The Collapse of Liberal Empire: Science and Revolution in the Twentieth Century
Public Constraint and American Policy in Vietnam
America will come into the full light of the day when all shall know that she puts human rights above all other rights.
—Woodrow Wilson, June 1914
We have reason to fear a moralizing foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson, our premier political gospeler, has not fared well in historical retrospect. So Carter’s preachments on human rights raise a shudder, as if a shadow of the Fourteen Points had passed over us.
There are disconcerting parallels between the two men’s careers. Carter came, fast, out of nowhere. Wilson came out of somewhere—out of Princeton; but came even faster than Carter. The latter spent four years in Georgia’s legislature, four more as governor, and a few months as a national party officer. Wilson’s first experience of a political campaign came just two years before his election as president. He ran for office only three times in his life, always successfully, and the last two times for our highest office.
Wilson used his “outsider” image as well as Carter has. He was the man above politics, and party, and nation. Carter carries his own suit bag. Wilson not only lugged around his battered portable typewriter, but tapped out his own speeches on it—and love letters, and press releases. Wilson did not settle for a “people’s inaugural”—he canceled outright the inauguration ball. He was certain of his attunement with “the people”—he spoke for them, and threatened to go around Congress to reach them—as he went around his board and his alumni at Princeton, around his party and legislature in New Jersey. He even thought he could go around rival Mexican leaders, speaking to and for the peons; and at Versailles he presumed to tell world leaders what their respective people were demanding of them. I thought of Wilson immediately when Carter told the UN he could empathize with Third World countries since he comes from a deprived sector of his own nation.
But these “resemblances,” like others that could be listed, just mislead. So far Carter seems, with the possible exception of Eisenhower, the least Wilsonian of recent presidents. In fact, he would have a hard time being Wilsonian even if he wanted to—for reasons indirectly spelled out in Godfrey Hodgson’s America in Our Time. The book, though hefty, is almost self-effacing. It reads like a college survey text, with the literacy put back in. Once in paperback, it will no doubt be used in many college courses, replacing inadequate books relied on for that purpose now. It simply gets right, without great fuss, the detail and proportion of things like the civil rights movement, student unrest, the stages of our Vietnam engagement. Hodgson is authoritative without being stuffy—he deftly works in bits of personal reminiscence, notes from interviews he took as a journalist in the Sixties.
Hodgson knows and profits from the work of some “revisionists” without joining them. Instead, his book becomes part of a growing literature he never cites—that dealing with the end of modern liberalism. This liberalism, foreshadowed with uncanny thoroughness by Wilson, reached its last form when the New Deal was merged with the Cold War—i.e., when state capitalism blended with an ideology of non-ideological imperialism. All components of this mixture denied their own reality to begin with; and their combination just multiplied unrealities.
Though the bulk of Hodgson’s book deals with the 1960s, he knows that the story really begins in the 1940s—and that it had its roots, back even beyond the New Deal, in the gathering of men around Woodrow Wilson at Versailles in 1919: William Bullitt, Joseph Grew, John Foster and Allen Dulles, Walter Lippmann, Adolf Berle. These young men, with such kindred spirits from the Bull Moose movement as Dean Acheson, would later fight each other, as they squabbled around Wilson’s effort and failure at Versailles. But they were fighting to save Wilsonism, if need be from Wilson himself. They were heirs to the Woodrovian dream—were, that is, what Lloyd Gardner has called our “architects of illusion.” They would save the dream by being tough-minded; but tough always in the service of ideals—what Wilson called “high-minded” and “forward-looking” values. They would try to OSS and CIA and FBI and Green Beret the world into safety for democracy. The continuity of their effort is what Hodgson sees as a matter of course and depicts convincingly.
Hodgson does not fall into the error of the first revisionists of cold war history—those liberals appalled by Hiroshima. Such men, following the lead of D.F. Fleming, constructed a mythical Roosevelt whose dream of postwar harmony was betrayed by Harry Truman. Even the later revisionists, who escape such crudities, tend to see betrayal and conspiracy where Hodgson recognizes the logic of Wilsonian liberalism working itself out. The real defense of Truman’s decision to drop the bomb is that it was no decision at all. Despite a peripheral few voices of fear, magnified by our later yearning to hear them, the bomb was dropped because it was meant to be dropped, and few men in places of sufficient power could bring themselves to doubt the benignity of our intentions. The same thing would explain our irreversible inertia into Vietnam.
The postwar “end of ideology” really put an end to doubts about our particular dream—the universalizing of the American “system,” the containing of the communist world until everyone had the time and opportunity to prefer our “free world.” It is typical of Kennedy’s version of this dream that he planned covert acts of violence to contain communism while he sent Peace Corps emissaries to convince the world of the beauty of our system.
