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Aug 1, 1975

Radosh, “Prophets on the Right”

“This is as fair, sober, and measured an evaluation…of Beard, Villard, Flynn, Robert A.Taft (Senior), and Lawrence Dennis, as one is likely to see.”

Somehow or other I seem to have missed something. A number of important historians, economists and publicists whom I have thought of for 40 years as integral members of the American liberal fold have in the last decade been assigned to our “right wing.” This is in part due to the scholars of the New Left, who since the mid-1960’s, have specialized in opposing the Cold War with Russia and China and with equal breath the now-defunct war in Vietnam. In the course of their researches they have discovered a tradition of antiwar objection associated with all American wars, but in particular the opposition to World War II (which, more than not, even they have considered our One Great Holy Combat) and, from its very start, the Cold War. What has intrigued and excited them is that the critics of both of these martial adventures were essentially the same people. Because some sectors of conservative opinion found these critics’ antiwar writing and talk relating to World War II congenial to their own views, the anti-interventionists have come to be thought of as “rightists,” too. (Ignored is the conservatives’ rejection of their anti-Cold War stance, and the fact that in the early 1950s among the loudest and most extensive supporters of revisionist history concerning World War II were the press of the Socialist Labor Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, which are hardly to be enlisted within any “right wing,” at least in this Galaxy.)

Many ideological stereotypes have been torn to shreds by the conflict caused by the complexities of American attitudes toward world politics, but the dust has not yet settled, and no clear separation into rigid camps has taken place, at least not so far as I can tell. Furthermore, it has been acceptable so far to treat the antiwar people as one-dimensional, overlooking the fact that they were immensely complicated persons with wide-ranging and voracious interests. For purposes of analysis of just their antiwar views, this is quite reasonable, but the neglect of everything else they advocated and fought for has resulted in a picture badly askew.

The effort to make a “right-wing individualist” out of Harry Elmer Barnes especially comes to mind. I knew Barnes intimately for most of the last 20 years of his life, and whatever else he may have been, he certainly was not a right-wing individualist. His favorite economist was Veblen, not Mises; his favorite analyst of world affairs was George Orwell, not any of the conservative Pythons; by all odds his favorite contemporary sociologist was C. Wright Mills. As near as I could figure out, he never voted for a Republican in his life, and the only person I ever heard him get enthusiastic about as a possible presidential candidate was William O. Douglas. Barnes was an incredibly complex man, but so were the other prominent people associated with the liberal camp in the 1920-1960 era. Justus Doenecke’s recent essay in The History Teacher on Barnes as a sociologist, in which he finds Barnes to be an intellectual ancestor of significant parts of the New Left, undoubtedly comes much closer to the truth than any of the Barnes-as-right-winger characterizations.

So, for someone such as myself who lived through the pre-World War II period and took part in its political passions—even if only as an obscure spear carrier in the back row—the thinking of the younger writers who are reassessing that time is a little hard to fathom. It is especially difficult to divine how they arrive at their categories of “right” and “left.” I find it extremely difficult to come to terms with the identification of such of the main characters in Prophets on the Right as Charles A. Beard, Oswald Garrison Villard, and John T. Flynn (and their close collaborator, Barnes) as right-wingers. If anticommunism or anti-Stalinism is the determining factor, in my experience the most implacable anti-Communists/anti-Stalinists were the anarchists and the IWW, and their utter lack of sympathy with Bolo Heaven clearly disqualifies them from inclusion among rightists of any possible dispensation.

Now, let us get on to some observations about this book. This is as fair, sober, and measured an evaluation and presentation of the basic foreign-policy views and ideas of Beard, Villard, Flynn, Robert A.Taft (Senior), and Lawrence Dennis, as one is likely to see in these times, with a minimum of relapsing into what I call the “omigod” syndrome. (It has been my experience in the last 30 years to see one globaloney liberal after another virtually tied up in a flustered hysteria upon encountering the arguments for abstaining from international bloodbaths and perpetual interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. Radosh has grown up in a political environment dominated by their presence, but has managed to shrug most of it off.) It is written in an admirably simple style, a refreshing break from the tangled bafflegab which one expects from the academic eraser-pits. I regret that his study was not extended to a sixth figure, Barnes. The latter’s many columns in the Scripps-Howard newspapers were frequently on the subject covered in this book. His further work, ranging from his many books and his articles in such as the Progressive to his repeated public addresses on foreign affairs, as well as his voluminous correspondence, would have made top-rate raw material. And like Villard and Flynn, he was silenced in 1940 for the same reasons.

