Over the past century, former President of the United States has become a quasi-official position, in which the occupant is expected to serve the cause of world peace and fundamental governmental reform, while writing profound tomes. One Former President, who had been silent for quite some time, recently reentered the lists. His long absence was understandable, since he has been dead for nearly a half century. Herbert Hoover was a prolific writer in his post-presidential years, publishing dozens of books and articles. One manuscript remained unpublished, however—his reflections on American foreign policy between the late 1930s and 1945.
Hoover originally started the project in 1944, as a section of his memoirs that would cover his life during World War II, but it became something much more ambitious. The manuscript went through multiple revisions and editions. The more-or-less final version—part memoir, part documentary collection, part attempt at objective history—was completed in September 1963. When Hoover died in October 1964, his heirs decided not to publish what he and his staff had come to refer to as his Magnum Opus. It remained in his papers, closed to researchers, until George Nash, one of Hoover's most prominent biographers, was invited by the Hoover Foundation in 2009 to edit the last draft of the manuscript for publication.
The title of the book tells all—Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover's Secret History of the Second World War and its Aftermath. Readers can be forgiven for not wading through the entire 900 pages, including nearly 300 pages of case histories and appendices. Instead, they can read Nash's detailed Introduction and pick and choose among the subjects that might interest them. If they are looking for bombshells, new information, or new insights, they will be disappointed. Hoover's argument is the familiar one of World War II revisionism, conservative style. He wrote to justify his isolationist views on foreign policy, which he insisted had been fully vindicated by events, contrary to the story told by Franklin Roosevelt's hagiographers. During the late 1930s and early 1940s the 31st president had been one of the most prominent public critics of his successor's foreign policy. He had made the basic arguments of Freedom Betrayed in numerous speeches and essays prior to the war and, in suitably patriotic form, after December 7, 1941. The Magnum Opus provided the ultimate forum to synthesize these conclusions as well as to provide supportive documentation from post-war archives and memoirs, all of which (in Hoover's mind) clinched the case he had been making all along.
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Hoover contended that American security had never been at risk from external aggression before our entry into World War II. The Germans and Japanese had neither the intention nor the ability to invade the Western Hemisphere. FDR, desperate to remain in power and to pervert the American political order from individual liberty to government collectivization, cynically maneuvered the nation into a tragic and unnecessary war. Unlike some conspiracy theorists, Hoover did not go so far as to claim that FDR was aware of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor. But Hoover concluded that Roosevelt and his senior advisors were responsible for recklessly provoking the Japanese into attacking the United States, and doing their best to get Hitler to do the same, in order to overcome the American public's sensible opposition to intervention.
World War II revisionism has persisted despite its association with the discredited doctrine of isolationism. There were liberal as well as conservative variants, the former notably espoused by progressive historian Charles Beard in his 1948 book, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities (Hoover corresponded with Beard about FDR and foreign policy; and at least in his younger days, Hoover was counted among Republican progressives). The spirit of World War II revisionism carried over into Cold War revisionism, a leftist pursuit which proved to be considerably more influential, politically and intellectually.
The publication of Freedom Betrayed challenges American conservatives to consider whether their post-World War II support of American internationalism holds up in the light of experience. Just as one could make the argument that fiscally responsible Republicans inadvertently served as tax collectors for the welfare state, one might contend that patriotic Republicans mistakenly underwrote the military power that made American liberal globalism possible. This is the story told by contemporary foreign policy disciples of Hoover like Patrick Buchanan and Ron Paul; but in light of troubled American interventions in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central Asia since the Cold War ended, the contention disturbs mainstream conservatives like George F. Will, too.
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Herbert Hoover disliked being labeled an "isolationist." He insisted in Freedom Betrayed that he was an "anti-interventionist," defending the deeply-rooted traditions of American foreign policy—namely, avoiding binding political connections in Eurasia and involvement in foreign wars and quarrels, while engaging the world economically and serving as an example of human freedom.
Hoover's anti-interventionism rested on several critical assumptions about the enduring requirements of American security. First, the United States remained inherently safe from armed attack. Hitler's army could not manage to cross the narrow English Channel; how could it possibly be transported to the Western Hemisphere? Despite the assertions of Roosevelt and the interventionists, modern military technology—especially long-range aircraft—favored continental defense.
