For the first thirty years of the twentieth century, when there was trouble on the peripheries of the emerging U.S. empire in the form of rebellions, bandits, or resistence, Washington could always rely on one soldier to restore order. Invariably, days after his appearance, newspapers nationwide would carry the identical headline, “The Marines arrived and everything is quiet.”
So how did it happen that, after three decades as a reliable hatchetman, this soldier turned and took aim at the same military, financial, and political leaders whom he had served?
Smedley Darlington Butler was born 140 years ago to the day in West Chester, Pennsylvania, a descendent of the prominent Darlington family of Quakers and the son of Congressman Thomas S. Butler, future Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee.
When the United States declared war on Spain in April 1898, the sixteen year old attempted to enlist and was denied because of his youth—his congressman father went so far as to have his name blacklisted among local recruiting stations. Bucking paternal coddling, Butler fled the coop and successfully enlisted in the Marine Corps as a Second Lieutenant by falsely giving the birthdate of his older brother.
The spotlight shone on him as soon as he landed at Guantanamo Bay. His reckless courage garnered the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, then commander of the Rough Riders in Cuba. The future president called the young Marine “the ideal American soldier,” simply “the finest fighting man in the armed forces.” Supporters would positively compare Smedley to TR for the rest of his life.
What followed in short order were deployments to the Philippines, China (where Butler was wounded during the Boxer Rebellion), and Honduras. Briefly returning stateside, he married Ethel C. Peters, the daughter of a wealthy railroad executive with whom he would have three children. Joined by his young bride, Butler would return to the Philippines before spending the turn of the decade leading a Marine battalion into battles in Panama and Nicaragua.
In 1914, during President Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in the Mexican Civil War, Major Butler found himself stationed with a battleship squadron off the coast of Veracruz. In coordination with his commanding officer, Butler dawned civilian clothes and sneaked to shore. Once in Mexico City, the Marine posed as various alter egos (including a railroad employee, private investigator, and geologist), bluffing his way into inspecting Meixcan troop arrangements before returning to the fleet with vital information. If his disguise had been discovered at any time, he would have been promptly shot as a spy.
The next year, during the American pacification of Haiti, Butler led a storming party of Marines at the Battle of Fort Rivière, scaling a 300-foot embankment before he and two other men crawled through a drain pipe to capture the stronghold from the dozens of rebels inside. He remained in-country for a time to organize and command the Gendarmerie, the enforcement arm of the U.S. occupation (which would continue until 1934).
For his actions in Mexico and Haiti, Smedley Butler became the first U.S. service member to earn two Medals of Honor. In the century since his accomplishment, only eighteen other men have been able to match it. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels called Butler “a steam engine in breeches…He doesn’t know what fear is.”
When the United States entered World War I, Butler was deployed to France—not as a fighter, surprisingly, but as an administrator. Promoted to Brigadier General in October 1918, he was placed in charge of the demarcation depot at Brest, the gateway for the U.S. Expeditionary Force. “Thin and wire-tough, with a raptor’s nose and a glare so fierce his men called him ‘Old Gimlet Eye,’” historian Geoffrey C. Ward describes it, Butler transformed the camp from a sea of mud into an orderly way station in a matter of weeks.
After the war, as Commandant of the Marine barracks at Quantico, Butler “had a reputation for blunt, honest talk, complete honesty, impatience, and an insistence on discipline,” writes historian Ellen C. Leichtman. This no-nonsense notoriety led the mayor of Philadelphia to request that General Butler be sent on “loan” from the corps to take control of the city’s police force and sweep away the crime and corruption that had become rampant during Prohibition.
In January 1924 Smedley Butler was sworn in (wearing his Marine uniform) as the Director of Public Safety in Philadelphia. Within one week he and his police raids had shut down or destroyed 973 out of a reported 1,200 underground saloons and speakeasies in the city. “Whether a law is right or wrong, all law has got to be enforced. And if you do not want law enforced, do not call upon a Marine to help you out,” Butler said. When his leave of absence expired in December 1925, the mayor and the city’s social elite (whose Ritz-Carlton booze parties Butler had crashed) were happy to see him leave.
The maverick Marine’s career in his beloved corps ended less than fortuitously. After spending another year in China (not so much a soldier as a consummate diplomat), he was promoted to Major General in 1929 just shy of 48 years old. But when there was an opening for Commandant of the Marines, the highest position in the branch, Butler was snubbed in favor of someone with more seniority but less experience.
Shortly after being passed over, Butler caused an international incident when, giving an address at a club in Philadelphia, he recounted a story of Benito Mussolini being a hit-and-run driver, speeding over a child and continuing on his way. The Italian embassy lodged a formal complaint. Il Duce received an apology from the U.S. government, and Smedley Butler received a court-martial (immediately dropped due to public outrage in favor of a reprimand). In the aftermath, Mussolin’s passenger, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., authenticated the chilling story.
Smedley Butler retired from the service on October 1, 1931. In his thirty-three year career he had come under enemy fire in 130 distinct engagements, and with the exception of his daughter’s wedding, would never wear his dress blue uniform again.
From dodging bullets to harvesting ballots, it was only a matter of months before he attempted an entry into politics. In March 1932, acting as a stand-in for Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot (“I am for Smedley D. Butler because he is Smedley D. Butler”) the restored civilian announced a primary challenge to incumbent Senator James “Puddler Jim” Davis.
“He said if he is elected to the Senate he will see that some of the things are changed or else he will get murdered,” reported the Pottsville Republican. Butler campaigned on collective bargaining for unions, opposition to both “international bankers” and the establishment “gang” that operated politics in the state (who “dismissed me without a hearing, without a charge, and without a trial”), and an embargo on the importation of coal with the promise that he’d read out on the senate floor the names of anyone “treasonable” enough to use anthracite from Soviet mines instead of western Pennsylvania.
“The paramount issue today is not whether Pennsylvanians shall drink but whether they shall eat,” Butler shouted at a rally in Pittsburgh. The voters, however, disgusted with Prohibition, disagreed. Butler lost thousands of potential supporters by adhering to a “Dry” platform and the “Wet” but otherwise noncommittal Puddler Jim sailed to renomination—including a five-to-one margin in Philadelphia.
The total cost of his senate campaign was $800, the equivalent of $14,000 today.
After what he referred to as his “big drubbing,” Smedley Butler spent the rest of the year continuing to focus on those undercut by the Great Depression. Promising to do anything to alleviate their situation, “even to parading in my underclothes,” he raised money for the unemployed. When thousands of veterans marched on Washington DC demanding early dispensation of their military bonuses, Butler spoke to and encouraged them, while more famous generals like Douglas MacArthur and George Patton participated in the bulldozing of their makeshift camps.
The retired general burst into the national headlines in November 1934 when he alleged that Wall Street financiers, frustrated by the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt administration, offered him three million dollars to lead an army of 500,000 veterans to the capital and overthrow FDR in a coup d’état. Widely dismissed as a hoax in the press, a congressional committee that heard Butler’s testimony was able to corroborate the core of his accusations, although it declined to pursue them due to the wide gap between the plotter’s contemplation and execution.
Reporter Heywood Broun, whose syndicated column was more than naught dismissive of Butler as a headline chaser, is probably fairest in his description of the Business Plot. “I haven’t the slightest doubt that Smedley Butler heard many captains, or at least second lieutenants, of finance talk in terms of millions of dollars and half-million armies to save America from Tugwell and taxes,” wrote Broun. “As an old devotee of free speech let me admit that even the owners of finance and industry have a right to shoot off their faces.”
When originally asked what he would do upon his retirement in 1931, Butler said, “I’ll take to the lecture platform. And I’ll talk about anything I please. There won’t be any muzzle on me then.”
And he was right. Engaged in an intense, national speaking tour in front of veterans’ groups, rotary clubs, civic associations, colleges, and congressional campaign rallies, Smedley Butler gave close to 3,000 speeches in the decade before his death. “If you read a lot of his essays and speeches, it’s earthy, and it’s grounded, and in some ways it’s barracks talk mixed with intellect, and it’s a beautiful thing,” relates veteran and antiwar author Danny Sjursen.
The focal point of these speeches was the deconstruction of his own military career and how U.S. foreign policy had been captured by Wall Street and the burgeoning arms industry. In Butler’s words, when he was leading Marines into Mexico, the Carribean, and China he was acting as “a gangster for capitalism.” He elucidated these thoughts in his 1935 book War Is a Racket. He implored his countrymen to focus on home and hearth, not profit and adventurism;
Think it over, my dear fellow Americans. Can’t we be satisfied with defending our own homes, our own women, our own children? Right here in America? There are only two reasons why you should ever be asked to give your youngsters. One is defense of our homes. The other is the defense of our Bill of Rights and particularly the right to worship God as we see fit. Every other reason advanced for the murder of young men is a racket, pure and simple.
Lamenting the “men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago” but who now reside in military hospitals as “the living dead,” Butler called for more democratic participation in foreign policy, particularly by soldiers. He said the Secretary of State should be required to read all diplomatic correspondence over the radio to preclude secret commitments, and that there should be a national referendum prior to a declaration of war.
Originally a progressive Republican during his 1932 senate bid, Butler’s politics grew more radical over the course of the decade. Having previously voted for Roosevelt that November, in 1936 he instead cast his ballot for socialist Norman Thomas (although Thomas disregarded the existence of the “Business Plot”). When Louisiana demagogue and prospective presidential candidate Huey Long, father of the economically populist “Share Our Wealth” program, promised to make Smedley Butler his Secretary of War, Butler called it “the greatest compliment ever paid me.” Long was assassinated in September 1935.
The outbreak of war in Europe did not change his tune. On September 1, 1939, the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Butler published an op-ed in the The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, Iowa asking Americans, “Will you be any happier if Poland should reappear as an independent country and your boy is buried in an unknown grave?”
“Listen, you birds, it’s the same old racket,” he told an assembled group of Knoxville businessmen in January 1940. Roaring and joking, Butler promised them that should Adolf Hitler ever land an army in Mexico, “they would find walking wasn’t so good through Texas where there are ten million wildcats to claw them.”
Unfortunately, Smedley Butler would never be given the opportunity to claw Nazis himself. Prematurely exhausted by constant travel and rapid weight loss, he died at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital on June 21, 1940, presumably from cancer. He was 58 years old.
“Such characters as Smedley Butler sometimes enliven the action in public life when it gets stale,” eulogized one newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. One hundred and forty years after his birth, there remains no modern equivalent to the heroic, outspoken, and quintessentially independent apostate general.