In dealing with some of his subjects, Radosh has made copious reference to correspondence and other unpublished papers, which has illuminated the record but not substantially affected it. I believe Bertram Wolfe was eminently correct in insisting that when it boils down to the final assessment, public men have to be judged by their public record. I know much more about one of them—Dennis—than I know about the others, but I learned a great deal from him and three of the other four, all of whom were at the peak of their intellectual powers when I was a student. I was never active in practical politics and therefore grew to respect Mr. Taft on the basis of his adherence to views of other men by whom I was influenced. I have always tended to heed Frank Simonds’ admonition that there is only one way for a man to look at a politician, and that is down; in the case of Mr.Taft I made an exception.

The author’s treatment of Dennis is especially welcome, and I am still scratching my brow in disbelief that it has appeared in a book issued by a major publisher in my time. I have always been entertained by the totally panicked disintegration and whooping dismay of our Stalinist liberals at Dennis’ identification of himself as a “fascist” in the 1930s, as though it were the most reprehensible thing in the last million years, while at the same time they looked upon anyone certifying his communism with the sedate galactic aplomb that one would have expected of them had said person announced himself a charter member of the cherubim. But in the 1930s, any loyal Russian, no matter where he lived, had to assume this air of prostrated and affronted outrage, since anyone doing as Dennis did automatically arrayed himself against the side of Stalinist paradise, and thus made himself a candidate for early murder.

Unless a book contains outright factual errors or studied untruths I do not see much sense in criticizing it because it is not the kind of book I would have written, which is what most unsympathetic reviewers are saying most of the time. I would however like to enter a mild objection to the repeated criticism of Flynn for his enthusiasm for Senator Joseph McCarthy and his domestic anti-Communist crusade. After the abuse Flynn took from the Communists and (especially) fellow-traveling liberals, it is expecting too much of him to believe that he should have stood by in the McCarthy era, waving his arms while beaming mellow forgiveness of his 1937-1950 adversaries, chanting generous benediction and joining in the duckspeak of anti-Mc-Carthyism and the tones of fake horror that accompanied such verbal reflexes. Flynn understood perfectly that McCarthy’s real target was not a handful of obscure Communist clerks in some government agency, but the gang of affluent corporate liberals who had sold Stalinism so assiduously while the FDR fuglemen made anticommunism a seditious offense. As Alistair Cooke ruefully noted at the height of McCarthy’s prominence, McCarthy was the price the liberals were paying for 12 years of Roosevelt.

Radosh stresses repeatedly the consequences to his subjects of their stubborn opposition to the war’crowd and its policies in the 1935-55 period. Flynn and Villard, and especially Dennis (and Barnes), took the slander, the destruction of their careers, the drastic reduction of their influence and income, and the venomous character assassination and malicious derogation by the totalitarian liberal coyote pack, with little perceptible complaint. They kept fighting until death or disability via illness made fighting no longer possible. For this I admired and respected them more than for anything they ever said or wrote. They were giants among low creeplings who took the easy way of scraping accommodation with the New American Order which took shape during the Second World War, and which shows only very slight indication of breaking down to this day, despite the inability of its Fuehrers to resolve the unfinished business of World War II, of which Germany, Korea, Vietnam, and Israel are just obvious major evidences. And for gratuitous malevolence nothing exceeds the efforts of those members of the academic historical lupinar who, after Beard published his two books critical of Roosevelt II’s foreign policy, undertook to destroy the credibility of everything he had written before.

It has yet to be proven that the system that has evolved in America in this century can work without reliance upon war of some kind. We need more attention to the domestic dependence upon war as an unemployment blotter and engine of “prosperity” and less to florid raving about the necessity of putting down planetary political transgression. Americans have been dusted heavily with the pollen of moral fervor which has been drifting down upon them for 75 years, urging the obligation of going abroad and imposing the death penalty upon political forms and solutions with which they do not agree. But it is about time we examined more deeply what is covered by this rhetorical canopy. The celebrated New Dealer Chester Bowles admitted in 1954 that FDR’s crowd had failed miserably in trying to find a solution to the Depression and that only the “defense” buildup beginning in 1940 had put Americans back to work—and that only the World War and the Cold War had kept them at work. Is it only a coincidence that the business collapse and mounting unemployment of the last year or so have come on the heels of the phasing-out of the Vietnam War and the thawing of the Cold War? Such recent books examining various aspects of our warfare state as those of Fred Cook and Seymour Melman and the Report from Iron Mountain are really just extrapolations of Dennis’ The Dynamics of War and Revolution of 35 years ago. For those who have just begun to think about the problem or for whom Prophets on the Right is an introduction to it, Radosh’s work should be immensely enlightening and very useful Reviewed by James J. Martin/History- Biography/LR Price $9.95