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Book Review 306: Defend America First
January 19, 2014 - Harry Eagar
One of the longest-running questions of American politics has been whether the United Stats should be in or out of the world. The issue seems to be heating up again.
It is not easy (unlike with many other political questions) to identify one position and derive a citizen’s other positions from it. When it comes to isolationism, sometimes it is embraced from the right, sometimes from the left; sometimes from both directions at once, as in the runup to Pearl Harbor.
In 1812, the antiwar center of gravity was in the Northeast and the warmongers were in the South and West. The positions were reversed in 1940 and reversed again in 2003-4.
Perhaps we will learn something about ourselves by asking what the earlier isolationists were about. RtO is beginning an examination of isolationism in the words of the isolationists and the assessments of historians, beginning with Garet Garrett, once the holder of the bulliest pulpit of all.
DEFEND AMERICA FIRST: The Antiwar Editorials of the Saturday Evening Post 1939-1942, by Garet Garrett, introduction by Bruce Ramsey. 285 pages. Caxton paperback, $13.95
Although Charles Lindbergh was the face of anti-intervention in the years before Pearl Harbor, Garet Garrett was the voice. As the editorial writer for the Saturday Evening Post, he “reached” 40 million Americans, better than one in 3 adults.
Whether many of those who picked up the Post read Garrett’s turgid, windy screeds is another matter. Only the committed would have kept reading them, but Garrett was indefatigable. Although there were other issues facing America in those days -- arguably none as momentous as going to war, though -- Garrett wrote about the same one every week.
Circumstances changed dramatically between the first screed in March 1939 and the last in January 1942 (when he was fired), but Garrett never wavered. His hatred for Franklin Roosevelt, which he had cultivated as an anti-New Dealer before coming to the Post, shines through.
He also hated democracy, unions, and -- so he claimed -- aggressors. But he was firm: not till the aggressors had landed on the beaches of New Jersey was it right to do anything about them. Garrett was mighty aggrieved that the warmongers lumped him together with the pro-nazis (who he contended, wrongly, were almost non-existent), but after slogging through every one of his editorials, it is impossible to find any difference in policy between him and the out-and-out nazis.
Except one. Garrett did not, like the popes, think the Nazis were all that stood between godless communism and Christian Europe. Garrett is remarkable in paying no attention to the reds, or to the Japanese. For him, the world being lost was well lost. What had we to do with those creepy foreigners?
All we had to do was prepare an “impregnable fortress” at our borders and go about our business without concern for what went on outside.
He did not think Germany capable of landing in New Jersey (true enough), but he also thought that giving munitions to England with which to wear down Germany left America weaker. In hindsight this is more than doubtful, and -- if we consider what Russia did to Germany -- crazy, but it was all one to Garrett.
“If Great Britain could save herself by making peace at our expense, she would. We can think of no reason in law or morals why she shouldn’t.” There speaks the true man of Munich.
It is not easy to square this with his simultaneous belief that America must serve as a beacon to all the world. All the world would have, correctly, seen America as the nation of “I’ve got mine.”
This was, in fact, Garrett’s core belief. He had made his reputation puffing for business tycoons as a financial journalist, although his conception of economics was based on the way a country store operated in the mid-19th century. He disparaged “those who could not distinguish between the feudal capitalism of the Old World and American capitalism,” although there was in fact almost no difference and if Garrett had had his way, there would have been none. He dated the collapse of American exceptionalism from the time all men got the vote.
He thought -- as rightwingers always do -- that the rich should control government. Though he bleated constantly about freedom, in his America only the rich were to be free.
He had many other strange delusions. He often said that Americans had no need to worry about the power of other countries since we -- a few farmers “making bog-iron” -- had defied the British Empire. You would think he had never known (as most Americans do not) that we owed our victory to the French navy for winning the Battle of the Virginia Capes and the French army for surrounding Cornwallis at Yorktown.
But, in fact, he did know these things had happened. He regarded French assistance as a misguided “entangling alliance” which we had subsequently -- until 1916 -- never repeated. Amazingly, he often claimed that America “had no ideology” until the marxists who ran the New Deal imported one.
Like other ideologues, he was prone to make predictions (as well as historical misstatements) that had only the slightest relationship to real events. Garrett’s predictions -- like Hayek’s, who published his within a few months of Garrett’s firing by the Post -- were all wrong. There are no serfs (Hayek) and it is not true that, in America, “freedom of expression will no longer be defended” (Garrett).
Despite being wrong on the facts and wrong in their estimates, Hayek and Garrett are both still in print, though Garrett is only just so.
In fact, in a prophetic development, late in his life when no one wanted to listen to him, Garrett found a sponsor in northern Idaho, the Caxton Printers (now Caxton Press), and they continue to make Garrett’s ideas available in cheap editions, along with the works of other discredited apologists for force and property like William Graham Sumner.
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