Today his earthly remains reside in his hometown of West Chester, less than an hour outside Philadelphia, under an unusually nondescript headstone for someone who led such a varied life. Today, in person or remote, pay your respects and wish a happy birthday to a fearlessly honest soldier and a thoroughgoing American.
For the past decade people have become comfortable in their Culture War trenches, which for the better part of the 2010s have pitted an evangelical, PC-imposing leftwing against a more laissez-faire rightwing. When it comes to the freedom to think and speak verboten ideas that dissent from the cultural monolith, the right has been much more friendly to liberty.
There is, however, a portion of conservatives whose world outlook remains much more Tipper Gore than Dee Snider. And they made themselves loud and clear this past weekend responding to the controversy between Turning Point USA and Brandi Love.
Love, born Tracey Lynn Livermore, has been an adult film star since 2004 and is one of the most recognized names in the industry (with over 824,000 Twitter followers). Brandi Love is also an outspoken conservative—she lives in North Carolina (not Hollywood), supports gun rights, opposes abortion and affirmative action, retweets the Babylon Bee and owns a MyPillow, stands for the flag and voted for Donald Trump. She’s even contributed articles to The Federalist and Newsweek discussing the intersection of her politics and her work.
Which explains her presence at an event hosted by Turning Point USA, the conservative advocacy group founded by Charlie Kirk that’s active on college campuses. If you’ve ever encountered a “Socialism Sucks” sticker on the back of a laptop, you’ve met TPUSA.
From Saturday to Tuesday, the organization is hosting an event in Tampa, Florida branded as a “Student Action Summit,” where young people can hear speeches from Republican politicians and Fox News personalities. Although geared towards high school and college students, TPUSA did sell “VIP” tickets to adults, who were sequestered to a separate part of the auditorium, complete with a bar. Video from the event indicates at least a third to half the audience were VIPs.
That crowd included Brandi Love, who was not invited as a speaker, or hosting a booth, or representing herself as an ambassador to her industry. She was attending as an individual and professed conservative.
However, after announcing her presence on social media, it did not take long for TPUSA (alerted by Groyper Twitter accounts) to revoke her $500 ticket and ban her from the event (with a refund). Elijah Schaffer with TheBlaze reported that TPUSA was “very clear that any adult themed content, influencers, or personalities will not be tolerated at events involving minors.”
“The Republican Party is broken,” Brandi Love tweeted, pointing out a contradiction between the event speaker’s opposition to censorship and her removal.
Her fellow conservatives in media and activist circles did not see it the same way:
Absolutely fucking speechless that "conservative" org TPUSA has invited an actual porn star to a conference that minors attend. pic.twitter.com/f2bFbYsVa5
I should add that I am proud of @charliekirk11 for doing the right thing today in turning down a prominent porn star who was hoping to attend the student conference—a conference, that is, primarily for college and high school kids.
She’s legit promoting porn on her social media. That’s the only reason anyone knows her… and I’m sorry this is not a libertarian convention. It’s for teens and college students, you don’t promote a porn star. https://t.co/PIWugxL1gA
In much of the conservative reaction, there’s a distinct (purposeful?) mischaracterization of what occurred. Brandi Love was not “invited” by TPUSA; she purchased a ticket to attend. She was not there in any official capacity; “VIP” is the general term the organization chose to call their adult ticket holders. TPUSA was not promoting her work; she promoted the event on her own social media.
But the conversation goes beyond this incident. It goes to the continued existence of people on the rightwing who want to use the state as a tool to socially engineer people to suit their personal preferences. If the left wants to ban books, criminalize “hate speech,” and prosecute observant Christians, the right wants to ban pornography, prosecute those who perform and distribute it, and enforce “obsenity laws” on media platforms.
Most people would broadly define pornography as a vice. Sustained viewing can lead to addiction (an observation Love disagrees with), and negative physical side effects such as erectile dysfunction. People introduced at a young age can permanently disfigure their views of sexuality and adult relationships in grossly unhealthy ways. Socially, it may lead to men being less interested in pursuing real-life women.
Does that mean it should be criminalized, and the full force of the state apparatus brought to bear against this “immoral” behavior? These social conservatives say yes. But we discover that some vices are more equal than others.
Conservatives up in arms over pornography are likely to have no qualms with the continuation of the War on Drugs, unsuccessful these past fifty years of decreasing narcotics use but eminently successful at arresting and incarcerating millions, breaking up families, militarzing the police, enabling government theft on a grand scale through civil asset forfeiture, and spending over a trillion dollars to ensure Americans cannot grow specific plants or purchase clean needles.
Perhaps fewer would say there should be complete bans against gambling. Only the most fanatical Christians support a return to the prohibition of alcohol. And even most Mormons wouldn’t acquiesce to a public ban on coffee for Gentiles. Does anyone besides Michael Bloomberg want to ban smoking (and enforce a death penalty against cigarette sellers)?
In 2000, author Bill Kauffman interviewed and profiled Earl Dodge, the perennial presidential nominee of the Prohibition Party—yes, it still exists! Dodge, principled to a fault, easily picked up on conservative insincerity. Alcohol, he said, takes “good people and turns them into beasts. Marijuana, LSD, cocaine: All those drugs put together don’t hurt a fraction of the people that booze does. The only parties that are honest and consistent on the alcohol-drug issue are the Prohibition Party and the Libertarians. They want to legalize it all; we want to ban it all.”
Dodge is correct, both rationally and medically. The damage to a person’s health from sustained tobacco use is infinitely higher than marijuana. And alcohol abuse often has more corrosive effects on a person’s body and temperament than even harder drugs like cocaine or heroin.
But to many of these conservatives, nothing fulfills the perception of “cool” more than chomping on a cigar with one hand and drinking a full, foamy beer with the other.
Brandy is a perfectly defensible vice in moderation, but not Brandi Love.
Their “think of the children” pleas fall just as flat. Teenage girls were not attending “Sex Work as a Career” seminars and boys weren’t being gifted free OnlyFans subscriptions. What these people are arguing is that Brandi Love should not be permitted within a certain distance of minors because of her profession. She’s a porn star, not a predator, and their suspicion is heinous.
Irresponsible parents may leave their liquor cabinet unlocked. Unobservant parents may not monitor their children’s internet use enough. Both may lead to bad, perhaps long-term damaging consequences. Minors should not drink alcohol or watch pornography but only in one instance are these individuals calling for state intervention.
As it stands, however, their real views are far less interesting. They’re more than willing to defend or even encourage their own personal vices, just not those of others. Their particularism reveals them for what they are.
“They adored him as no man in a democracy deserves to be adored,” Walter Lippmann wrote, describing progressive worshippers of Theodore Roosevelt in 1916.
American historians suffer from the same malady, a predisposition to hero-worshipping chief executives (T.R. included).
What causes this persistent love affair? Is it a preference for studying big changes and swift actions, which occur most often under muscular presidents? Is it a sympathy for big government and the men who implemented the policies liberal historians themselves prefer?
Whatever the cause of this fondness, the resulting public discourse is predictable, boring, lopsided, and a poor indicator of historians’ collective ability to judge in a manner contrary to establishment narratives (most of which these same historians formulated anyway).
That is the conclusion drawn from the 2021 presidential historians survey, released Wednesday by C-SPAN. The fourth such survey conducted since 2000, it polls historians and “observers of the presidency” about their opinions and rankings of past executives based on 10 “leadership characteristics.”
Each survey has used the same benchmarks, including criteria such as “Crisis Leadership,” “Economic Management,” “International Relations,” and “Vision.” The respondents are not the same each time, and the pool has grown with each new survey. This year 142 people were consulted, including names that will be familiar to readers such as Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation, Paul Kengor from Grove City College, Calvin Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes, TAC’s Scholar-at-Large Brad Birzer, and TAC’s former editor Robert Merry. Individual responses are not published, and the inclusion of these conservative heretics was not enough to counteract the great liberal mass.
Ranking our 44 former presidents in order, the survey showcases a top-10 list featuring Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.
Needless to say, there are problems.
Asking the wrong questions. In ten categories, which go so far to include things such as “Relations with Congress,” historians are not asked what is formally the president’s only duty: maintaining their oath to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution.
Did they upraise our founding document while in the White House? Did they shield it from bad actors, or were they its biggest violator?
Or what about the question of liberty? Did they leave the country freer than when they found it? Or was the average American left with less choice after their term in office?
When the most important questions are ignored, don’t be surprised when the answers are so miscalculated.
Recency Bias. Modern Americans will be ecstatic to know that in the 232-year history of our Republic, a majority of our greatest presidents are within living memory. Yes, even our current commander-in-chief, Joe Biden, has been alive during six of the top ten rated administrations.
The survey is handicapped by a severe recency bias, where historians prefer to relish the memories of modern presidents whose leadership they’ve personally experienced rather than long-dead 19th century politicians, whatever their qualifications.
Donald Trump. The most headline-grabbing portion of the survey was naturally the placement of our recently departed (what else do you call someone banned from Twitter?) Donald J. Trump.
The real estate mogul turned one-termer finds himself ranked the lowest of the low, above only the permanently condemned triumvirate of Franklin Pierce (who witnessed his 11-year-old son decapitated in a train crash on the way to his inauguration), Lincoln-successor and impeached reconstructionist Andrew Johnson, and indecisive James Buchanan, paralyzed in 1861 between his own unionism and fidelity to the Constitution.
And Trump is placed dead last out of all presidents in the categories “Administrative Skills” and “Moral Authority.”
The politicized, overwrought nature of this determination is hard to exaggerate.
Let’s compare, briefly, with his immediate Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. The man whose time in office witnessed the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history, who instituted a secret, international torture regime, who conducted two failed and illegal wars, and who oversaw the meltdown of the U.S. economy and commensurate corporate bailout, is in 29th place and beats Trump in every benchmark save “Economic Management” (where Trump outmaneuvers him by half a point).
Perhaps Trump should take up painting, as becoming an artist has improved Bush’s ranking by seven slots since 2009.
Trump even scored worse in the category “Pursued Equal Justice for All” than eight of our ten slave-owning presidents, and worse than Woodrow Wilson, the Oval Office’s staunchest segregationist.
How did the historical profession become more hysterical than Rachel Maddow on her worst day?
Moral Authority. When respondents are given the survey, they are not provided with explanations of what the categories represent. Each historian is tasked with interpreting the titles as they see fit. That allows a benchmark as open-ended as “Moral Authority” to be construed any number of ways.
Harry Truman is ranked ninth in this category, helping to solidify his placement in this survey as the sixth greatest president. In all likelihood, foremost in respondents’ minds was his desegregation of the military or anti-communism.
