Tyranny and Crisis: The Rise of American Militarism


In the previous article, the connection between assaults on liberty and national crises was made: the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts were passed under the threat of war with France, while state secession was the justification for Lincoln to suspend civil liberties during the Civil War, which consolidated the southern states into a Union dominated by the federal government.

Yet it wasn’t until the Progressive Era when the historical association between tyranny and crisis became a formula for statists to push heavy-handed policies onto the freedom-loving populace. Not only exploiting crises, but manufacturing crises, became a way for elites to establish centralized control over the economy, mislead Americans into foreign wars, and exact more influence over the people.

A crucial means for any central government to accrue more control over a population has been war. A common misconception of progressives is that they are averse to war on principle. This is only a pose of convenience; progressives are all for war when they can acquire political or economic benefit from it, while they stand opposed to it when it suits them politically. It is no coincidence that the supposedly peace-loving Democrat Party has led America into wars time and time again once occupying the White House.

Progressives exploit wars to centralize the economy, justify rationing, and condition citizens for statism. In peace-time, they build international institutions that promote “peace,” and situate themselves as mediators between nations. In this way, they pragmatically build their power base at home and abroad whether the country is at war or not.

At the beginning of the Progressive Era in the late nineteenth century, a monumental shift in the disposition of the country’s leadership took place. A new aristocracy, those born of the old estates and those flush with new trust money, forged an alliance to take part in the great game of imperialist politics. A scramble for Africa had drawn in numerous European powers: Britain, France, Portugal, and even Italy and Belgium. America’s elite could no longer sit back and watch the Europeans wield power across the globe when the country’s economic clout was so evident and would otherwise remain idle. Under dubious circumstances, the country became embroiled in the Spanish-American War, and it began grabbing pseudo-colonies in the Pacific Theater, primarily to maintain an “open door” trading policy with China.

The passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890 had given the state arbitrary power over corporations that it determined were “too big” and had too much of a share of the economy. Instead of vigilantly enforcing conditions that would lead to more competition, progressives like President Theodore Roosevelt used the legislation as a cudgel to bully disliked or non-compliant businesses.

Meanwhile, huge “public works projects” run by the state became the vogue; the Panama Canal is a fine example of a massive infrastructure project combining foreign adventurism and costly expenditure – both in terms of money and the loss of life due to malaria. Such ‘sacrifice’ to the state was publicly lauded; and a disturbing alien element of nationalism was introduced and fused onto American patriotism, which is a reverence for country based on its animating ideal of liberty.

The election of another progressive, Woodrow Wilson, an unabashed statist and supposedly principled man of peace, was supposed to usher in a new era of hope and international harmony. Despite a few rumblings in the Balkans, the world was peaceful and there was a refreshing spirit of internationalism stirring.

When World War I broke out, Americans were in no way willing to become entangled in a bloody campaign in Europe. President Wilson was a savvy enough politician to know that he needed to refrain from direct participation. So instead calling for war outright, Wilson agreed with the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill to smuggle weapons to Britain aboard specially outfitted and armed ships like the Lusitania. This was certainly a knowing act of public deception – a sure sign of creeping tyranny. The Lusitania was sent into harm’s way, despite ample advanced warning by the Germans, who consequently sunk the ship.  This was at the very least an unnecessarily risky move, and a contravention of the international law banning weapons smuggling during wartime.

From that moment in 1915, when 128 U.S. civilians were lost with the sinking of the Lusitania, another convenient naval disaster, American opposition to the Germans hardened. Through an intense propaganda campaign, Wilson built sufficient public backing to enter the war, which he did in 1917. After the war began, President Wilson immediately broadened his stated aims from mere opposition to the Germans to spreading freedom and peace around the world.  America as world policeman never looked back.

During the war, the Wilson administration passed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, invoking crisis as a rationale to suppress popular dissent. The law was vague, banning any general impugning of the United States, its flag, or its institutions.  Even internationalist progressives, or left progressives, were willing to use nationalism when it suited their purposes, such as controlling public discourse and the country’s economy.

Many Americans were persecuted under these draconian acts, most of the convicted receiving terms of 5 to 20 years for each violation. Examples of abuse include the conviction of the poet E.E. Cummings, whose lack of hatred for the Germans got him three and a half months in a military detention camp. The producer of the film The Spirit of ‘76, which showed the British army’s abuse of detained American soldiers during the Revolutionary War, was sentenced to ten years in prison. The film undermined support for a critical war-time ally, so the verdict reasoned. Postmasters conspired under the directive of the federal government to watch for incendiary publications, and to cease delivering them if necessary.

