[This review appeared in the Conservative Review, September/October 1997, pp. 34-38.]


Book Review

The Costs of War: America's Pyrrhic Victories

John V. Denson, editor

Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, 1997

Reviewed by Dwight D. Murphey


            As I read this insightful and provocative collection of essays by leading classical liberals about the destructive effects of war on individual liberty, I was reminded of just how broad the spectrum of opinion is within American "conservatism." My grandparents were "conservative" in many things. Deeply patriotic, they thought the United States' intervention against Germany in World War I was unquestionably justified. It would have shocked them to suggest otherwise. My grandfather was also a devotee of Lincoln, and it would have scandalized him to suggest that Lincoln was anything but a gentle savior of his country.

            Significantly, the authors of the essays collected here express very different opinions -- nevertheless starting from core beliefs similar to those of my grandparents. Most of the essays are based on papers presented at the "Cost of War Conference" in Atlanta in May 1994, a conference organized by the Ludwig von Mises Institute at Auburn University. It is probably unnecessary to explain to readers of Conservative Review that Mises and the whole Austrian School of Economics to which he belonged have been leading thinkers within classical liberalism, the philosophy of individual liberty.

            The primary difference between the Miseans and my grandparents is that the former are intellectuals (in the best sense) pondering deeply all of the issues in society, theoretical and practical, while my grandparents were far more "conventional Americans" with a love of their country. There is quite a difference between patriotically accepting things, such as Lincoln or World War I, at face value and actually probing them from an elaborated philosophical perspective. These can lead to startlingly different conclusions, even if a similar initial outlook informs both.

            A contrast in perceptions is even more sharply drawn if we consider the difference between a Jacobinical and a non-Jacobinical devotion to liberty. It is possible to say, as the Jacobins of the French Revolution or the nihilists of nineteenth century Russia in effect did, that "any violation of individual liberty is intolerable, and we should welcome any number of deaths on the scaffold to effect its correction." Applied in American history, that Jacobinical spirit would have argued, as the more radical Abolitionists did, that "slavery is so grave a breach of the principles of personal liberty that any cost, including a Civil War taking the lives of 600,000 soldiers and leaving the South in ruins, is not only justified but demanded, if that is what it takes to remove the stain."

            I am not sure why this isn't the view taken by the Misean contributors to this book, since no one is more committed to consistency in advocating a free society than they are. But they rightly choose to see consistency as best served without a Jacobinical excess. This comes from taking into account considerations that Jacobins overlook. These tell them that to take a Jacobinical "save-the-world-for-liberty" approach is to adopt means that ultimately are destructive to liberty itself. Accordingly, they don't see it as incumbent on a free society to crusade, as the United States has through so much of the twentieth century, to "save the world for democracy." And, thinking back further, they would have preferred to have seen slavery disappear through historic obsolescence even though that would have required a sort of patience that champions of principle almost inherently abhor. To be patient requires accepting, at least for a time, a less-than-perfect world.

            These thoughts about the differences in approach among people basically committed to the same principles are a prelude to what is most called for in this review: to urge our readers to take this book seriously and, whatever a reader's views may be about a given historic issue, to accept the challenge and stimulus that its provocative views offer. Few indeed should read The Costs of War expecting to be confirmed in the opinions they already hold, unless they have already studied a lot of less-than-conventional history. They should read it to be introduced to insights they may not have considered before. All the while, if they are conservatives, they can be assured that the essayists share their fundamental commitment to individual liberty.

Some of the Issues Discussed

            In all, seventeen authors contribute to The Costs of War. John Denson, a lawyer who is vice chairman of the Mises Institute, provides the Introduction and an extensive first chapter on "War and American Freedom" that reviews American history and states well the classical liberal case that our wars have contributed mightily to the growth of "the warfare-welfare state." Other authors include Samuel Francis, the brilliant and outspoken columnist; the recently deceased Murray Rothbard, a principal figure in mid-to-late-twentieth century libertarian thought; Thomas Fleming and Allan Carlson of the Rockford Institute that publishes Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture; history professor Ralph Raico; Paul Gottfried of Elizabethtown College, who formerly edited The World and I; and others of distinguished pedigree. One of these others is Eugene Sledge, who brings home the horrible reality of war with his account of having fought as a U.S. Marine in the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa.