But to weigh that in aggregate against his incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his decision (contra his military commanders) to atomize hundreds of thousands of civilians in the only use of nuclear warfare in Earth’s history, is sadistically sick.
To conclude that Harry Truman, or the Japanese-American concentration camp superintendent Franklin Roosevelt, or the prosecutor of Constitution-waving dissidents Woodrow Wilson, carry more moral authority than peace presidents such as Martin Van Buren or Grover Cleveland, is inhuman, barbaric, and wicked.
There is a litany of other peculiarities.
John Quincy Adams is ranked 17th for reasons not immediately apparent. Adams lived a remarkable public career, stretching from a consequential assignment as secretary of state to a long anti-slavery advocacy career in the House. But none of it occurred during his four years as president, a period of uneventful political gridlock. More likely than not most of the respondents answered while thinking fondly of Anthony Hopkins in Amistad rather than the Tariff of Abominations.
Somehow the impeached Bill Clinton still ranks 23rd in the category “Relations with Congress.”
FDR is crowned the most successful in the category of “International Relations” and third in “Economic Management” despite manipulating the U.S. into the most destructive war in world history and captaining the longest, deepest economic depression the American people have ever experienced.
Barack Obama has entered the hall of “great presidents,” likely based more on nostalgia for the pre-Trump era than Obamacare (still middling in popularity) or the Iran nuclear deal (since withdrawn).
Ulysses S. Grant has continued his modern revitalization with a 13-slot improvement since 2000, demonstrating that good intentions do mean more than successful implementation.
The organizers of the survey do not pretend that it is “scientific.” An objective ranking of the U.S. presidents is as impossible as an objective ranking of literature, or genre of art, or any other tenet of the humanities.
What can be said about C-SPAN’s survey of presidential historians is that it depicts popularity among the public more than performance in office, and contains much more about daily politics than a broad historical perspective.
We’re approaching the 20th anniversary of the Global War on Terror when the George W. Bush administration made the decision to ruin the 21st century. Trillions of dollars spent, a permanent and expanding war bureaucracy on our shores, upwards of a million civilians dead, tens of millions more displaced, entire regions of the globe destabilized, and the American people no safer than they were on September 10.
When the immensity of the nefariousness is laid bare, a normal man is tempted, in the words of satirical cynic H.L. Mencken, “to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” That is the conclusion when one finishes Scott Horton’s Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, which stands as the most irrefutably argued and damning indictment of modern U.S. foreign policy yet written.
Published on the anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, its release date is a distressing reminder that, with a brief respite from 2011 to 2014, the United States has been bombing Iraq continuously for 30 years. Add Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and a dozen other countries, and the cascade of errors (and worse) can overwhelm the reader.
Indefatigable localist writer and TAC luminary Bill Kauffman once called the unasked question of American foreign policy, “What does this war mean for my block, my neighborhood, my town?” Horton’s answer, as biting as it is accurate, is that the American people have gained nothing from the War on Terrorism “beyond, perhaps, increasingly necessary technological advancements in the manufacture of prosthetic limbs.”
The schizophrenic demeanor of Uncle Sam is summarized succinctly:
The U.S. backed the Arab-Afghan mercenaries and terrorists and then fought them; backed Saddam Hussein and then fought him; backed the Taliban and then fought them; worked for Sadr, then fought him; fought al Qaeda in Iraq, backed them, and then fought them again; worked with Gaddafi, Assad and the Houthis against al Qaeda, and then fought all of them too—for al Qaeda. Does that sound right to you?
According to majorities of Republicans, Democrats, veterans, and every other polled demographic, that does not sound right. If there is one through-line in Enough Already, it is the contempt that the managerial elite hold for the average American and his antiquated loyalty to fellow citizens.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, should the focus of the United States have been apprehending Osama bin Laden and those responsible? “I don’t know where he is. You know, I just don’t spend that much time on him,” President Bush said, after his obstinance allowed the terrorist leader to escape from Tora Bora. “I truly am not that concerned about him.”
Should the U.S. military be used as a tool to knock off secular dictators, inversely advancing the strategic goals of either the Islamic Republic of Iran or Sunni jihadists? Yes, according to every think tank report produced in Washington or Tel Aviv in the 1990s and 2000s.
Should the American government provide training, weapons, and money to terrorists sworn loyal to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the butcher of New York City, in the most treasonous operation since the Rosenbergs? Try to ask the late Senator John McCain, who took selfies with the Northern Storm Brigade in Syria just years after their members were shooting American servicemen in Iraq. Or Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, which published numerous articles with innocuous titles like “Accepting al Qaeda.”
Horton represents the pinnacle of citizen journalism, a man outside major media institutions who feels more comfortable at a skatepark than a newsroom. When the Washington Post op-ed page was disseminating disinformation about WMDs in Iraq, Horton was debunking “aluminum tubes” to any stranger who transited his taxicab on the way to the Austin airport.
The disparity between Horton’s history of U.S. foreign policy and the narrative perpetuated by the corporate press is depicted in an exchange between the author and Charlie Savage, “probably the second or third least-worst reporter at the Times.” When confronted about his publication’s circulation of a false report about Russian bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Savage counseled Horton, “I think you have overlearned the lessons of the pre-Iraq War reporting failures—almost 20 years ago now—and see that dynamic as the norm rather than the aberration that it was.”
May all sensible Americans “overlearn” the lessons of the Iraq war! According to Horton, the lessons are: “These wars are already lost. There is no victory or stable peace to be had in any of them. If the U.S. must stay until its goals have been accomplished, then that is not opposition or skepticism, but a blank writ for another two decades of war.”
The path towards absolution is clear. Sweep aside the insufferable patricians who scorn our nation. Stop invading other countries. End the drone war. Abandon the quest for universal empire. Bring our troops home. And be satisfied with the advice of that great statesman of Idaho, William Borah, who told us to “hold fast to those political principles and foreign policies which others call provincialism but which we call Americanism.”
On Monday, Chairman Dan McKnight of BringOurTroopsHome.US traveled to Pierre, South Dakota to testify in front of the House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee in favor of the “Defend the Guard” bill introduced by State Rep. Aaron Aylward (R-Harrisburg). This legislation would prohibit the deployment of the South Dakota National Guard without an official declaration of war by the U.S. Congress.
The day begins early in Chester, West Virginia, a town of a few thousand that hugs the southern bank of the Ohio River. It’s only 8:30am but John and Peggy are already bundled up in their coats, hats, and gloves as they take their three bird dogs outside for some crisp January air.
Eventually both man and animal tire of the winter, and they return inside for breakfast. Outside their kitchen window, half a dozen blue jays sit perched in a single tree; John complains that they’ve already eaten the seeds he set out when he woke up. As Peggy prepares drinks and warms up maple syrup, her husband begins laying strips of bacon on the griddle. They’re soon replaced by fresh pancake batter, filled with extra helpings of Georgia pecans (a staple ingredient in their household). Their playful banter from opposite ends of the kitchen is a testament to over forty years of marriage.
After breakfast, John is free to relax in one of the two leather recliners in the living room. There’s no football on TV that Saturday, so his schedule is open, beyond dinner plans with another couple that Peggy reminds him of before she leaves to run errands. He waves goodbye.
Their first impressions to a stranger may be only as a kind, affectionate couple enjoying an active retirement. But in this welcoming home, nestled in the northern most corner of West Virginia’s panhandle, lives one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. military history. And he is ready to bring our troops home.
John Bahnsen began life in rural Georgia, and that Southern Pride—so emblematic of the region—remains as embedded in him as the day he was born. He still owns a home in the state, one that rests on four and a half acres of pecan orchard that keeps him well supplied. Growing up among bird dogs, cotton fields, and the strenuous life of an outdoorsmen, John decided early on he wanted to be a soldier. Both he and his brother Peter received appointments to the U.S. Military Academy.
It was at West Point that Bahnsen forged lifelong friendships. First among them was his classmate Norman Schwarzkopf, the future head of U.S. Central Command who led an international coalition to victory in the Gulf War. But before that, in his youth, Schwarzkopf was helping raise a little hell.
“Schwarzkopf came over with three other classmates,” Bahnsen recalls six decades later. “I had them sitting in the back of my Ford Convertible, sitting there with a shotgun, and riding down the dirt roads of south Georgia shooting doves off the powerline.” It was an eminent group of second lieutenants. Four of them—Schwarzkopf, his roommate Leroy Suddath, Bahnsen, and John W. Nicholson—went on to become general officers. “They had dinner over at my place there and my mother and father fixed food for them. But Schwarzkopf, we hunted quail, shot doves off the powerlines, had a great time. I think we went rabbit hunting at night, shooting things off the road. Which is illegal as hell.”
Schwarzkopf—who wrote the foreword to Bahnsen’s 2007 co-authored autobiography, American Warrior: A Combat Memoir of Vietnam—isn’t the only friend who achieved larger than life status. “I’ve known Colin Powell since he was a Captain,” Bahnsen brags about the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State. Another is ret. Lieutenant General and former National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster (“one of my best friends”).
Beginning his own career in the infantry, Bahnsen attended Airborne School and Fixed Wing Flight School before transferring to the Armor branch while stationed in West Germany. In October 1965 he reported for duty at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam, just south of Saigon. There he commanded the “Bandits,” a gunship platoon for the 118th Aviation Company.
Bahnsen’s second tour in Vietnam—following two unsatisfying years as a staff officer at the Pentagon—was under the command of then-Colonel George SmithPatton, son of the legendary World War II General and another West Point friend. Serving under Patton’s 11th Armored Cavalry “Blackhorse” Regiment, Bahnsen led an assortment of UH-1 and OH-6 helicopters, AH-1 gunships, and an infantry aero rifle platoon into the jungles and skies of Southeast Asia.
“My mission was initially to find the bastards so we could pile-on,” Bahnsen explains. “I was good at it…[Patton] said, ‘You find them, and we’ll pile-on.’ And I found them, and we’d get an engagement, and then by god we’d pile-on with armored troops. But only [after] we pounded them into the ground.”
“It’s the way Americans are supposed to fight a war; with whatever we have that gives us an advantage,” he continues. “Then by golly you save lives. The whole idea of going to war, if you’re a commander, is to save the lives of your soldiers and destroy the other force.”
Fighting from his UH-1 helicopter and leading operations on the ground, Bahnsen and his men saw over three hundred enemy engagements over twelve months. In his final Officer Efficiency Report, Colonel Patton described his subordinate’s innate leadership ability and skill at flushing out the Viet Cong:
“The rated officer is the best, most highly motivated and professionally competent combat leader I have served with in twenty-three years of service, to include the Korean War and two tours in Vietnam…He is one of those rare professionals who truly enjoys fighting, taking risks and sparring with a wily and slippery foe. He is utterly fearless and because of this, demands the same from his unit…I cannot praise Major Bahnsen too highly for his fantastic performance in battle.”
