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.

So to avoid racism, should we just bomb everybody? Obviously, that's not logical. And part of the reason is that, in fact, federal interventionists have a checkered history as well. If there's a racist anti-imperialism, there's certainly a racist interventionism as well, as Rudyard Kipling declaimed while urging the U.S. to take up the white man's burden and intervene in the Philippines.

And so we did, involving ourselves in a long anti-insurgent campaign James Loewen has suggested served as a bloody, forgotten prototype for our racially tinged war in Vietnam. Woodrow Wilson, a kind of neo-Confederate himself, re-segregated the federal government and used his position to violate civil liberties with a paranoid thoroughness that even our post-9/11 presidents have failed to surpass. The sainted FDR had his homegrown concentration camps, while Truman had the bombing of Nagasaki, which Kurt Vonnegut called "the most racist, nastiest act by this country after human slavery."

So I'm left with two bad choices. I can advocate for the ugly tradition of American anti-imperialism. Or I can advocate for the ugly tradition of American intervention. On the one hand, insular nativism; on the other hand, racially tinged imperialism. And, on both hands, lots of blood.

There are certainly honorable strains in both the American interventionist and non-interventionist traditions as well, whether you draw the line from the Emancipation Proclamation to the liberation of the concentration camps, or from Thoreau's civil disobedience to the Vietnam War protests.

I think it's worth looking at the bad as well as the good, though. Being paralyzed with guilt isn't helpful, but maybe a little humility on all sides could be. Arguments around military action are often framed in binary terms — which is more righteous, to intervene or not to intervene? Given our particular history of intervention and non-intervention, though, though, one starts to wonder whether we have the moral standing to make either choice in an ethical way.

Maybe, rather than the constant question of how many more bombs we should pay for, and where we should drop them next, it might be worth it for us to try to think through what would we have to do, as a nation, or a people, or a community, to make our decisions about war and peace moral. As Hauerwas asked in his interview here last week, what would a just war Pentagon, look like? I don't know the answer to that — which is why, by default, I'm stuck rooting for the Tea Party to salvage our Syria policy. But I do know that, as it is, the world is entitled to look on our principled isolationism and our expansionist humanitarianism with equal mistrust.

* Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred here to the Emancipation Proclamation. We regret the error.