Although relatively few libertarians are pacifists, libertarians tend to be substantially less bellicose than the average citizen. Modern libertarianism has deep roots in classical liberalism, an ideology that looks at war as a reactionary undertaking at odds with the social progress that springs, in large part, from the unhampered movement of goods, capital, and labor across national borders and from international scientific and cultural cooperation. Moreover, libertarians strongly support individualism, which flourishes during peacetime, but clashes with the collectivism, regimentation, and herd mentality that war fosters. They favor reduction in the size, scope, and power of government, an objective that cannot be attained during wartime. They favor private enterprise, but war, the biggest socialist venture of all, fetters or displaces private enterprise, bringing high taxes, many kinds of economic controls, and sometimes the conscription of labor. If “war is the health of the state,” as writer Randolph Bourne famously declared, then peace is a necessary condition for individual freedom to flourish.

Preeminent classical liberals, such as Adam Smith, Richard Cobden, John Bright, William Graham Sumner, and Ludwig von Mises, condemned war as fatal to economic and social progress. Smith famously taught that “little else is requisite to carry a [society] to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.” Mises observed that

the [classical] liberal … is convinced that victorious war is an evil even for the victor, that peace is always better than war.… The progressive intensification of the division of labor [the process at the heart of sustained economic development] is possible only in a society in which there is an assurance of lasting peace.

Although most people, including many professional economists, now dispute these classical liberal tenets, having been misled by Keynesian fallacies, ill‐​constructed national‐​income‐​and‐​product accounts, and a mistaken economic interpretation of World War II, libertarians generally still subscribe to these timeless maxims. If they support a war, they do so only because in the prevailing circumstances they perceive it to be the lesser evil, not because they perceive any positive good in it.

Libertarians who oppose the state’s very existence, such as Lysander Spooner and Murray N. Rothbard, also naturally oppose war and view it not only as the most menacing of all state projects, but also as, at root, the product of con artists. Soon after the U.S. Civil War, Spooner wrote that

on the part of the North, the war was carried on, not to liberate slaves, but by a government that had always perverted and violated the Constitution, to keep the slaves in bondage; and was still willing to do so, if the slaveholders could be thereby induced to stay in the Union.

He maintained that northern businessmen had supported the war for self‐​serving economic reasons, a claim that modern scholarship has confirmed. Similarly, Rothbard held that “the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war.” He argued that war depends on the state’s inculcation of the false belief that the state is defending the people, whereas in reality they are defending it, at the cost of their own lives, liberties, and treasure, for the profit of the munitions makers, financiers, and other special interests that constitute the state’s critical supporting coalition. For Rothbard, the military‐​industrial complex comprises not patriotic enterprises whose operations are necessary for the people’s defense, but “boondoggles … every bit as wasteful but infinitely more destructive than the vast pyramid building of the Pharaoh.”

In U.S. history, opposition emerged before or during almost every war, although it assumed much greater proportions on some occasions than on others. These historical episodes serve as lessons for contemporary libertarians, nourishing their pacific proclivities and inspiring their resistance to the unnecessary wars that the state continues to launch with distressing frequency.

As early as the War of 1812, war resisters gave strong voice to their opposition, especially in New England. In December 1814, delegates to the Hartford Convention from the New England states considered actions as extreme as secession from the union. Soon afterward, news of the U.S. victory at New Orleans and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent took the wind out of the dissidents’ sails, and nothing substantial came of their proposals, except possibly the demise of the Federalist Party.

Three decades later, during the Mexican‐​American War, the many opponents included a young congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln and most of his fellow Whigs, joined by such strange bedfellows as a Democratic senator from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, who agreed with Lincoln that the war was unnecessary and unconstitutional and that it had been undertaken under false pretenses. A memorable upshot of the dissent on this occasion was that of Henry David Thoreau, who, after being briefly jailed for refusing to pay a tax in support of the war, was inspired to write his famous essay Civil Disobedience, to which libertarians still pay homage.

