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.
The economic system was based on the assumption of two earthly infinites—infinite growth and the infinite desire for growth products. Both are challenged now, in fact and theory. We no longer have a continent to explode across (as in the 1870s). Nor a world (as in the 1940s). Not even a universe; though John F. Kennedy tried to make our “new frontier” the sterile surface of the moon.
The efficient rapacity of our raider-rulers has made consumption expand at a dizzying rate, equaled only by the rate at which resources diminish—air, earth, fuel, and water. At the same time, the assumption of consumer-want has run up against a psychological dissatisfaction with competitive ranking (cf. Fred Hirsch’s Social Limits to Growth, reviewed here March 3, 1977), and a growing realization that social unrest cannot be bought off with the hopes and rewards of indefinite expansion. We must face in express terms the problem that growth was meant to avoid, or to solve by automatic increments—the problem of distribution. The just division of a smaller and smaller product is a notion still so unfamiliar to Americans that even raising it causes talk of being un-American, a “doom-sayer,” a “narcissist.”
The failure of our political system was signaled in the 1960s when the very term “system” moved over in popular use from the sphere of economics to that of politics. We first heard the injunction to “work within the system” when that system faced direct challenge from civil rights demonstrators, antiwar protestors, and draft-resisters. The injunction meant: work within the electoral system. If you want change, vote for it, run a candidate for it, support a party for it. The free market of men and ideas would produce the best rulers and policies. But secret wars and covert operations revealed, in vivid ways, the dull perennial truth of our politics—that major decisions are untouchable by the electoral process. Elections mute debate, remove important questions as divisive. Just as the way to get Americans into a war is first to get elected by promising not to get them into a war (1916, 1940, 1964), so the best way to feed and prolong a war is to put it to sleep in two-year cycles, removing it from electoral pressures (1966, 1968, 1970, 1972).
Hodgson comes to us with no prescriptions or predictions; he does not even use other authors who have seen from differing angles the end of modern liberalism—e.g., Fred Hirsch, Theodore Lowi, Robert Paul Wolff, Lloyd Gardner. This may make his testimony more convincing. His analysis is simply description of a very clear-eyed sort. And the provocative (but very poorly written) essay by Paul N. Goldstene shows how limited theoretical prescription can be while diagnosis is still so hotly debated. Goldstene pulls together random verdicts on liberalism’s failure, and then hopes that science—submissive to the structure of reality—may save us, using the university system as its social instrument. (Goldstene generously quotes from my Nixon Agonistes; but ignores in print the chapter—“Liberals”—that is both closest to his thought and farthest from it. There I offer the university’s structure as the supreme example of liberal self-delusion.)
Goldstene rightly sees that modern liberalism is an attempt to evade responsibility and power by having a system—a process—work things out automatically. If the system is fair, all must submit to it, though its product looks distinctly fishy. A prize sample of the evasion of responsibility is given us in Bruce Andrews’s monograph on “public constraint.” He shows how our rulers evoke a presumed counterstress to their own views as a way of justifying, mechanically, a vector-product of social forces—e.g., support for the Cuban missile ultimatum, or Vietnam war moves, to head off right-wing extremism.
The war in Vietnam was “legitimate,” which made it unnecessary to discuss its morality. What Goldstene discusses as the problem of power is more accurately identified as the problem of elites. Society is, in fact, led and shaped and ruled by elites. Goldstene does not like the power elite of state capitalism, so he turns to the knowledge elite. He does not recognize the existence of a moral elite. Dr. King wrought more, and more beneficial, changes in American society than did, say, John F. Kennedy. From the time of the abolitionists, much of the power to alter our liberal society has come from religions or philosophies that do not recognize the sacredness of the liberal system—that challenge it by “direct action,” that refuse to let morality be displaced by legitimacy. What American political thought needs, in place of a liberalism that denied in theory the role of elites, is precisely a theory of elites—not only of who rules, but of who should rule, and how.