Entering Vietnam as a Captain, he left in September 1969 as a Major, the only one to command a “Blackhorse” squadron during the war. For his bravery, heroism, and quick thinking, Bahnsen was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, five Silver Stars, four Legion of Merits, three Distinguished Flying Cross’, four Bronze Star Medals, two Cross’ of Gallantry, two Purple Hearts, and fifty-one Air Medals, among others. He’s been recognized as a distinguished graduate of West Point, enshrined in both the Army Aviation Hall of Fame Fort Rucker, Alabama, and Georgia Hall of Fame in Warner Robins, invited to participate in the Gathering of Eagles program, and honored by a resolution of the West Virginia legislature. Today, his numerous medals, awards, and recognitions form the centerpiece of his living room coffee table.
After the intensity of the Vietnam War, the remainder of Bahnsen’s career was relatively quiet. With early promotions to Lieutenant Colonel and then Colonel, he served another tour in West Germany, along with South Korea and some time stateside. He retired in 1986 as a U.S. Army Brigadier General.
Bahnsen moved to West Virginia (his wife’s home state) in 1995. Peggy is also a veteran and retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel after becoming the first woman to serve as a regimental tactical officer. Their current residence has been in her family since it was constructed in the 1840s.
The couple became politically active in retirement, and both have served on the state’s Republican Committee. It’s not uncommon for prospective candidates to make sojourns to his home for invitation-only dove hunts and request an endorsement. “Everybody loves Reagan,” Bahnsen chuckles, explaining his politics. “I love Barry Goldwater.” The one issue he self-identifies as “a liberal” on is school lunches, which he believes every American child is entitled to free of charge.
The issue that has captured his attention, however, and spurred on the righteous anger of this old warfighter, are his country’s endless wars in the Middle East. He wants to do something about that.
“When Pat came up with this thing about not deploying the National Guard, I said right on. Exactly right. Why the hell are we sending those guys somewhere [when] we have no say for it?” Bahnsen asked.
Pat McGeehan, whom the general refers to affectionately as his “godson,” has represented the people of Hancock County in the West Virginia House of Delegates since 2014. McGeehan, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy who served as an Intelligence Officer in the Middle East, has become a kind of pupil to the elderly general. His signature piece of legislation, “Defend the Guard,” is a bill that would prohibit a state’s National Guard units from being deployed into active combat overseas without a formal declaration of war.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that the power to declare war is invested in Congress, the people’s collective representatives, and not a singular executive figure. Despite this clearly defined obligation in its founding document, the U.S. government has not had a formal declaration of war since World War II. Since then American foreign policy has been conducted using either extralegal word games—such as referring to the Korean War as a “police action”—or Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) that, while passed by Congress, are open-ended deferments of action to the Executive Branch. Instead of making the decision themselves, AUMFs are Congress booting the question to the President.
Since the launch of the Global War on Terror in 2001, the National Guard has been instrumental in forming the backbone of military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. If enough states were to enact “Defend the Guard” and deprive the federal government of this manpower, it would obligate the cessation of permanent overseas military occupations, nullify the government’s ability to begin new illegal wars, and force a reassessment of the United States’ national interests.
A reassessment is what John Bahnsen is demanding. A longtime critic of America’s twenty-first century foreign policy, he believes the War on Terror—with its trillions in spending, thousands of military dead, and politically destabilizing effects around the world—has severely damaged the national security of the United States.
“How we got mixed up in the Middle East I’ll never understand,” he says, although he has clear suspicions. “We really made a mistake in my mind. The Saudis talked us into coming over…They let the Americans fight that damn war [Gulf War].” Bahnsen recollects with noticeable disgust a Saudi prince and brigadier general in their army (“a flat coward who refused to fight”) who hid in the United States and refused to return to Saudi Arabia until war’s end.
In 2002—2003, while the Pentagon was busy hiring seventy-five retired officers to sell the invasion of Iraq in cable TV interviews, Bahnsen knew better. “We should have never gone to Iraq,” he says adamantly. “We did not have just cause to attack Iraq, we really didn’t…[George] Bush didn’t have anybody declare war on him. Bush declared war on Saddam Hussein, and he got away with it because of weapons of mass destruction. My good friend Colin Powell made the presentation and it was a phony presentation. They didn’t have the facts.”
His opposition at the time was both public and communal, as he laid out the antiwar cause to local Rotary clubs. “I went and flew down to Georgia one time to give a talk down there about the fact that you’re going to regret us going to war because you’re going to have casualties in your hometown, not only wounded…but you’ll have people killed in action in a war we shouldn’t be involved in,” he says.
Bahnsen has particular ire for the men who carried out the post-invasion occupation, Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer (“a guy who couldn’t speak the language”) and Secretary of Defense Donald “Dumbsfeld” Rumsfeld (a man “with a very small head and a great big ego”).
His assessment is no less critical towards Afghanistan, which at nearly twenty years is the longest war in American history (even longer than his own Vietnam). “We went after Osama bin Laden but once we got him we didn’t decide to pull out,” he says.” “We’ve been there more than long enough. We’ve not got the job done, we’ll never get the job done, it’s not our job to do it. We’re not nation-builders.”
This is one Vietnam veteran who has no illusions about imposing Western, liberal democracy on Afghanistan, or defeating the Taliban and their local Pashtun supporters. “What has the Taliban done to us other than kill Americans because we’re in their country?” he asks. “I don’t like the idea of how they treat women or anything else, I don’t like a lot about them. But that’s their nation and that’s their argument, not ours.”
When discussing America’s endless wars in the Middle East, Bahnsen repeatedly emphasizes the importance of endgame and knowing the conditions of victory. “We didn’t have an endgame plan in Vietnam. We ended up just walking away, leaving our friends there to pay the price (most of them with their lives).”
He sees the same thing happening now. “In Afghanistan we need an end of mission. Nobody can define that. Iraq, end of mission. What is our end of mission? We had an end of mission in Kuwait because once we threw the Iraqis out it was over. Pull the troops out, come home, declare victory, be done with it. We went into Iraq and we’re still there and George Bush put us there.”
“The Powell Doctrine is still good. Go with overwhelming force and declare an endgame,” Bahnsen counsels. “We don’t know what end game means.”
The U.S. Congress, which for over seventy years has refused to debate a declaration of war, shoulders considerable blame for the current mess. They’ve been delinquent in their most important duty, sidelining themselves and refusing to hold the Executive Branch to account for its abuses.
According to Bahnsen, this is a side effect of members being increasingly distant from the military and the risks to life and limb that are inherent in war. “You look at the Congress right now, and just go down the list of congressmen you see there. Tell me how many have skin in the game…That means kinfolks in the game. Damn few. The people who pass laws to send people to combat or the danger of combat or losing their life, they ought to have some kinfolks involved in it. They ought to have some personal involvement, not an abstracted vote.”
“You know my feeling is, before we start committing people’s lives—not yours, theirs—you ought to decimate the Congress. When you have a war you put every tenth man in Congress [and] you designate him to go in a front-line unit. That’s the law you ought to have,” he suggests.
For members of Congress, most of whom haven’t served in uniform and who even fewer have children currently serving, foreign policy has become sterile. It is easy to say, as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) has, that the United States should never leave Afghanistan—as long as you don’t have to witness the human consequences.
“One American life is worth a lot to me, personally. You just can’t wave away a dozen people getting killed a year and that’s the price we pay. Bullshit!” Bahnsen exclaims.
“I maintain that if people haven’t seen their people die, seen people bleed out, have their guts blown out or part of their head blown off in combat, or see them in a wheelchair like I’ve done… You don’t understand,” he explains. “And my feeling is now don’t commit people unless you have a damn reason to do it. And it should be voted on. And the country should go to war with one reason and one reason only: to win the war.”
“I can make a very good case as a decorated soldier, having people killed in combat under my command—volunteers in a war that’s not been declared by this country [but] that somebody decided we should go fight—that is wrong,” Bahnsen says, explicitly calling Vietnam an “illegal war.”
None of the United States’ current enemies constitute a national threat, and none of its wars of choice are to defend the liberty of Americans. “If I thought we were going to lose our basic freedoms of speech, religion to something like that, yeah I’d be willing to go to war then. Then I’d line up my neighbors and my friends and my kids and my family and go pay the price to try to retain it. But not until.”
With the colossal influence held in Washington DC by the military-industrial complex and foreign lobbies, and a Congress content to be missing in action, it is unlikely that constitutional war powers will be restored at the national level (at least in the short term). That is why the responsibility falls upon state legislatures and local representatives to restore sanity to U.S. foreign policy. General Bahnsen believes “Defend the Guard” is the best way to accomplish that.
“You’ve got the power in Charleston [West Virginia] to say, ‘We will not permit our national guard to be federalized unless there’s a declaration of war,’” he says. “They owe it to their citizens and their constituents to take care of them and protect them from things like that. And I would have their ass if they didn’t.”
“My feeling is, do good things for your constituents, whatever that is. And if you don’t, then by god be prepared to explain yourself,” warns Bahnsen.
State legislators who have introduced “Defend the Guard” bills have been browbeaten by their state adjutant generals and officials at the Pentagon who are more interested in system preservation than prioritizing the lives of American soldiers. Backroom threats by the federal government have included withdrawing National Guard units from their states and seizing their military equipment. What is General Bahnsen’s response to this intimidation? “I’d tell them to get fucked,” he says flatly. “I don’t think they have the power to do that.”
By the end of the 2021 legislative session, “Defend the Guard” will be introduced in over thirty states. This is a triumph for the supermajority of veterans—over 66% in multiple polls—who want to see a U.S. withdrawal from places like Iraq and Afghanistan and the start of a more restrained foreign policy.
It is no surprise why veterans, who have seen the horrors of war firsthand, support these polices at even higher rates than the average civilian. “I pass pictures of guys I have hanging up here. I look at one of my books there, I knew those guys. They’re dead! They didn’t get a chance to have a kid or a grandkid. Some of them were too damn young to get married. Good lord. I just think that’s atrocious to have people making that decision,” mourns Bahnsen.
Initially raised as a Baptist and married in an Episcopal Church, Bahnsen has since left organized religion. This is partially because many local churches in the area (including one founded by Peggy’s Presbyterian ancestors) have either folded or amalgamated, and partially because of personal conviction. “I’m not worried about my spirit,” he says. “I lived a good life, I treat people right, I believe in the golden rule, that’s fundamental religion. I don’t need the Bible to tell me that.”