            Here is just a sample of the subjects discussed:

            1. An insight that is new to me comes in Denson's discussion of the Civil War. Drawing on the work of David Hackett Fischer, he describes a parallel between the Civil War and the clash between the Puritans and the Cavaliers in the English Civil War during the seventeenth century. The "authoritarian New England intelligentsia" found their roots in the Puritans who had settled Massachusetts; the gentlemanly Southerners traced their roots to the Cavaliers, who settled Virginia. Murray Rothbard speaks of the Puritans and their descendants as "postmillennial pietist Protestantism," and reflects his anti-Jacobinical perspective when he thoroughly dislikes their schoolmarm-like intolerance.

            2. The authors can generally be placed in the "anti-interventionist American foreign policy tradition," about which Justin Raimondo provides a lengthy chapter. This places them with the "Old Right" of the America First movement, which took seriously George Washington's injunction against entanglement in the affairs of Europe. Until Raimondo's chapter, I had not read much about the America First advocates, so I had only the most vague awareness that they were actually American patriots who wanted the United States to continue its long tradition. Raimondo points out that they were subjected to "an exercise in character assassination unparalleled in the history of this country." (In this, we might add, they experienced the same treatment as any articulate anti-Communist.)

            3. The Spanish-American War is rightly seen as a turning-point in which the United States abandoned the non-interventionist foreign policy that had guided it for over a century. It is also the war in which the United States flirted with Empire, very much at odds with its old republicanism. The war began with a "provocation," the sinking of the Maine, as to which "the credible evidence now seems conclusive that the explosion ... came from inside the ship, and can no longer be blamed on Spain." Further, Spain had already agreed "to all of the essential terms" of the settlement President McKinley had proposed.

            There are salutary reminders here. Future Americans should view with some skepticism both the precipitating event that leads to war and the policies that may continue a war beyond the time it reasonably should end. Hurried mass hysteria over "provocations" necessarily precludes close evidentiary inquiry; and wars are sometimes continued, at great cost, unnecessarily. In 1945 before the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan essentially agreed to all of the terms that the United States ultimately accepted. Thus, the parallel to 1898 is uncanny.

            4. The authors' views about Winston Churchill are decidedly unfavorable, despite credit duly given to him for having played his 1940 role superbly. An early advocate of the welfare state and a devotee of what he considered the glories of war, Churchill was party to enormities so vast that they virtually defy comprehension: his role in establishing the hunger blockade against Germany in World War I that is said to have taken the lives of 750,000 Germans; his adoption of terror-bombing of civilians in German cities as a principal means of fighting World War II; his insistence on Germany's unconditional surrender and his approval of the Morgenthau Plan that would have made post-war Germany a wasteland; his role in the forced repatriation of two million people to Stalin, and the turning over to Stalin of the Cossacks, who had never been subjects of the Soviet Union; his agreement to German slave labor as a form of reparations; and the ousting of fifteen million Germans from their "ancestral homes" in eastern Germany so that Poland's border could be moved further west (while Stalin took what had been eastern Poland). Churchill's was a complex life, and a brief recounting of certain aspects doesn't do it justice; but an objective study of Churchill must include a reading of this book.

            There is much more, all of it provocative and well argued.