The U.S. Civil War gave rise to considerable resistance on both sides, and opposition grew as the war dragged on, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties on each side. Implementation of conscription in the Union provoked tremendous outrage and sparked riots in many places. The largest draft riot, in New York City in July 1863, was violently suppressed only with the aid of 4,000 troops drawn from the battlefield at Gettysburg. Partisan opposition to the war by northern Democrats, whom war supporters smeared as “Copperheads,” prompted the Lincoln administration to censor the mails and the telegraph, to suppress hundreds of newspapers, and to arrest and imprison thousands of civilians, denying them access to the writ of habeas corpus. In 1864, northern Democrats nominated George B. McClellan as their candidate for the presidency on a platform that called for immediate negotiation of an armistice and restoration of “the Union as it was.”

In the South, civilian and military authorities often used the imposition of martial law and other harsh measures to suppress war resisters. According to historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel,

only military force, mass arrests, and several executions for sabotage held the strongly Unionist eastern part of Tennessee in the Confederacy. In other sections bordering upon the North, the authorities imposed loyalty oaths and arrested those who refused to comply.… Fed up with inflation, impressments, conscription, and arbitrary arrests, secret peace societies flourished.… The German areas of Texas, the mountains of Appalachia and the Ozarks, and the swamps of Louisiana and Florida became centers for deserters and other armed opponents of the war.

The Spanish‐​American War prompted the creation, in June 1898, of the Anti‐​Imperialist League, an organization that included many notable classical liberals. Former president Grover Cleveland; businessmen Edward Atkinson and Andrew Carnegie; writers Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and William Dean Howells; philosophers William James and John Dewey; and sociologist and economist William Graham Sumner were members. In 1899, Sumner wrote a tract called “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” to show how the U.S. embrace of imperialism undermined the nation’s best traditions as a limited‐​government republic and presaged higher taxes, bigger armed forces, conscription, and conquest. As if to demonstrate the accuracy of Sumner’s warning, the government immediately undertook to defeat the Filipinos who sought self‐​rule, savagely suppressing their insurgency during the Philippine‐​American War (1899–1902).

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 shocked most Americans, who wanted nothing to do with it. Afterward, as President Woodrow Wilson moved steadily closer to seeking direct U.S. engagement in the war, many sorts of opposition were expressed. Millions of Americans and resident aliens of Irish and German ethnicity ardently opposed U.S. actions to assist the Allies—on whose side alone the Wilson administration, saturated with Anglophile sensibilities and English connections, might conceivably enter the fray militarily. Most socialists and many liberals joined the opposition, including such notable classical liberals as Oswald Garrison Villard of the Nation and writers Randolph Bourne, Albert Jay Nock, and H. L. Mencken. A small group of Progressives led by Wisconsin Senator Robert A. LaFollette spearheaded the opposition in Congress, where LaFollette risked his good relations with congressional colleagues, his influence with the executive branch, and his political future by waging a heroic stand against the folly of U.S. entry. Despite his valiant efforts, only 6 senators and 50 representatives ultimately voted against the declaration of war.

Once the war had begun, the Wilson administration created a draconian, multifaceted system to repress resisters, based, in large part, on the draft laws and on the Espionage Act of 1917 and its notorious amendment, the Sedition Act of 1918. Under its oppressive statutes, practically any form of resistance to or any criticism of the government, its actions, or its symbols exposed the critic to felony prosecution. The government summarily deported more than 1,000 alien critics and arrested thousands of persons, alien and citizen alike, who ventured to speak or act against the war or were suspected of doing so. Frequent presidential candidate and Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for making a speech whose content the government disapproved. State and local authorities and vigilante groups joined forces with the national government in effecting a virtual reign of terror against antiwar and radical organizations and individuals. This officially generated “patriotic” hysteria during and immediately after the war ranks as one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.

