Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Peace Progressives

Rob needed a bit of extra time to get his review of the last chapter of Herring's From Colony and Superpower so we are waiting until next Sunday to discuss the next chapter. In his reply on the 1920s last week, he discussed the Peace Progressives. They were a group of lawmakers (largely Republicans from rural states) who believed in world peace and fiscal responsibility. Rob notes:

they made the (almost heretical in the current political climate) connection that weapons cost money, and that the interest of small government is best served by tight limitations on the size of military forces. The pursuit of international routes to peace (Kellogg-Briand Pact, for example) abetted the interest in fiscal responsibility by reducing the need for large military establishments. I think it's odd that this combination (preference for low tax, low domestic expenditure, low defense expenditure) seems to occur so rarely in the American political context; perhaps the development of the military-industrial complex served to capture pro-business (such that the term has any meaning...) legislators, or the perceived threat of communism helped purge Republican party doves?

An interesting point. These Peace Progressives, many of whom became the "isolationists" of the 1930s who tried to stay out of World War II, have been unfairly vilified. Their actions made perfect sense at the time--it seemed that ending war was possible. They didn't respond particularly well to the rise of Hitler and Japanese militarism, but they were also supported by a lot of people in this country. It's highly unfair to accuse them of not foreseeing the rise of Nazi Germany and to laugh at the peace treaties of the 1920s.

I do want to caution though about taking the Peace Progressives as some kind of model today. It sounds great--I'm for peace and I'm a progressive! I'll write more about this, probably tomorrow, particularly in the context of the Progressives of the 1900s and 1910s, but I'm seeing a lot of people on the left starting to identify with these older movements based on the common ground of name and a shared desire to reform. That's fine, but these movements don't provide us much guidance for the present. The Peace Progressives were responding to the disaster of World War I and the violation of Washington's Farewell Address, two issues with virtually no relevance for the present. As I said in my post on the 20s last week, the decade feels like the last gasp of pre-modern America colliding with a young and headstrong moderism. A lot of people, importantly from rural states, were uncomfortable with much of this, including an activist US foreign policy that consistently embroiled the nation with conflicts around the world. As Herring points out, the Peace Progressives did help end the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua, avoid war with Mexico, and cut off funds for naval construction. Surely the first two of these things were very good and the last is ambivalent.

Of course Rob's point remains valid. Almost no one will call for a reduced Defense Department budget. Despite our severe financial problems, this sacred cow cannot be touched. Rob is certainly an expert of absurd military programs, but I'm sure if people started seriously discussing it, Republicans (and many conservative Democrats too) would use a strategy that combined calling Democrats soft on terrorism with saying that the military provides a lot of jobs. The latter point is true but at a very high cost rate per job. Soldiers don't get paid a lot but planes and submarines are insanely expensive for the amount of jobs they create. Barney Frank is arguing for a reduced military budget in The Nation and he is a pretty powerful guy. But he's also a voice in the Congressional wilderness on this issue.