Points to Ponder

            The Costs of War is a thoughtful book and deserves to be greeted with reflection. In that spirit, I offer a discussion of certain of the ideas voiced by its authors:

            1. No attention is given to whether the United States must be militarily strong as a preventative to war. Denson rightly says that "liberty is fragile and its defense cannot be left to the pacifist, the advocate of unilateral disarmament, or to the weak or faint of heart." But this runs counter to the book's overwhelming emphasis, and nowhere is there stress on what the costs of military weakness might be. If the authors had wished to explore this, they might well have taken up the events that led to the Korean War, where shortly after World War II the United States withdrew its forces after the Soviet Union had just transformed Communist North Korea into a military power. This was followed by Secretary of State Acheson's famous speech six months before the North Korean invasion that omitted South Korea from the perimeter the United States intended to defend. It was weakness that invited the invasion of June 25, 1950.

            2. Ralph Raico devotes a paragraph to it, but otherwise no attention is given to the monstrous incongruity that was exemplified when the United States and England went into what was in effect a holy war against Hitler while allying themselves with Stalin, whose butcheries were at the time well established and far greater than Hitler's. Former president Herbert Hoover was urging that the United States let the two dictatorships fight each other to exhaustion. Since the authors in The Cost of War are sympathetic to U.S. non-interventionism, one would think that this morally and practically perverse support of one tyrant as against another would engage their attention as one of the central facts about World War II. This is a moral reflection that questions the entire image we have of World War II, but the authors aren't reluctant to tackle such issues when they see them.

            The fact is that the United States, and unfortunately the American people, have long been led to adopt much of the Left's view of the world. The double-standard applied to Hitler and Stalin remains central to our thinking today, as we see regularly on television with the many documentaries about the Holocaust while there are none (or virtually none) about the enormities under Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. We see it, too, in the non-existent public reaction to Mike Tyson's having a portrait of Mao tattooed on one arm. Imagine the reaction if it were a portrait of Hitler.

            3. For the most part, the authors see the anti-Communism of the Cold War as little more than a continuation of Wilsonian interventionism, an extension of the United States' "policeman of the world" mentality.

            We can agree that there was a destructive "policeman of the world" outlook, embodying the Puritan insistence on active perfectionism, in the Spanish-American War and in the American intervention into World War I. We can further agree that the recent "humanitarian" interventions in Haiti, Somalia and Bosnia are of a similar sort, full of dangerous portent for the United States if their guiding principle continues to activate us.

            But can we reasonably say the same about American leadership in opposing Communist expansionism (not very consistently or effectively, to be sure) during the decades that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union? The authors' outlook seems predicated on the premise that Communism was going to collapse anyway, so that our intervention wasn't called for and amounted, then, to deadly meddling. After all, Mises had long argued that Communism couldn't work because, forsaking a market system of competitive pricing, it lacked a "rational system of economic calculation."

            The hindsight of the Soviet Union's collapse gives this more plausibility than it deserves. It is a point upon which, this reviewer is afraid, the Miseans allow ideology to override their good sense. It wasn't very long ago that surrogates of the Soviet Union and Communist China were actively subverting every non-Communist regime in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Hundreds of millions of people fell under brutal totalitarian power. The idea that that was no threat to the existence of the United States, and that "non-interventionism" demanded that we do nothing for our active defense until the first enemy soldier stepped ashore in the United States, is innocuous enough now, but was dangerous nonsense at the time. If the authors are wrong on this point, it essentially invalidates the thinking that informs their perspective of the Cold War and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. (This is not to say that there is not much to criticize about the way the United States chose to fight those wars.)

            4. We have already seen how the authors eschew an "ideological" lock-step approach to classical liberalism in their opposition to a Jacobinical insistence on militant perfectionism. But they hold to what is otherwise a fairly tightly woven set of deductive principles, and don't totally avoid lock-step thinking. They aren't inclined to see much that's good in anything government does, including the American government, and especially that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It follows all-too-easily for them, then, to agree with the slanders about the U.S. relocation of the Japanese-Americans from the west coast during World War II. Conservatives who are primarily actuated by their American patriotism will instinctively look behind the slanders, at which time they will see that the relocation was conducted humanely, with arguably greater restraint than was justified under the circumstances, and out of the most dire necessity. (See this reviewer's article on the relocation in the Jan./Feb. 1993 issue of Conservative Review.) It is a shame that members of the American "Right" disagree about such a thing. The explanation may be that the Miseans, ideologically lacking motivation to question what has by now become the conventional wisdom on the Japanese-American relocation, have permitted themselves to accept unquestioningly the alienated Left's perspective.

