The Awkward, All-American Marriage of Anti-Interventionism and Racism

Since the Civil War, Union rhetoric has justified military adventurism -- so it's no accident that neo-Confederates and nativists are often the loudest anti-imperial voices.
Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh speaks at a rally against American involvement in World War II in October 1941. (Associated press)

As a quasi-socialist lefty who believes in gun regulation and health care for all, it's been more than a little upsetting the past week to realize that I am rooting for the Tea Party to stymie my president and hand him a humiliating foreign-policy defeat.

I’ve encountered this dilemma before. I thought seriously about voting for Ron Paul last year on the basis of his anti-war stance, for example, even though there's plenty of evidence that he has supported vicious racist propaganda in a manner which should disqualify him from being a dogcatcher, much less the nation’s chief executive. The far-right fringe in America holds many morally abominable views. But it also is the most influential political bloc willing to oppose our bipartisan consensus in favor of endless military intervention.

It would be comforting to think that this combination of anti-imperial force and ideological prejudice is an accidental blip, that Paul's racism could be pried free of his isolationism and I could sign on to the latter without worrying about the former. That's not the case, though. In his book War and the American Difference, Stanley Hauerwas traces America's tendency to link government military action and virtue to Union rhetoric about the Civil War.

The Gettysburg Address, with its liturgical language of death as consecration, and its insistence that sacrifice of life requires further war in a holy cause, is the eloquent blueprint for all humanitarian intervention.* After Gettysburg, Hauerwas says, "American wars must be wars in which the sacrifices of those doing the dying and the killing have redemptive purpose and justification."

If Gettysburg makes intervention holy, then it follows that resistance to linking federal military action and virtue would have its origins in the Union's enemy. And indeed, the most passionate American arguments in favor of self-determination and against occupation come from the Confederacy, and from racist neo-Confederate myths about Reconstruction.

Walter Benn Michaels has pointed out that Thomas Dixon's The Clansman and Thomas Nelson Page's Red Rock are both explicitly anti-imperialist and explicitly racist. "Red Rock," Michaels writes in Our America, "tells the story of a conquered people, of how they survived under occupation, and of how they eventually 'reconquered' what it sometimes refers to as their 'country' and sometimes as their 'section.'" The conquered people are, of course, Southern whites, and the reconquest is a reimposition of brutal racial apartheid.

Given this history, the libertarian, anti-government thread of conservative isolationism starts to look more than a little repulsive. The liberal, federalist interventionists, like Wilson and FDR and LBJ, want to intervene on behalf of various non-white folks. The anti-interventionists (like, say, John Calhoun or Charles Lindbergh or David Duke) don't want to, because intervening on behalf of non-white folks is dangerous federal overreach. Ron Paul's racism and Ron Paul's isolationism aren't arbitrarily slapped together. They're two strands of a single, long-standing, and very unpleasant ideology.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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