Historian Jackson Lears observes that they considered the conflagration to be “a great lab for social engineering; the ultimate marriage of management and morality.” As he concludes, “War permitted the realization of the management dream: an administrative state that would supervise and cooperate with Big Business.”

Since World War I, modern liberals have displayed a natural ability to transpose universal moral ideals onto arguments that align unquestioningly with the war aims of the American empire. In 1917 Bourne remarks that these youngish “war liberals” acquiesced so naturally that it seemed “as if the war and these men had been waiting for each other.” In fact, they carried themselves with conspicuous unease when outside the patina of power—Edmund Wilson remarks that in the “extreme illiberalism” of the 1920s liberals felt “increasingly conscious that no one was paying any attention to them.”

Bourne was the first critic to note the moral squishiness of modern liberals. He perceived in real time the well-appointed critical abilities of liberals like Herbert Croly at TNR and eminent philosopher John Dewey vaporize in the face of the rising War Hysteria. Bourne’s disenchantment with the eminent liberals of his day crystallized into radical misgivings about the warp-speed mobilization of the American war machine –not least because he was documenting the freshly-sprouted tentacles of the modern surveillance state.

A generation later TNR exhibited no hesitation whatever in differentiating between the airborne terror of the Allies and the Germans, its editors glibly announcing that “the robot bomb [used by the Nazis to terrorize Britain] … is far more savage than our saturation bombing of German cities.” And according to historian Richard Pells, in The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age, already by World War II the liberals at TNR were prepared to “inflate even the most questionable operator [like Chiang Kai-shek] into a visionary leader as long as he attached himself to the Allies.”

Subsequent wars, like those in Korea and Vietnam, contained important motifs directly related to the ambiguity between America’s moral conceits and her actual material ambitions. The liberal establishment was instrumental in developing, shaping, presenting and defending these war policies and somehow their cynicism and ambiguity managed to go over for a few generations as cold-blooded expertise.

“The maintenance of tension was a prime objective of Truman’s foreign policy,” writes I.F. Stone, in The Hidden History of the Korean War. “The peace talks were regarded by these leaders as a kind of diabolic plot against rearmament.” The Establishment dreaded the consequences that peace would have on the economy, namely shutting off its “inflationary narcotic.” Essentially Truman wished to perpetuate a climate of fear in order to maintain rearmament and thus full employment by a pose of brinksmanship that would nevertheless try, as Stone describes it, “to halt at measures short of [nuclear] war.”

Stone reveals another aspect of the president’s indecision: “Just as Truman opposed war but wasn’t quite sure he wanted peace, so while crusading for democracy he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to take the risk of permitting free elections if peace came.” The palpable fear that the communists would win the elections led Truman to support the program of “a man he ought to have despised, Syngman Rhee.” This plan was based upon a naked gerrymandering that would have allowed the Southern regime to supervise the election, bringing the North under its jurisdiction. Subsequently, U.S. unwillingness to tolerate free elections would become widely recognized, infamously in Vietnam and literally all across Latin America.

When OnContact host Chris Hedges interviewed Professor of International Law Richard Falk regarding his experience with the power elite in the early days of the Vietnam War, Falk recalls that since it was important to the “liberal sensibility of the day” to reconcile foreign policy with international law, it became necessary for policymakers to “stretch” and “manipulate” its interpretation rather than to acknowledge that their geopolitical strategies “transcended law.” Dr. Falk goes on to comment that it was customary among his liberal Ivy League colleagues to “sell their souls” to centers of power, and he emphasizes their inability to resist being useful in these circles by remarking that “they were waiting for the phone to ring.”


In 1957, I.F. Stone castigated American liberals for having “abdicated their responsibility in dealing with military spending.” A report by liberals in response to Eisenhower’s proposed budget had treated the Pentagon as a “sacred cow” and produced statistics arguing that real military spending as a percentage of “total national production” had fallen by 31 percent. The report concluded by asking, wink-wink, “whether we are risking our lives by these slashes.” Stone concludes: “It is a melancholy day for American liberalism when its leading spokesmen act as a sounding board for the military budget makers.” Yet there they were. Today, we recognize the penchant of liberals to give more to presidents for defense budgets than they actually request as a ritual de lo habitual.