            5. It is worth noting that in some things there is an eerie similarity between the Miseans and the New Left -- or so it seems. The Miseans are so opposed to the warfare-welfare state that has taken possession of the United States in the twentieth century that some of what they say seems oddly at home with the bitter anti-"establishment" fulminations of the 1960s New Left radicals. This was personified thirty years ago when Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess went over to the New Left.

            Care should be taken to distinguish the two positions, since they are best understood as enemies, not friends. The New Left's alienation was against capitalism and the Enlightenment (see Jerry Rubin's tirade Do It!); the Miseans, by contrast, are thoroughly for the market economy, and no group qualifies more completely as children of the Enlightenment. Fundamentally, the New Left and the Austrian School are opposites.

            6. One of the most important strategic issues during World War II was whether English and American forces should continue the Italian campaign up into the "soft underbelly" of central Europe and the Balkans as distinct from starting a "second front" as they did at Normandy. The former would have gotten our armies to eastern and central Europe ahead of the Red Army, preventing the Communization of the countries there. Churchill fought hard for the "soft underbelly" strategy. He was overridden when Roosevelt sided with Stalin in favor of a western "second front."

            It is significant, then, when Ralph Raico argues in his essay on Churchill that "there is little, if any, contemporary evidence that the desire to beat the Russians to Vienna and Budapest formed any part of Churchill's motivation in advocating the 'soft underbelly' strategy." And when he quotes General Albert Wedemeyer to the effect that the soft underbelly strategy would not have been logistically feasible.

            This question, put in issue, deserves much more discussion among those who see its importance. Although I have deep respect for Raico, I am not prepared to take his understanding of it as final. Hanson Baldwin, in his 1949 book Great Mistakes of the War, says that the British [i.e., Churchill] "believed an invasion through the 'soft underbelly' would catch the German Army in the rear ... [and] clearly were thinking of winning the peace as well as the war." He adds that Churchill "knew possession was nine-tenths of the law." Accordingly, Churchill "did hope that Central Europe could be liberated first by the Western Allies." As to the military feasibility of a 'soft underbelly' strategy, General Mark Clark took a different view than Wedemeyer's; Clark said that "after the fall of Rome, Kesselring's [German] army could have been destroyed if we had been able to shoot the works in a final offensive. Across the Adriatic was Yugoslavia ... and beyond Yugoslavia were Vienna, Budapest, and Prague." He considered it "a high-level blunder" that "turned us away from the Balkan states and permitted them to fall under Red Army control." He obviously did not consider such a campaign militarily impossible.

            7. One more point is worth making before we conclude. What settles in as the conventional wisdom about any war tends strongly to be the version of the war that was presented in the wartime propaganda of the winning side. This is a conventional wisdom that in no sense deserves to be enshrined, in most cases, as permanently accepted "historical truth." This means that there should precisely be an honored place for intelligent "revisionist history." Such historical inquiry should be something that academic historians can be counted on to perform, in the normal pursuit of objective scholarship. It would be interesting to inquire into why academic historians, protected by tenure and given lots of time and institutional support to do their work, can't be counted on to be the principal source for independent and thoroughly competent and objective reevaluations. But for the most part they can't be.

            "Historical revisionism," then, is a high and honorable calling. Any historical view should be evaluated on its merits in light of reason and the evidence. Neither a particular revisionism nor "conventionally accepted history" deserves an unquestioned place on a pedestal. It is especially in that context that The Costs of War is heartily to be recommended.