Second, the use of military force, except for the defense of national territory and sovereignty, is inherently self-defeating. History, at least in modern times, teaches that armies might overrun territory but they cannot conquer peoples. The costs of war and of administering captive nations vastly outweigh the economic benefits of military victory—"conquest always dies of indigestion," Hoover argued. As a result, there existed a natural, self-sustaining Eurasian balance of power. Hitler, like Napoleon, would inevitably become bogged down or defeated on the steppes of Russia, just as Japan was hopelessly entangled in China. To preserve its republican character, the United States should have stayed out of these futile struggles for power and let history run its course, even if history proved tragic in the short term for the peoples involved. If it did intervene, the United States would find itself occupying foreign lands and, however noble its aims, would eventually run up against the same stubborn forces of self-determination.
Third, war is the engine of domestic despotism as well as of foreign empire. Wars and the preparation for war inexorably strengthen government and militarize the economy and society, all at the expense of individual liberty. Hoover suggested that Roosevelt's sudden turn to interventionism in the late 1930s was not caused by new foreign threats but by the need to overcome domestic political resistance to his project of collectivization. Although FDR could not pack the Supreme Court, he gave the New Deal a much needed jump-start by injecting the country into a global conflict, which led inexorably to a massive increase in the size and scope of government.
Fourth, ideas matter more than armies, and consequently Communism was the greatest threat to American freedom. Hitler's fascism, with its overt racism and reliance on brute force, had limited international appeal and staying power. The Soviets understood correctly that subversion rather than physical conquest was the ticket to world domination. Communism was an ideology that conquered men's minds and prepared them for government collectivization. America's chief role in the world conflict should have been to demonstrate the superiority of democracy and free markets and, in foreign policy, to deny Communism the moral legitimacy it needed to worm its way into the fabric of free societies.
Once he had taken the country into an unnecessary war, Roosevelt, under the influence of Communist agents, tragically betrayed other peoples' freedom as well as our own, by the give-away of Eastern Europe at Tehran and Yalta. Under Harry Truman, the United States later granted political acceptance to the Communist conquest of China. (FDR, according to Hoover, began the process when he granted diplomatic recognition to the Soviet government in 1933.) Hoover did not mean that the United States should go to war to defend or liberate those under the shadow of Communism's sway, but he thought it imperative to strengthen the natural forces of local resistance by refusing to legitimate a division between a free and unfree world. He also advocated aggressively rooting out those in the U.S. government and in other places of authority who openly, or clandestinely, championed the Communist cause.
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The correct path for the United States, in Hoover's view, would have been to remain aloof from the diplomatic machinations that led up to the outbreak of war in Europe (which meant effectively encouraging British appeasement of Hitler, although Hoover does not explicitly say so). Once war broke out in Europe, having supplied England with enough to be sure it was safe from invasion, the United States should have stood on the sidelines while Hitler and Stalin wore each other out (understanding that the latter was by far the greater enemy of human freedom). In East Asia, the United States should not have put the Japanese under draconian economic pressure, but instead allowed Tokyo's quixotic attempt to conquer China to run its inevitable losing course. After the tyrants had exhausted themselves on the battlefield and discredited their political systems, the United States might then have offered its good offices (political and humanitarian, not military) and its unsullied moral standing to encourage a just settlement. Once forced into the war by Roosevelt's machinations, the United States had to fight to win, of course, but it never should have allied itself with the Soviet Union, much less cooperated with Stalin's program of ideological expansionism through the betrayal of Eastern Europe and eventually China.
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Hoover's anti-interventionist foreign policy views were very much in the mainstream of the Republican Party in the 1930s (though there were important dissenting views and odd cases like Wendell Willkie). That is not to say that all anti-interventionists were Republicans (or conservatives); there was a fair contingent of Democratic and ex-Progressive isolationists. Nevertheless, a majority of Congressional Republicans in the late 1930s rallied around the standard of opposition to the New Deal and to Roosevelt's increasingly activist foreign policy, which they regarded as two halves of the same coin. By 1945 that was no longer the case. The simplest reason for that sea change was stated by Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg, one of the principal anti-interventionist spokesmen before World War II: Pearl Harbor had "ended isolationism for any realist."
