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essays

Dec 1, 1979

Reform, Progressives, and Empire

“The Progressive Era and World War I set precedents for entwining social reform and war.”

Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.
State University of New York, Albany

“The Reform Mentality, War, Peace, and the National State: From the Progressives to Vietnam.” The Journal of Libertarian Studies 3, no. 1 (1979):55–72.

American twentieth-century political reformers have “been imbued with a statist philosophy leading to imperialism and war,” the programs and development of which have drawn upon vaguely Neo-Hegelian antecedents in European social democracy. Thus, the major thrust of reform has been “nationalistic, collectivist, and statist, rather than liberal in any traditional sense.”

One of the first historians to point this out was William E. Leuchtenburg in his now famous essay on “Progressivism and Imperialism,” published in 1952. While this thesis has not been universally accepted, and has drawn some criticism, the critics neglect Leuchtenburg’s main point, which is that the progressives’ paternalistic reform mentality, even more than their politics, was sympathetic to imperialism and war.” Theodore Roosevelt’s brand of progressivism was much nearer to the reform ideas of Bismarck in Germany, the Fabian Socialists or Lloyd George in England, and the European Socialists who supported World War I, than it was to the Midwestern progressivism of men like Robert M. LaFollette.

In fact, some of the opponents of American empire at the turn of this century were the first to see this similarity. Among some of the academics, old-fashioned liberals, or conservatives who did so were Paul S. Reinisch, Leonard T. Hobhouse, William Graham Sumner, Franklin Pierce, and John W. Burgess.

On the other side, the sociologist Franklin H. Giddings, echoed by William Torrey Harris (the U.S. Commissioner of Education), was urging that imperialism and democracy were not incompatible. But it was Theodore Roosevelt who drew together a reform program to Americanize the world. His views on conservation, trusts, and big business were all part of his larger concept of foreign policy.

This kind of nationalistic reform was paralleled in Germany even by men such as Max Weber and Theodor Barth. In England, on the issue of the African Boer War, Fabians such as George Bernard Shaw, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, broke with the Socialists and supported the Liberal Imperialists.

This kind of strong statist reformism was increased by the crisis growing out of whether the U.S. should enter World War I. Preparedness advocates such as General Leonard Wood argued that Americans “must cast aside selfish individualism and accept the principle of universal service to the state.” In 1916, while even archimperialist Henry Cabot Lodge could not get the Republicans to put in a platform advocating universal military training, the Progressives did not hesitate to do so.

The New Republic was a chief organ for this kind of thinking, especially in the pieces of Herbert Croly, one of its editors, or of John Dewey, a frequent contributor. For these reformers, a major justification for entering the war was the sense of national purpose it would promote. Progressives welcomed and helped administer the economic controls which came as a part of the war efforts: “Regulations in the sense of trying to restore a competitive individualism, now frankly yielded to regulation to achieve economic integration and greater industrial efficiency. The war made partners of government and business.”

The Progressive Era and World War I set precedents for entwining social reform and war. Thus the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt blended into World War II, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal into the Korean War, and Vietnam supplanted the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson. The result has been the creation of the warfare-welfare state.