“I appreciate life more the fact I’ve lived as long as I have. My father died at age 59. My mother died at age 65. They didn’t have a complete life in my mind,” he continues, reflecting that over half of his West Point class (including Schwarzkopf) have passed away. “I’m 86. Now 31 years ago I had triple bypass [and] I’m still around…I’ve got a good wife who treats me good, lets me sleep in the chair on a regular basis, feeds me every once in a while. I’ve had a good life.”
Brigadier General John Bahnsen is at peace with himself. Now he only wants to see peace for his country. And “Defend the Guard” is the way he’ll do it.
This article was originally featured at BringOurTroopsHome.US and is republished with permission of author.
“Austin All Agog Over Kennedy Visit Friday” read the headline of the Austin American Statesman. The Texas capital was sparing no expense in welcoming the President of the United States. City schools were set to close early so that children could see the motorcade, and the excitement could be felt building in the weeks before.
Preparations were in motion for a grand welcoming dinner at the city’s Municipal Auditorium. Hosted by the State Democratic Executive Committee, it would be the largest concentration of state and national leaders in the history of Texas.
Nearly 2,500 people were expected to attend the $100-a-plate banquet dinner, whose purpose was to simultaneously fundraise for President Kennedy’s 1964 reelection campaign and heal the ongoing conservative-liberal split in the Texas Democratic Party.
That morning, the auditorium was decorated to befit a presidential visit, thousands of chairs were arranged, and caterers prepared the dinner, including “Texas-size” sirloin steaks.
But President John F. Kennedy would never arrive in Austin that evening of November 22, 1963. He would never make it out of Dallas. At 7:30pm that evening, when he should have been arriving at the gala to enthusiastic cheers, doctors at Bethesda Naval Hospital were removing bullet fragments from his brain.
In a recent interview on The Scott Horton Show, ret. CIA officer Ray McGovern mentioned what opened his eyes about the seminal event of that autumn day:
There is an excellent book that I’ll recommend to you, written by James Douglass, an eminent historian. It’s called JFK and the Unspeakable. It was released about 15 years ago , completely suppressed in the press…It is, in my view, the Bible.
The book received similar praise from filmmaker Oliver Stone—whose promotion led to the book’s wide release despite a media blackout—and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the president’s nephew who visited Dealey Plaza for the first time after reading. The book convinced Vietnam War whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg that a new federal investigation into the Kennedy assassination was urgently necessary.
Douglass’ tour de force is well-deserving of these commendations. Clocking in at 495 pages—including endnotes—it is a tome of information, the finest synthetization of primary and multi-decade secondary sources on the market.
Prior to researching the Kennedy assassination, author James Douglass spent his life as a Professor of Religion and a dedicated activist in the Catholic Worker Movement. This influence outlines the entire book, and even inspired the title. “The Unspeakable” was a term coined by the Catholic monk Thomas Merton, an adoptive son of Kentucky, and Douglass’ biggest theological influence. Merton sought to depict “an evil whose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe,” including the carnage of the Vietnam War, the string of political assassinations in the 1960s, and the ever-looming threat of nuclear annihilation.
JFK and the Unspeakable serves as a masterpiece because of how Merton forms a narrative around the slain president. The reader is introduced to young Cold Warrior, who over a period of two years begins to have a redemptive shift towards peace—aroused by near cataclysmic events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and continual subversion by the National Security State.
From January 1961 to November 1963, Douglass tracks Kennedy’s growing disillusionment with the hawkish and militant perspective of his military command and intelligence agencies. Upon entering office, he’s introduced to a plan by CIA Director Allen Dulles for a preemptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union scheduled for late 1963. Kennedy walked out on the meeting, telling Secretary of State Dean Dusk, “And we call ourselves the human race.”
After being cornered into the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and firing Dulles, Kennedy declared his intention “to splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” The president began continually curtailing the preferred policies of the National Security State, including by pursuing the creation of a neutral and independent Laos, sending military advisors into Vietnam instead of the requested combat units, and most importantly by rejecting the demands of his Joint Chiefs of Staff for a preemptive strike on Cuba during the missile crisis.
“If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power,” Attorney General Robert Kennedy informed Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin (as recollected by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in his memoirs).
Kennedy was met by constant disruption and sabotage by the National Security State he was meant to command. In Spring 1962, he orders Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to formalize a plan for a partial exit from Vietnam by the end of 1963; this order was backlogged by the bureaucracy for a year and was presented as a multi-year exit. The president was similarly ill-served by his last-minute appointment to the South Vietnam ambassadorship, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.
Lodge declined to carry out continued negotiations with the Diem government to avoid a coup and delayed the transmission of information back to Washington. When South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu were assassinated on November 2, 1963, Kennedy was left “somber and shaken,” said Arthur Schlesinger, who “had not seen him so depressed since the Bay of Pigs.”
“I’ve got to do something about those bastards,” the President told Florida Senator George Smathers in the aftermath. “They should be stripped of their exorbitant power.”
You won’t find talk of ballistics or “magic bullets” in Douglass’ book. The events of November 22 take a backseat altogether; while he includes voluminous eyewitness accounts and a thorough walk through Oswald’s physical whereabouts, the author is less interested in the mechanics of the assassination than its context.
JFK and the Unspeakable is meant to help you understand why John F. Kennedy began a turn against the Cold War, and how the National Security State developed the motivation and determination to murder their Commander in Chief—not to calculate the mathematical trajectory of the Grassy Knoll.
More than a decade after its publication, James Douglass’ work stands as the pinnacle of Kennedy assassination texts, a required and laudable text for both laymen and enthusiasts alike.
President-elect Joe Biden will soon finish selecting the men and women who will staff his incoming administration. The first announcements comprise the core of his foreign policy team, including the nomination of his longtime confidant Antony Blinken to be the next Secretary of State.
Blinken, as both a former deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state under Barack Obama, is highly qualified for the position. But as The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison explained on this website, experience does not equal judgement. For over two decades Blinken has been a proponent of escalating U.S. involvement overseas, both in flexing soft power and using military force.
Antony Blinken is more likely to recommend sending the U.S. Army to Damascus than he is to have his own “Road to Damascus” moment from which he emerges as an apostle of realism and restraint. But he should be aware that there is an alternative, one that befits an older, more traditionally American ethos.
Looking back to the nineteenth century, we find a secretary of state whom the writer Bill Kauffman labeled “quite possibly the most anti-imperialist diplomat in the history of the republic.” No, not the oft-quoted John Quincy Adams—but the unappreciated Walter Q. Gresham.
Spending most of his career as a judge in his native Indiana, Gresham also served briefly in the cabinet of President Chester Arthur, first as postmaster general and then secretary of the treasury. Despite being a lifelong Republican, by the 1890s he felt increasingly out of step with the party’s devotion to prohibitively high protective tariffs. A lifelong free-trader, Gresham broke ranks and endorsed Democrat Grover Cleveland in his successful return to the White House.
Cleveland rewarded this pivotal endorsement by offering Gresham the cabinet’s most preeminent office: secretary of state.
Reactions were hostile, with Democrats displeased at seeing the job given to a party newcomer, while Republicans forever resented the turncoat. “Possibly no other cabinet appointment ever caused so much comment and criticism as that of Judge Gresham to the office of Secretary of State,” wrote historian Martha Alice Tyner.
And then there was the question of experience; unlike Blinken, Gresham had no background in foreign affairs. Woodrow Wilson, then a Professor at Princeton, had low expectations and surmised that Gresham would be “a novice in adjusting the foreign relations of the country.” Dismissing the judge’s skillset as befitting a lower office, Wilson jabbed that it was a pity “to lose so fine a Secretary of the Interior.”
Gresham’s ability would be tested early. In January 1893, a group of American businessmen organized a coup d’état in Hawaii, overthrowing the indigenous monarchy. The plotters’ efforts were buttressed by a company of U.S. Marines under orders from John W. Foster’s State Department. It was in effect the first regime change operation performed under the auspices of the U.S. government—and it would be Foster’s grandsons, John and Allen Dulles, who would organize more coups in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s.
Hawaii’s new provisional government—headed by a “Committee of Safety” composed mostly of U.S. citizens—immediately sent a proposal of annexation to Washington. With less than a month left in his term, President Benjamin Harrison signed the proposal and delivered it to the Senate, which did not act before Cleveland’s inauguration.
The first act of Cleveland’s presidency was to rescind the treaty, and for Gresham to repair the international damage caused by Foster. “Can the United States consistently insist that other nations shall respect the independence of Hawaii while not respecting it themselves?” asked Gresham. “Our government was the first to recognize the independence of the islands, it should be the last to acquire sovereignty over them, by force and fraud.”
Adhering to the traditional American opinion that “a free government cannot pursue an imperial policy,” Gresham believed that if acquired, Washington could only govern Hawaii as “Rome governed her provinces, by despotic rule.”
To “satisfy the demands of justice,” Gresham attempted to negotiate the restoration of the Hawaiian monarchy, but arbitration broke down when Queen Liliuokalani—then under house arrest—refused to grant amnesty to the American plotters. The provisional government remained in place until Hawaii’s annexation in 1898 under President William McKinley.
Gresham rejected the idea that Hawaii—an archipelago located 2,000 miles from the Californian coastline and closer in distance to Tokyo than Washington, DC—could be of any material interest to a continental power like the United States. Instead, he discerned his own explanation for the attempted annexation. In a private letter to a senator, the secretary of state wrote that “the armed power of this country [had been used] to destroy an innocent and helpless people in order that New England corporations (forty of them) might get possession of their property, own their sugar plantations, and wring out of the pockets of the American people a bounty…”
While Gresham understood pernicious corporate influence, Blinken is a byproduct of corporate power. In 2018 he cofounded the consulting firm WestExec Advisors, whose purpose was to advance the interests and profit margins of defense contractors. Is that preferential treatment expected to end when Blinken arrives at Foggy Bottom?
The Indianapolis Journal described Gresham as “blunt [and] aggressive,” and his counsel to men like Antony Blinken, who would exploit American strength to perform gratuitous meddling overseas, is pertinent. He said, “Every nation, and especially every strong nation, must sometimes be conscious of an impulse to rush into difficulties that do not concern it, except in a highly imaginary way. To restrain the indulgence of such a propensity is not only the part of wisdom, but a duty we owe to the world as an example of the strength, the moderation, and the beneficence of popular government.”
Gresham believed that “the only safeguard against all the evils of interference in affairs that do not specially concern us is to abstain from such interference altogether.” If Americans did not “stay home and attend to their own business,” then “they would go to hell as fast as possible.”