Vandenberg meant realistic in the political as well as the strategic sense. From the standpoint of sheer electoral calculation, Republican Party leaders concluded that old-style anti-interventionism or isolationism—now a pejorative term, like appeasement—was a non-starter. Doctrinaire anti-interventionism seemed morally obtuse in light of the staggering atrocities and aggressiveness of the dictatorships, and of the natural pride that Americans felt in triumphing over such evil. Eastern Republican establishment giants such as Henry Stimson, who had been Hoover's secretary of state, had prepared the way by supporting Roosevelt on national security matters (Stimson and Republican Frank Knox had entered FDR's cabinet in 1940 as the secretaries of war and the navy).
Beginning with his January 1945 speech to the Senate, Vandenberg famously championed foreign policy bipartisanship. He worked cooperatively with the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations on many post-war national security matters. Virtually all Republican senators voted in favor of joining the United Nations. A new generation of Republican leaders who had served in the military, men like Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush, came to advocate an outward-looking American foreign policy. To break the Democrats' control over the White House, the party in 1952 nominated Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero and avowed internationalist (a term preferred to interventionist), over long-time party stalwart and anti-interventionist, Ohio Senator Robert Taft.
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This did not mean that Republicans were prepared to embrace uncritically the internationalist/interventionist foreign policy crafted by Democrats. What type of internationalism mattered greatly and the Republican Party had a rich strategic tradition on which to draw, including that of Theodore Roosevelt (great power nationalism) and William Howard Taft (international law), father of Robert. George Mason University political scientist Colin Dueck, in his book Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II (2010), identifies three enduring strains of post-World War II conservative internationalism: the hawks, who emphasize the need for a strong military posture and who are friendly to armed intervention overseas, whether for idealistic or pragmatic reasons; the nationalists, who stress an unyielding approach to adversaries and the need to preserve national sovereignty; and the realists, who pursue security through the balance of power and the complementarity of force and diplomacy, and who focus on the international behavior of foreign regimes rather than their domestic makeup.
Although Hoover's anti-interventionism per se fell out of fashion, it echoed through many aspects of the Republican version of internationalism: the importance of ideas and of American exceptionalism; the identification of Communism as the principle ideological threat to freedom at home and abroad; the fear of the growth of the state due to expanded national security requirements; a sense of the inherent limits of military power; and a belief that the primary role of American armed forces is to defend the nation and its sovereignty rather than to serve as a policeman, or sheriff, of world order.
The key element of Republican foreign policy that transcended the pre- and post-World War II periods, and that eventually reconciled most anti-interventionists to an activist foreign policy, was anti-Communism. In the famous expression of Ronald Reagan, Communism was "the focus of evil in the modern world." Even the most "realist" Republican president, Richard Nixon, cut his political chops as an anti-Communist.
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The breakthrough in conservative foreign policy thinking was to link the domestic Communist threat with the need actively to deter or defeat Soviet strategic threats abroad. Communist subversion at home, which obsessed anti-interventionists like Hoover and the erratic Joseph McCarthy, remained to mainstream conservatives a serious problem, but it was not the only dimension of the danger. The new anti-Communism was based on the strategic assumption that a Eurasian power now did pose a geopolitical danger to the United States; and on the political-moral assumption that a properly activist foreign policy, based on opposition to the radical Left, would strengthen, not corrupt, the American people and their exceptional place in world history. By contrast, Republicans were skeptical about what they regarded as the Democrats' inclination to treat foreign policy primarily as social work—to regard hunger, disease, and despair, not the Reds, as the real enemy—and to export the New Deal on the backs of the American taxpayer.
Conservative internationalists maintained that the old arguments about the inherent geographic security of the Western Hemisphere had been disproven by World War II and by Soviet behavior since. Communism was inherently aggressive, like cancer, and it had to be stopped wherever it had taken hold before it could spread. The self-equilibrating geopolitical balance within Eurasia had disappeared. Britain and France—and Germany and Japan—no longer constituted effective strategic buffers between the Old World and the New. Nor was there an ideological balance—European democracy was exhausted and capitalism still tainted by the Great Depression. It was scant comfort to assume that the Soviet imperium might be undone in the long run because of its internal contradictions or popular resistance. In the long run we are all dead. The methods of modern totalitarianism, coupled with the instruments of modern science, especially intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, represented an unprecedented threat to human freedom.