Imagining if the same standards applied today – to the Internet, cell phones, and public media – gives one some small sense of the anxiety and self-censorship such wartime measures must have provoked. But the major newspapers, far from opposing Wilson’s measures, actually supported the censorship. Parts of the acts were repealed in 1920.

World War I led to an economy of increasing controls, rationing, and regimentation. After the war, numerous intellectuals glowed about how efficiently the economy seemed to run, how close to full employment was attained, and how harmonious the society appeared to be. That the United States participated in one of the bloodiest and most savage wars in history, no worthwhile or profitable endeavor for the bulk of mankind, was somehow lost on cloistered elites as the main lesson.

Wilson’s Espionage Act was used as a springboard for the Palmer Raids, which sought to penetrate and disrupt radical causes.  The suppression of civil liberties ironically led to more sympathy for the socialists and anarchists who bore the brunt of the raids. This gave the radicals even more cause and motivation to penetrate the American system and slowly construct their own form of tyranny in retaliation, which they conceived of as liberation from the government. That the U.S.’ system of government was only a shadow of what it was intended to be – a limited and decentralized Constitutional republic – was of little consequence to the radicals.  America as it was founded, and what the country had become, were irrevocably conflated in the minds of many intellectuals.

The masses had been lauded for their great sacrifice during America’s foreign wars, which had made wealthy investors more wealthy and the influential infinitely more so. The United States liberated countries abroad, but in the process, it began shackling itself. The theme of “sacrifice,” in terms of warfare or giving more for so-called welfare, would become a consistent national theme throughout the twentieth century.  Sacrifice would become the essence of state propaganda; the underlying rationale for foreign wars abroad, and for economic and social controls by the government at home.

As published on FreedomBeacon.

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6 thoughts on “Tyranny and Crisis: The Rise of American Militarism

  1. Here is an understatement. Wilson never has been my favorite president.

    Funny thing about letting the government run the school system. When we study history, it looks like America had the best of reasons for entering WW I and fighting against the Germans. Yet we went to war because the Germans sunk a British ship carrying munitions?

    I doubt that it would have been a good idea to let the Germans win WW I. However, I do wish we had had an excuse besides Democrat manufactured propaganda.

    1. More interesting facts, Tom. Actually, the Germans didn’t start World War I. It started off as a quarrel between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Serbia. The Germans wanted to support Austria diplomatically, since they were allies. Germany told Russia and France to back off and DON’T MOBILIZE, because the Germans would be forced to activate the von Schlieffen Plan, the only plan they had that could allow them to effectively fight a two-front war.

      But the smell of revanchism was in the air in France, and the French wanted to get back such lost territory as Alsace-Lorraine, which France had lost during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. When Nicholas II mobilized his troops, due in part to an overly aggressive and incompetent military staff and a Tsar much in the dark on the workings of the military and the diplomatic corps, World War I was born.

      After World War I was effectively over, and the Germans had lost, the Allies continued their embargo against Germany, with the approval of Wilson, to exact an even more favorable peace settlement. Thousands of Germans starved, and many died. When the Allies determined Germany’s fate during the Paris Peace Talks, the arrogant and effete Wilson was completely taken for a ride by the savvy Georges Clemenceau and cagy David Lloyd George. John Maynard Keynes, of all people, absolutely trashes Wilson in his The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were absolutely disastrous, his League of Nations brainchild a hapless failure, and his policies were ruinous for the American economy for the next century. Other than that, Wilson was a fine president.

  2. “Imagining if the same standards applied today – to the Internet, cell phones, and public media – gives one some small sense of the anxiety and self-censorship such wartime measures must have provoked. But the major newspapers, far from opposing Wilson’s measures, actually supported the censorship.”

    Great article. History repeats itself and it seems we will be re-living this ugly past. Obama is following Wilson & FDR’s playbooks. I wonder if the FCC 3 minute warning test will lead to some type of censorship.

    “Sacrifice would become the essence of state propaganda; the underlying rationale for foreign wars abroad, and for economic and social controls by the government at home.”

    The Statist sense of sacrifice seems one step away from a Muslin suicide terrorist’s sacrifice.

    1. “The Statist sense of sacrifice seems one step away from a Muslin suicide terrorist’s sacrifice.”

      Maybe that is why leftists identify and defend jihadists, they have the sense of self-sacrifice to do what many leftists won’t do – kill themselves for their cause. Outstanding insight, Lisi. Reminds me a bit of Ayn Rand’s point that the essence of altruism is sacrifice, and altruism’s ineluctable logic is to drive its followers towards ultimate fulfillment – self-extinction.

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