And can’t our foreign policy be described as a kind of hell? That’s what it must feel like for the Yemeni, Iranian, and Venezuelan families who suffer from hunger and sickness as an effect from U.S. sanctions. Or for the people of Iraq, who have endured almost continual American bombardment for 30 years.
Walter Q. Gresham died from pneumonia halfway through his term at the age of 63. Judging his record, The Nation magazine wrote, “Mr. Gresham has been a great success and has made American honor, capacity, and courtesy mean more in the eyes of the world than they had meant for many a day.”
Honor, capacity, and courtesy. Are those not qualities American foreign policy is in desperate need of? Honoring the sovereignty of other nations and their right to construct their own political and social systems. Understanding the capacity of American power, and not overextending our commitments beyond our capability. And replacing belligerence and poison pill preconditions with diplomatic courtesy and outreach.
When Antony Blinken fails at enacting a foreign policy that places the needs of the republic before those of the empire, it will not be for lack of precedent.
On Monday [two weeks ago], on the 19th anniversary of U.S. soldiers hitting the ground in Afghanistan, dozens of people gathered in West Chester, Pennsylvania, with the goal of ensuring that our men and women in uniform won’t be in Afghanistan for another anniversary.
The event was organized by the conservative veteran’s organization Bring Our Troops Home, founded in January 2019 by former Sgt. Dan McKnight, who served 10 years in the Idaho National Guard with an 18-month tour in Afghanistan, the organization advocates a military withdrawal from “endless wars” in the Middle East and a requirement that all future wars be declared by Congress, as mandated by the Constitution.
The borough of West Chester, the county seat of suburban Philadelphia’s Chester County, was selected for the event because it was the home and final resting place of Marine Major General Smedley Butler, who, at the time of his death in 1940, was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. Following a distinguished career – where he saw action in World War I and Central America and served a brief stint as Philadelphia’s chief of police – the two-time Medal of Honor recipient spent the last decade of his life as an antiwar advocate and lecturer. Butler is best-remembered today as the author of the 1935 book War is a Racket.
The event took place at Oaklands Cemetery, next to Butler’s gravesite, and featured speakers included McKnight, fellow veteran, and former West Point professor Danny Sjursen, and Scott Horton, author of Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan.
They were joined at the podium by the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania’s 6th congressional district, John Emmons. “In order to commit troops someplace, the Congress needs to declare war. So that’s one thing we’re here to reinforce today,” Emmons said in an interview. “Here we are, nineteen years later, and we’re still trying to extract our troops from Afghanistan. I’m certainly in support of that, and what’s curious is that there’s people in Washington who have been fighting President Trump to bring the troops home, including my opponent [Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan].”
Mark Griego, a Villanova University student who served five years in the Marine Corps, was unfamiliar with Bring Our Troops Home before the event. “I think that what they’re fighting for, considering that they’re focusing on the whole bipartisan aspect is really important, it’s more about America, and keeping America whole and one. I think it’s really good what they’re doing with that,” he said.
Also in attendance was Rich Schwartzman, a Philadelphia native who served in the Air Force from 1968 to 1972 and was deployed to Thailand. His message to Washington was clear. “Follow the Constitution,” he said. “I can’t even name all the places we have troops right now, fighting. None of it is constitutional. And that is wrong.”
While most voters are motivated by domestic issues, such as health care and the economy, there remains a smaller, decisive number of Americans who will cast their ballot in November based on their opposition to continued U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
That was the conclusion of Professors Douglas Kriner of Boston University and Francis Shen of the University of Minnesota, whose 2017 study determined a positive and statistically significant correlation between a community’s casualty rate in the War on Terror and its support for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, in which the candidate promised to draw down the American military presence in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Recent polling has reinforced this judgment, including a 2019 Pew Research survey that found 58% of veterans believe the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting, while 64% believe the same about the war in Iraq.
These numbers are particularly relevant for Pennsylvania, which, since 2001, has endured the third-highest casualty count among the states. That includes 301 U.S. military casualties, 47 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard killed overseas, and over 3,000 native sons of the Keystone State wounded in action.
“Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump’s victory – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House,” wrote Kriner and Shen.
Once again, Pennsylvania is a political battleground for Trump. Under his administration, while thousands of U.S. troops remain engaged in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, military casualties are down significantly when with the tenures of his predecessors – 63 Americans dead in Afghanistan, compared to 630 under George W. Bush and 1,758 under Barack Obama.
Bring Our Troops Home, and the majority of veterans they represent will continue to speak out, organize, and lobby until those casualty rates are down to zero. Meantime, on November 3, we will find out if Trump has done enough to reap the political rewards of peace.
This article was originally featured at RealClearDefense and is republished with permission of author.
Last week, in the 2020 campaign’s sole vice presidential debate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) presented herself as part of a growing wing of “national security Democrats” who are quickly populating Congress and—depending on next month’s election results—the White House.
Harris’s positioning is no sudden revelation. As previously reported in The Washington Post, “Those close to Harris describe her as a ‘Truman Democrat,’ a nod to her willingness to use American power to promote American values and interests.”
The comparison to the 33rd commander-in-chief is appropriate. As America’s first post-World War II president, Harry Truman oversaw the expansion and entrenchment of the permanent national security state—including the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency and the rebranding of the War Department to the Department of Defense.
That is the calling card of the natsec Dems: a thorough adherence to maintaining the status quo machinations of the Pentagon, an unshakable faith in any pronouncement of a U.S. intelligence agency (no matter how flawed the methodology or tainted by institutional bias or politics), and a muscular flexing of American military strength overseas.
In the vice presidential debate’s brief exchange on foreign policy, Harris was sure to check every box on the NatSec Dem list. “I serve on the Intelligence Committee of the United States Senate. America’s intelligence community told us Russia interfered in the election of the president of the United States in 2016 and is playing in 2020,” said Harris.
The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election by former Obama officials James Clapper and John Brennen has been the source of such partisan acrimony that there is very little either side would agree on today, including whether the probe was fundamentally skewed, and how much of a threat Russia is to the United States at this very moment. However, Harris went on to cite “public reporting” that the Russian government had put bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan, and admonished Donald Trump for not addressing the claim in conversations with Vladimir Putin.
As previously explained at Responsible Statecraft, the Russia bounty allegation has its origins in a single CIA report sourced from Taliban prisoners, and in over three months no other agency has been able to validate it. But this has not prevented other NatSec Dems like Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) from regularly promoting the story as authentic. She is even introducing legislation to sanction anyone tied to the so-far unconfirmed bounties.
The more attention Harris and company give to the Russian bounty story, however, the less she gives to the ongoing, 19-year presence of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. During her brief presidential campaign, Harris refused to commit to leaving Afghanistan in her first term. A refusal to depart the Central Asian sinkhole is a characteristic shared by every NatSec Dem, particularly Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, who in July partnered with Republican warhawk Elizabeth Cheney (Wyo.) to block any congressional funding for a potential withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Compared to the neoconservative ideologues of the Republican Party, NatSec Dems are more selective about where they drop bombs. Previously, Harris co-sponsored legislation to end the U.S. participation in the Saudi-led genocide in Yemen and opposes boots-on-the-ground in Venezuela (while still supporting efforts to oust Nicholas Maduro through other means).
These marginal differences don’t preclude political alliances, however. “Of course we have the support of Democrats, but…in fact, seven members of President George W. Bush’s cabinet are supporting our ticket,” said Harris, bragging about seeing eye-to-eye with the old guard of the most bellicose presidential administration of the past 50 years.
Only a month ago Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass)—a particularly hawkish NatSec Dem—made a similar comment that he “never once questioned the loyalty of George W. Bush…to our Constitution,” implying that Moulton believes in the legality of the Iraq War, mass warrantless surveillance, and the torture program.
Harris continued, adding that “over 500 generals, retired generals, and former national security experts, and advisors are supporting our campaign.” This demonstrates the crossover of support between the national security state and their NatSec Dem patrons like Harris (and Duckworth), who earlier this year voted against a progressive amendment to transfer 10 percent of the $740.5 billion Pentagon budget into domestic welfare programs.
Many NatSec Dems learned where their bread was buttered in their careers as either soldiers or intelligence operatives, prior to their election to Congress. Duckworth, Crow, and Moulton are all veterans, while other NatSec Dems like Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia cut their teeth at the CIA. They represent “the absurd gulf between hawkish Hill-dwelling veterans and their brethren back on Main Street,” writes Danny Sjursen, referring to polls that indicate 73 percent of veterans support a full withdrawal from Afghanistan and other less interventionist policies. So do the American people.
But that seems to matter little. In Senator Harris these NatSec Dems have a former prosecutor and a Trumanesque partner on the ticket who would give them an oversized voice in a prospective Joe Biden presidency and a chance to flex their muscular foreign policy vision, their way.
Friends of liberty inside and outside the Libertarian Party are waiting patiently—some passively—for three more weeks until the conclusion of the November presidential election. Not to find out whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden will come in first, but how many votes their own candidate will receive on the margin.
Jo Jorgensen, a businesswoman, university lecturer, and longtime party activist received the presidential nomination in May, with the (virtual) convention selecting activist and podcaster Spike Cohen as her running mate. Not long afterwards, the Jorgensen/Cohen ticket became the focal point of a bitter dispute within the liberty movement about messaging, with particular rancor towards their social media team.
While ascribing to nearly identical ideas, the rhetorical divide between libertarians seems almost insurmountable. Differences of opinion include what issues libertarians should prioritize, which demographics their message should be aimed at, what a unifying movement leader would look like, and whether political activism is even worth investment.
It would be instructive for libertarians to have a sense of how past candidates have portrayed themselves and sold their policies to voters. In its nearly fifty-year history, the Libertarian party has run presidential tickets from different factions and backgrounds, with different personalities, all while collecting different results. Finding what works, what’s unappealing, and what can be improved is necessary for future endeavors.
This article will focus on four of the Libertarian Party’s most prominent presidential campaigns—1976, 1980, 1988, 1996—comparing and contrasting the pamphlets that were meant introduce libertarianism to the voting public.
First, a special aside should be made for the Libertarian Party’s first nominees, philosophy professor John Hospers and radio producer Tonie Nathan. Founded in Colorado in 1971, Murray Rothbard described the organization’s inauspicious beginnings: “There’s no ﬁnances, there’s no people, there’s nothing.” Professionally made literature was out of reach for the upstart campaign, but they did make one pin that asked voters, in Nineteen Eighty-Four fashion, to “Break Free From Big Brother.” On the ballot in only two states (Colorado and Washington), the Hospers/Nathan ticket won only 3,600 votes, less than one tenth of one percent. And yet this newborn third party shot to notoriety when a faithless elector in Virginia gave them a lone tally in the Electoral College.