Our system—not our ideology (we thought we did not have one); not our philosophy (we were “open” to the free market of ideas, not exponents of any one view); not our “-ism” (not even Americanism, for our system should be everybody’s, not confinable to any one nation—any more than communism could be thought of as nationalistic). Communism—the basic stuff, however bottled in Russia or China or the “captive nations”—was countered, we thought, by nothing more rigid than freedom. It was just because communism was a philosophy, an ideology, that it led to slavery. We, by lacking such intellectual bondage, were the examples of freedom to all men, and its vindicators before them (or upon them).
This all seems so obvious to most Americans, they still cannot bring themselves to believe that the rest of the world does not arrange reality around these very same poles. Only the brainwashing of slave governments could make people reject our system. Yet a world poll, taken in what Kennedy repeatedly called “the free world,” showed last year that most citizens, even outside the communist sphere, do not want America’s system, despite our prosperity.
Of course, what others see as our “system” is capitalism, by which they normally mean a competitive individualism. Again, Americans cannot see what is wrong with that. And both sides are discussing a nonexistent thing. America’s system has, in practice, been one of state capitalism. Our “conservatives” are entrepreneurs of mobility and expansion—their “stake” in society is that least conservative thing, capitalism; and the state, lacking an establishment of church or nobles to uphold, has supported and urged on the paradoxical “robber barons” of our ruling class, our licensed marauders. The textbook example of this was, of course, the Gilded Age of railroad Senators, gunboat Diplomats, and corporation Judges. But America’s second greatest time of business prosperity (underwritten by the government) was that explosion out of the Depression, World War II, when 90 percent of the fat new government contracts went to ten corporations.
To uphold the myth of a free market, the pro-business controls of the Forties were thought of as temporary war measures. Afterward, our system ran on cold war energies and contracts, with Keynesian “tunings” of the market (not the terrible “controls”), and we took this as a vindication of “freedom.” When we restored (with our state money) the economy of West Germany on its former industrial base, this was called an economic miracle demonstrating that “the market” succeeds.
Meanwhile, the real economic miracle took place in Russia—a huge country incompletely industrialized even before the war, with its urban centers ravaged by the war, in which some 20 million people died. In less time than it took America to settle the West, but by similar methods of state capitalism, Russia became a superpower. Its concentration on a war economy repeated the devices by which America finally licked the Depression in the 1940s—and left us with two state-capitalist systems, expansive, backed by military power, each assuming its own righteousness and the other’s evil.
Of course, the minute one makes these observations, one is accused of saying “there is no difference” between Russia and America. That is like saying there was no difference between nineteenth-century Spain and nineteenth-century France because they were both Catholic. A thousand things temper even as rigid and long-standing and far-reaching an “ideology” as Catholicism (national ethos, family tradition, local circumstance, stage of development, language, contact with outsiders, etc.)—just as a thousand real things differentiate siblings from each other. Yet it is as important to notice the continuities as the discontinuities between nineteenth-century Catholic countries.
In the same way, Russia and America (and China, now, to some extent) share a state-capitalist system that makes professions of radically different economies hollow—at least as each side tries to cast that distinction: our mythical free-market, against their mythical workers’ socialism. Given this observation, all other differences must be weighed on their own terms. Russia differs from America (or, for that matter, from China) by national tradition, social bonds, and constitutional history. Russia is as authoritarian by tradition as China—but eccentrist too; not nearly as puritanical; a bit hedonist, in fact, and tending to buffoonery. But not individualist, as America is. Even a dissident like Solzhenitsyn is simply a different kind of authoritarian.
Grant all these differences—including the important lack of a framework for free speech in the entire legal history of Russia—and one comes to new appreciation of the absurdity of each side’s account of the contrast. And the trouble is that those differences—of “socialism” vs. “freedom”—are put to the test in every conceivable arena, from the refrigerators of Nixon’s kitchen debate, through muscle-flexing at the Olympics, to the way we chased each other around the moon. These graded points of contrast are presented as equal demonstrations of difference between the two worlds. Our space programs are the perfect example of state capitalism in both cases. Russian subvention of athletes repeats in near-parody our state-capitalist approach to universal education.* And the Russian lag in consumer goods can remind us of the repressive labor policies of our Gilded Age, when capital had to be thrown into one form or another of expansion westward.
I state here these truisms (which only seem paradoxes to Americans) because Hodgson, a friendly outsider in this country, sees right through our liberal Emperor’s clothes and reports what he sees with stunning clarity. He sees the end of liberalism; and he knows this is not a failure of the left, but a failure to have a left. (There is nothing less deliberately funny than the posing of our CIA liberals as brave dissenters.) Liberalism has failed because its “system” is failing, in both its chosen spheres—the economic and the political.
In education, for example, each society's stated values get almost exactly reversed—we distribute training more broadly, they concentrate on the skills of a relatively few individuals.↩
In education, for example, each society’s stated values get almost exactly reversed—we distribute training more broadly, they concentrate on the skills of a relatively few individuals.↩