The United States, with its vast industrial base and manpower reserves, was the only power able to ensure that a Eurasian totalitarian empire never came about. The Soviets, with their zero-sum view of the world, could not allow American power to exist unchallenged, even if the United States tried to remain aloof. In a Soviet-dominated world, conservatives feared that America would be forced to create a garrison state merely to survive. Only American strategic activism could prevent this nightmare through political reassurance and economic assistance to allies, anchored by U.S. military power. If the United States was not to betray freedom again in places like Greece and Turkey, it could no longer just wring its hands and refuse to recognize Soviet gains. An assertive anti-Communist foreign policy would have the added domestic benefit of smoking out subversives and fellow travelers, such as Henry Wallace, who discredited themselves by opposing measures to resist Soviet expansionism.
As the Cold War unfolded, Hoover remained unrepentant in his view that the Communist threat should not be met by strategic engagement in Eurasia. But his was an increasingly lonely protest. A policy of active, global anti-Communism united the principal factions of the party, including Taft and his supporters, who differed about the means rather than the ends of international engagement. Anti-Communism also appealed to major Democratic constituencies, e.g., traditional Catholics, Southerners, much of organized labor, and ethnic minorities such as the Poles. Conservative anti-Communism strengthened even as liberal anti-Communism waned, first as a reaction against McCarthy, then because of the influence of Cold War revisionism, and finally due to the experience in Vietnam. George McGovern articulated the anti-interventionism of the Left with his "Come home again, America" message in the 1972 campaign. Democratic interventionists and the ideological opponents of Communism migrated increasingly to the Republican Party.
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For conservatives, one obvious problem with anti-Communism and an activist national security strategy was their apparent lack of limits. Because Communism spread like cancer—or a row of falling dominoes—conservatives by and large rejected the notion of "strongpoint" defense, in which the United States would defend only a few critical redoubts, notably Western Europe, Japan, and the Middle East. The comprehensive geographic approach to American national security ran directly counter to the views of unreconstructed anti-interventionists like Hoover. But it raised concerns broadly among conservatives that the Soviets could provoke the United States into bankrupting itself by forcing it to defend the entire non-Communist world.
The solution was to place limits on how, rather than where, Communism was to be combated. America would avoid the most expensive and risky form of activism—direct large-scale military intervention—if at all possible. Conservatives loyally supported "Democrat wars" (Senator Bob Dole's term) in Korea and Vietnam but argued that such wars, once undertaken, should be prosecuted vigorously with the idea of terminating them as quickly, decisively, and cheaply as possible, rather than accepting drawn-out battles of attrition or commitments to nation-building.
Right-wingers preferred to use military force only when there was a clear and present danger to American security, or when American honor or lives were at stake. Eisenhower's doctrine of massive retaliation was designed to keep the country out of expensive brushfire wars on the Eurasian periphery. Ike also engaged in covert action rather than direct military intervention to bring about "regime change" against what he regarded as pro-Communist governments in Iran and Guatemala. The Nixon Doctrine shifted the burden of local defense on to allies, reflecting a conservative propensity to keep American military power based offshore wherever possible. The Weinberger-Powell Doctrine (named after former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and General Colin Powell), although not without controversy among conservatives, codified a high threshold for the use of force.
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Conservative internationalism also sought to wage the Cold War cost-effectively by gaining the strategic initiative over its adversary. In John Foster Dulles's formulation, the United States would respond to Soviet provocation "at places and with means of our own choosing." One of the means was to challenge Communism's moral legitimacy—a staple of conservative anti-interventionism—and to refuse to legitimize Soviet gains through "feel good" agreements. When Nixon and Gerald Ford adopted such accommodationist policies, they generated a backlash of nationalist and hawkish conservatism that quickly drove the Republican Party in the direction of the unabashed anti-Communist Ronald Reagan.