That faithless elector went on to be the party’s 1976 presidential nominee. Roger MacBride had formerly worked as a lawyer and, as the inheritor of the Laura Ingalls Wilder literary estate, co-created the NBC television series Little House on the Prairie. MacBride built his campaign around the phrase “a new dawn,” in which the Libertarian Party would break the country’s political duopoly and present Americans with a fresh direction. The brochure reads:
Who could deny that the politics of contemporary America should fade into the sunset and disappear forever? Most Americans, if we are to believe the public opinion polls, do desire a new dawn—a fresh approach to politics and a reappraisal of the appropriate role of government in a free society. The problem is, the candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties are from the old school of political wheeling and dealing. They sense that the public is ready for a new direction but they don’t know or care what that direction should be
MacBride’s brochure is heavy on rhetoric, candidate biography, and even includes a retelling of the party’s founding. What it lacks is policy proscriptions, with only a single page of bullet points quotes meant to inform the reader of where libertarians stand on the issues. With such limited space, it’s both curious but predictable that television producer MacBride would save special ire for the Federal Communications Commission, which he calls “one of the most dangerous agencies of government” for its censorship and intimidation of broadcasters. The FCC is one of the executive agencies MacBride promised to abolish, along with the FTC, ICC, and CAB, saying they “employ a virtual army of bureaucrats who are leeches on the productive sector of society.”
Despite the brevity, MacBride’s statement on U.S. foreign policy is worth quoting at length because of its foresight:
If I were elected President I’d retire Henry Kissinger as one of my first orders of business. The United States government has no right running around the world using tax dollars—the money you and I earn—to make ‘deals’ with foreign governments. The U.S. should stop intervening in other peoples’ affairs. I’m particularly concerned that the current Administration’s policy of involvement in the Middle East is going to lead to another Vietnam.
In November 1976, Roger MacBride won 172,000 votes, or one-fifth of one percent.
Where the MacBride brochure lacked on substance, Ed Clark’s indulges. A corporate lawyer, Clark gained appeal as a candidate after his 1978 campaign for California governor overperformed (he won almost five and a half percent). Riding high, he sailed to the presidential nomination in 1980.
While including photos of the candidate and a standard introduction, Clark’s brochure opens to reveal six pages of policy summations, making it by far the most detailed of the bunch. Clark elucidates his opinions on issues including, but not limited to, energy, unemployment, inflation, and crime, while even including separate subheads for civil liberties and the draft, along with foreign affairs and defense spending.
The Ed Clark campaign and its handlers earned the eternal enmity of Murray Rothbard when during a television interview, Clark used the phrase “low-tax liberalism” to explain libertarian ideology. This blunder has permanently attached the label of moderate or shallow to Clark’s run for office in the minds of many libertarians who proudly wear the moniker “radical.”
On that scale, Clark’s stated positions are a mixed bag; he goes all the way on some issues, but only partway on others. On one hand, Clark promised to abolish the newly formed Department of Energy, repeal all price controls, and eliminate the minimum wage. But on the other, while calling public education “a disgrace,” he goes no further than favoring tax credits for charter schools. Wonderfully, Clark refers to the draft as nothing more than “short-term slavery.” But while he favors reducing military expenditures, he gives no indication of how much.
One of the stances Clark was hit hardest on by other libertarians was taxes. In in the brochure’s introduction, taxes are the first issue mentioned, with Clark promising “the largest tax cut in American history.” It’s a phrase used repeatedly on other pages. To Rothbard and others, this fell too far short of calling for a full repeal of the income tax or destroying the IRS. In the same campaign, Ronald Reagan was making a similar promise, once again making Clark’s brand appeared watered down.
Like MacBride, the strength of Clark’s foreign policy stance and his recognition of blowback is worth quoting at length:
The United States supplies arms and aid to the world’s worst military despots. Indeed, in this century, we have supplied arms to both sides in seventeen different wars…The consequences and costs of this bankrupt foreign policy are becoming increasingly apparent, both at home and abroad. Our years of support for the despotic shah of Iran against the will of the Iranian people caused the Iranians to react violently against the United States. It is just one of many examples, from Vietnam to Nicaragua, of the failure of foreign adventurism. We must resolve now to avoid foreign crises in the future by staying out of the affairs of other countries.
On top of paper, the Clark campaign ran a litany of professionally produced, five-minute television ads. This surely benefited when come November, Ed Clark won 921,000 votes, or just over one percent. His 1980 campaign would hold the record on raw vote total and percentage until the Gary Johnson presidential runs of 2012 and 2016, respectively.
In 1988, Dr. Ron Paul was the most experienced presidential nominee in the Libertarian Party’s less than two-decade history. After a career in medicine, Paul had been elected to the U.S. House as a Republican four times, serving from 1976 to 1977 and 1979 to 1985. Despite having the most prominent career (both before and after his nomination), Paul has far and away the simplest brochure.
Only three pages of policy positions and biography, Paul’s brochure is precise, albeit brief. The prospective voter is greeted by a cartoon drawing of Alice in Wonderland characters Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, with an “R” and “D” painted on their chests. It tells the reader that, “Ron Paul’s message of liberty is the same one that inspired the Founding Fathers to fight for our independence, that galvanized mass movements in the 19th century for hard money and personal liberty, and that mobilized millions in the 20th century.”
This appeal to the past is one of the hallmarks of the Paul brochure. While MacBride’s mentions the American Revolution twice, and Clark’s not at all, Paul references the Founding Fathers five times in a much shorter print.
Much of the substance in Paul’s brochure will discussed further on, but for now his skewering of U.S. foreign policy is once again worth quoting from:
The job of the U.S. government is to defend the people, property, and liberty of the United States. Period. It is not to run the world. It is not to fund wealthy clients like Germany and Japan. It is not to install and overthrow dictators in Central America. It is not to intervene on the side of totalitarian socialist Iraq and Big Oil in the Persian Gulf.
In November 1988 Ron Paul received 431,000 votes, or just under half a percent.
In his 1996 brochure, Harry Browne sells himself as much as the libertarian message. Taking an aside from explaining the budget to tell voters where they can buy his new book, the best-selling author and investment advisor was a natural marketer. In this instance, he does so by directly comparing himself to his Democrat and Republican opponents. In punchy bullet points, Browne presents what the major parties believe on spending, taxes, and social security, and follows with how he’s different.
The language is purposely dramatized to draw attention; balance the entire budget now (emphasis in original). And the issues are all geared towards matters that affect the daily lives of Americans. That specialization, while smart for voter targeting, leaves much to be desired in delivering the libertarian message. For instance, there is no mention of foreign policy, the only brochure to ignore the subject. The language, however, is the most accessible to the average person, using clear, simple direction to inform voter’s about Browne’s policies.
Harry Browne won 485,000 votes in 1996, or exactly half a percent. His performance was strong enough—the highest vote count since Ed Clark in 1980—and his personal appeal so universal that he was re-nominated by the Libertarian Party four years later.
Bringing all four brochures together, the first impression is their diverse color aesthetic. Each campaign appears to have chosen to lean on a single-color pallet; MacBride on a deep blue, almost purple; Clark on Green; Paul on light blue, and Browne on red. And like most political paper, a picture of the candidate included on the front, bar MacBride’s, which allotted for the “new dawn” imagery.
Both MacBride and Clark include a page of media mentions and favorable quotes from publications. They both even go so far as to recycle a quote from Nicholas von Hoffman in the Washington Post that he wrote in 1974. Paul has no media quotations but does include a list of organizations that had presented him with awards, including the Mises Institute. And Browne’s biography includes a list of the national television networks he had spoken on.
One of the pillars that unites all libertarians is opposition to the state’s monopoly on money production, and the devaluation of the U.S. dollar caused by the Federal Reserve. Both MacBride and Clark refer to the Fed’s monetary expansionism as “legalized counterfeiting,” and Clark provides a short explanation of how inflation benefits incumbent politicians and hurts workers. MacBride gives no further elaboration on a solution, and Clark calls for a return to “sound money,” but neither explicitly call for ending the Federal Reserve System.
Ron Paul does not mince words in his condemnation of the central bank. He promised to “protect the value of your money by restoring the gold standard and abolishing the Federal Reserve.” Whereas Harry Browne declines to mention monetary policy and sticks strictly to fiscal policy.
Something all four candidates do mention is the War on Drugs, although not necessarily in the same language. Roger MacBride takes a firm, but general stand against all victimless crime:
If there is no victim there can be no crime. This business of passing a law to prevent people from doing something simply because we think it’s morally wrong is nonsense. How we conduct ourselves is a moral question that can be answered by our own conscience.
Ed Clark likewise makes a broader, but more detailed statement about crime, and how it’s ill-handled by the police. He argues that drugs ought to be decriminalized, because “narcotics prohibition actually creates crime, just as alcohol prohibition created the gangster problem.” Both he and MacBride further argue that police should be made to focus on violent crimes “like rape, robbery and murder” (MacBride) instead of “wasting time and money on vice squads, drug busts and political spying” (Clark).
Ron Paul’s brochure, like Clark’s, uses the Prohibition era as a parallel, writing “In the 1920s, the unbelievable violation of our liberties called Prohibition strengthened public and private criminals at the people’s expense. The same is true of the War on Drugs.” This is included in a longer list of civil liberties violations, in which Paul mentions the invasion of the doctor-patient relationship, parental rights over children, and the state spying apparatus.
Like other issues, Harry Browne compares the Republican and Democratic Party’s insistence on “more federal powers, more police, more prosecutions, more prisons.” Whereas Browne would end the “insane” War on Drugs immediately:
This will take away the obscene criminal profits of drug pushers, break up street gangs, and make our cities safe again. Pardon non-violent drug offenders to make room in prisons for rapists and murderers who terrorize our citizens.
It is no secret that there are aspects of the liberty philosophy that are more difficult to pitch to non-libertarians than others. For instance, it is obligatory for a libertarian to believe in the right of association, that a person and property owner can associate or discriminate for any reason. Many libertarians prefer to ignore this philosophical cornerstone in ‘polite company,’ or other issues like state-mandated racial quotas and affirmative action. The closest any brochure comes to acknowledging this is MacBride’s, which obliquely references liberals “forcing an unending stream of ‘social engineering’ programs on us.” In all others, it is left unsaid.