We have wandered far from Jimmy Carter—and Hodgson, of course, does not bring his narrative up to last fall’s election campaign. But if Hodgson is right, then such a campaign was not a freak, mere showmanship, but a sign of failure in the system. If liberalism is indeed ailing, then we should expect just what we saw in that campaign—disillusionment with electoral politics; yearning for moral statement, cutting through arguments about the mechanics of legitimacy; an expression of national humility—a recognition of human and ecological limits. And we saw this, remember, not only in Carter’s campaign but, in varying degrees, among the workers for Jerry Brown and Fred Harris and Mo Udall. This is popularly explained (to be dismissed) as a “post-Watergate” phenomenon. The merely personal triumph of Jimmy Carter is made to depend on the merely personal failure of Richard Nixon. But Nixon’s own success was a sign, as I have argued elsewhere, of crack-up in the system—an attempt to restore it on fundamentalist terms. Nixon was not just a freak or sport of our politics; and neither is Carter.
Granted, much of Carter’s attitude is presumably day-to-day showmanship responsive to a passing public mood. But even on this level he is exonerated from Wilsonism. His religiosity is personal, not a public righteousness. Wilson was a denier of the very limits Carter emphasizes. Wilson wanted to impose a virtuous Americanism on the world. Carter has coupled his denunciations of repressive measures elsewhere with extraordinary presidential admissions of American failure—just as he confessed to Southern sinfulness as governor of Georgia, and hung the portrait of Dr. King, who challenged both the liberal court system and the Southern practices of segregation.
This expression of Southern guilt is important, for the South has always stood outside the modern liberal system. It was despised for doing so, even before (and aside from) proper horror at its racist policies of segregation. The South has known defeat as well as guilt. Its real crime is to acknowledge the possibility of failure, something not provided for in the automatic processes of liberal progress. Its optimism has always been tempered by both realism and religion. Its piety was as sincere as its repression—though liberals thought both attitudes hypocritical. The South’s doubts about the American system gave its writers an extraordinary freedom from the shallow orthodoxy of American secularists.
Thus Carter could see the moral force of Dr. King’s assault on the system. He knew that personal guilt and holiness are rarely expressible in terms of an inclusive ideology. That is what really differentiates his approach to human rights from Wilson’s. Carter is attacked for lacking consistency, for being harsher on some offenders than on others, for asking Congress to leave him “flexible” in dealing with necessary allies who are guilty of repressive policies. But as a Southerner he had to deal with many people implicated in the vast evil of racism, while maintaining his recognition that the racist evil was, indeed, vast. That is not inconsistency. It is, plain and simple, morality. Only a liberal belief in the system attempts the crazy consistency that made Kennedy and others speak in a univocal way of a “free world” that included Sixties Spain and Greece and Korea.
A righteous Wilson never had to deal with the vicious, because he defined as virtuous anyone who would receive him, or defer to him. In practical terms, this meant that anyone who cooperated with America against communism was a leader of the free world—Chiang, Franco, Battista, Diem, Park, whoever. Actually, there was something to say for most of these rulers; but it could not be said in the language of the liberal program, which divided the whole world into two categories of virtue and vice. The same things could be said of them, with respect to national tradition and exonerating local circumstance, that can be said (for instance) of differences among Russian, Chinese, or Italian communists.
Carter does not seem to subscribe to such schematization of the world into “us” and “them.” He denounces human evil when and where and how he can, using notions of basic decency (that Southern schoolmarm quality, what “good folk” do), not those of ideological polarities. He is limited by the need to survive in a sinful world, as all moral men are. It is precisely this recognition of limit that separates him from modern liberals. He knows it is nonsense to think we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We have evil to fear.
The same fear of evil seems to prompt Carter’s unconventionally fervent talk of eliminating nuclear weapons. American rulers, in recent decades, have been the Hiroshima Liberals. Hiroshima was the moment when total war was turned into a way of waging total peace. Wilson entered World War I, late and lamely, not because we were needed, or had ceased to be a people “too proud to fight”; but to lend the world America’s virtue in working out peace arrangements. In World War II, total surrender was not enough to satisfy our armed idealists. Peace would come as the demonstration of unrivaled (unrivalable) power to lead the free world, efficiency setting the seal of virtue on our conquest, nothing succeeding like this excess. Hiroshima was the torch of peace—Churchill, in the Fifties, said it was the only thing that had kept us from World War III.