Conservative activism did not stop at the border between the Free and Unfree Worlds. "Places of our own choosing" included at least moral support for the rollback of Soviet power and the liberation of its client states. Granted, the Eisenhower Administration backed away from its rhetorical commitment to liberation during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Eisenhower could see no choice at the time, other than direct military intervention, which violated the basic strategic tenets of the new conservatism. The Reagan Administration later adopted a number of indirect means to challenge the Soviet empire—economic and political pressure, aid to anti-Communist rebels, and the like—with better results.
The "means of our own choosing" to roll back the Communists did include one major ideological deviation—the development of a de facto strategic alliance with the People's Republic of China (PRC). For the most part, conservative hostility to Communism was universal. There was no such thing as a good or less bad Communist, or much sympathy for the argument that Third World Communists were really nationalists and agrarian reformers at heart. Many hard-line conservatives therefore opposed rapprochement with the PRC, much as anti-interventionists like Hoover had resisted the alliance with Stalin in World War II. They fought to retain close ties with Taiwan and the Nationalist Chinese. The Republican Party did not split over this matter, however. Nixon's credibility as an anti-Communist paved the way for the initial rapprochement with Beijing. There was an ideological as well as realistic argument to be made in favor of the opening to the PRC, because the Chinese "deviation" exposed Soviet aggressive designs to the non-Western world in a credible way. After the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese moved increasingly in a free market direction, leading conservatives (for the moment) to relax their ideological vigilance.
Although conservative internationalists retained their predilection against piecemeal interventionism and limited wars, they insisted that strategic activism had to be underwritten by substantial military capability. This raised the danger of an American garrison state if the new defense establishment became too large and powerful and especially if it provided a back door for big-government programs such as industrial policy and social engineering in the name of "national defense." This concern provoked Eisenhower to place strict limits on overall defense spending and warn against a "military-industrial complex" that would erode limited government. The preferred conservative solution, even during the Reagan defense buildup, was to rely on high-leverage, cost-effective instruments of military power where the United States possessed an inherent advantage—initially, nuclear weapons and then conventional high technologies; and through the exploitation of air, sea, and space power, rather than expensive ground forces. The Soviet Union could not readily contest these advantages and, if it did, the United States was in a position to win an arms race.
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All this may seem like ancient history. Yet the publication now of Freedom Betrayed, as the Soviets would have said, is surely no accident. The ghost of Herbert Hoover stands before us, pointing to the unhappy and costly experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, brought on (he would say) by the imperial hubris that naturally accompanies interventionism, even in the best of causes. Hoover would accuse conservatives of embracing the liberal project of remaking the world in America's image—something that liberals, ironically enough, have largely abandoned. Fighting the war on terror has cost a trillion dollars and created an ever-more intrusive domestic-security state. The spectral Hoover might point to the impending collapse of the welfare state in Europe, which America has subsidized for decades by providing for our profligate allies' defense. And now the chickens of collectivization have come home to roost, because we can no longer afford to subsidize them, or ourselves.
And yet. As Robert Kagan observed in A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990 (1996), the influence of the United States is such that anti-interventionism in the purest sense is no longer an option. The United States for decades had become such a force in Nicaraguan politics and society that American abstention there was understood to be a decision to allow the Sandinistas (supported as they were by other outside powers) to win, and not a magnanimous policy of permitting the Nicaraguans "to determine their own destiny." The same phenomenon is more or less true on a global scale. During the heady days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans might have assumed that history had ended and therefore the right side would win, or that it didn't matter who won. It is hard to make that argument today, even after the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. The range and destructiveness of modern military technology, the fragile state of a globalized world economy, and the growing virulence of anti-liberal thought, make it impossible for the United States simply to stand on the sidelines and hope for the best.
At the same time, just because we will intervene in some places does not mean that we must intervene in every place, or that one manner of intervention (or abstention) fits all. Strategy matters. Conservative sensibilities, including the concern for limited government, the need to retain the strategic initiative, and properly restrained expectations about remaking the world, are not bad starting points. Our goal is perhaps to keep the dominoes from stacking up against us in the first place-to prevent advanced military power, economic leverage, and totalitarian ideology from being fused into such a comprehensive global threat that the choice of intervention would effectively be taken out of our hands.