Another dicey topic can be the welfare state, where even most conservative Republicans are happy to continue the social safety net instituted by Lyndon Johnson. Both MacBride and Clark chose to ignore the issue of welfare, while addressing nearly every other government program. In contrast, Ron Paul is very matter of fact, promising to eliminate “$500 billion in corporate welfare, social welfare, and foreign military welfare.” Instead, “churches and other private charities should be freed to care for the needy in a humane, non-governmental manner.”
The subject of welfare is where Harry Browne excels the most. In his brochure, Browne says the government’s “welfare system promotes dependency, irresponsibility, and poverty.” He further acknowledges without fanfare that gutting the federal budget and returning the government to its constitutional parameters “means ending all federal social programs.”
Social Security, the original bedrock of the modern welfare state and one of the third rails of American politics, is addressed specifically. Instead of inane reforms like adjusting the Consumer Price Index, Harry Browne would:
Sell off federal assets and use the proceeds to buy private retirement annuities for senior citizens who are dependent on Social Security—annuities from companies who keep their promises and never change the rules. Browne will end the 15% Social Security tax and leave Americans free to choose their own retirement.
The reason welfare can be a difficult topic for libertarians is because too often market alternatives can come across as unempathetic, or unrealistic, if not phrased right. Browne is able to perfectly encapsulate why abolishing the welfare state is not only financially necessary, but ethically the only possible solution:
You—not some bureaucrat—will decide who’s actually doing some good, who’s helping the needy become self-supporting, who’s earning your charity dollar—and how many charity dollars you’ll give them. So will your co-workers, neighbors, and other members of your community.
Charity, not welfare. Private compassion will succeed where government compulsion has failed.
On the other hand, taxes can be a libertarian’s favorite issue to discuss with the general public, and all the candidates jump at the opportunity. MacBride complains that “feudal serfs in the Middle Ages kept a higher percentage of their income than we Americans do today.” His simple fix is to “persistently seek to lower all taxes” because “they’re far too high—all of them.”
As previously mentioned, the key platform plank of Ed Clark’s campaign was the largest tax cut in American history. His brochure says he’ll explain the details of his tax program later on in the campaign, leaving the reader with the “economic fact of life” that allowing people to keep money they earn and “to save and to spend as they choose” leads to prosperity.
Ron Paul’s position is to not only lower taxes but abolish the income tax altogether. He has certain venom for the IRS collection agency in particular:
10,000 ravening, machine-gun-toting IRS agents oppress the people and eat out their substance. They have the license to confiscate your wealth, seize your bank accounts, and force you to incriminate yourself without due process of law.
Harry Browne shares that stance, and sought to it home in how uncompromising it was:
What will Harry Browne ‘replace’ the Income Tax with? A flat tax? No. A sales tax? No. A Value Added Tax? No. He’ll replace it with nothing.
Once again, Browne takes the time to explain the implications of this policy in a way to emotionally connect with voters and make them feel more comfortable about such a dramatic shift in government revenue:
Look at last year’s 1040 tax form. What would you do with the money the government took from you—money you earned—if it were yours to spend? Would you put your children in a private school that offers a better education and teaches your values? Would you put your money into savings or investments or perhaps use it to start that business you’ve always dreamed of? Would you move to a better home? Give more to your favorite charity or cause or church? Leaving all your earnings in your hands lets you make these choices for yourself, your family, and your community.
Lastly, its curious which candidates choose to acknowledge that they’re on a ticket, campaigning alongside a vice presidential nominee. MacBride was gracious enough to give his running mate, lawyer David Bergland, nearly equal biographical space in the brochure; Bergland went on to be the Libertarian Party’s 1984 presidential nominee. Ed Clark includes zero mention of his running mate, New York business executive David Koch, despite the latter providing millions in funding to the campaign. David, along with his brother Charles Koch, became infamous later in life as some of the Republican Party’s wealthiest financiers. Likewise, Ron Paul’s brochure is devoid of his running mate Andre Marrou, who as one of the Libertarian Party’s few elected officials had served a term in the Alaska House of Representatives. Marrou was the party’s 1992 presential nominee, in a campaign marked by scandal and possible criminality. Finally, Harry Browne includes a short, paragraph biography and picture of his running mate, and current Libertarian Party presidential nominee, Jo Jorgensen, bringing everything full circle.
MacBride, Clark, Paul, and Browne possessed few ideological differences between each other. But in their presidential campaigns and voter outreach, they were very different in their choice of strategies. Analyzing their successes—and mistakes—is an important component of forming the best libertarian pitch going into 2021 and beyond.
US News The TSA is offering a self-defense class for flight crews. [Link] Haiti Haiti’s new Western-backed prime minister calls for elections as soon as possible. [Link] Great Power Russia calls on the UK and France to be involved in nuclear weapons talks. [Link] The...
Remember there names. They tried to warn you. "You may know the names of these antiwar conservatives. Some are famous: Patrick Buchanan and Robert Novak. Others are not: Llewellyn Rockwell, Samuel Francis, Thomas Fleming, Scott McConnell, Justin Raimondo, Joe Sobran,...
“Independence is financial,” Abukhdeir told me. “If we don’t have financial freedom, nothing is going to change.” But how do Palestinians buy bitcoin? “We always find the holes,” Abuwedad said. More here
Scott interviews Gareth Porter about the tenuous and secretive relationship between the U.S., China and Taiwan. Since the Nixon administration, Porter explains, America has had an official, but mostly tacit, policy of supporting the "one China" principle—but U.S....
David Swanson discusses the new congressional and presidential war powers legislation that's been proposed by Senators Murphy, Lee and Sanders. Swanson describes his initial fears about the bill, given how bad previous attempts to modify congressional war powers and...
Scott talks to Dave DeCamp about what's going on in the various corners of America's would-be empire. In Afghanistan, as predicted, the Taliban have been making gains against the Afghan government as the U.S. military withdraws—but the Biden administration's...
Scott interviews journalist Mark Curtis about his investigations into the UK role in the wars in Syria and Yemen. Regarding Yemen, Britain has long denied any involvement in that war, says Curtis, but it's now been revealed that they, like the U.S., have been helping...
57 Minutes Some Strong Language Jason Stapleton is the host of the "Wealth, Power and Influence podcast. Pete asked Jason to come on to talk about why he feels that libertarians should not only be striving for wealth, power and influence, but to come together to...
57 Minutes PG-13 Keith Knight is the host of the Don't Tread on Anyone Podcast. Keith joined Pete to discuss James Burnham's 1940 book, "The Managerial Revolution," in which he lays out, and even mentions by name, the path business and government were on towards...
45 Minutes PG-13 Tho Bishop is the associate editor of Mises.org Pete invited Tho on to give an overview of what exactly is what has come to be known as the "Paleo Strategy." It is attributed to Murray Rothbard's writings from the early 1990s but is often described in...
56 Minutes PG-13 Car is one-third of the Timeline Earth Podcast. Pete asked Car to come on today to answer questions about Bitcoin and specifically the ideas that some hold to which is commonly called "Bitcoin Maximalism." Car on Twitter Timeline Earth Get Autonomy 19...
On COI #139, Kyle breaks down a new bill that would repeal the War Powers Act and replace it with a new law that seeks to give Congress back more control over foreign policy. The proposed law fixes several critical problems with the War Powers Act and repeals the 2001...
On COI #138, Kyle breaks down several important news stories from around the world. The US Department of Justice announced new rules that prevent federal prosecutors from seeking the records of journalists that publish leaked information. However, Attorney General...
On COI #137, Kyle and Will break down the new US Marine deployment to guard the American Embassy in Haiti, which comes amid instability after the assassination of the country's leader. While President Biden insists there will be no larger stabilization mission, that's...
On COI #136, Patrick MacFarlane – host of Liberty Weekly – returns to the show to discuss the assassination of Haiti's President Jovenel Moise. Over a century ago, in response to another presidential hit, the US invaded and occupied Haiti for 19 years. After...
https://youtu.be/m7fJh-5c_1E Prohibition was repealed precisely because law enforcement broke down in the face of massive civil disobedience, not because the law was piously heeded and then people turned to legal channels of repeal. Murray N. Rothbard Libertarian...
https://youtu.be/Fn4IA_mXvHw Since its rule is exploitative and parasitic, the State must purchase the alliance of a group of “Court Intellectuals,” whose task is to bamboozle the public into accepting and celebrating the rule of its particular State. Th e Court...
https://youtu.be/4d-uDr2-6m8 It is politically naïve in the extreme to place the supply of fiat money in the hands of government and then to hope and expect it to refrain from controlling exchange rates or going on to impose more detailed exchange controls. Murray N....
https://youtu.be/oxlcplpkWVQ Wage rates in every country are determined by the productivity of the workers in the country. Murray N. Rothbard Making Economic Sense, p. 18 Thomas E. Woods, Jr., is the 2019 winner of the Hayek Lifetime Achievement Award from the...
https://youtu.be/Ax8uPZLINvQ In the midst of the United States' renewed great power competition with Russia and China, the western foreign policy establishment has launched a sustained propaganda campaign to steel the American public into supporting...
https://youtu.be/xjbbDI_70eQ Keith Knight joins me for this INSTANT CLASSIC episode of the Liberty Weekly Podcast. Keith and each picked and researched five proven conspiracies to share on air. Please review the show notes page for sources. Episode 172 of the Liberty...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aa_jbd4mDs Dave DeCamp is the news editor of Antiwar.com where he meticulously tracks the expansion of the US Empire. Dave joins me to discuss the recent Biden Putin Summit and the Biden Administration's preparations for war with...
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obIXmwX5_-I Were US banking interest behind China's precipitous rise to world power? What is China's place in the New World Order? What is driving the "destined for war" narrative between the West and China? Are the Chinese committing...
Jose of No Way Jose fame joined me to chat about libertarianism and the infighting we see all around us. Jose Twitter No Way Jose 19 Skills Pdf Autonomy Course Critical Thinking Course Donate Patreon RyanBunting.com
Rachel Tobias joined me to discuss the World Economic Forum's plans for our future and how we may view and combat these plans in our own lives. Rachel twitter The Freedom Ministry 19 Skills Pdf Autonomy Course Critical Thinking Course Donate Patreon...
Antony Sammeroff joined me to discus the economy, UBI, COVID, vaccines, and the lockdowns. Antony Twitter Be Yourself And Love It The Scottish Liberty Podcast 19 Skills Pdf Autonomy Course Critical Thinking Course Donate Patreon...
I invited Matt Erickson, Coop, and Ace on the show to have a roundtable discussion on the plight of young men in modern times. We get into metaphysics, rights of passage, porn, and more. I'm certain you'll love this episode. Matt Erickson Twitter King Pilled Ace...