Even when Russia’s swift nuclear progress made our bomb no longer the warrantor of peace, liberalism found it hard to renounce. If the bomb could be invented, it could be mastered. If it could be mastered, it had to be embraced—like the moon—because “it was there.” There is something profoundly reluctant, in the nature of liberalism itself, to surrendering the fruits of science and progress and knowledge. After all, for over a century we had been taught that these products would not only be good, but would—by succeeding—bear the proof of goodness on their face.
Carter seems outside all that kind of inevitable talk about the good succeeding. Failed people do not talk that way. He inveighs against the evil of nuclear knowledge with a certain preacher’s tone that has been called naïve. Yet he knows more about nuclear processes than any other president in our history. What puzzles those who knew previous leaders is his apparent lack of adoration for his own field of expertise.
Carter has been accused of saying too much and too little, in public, of his first nuclear offer to the Russians. He has been accused of demanding too much (in cutting back Soviet ICBMs) and too little (in holding onto our Cruise missile). He sprang too much too soon on the Russians. But how do you ease up to the sane position of proposing a cutback? SALT had not envisioned this sin against progress—it would have coordinated “progress” by putting a “cap” on either side. It did not flirt with the heresy of a large-scale cutback. Carter does.
Liberal critics think Carter may be using the Cruise missile to prevent cutbacks. I see no clear evidence for that. Admittedly, he asked for more than he gave in the first go-round of Russian negotiation. What else could he do? Scoop Jackson, now about to be over-shadowed by all five or so Pat Moynihans, resented even the cap put on weapons by SALT. What chance of Senate support would Carter have if he offered, at the outset, to give up Cruise missiles in his cutback scheme? His only bargaining tool for a reduction of Russian “muscle” is a deliberate slowing of American “reflexes.” But he cannot promise that, without some tough prior bargaining. His treatment of Russian dissidents suggests not only that Carter wants to help them, but that he realizes how our hawks can use a Solzhenitsyn against arms control.
I do not expect the truly original impulses of our society to come from an elected president. A Kennedy can never be a King. So Carter will not take the lead in dismantling our state capitalism. A businessman himself, he shows no sign of wanting to do that. But his awareness of limit checks the expansive confidence and cult of endless growth that fueled such capitalism in the past. (Southern support for the New Deal was always more populist than liberal, the voice of an entire region’s comparative poverty, not a yearning to repair the market.) And Carter does expect a new degree of accountability from business, as we see by his appointment of consumer advocates to important posts in the departments. His is the first administration to take Naderism seriously. His Law Day speech of 1974 signaled a concern over government by special interests:
“I see the lobbyists in the state capital filling the halls on occasion. Good people, competent people, the most pleasant, personable, extroverted citizens of Georgia. Those are the characteristics that are required for a lobbyist. They represent good folks. But I tell you that when a lobbyist goes to represent the Peanut Warehousemen’s Association of the Southeast, which I belong to, which I helped to organize, they go there to represent the peanut warehouseman. They don’t go there to represent the customers of the peanut warehouseman.
When the State Chamber of Commerce lobbyists go there, they go there to represent the businessman of Georgia. They don’t go there to represent the customers of the businessman of Georgia. When your own organization is interested in some legislation there in the capital, they’re interested in the welfare or prerogatives or authority of the lawyers. They are not there to represent in any sort of exclusive way the clients of the lawyers. The American Medical Association and its Georgia equivalent—they represent the doctors, who are fine people. But they certainly don’t represent the patients of the doctors. As elected governor, I feel that responsibility.”
I wrote here, last year, that I feared Carter might become a great president, like Roosevelt. It was too much to hope, then, that he would be a “failure” like Eisenhower. But already he gives a hint or two of some new possibility—that he might not be a liberal “success” or a nonliberal failure, but the first of our post-liberal presidents. The odds are long against his checking the power of corporate bureaucracy. But he is hard to explain unless we suppose that he is trying to do just that.
(This is the second part of a two-part article.)
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.↩