Not long after the war ended, disillusionment set in; as a result, the interwar period witnessed perhaps the greatest mass dedication to peace in U.S. history. Popular writers condemned the “merchants of death” and the international investment bankers, especially those connected with the House of Morgan, and blamed them for propelling the country into the war solely for their own profit. Authors such as Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos gave a literary gloss to the disillusionment, and revisionist historians such as Harry Elmer Barnes and Charles Callan Tansill debunked the war’s official story line in heavily footnoted treatises. In the mid‐​1930s, North Dakota Senator Gerald P. Nye convened extensive hearings on responsibility for U.S. engagement in the war, and a major upshot was the passage of important neutrality acts in 1935, 1936, and 1937 aimed at prohibiting international transactions that might entangle the country in a future war, as U.S. loans and arms sales to the Allies were believed to have done in the Great War. In 1938, the proposed Ludlow Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which required approval in a national referendum before the government went to war, except in case of an actual invasion of the United States, came close to passage in the House of Representatives before being rejected under heavy pressure by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After war broke out in Europe in September 1939, a fierce debate ensued between those who supported and those who opposed U.S. involvement in the war. According to public opinion surveys and other evidence, the great majority of Americans favored well‐​armed neutrality. The Roosevelt administration, however, as Anglophile as the Wilson administration had been, ardently desired U.S. entry to aid Great Britain, and the president worked relentlessly, if often deviously, to bring about conditions that would justify entry—for example, by carrying out a series of increasingly stringent economic warfare measures against Japan in hopes that a war provoked with Japan might open a “back door” for U.S. entry into the European conflagration. Opposing the government’s maneuvers, the leading pro‐​peace organization was the America First Committee (AFC), formed in September 1940. A broad coalition of ideologically diverse antiwar people, the AFC included such notable proto‐​libertarians as writer John T. Flynn, who headed its New York City chapter and whose 1944 book, As We Go Marching, is a libertarian classic.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, antiwar sentiment practically disappeared. Isolated individuals who persisted in opposing or speaking critically about the war were not only investigated by the FBI, but also shunned, fired, blacklisted, and otherwise rendered impotent for purposes of public debate and often for purposes of earning a living. The only notable war resisters who stood firm were the members of certain small religious sects, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. When the young men in these groups refused to obey the draft laws, they were rewarded for their dedication to the Prince of Peace with long terms in prison and with especially vile treatment while they resided there.

After the early 1950s, the bipartisan commitment to the cold war, the further decline of classical liberalism, and the smearing of formerly antiwar people and organizations as isolationists and appeasers pushed pro‐​peace activity onto the outer fringes of politics and ideological debate. In 1965, escalation of the U.S. military engagement in Vietnam revived mass antiwar activity, but New Left, religious, and left‐​liberal organizations led the way, notwithstanding attempts by Rothbard and a few other libertarians to nudge the antiwar movement in a libertarian direction.

Opposition to the Vietnam War, however, did create a diverse coalition of people dedicated to seeking peace, and libertarians, whose own modern movement sprang from the turmoil of the 1960s, have continued, for the most part, to treat peace as the proper default setting for international relations and to oppose the U.S. government’s persistent efforts to remake the world at gunpoint. When U.S. forces invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, most libertarians opposed the action, and as the occupation dragged on amid increasing sectarian violence, some libertarians who had initially supported the action came to oppose it and to regret their previous support.

Libertarian insistence on every individual’s right of self‐​defense does not require anyone to exercise that right, of course, if religious or other scruples go against a resort to violence, even in self‐​defense. Of the relatively few libertarians who also were pacifists, perhaps the most notable was the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. A former soldier who had seen a great deal of combat, he came to oppose violence. He also came to understand that governments consist of stationary bandits who induce their subjects to submit to robbery and other crimes by a combination of threats and propaganda. “Governments,” he wrote,

not only are not necessary, but are harmful and most highly immoral institutions, in which a self‐​respecting, honest man cannot and must not take part, and the advantages of which he cannot and should not enjoy. And as soon as people clearly understand that, they will naturally cease to take part in such deeds—that is, cease to give the governments soldiers and money. And as soon as a majority of people ceases to do this the fraud which enslaves people will be abolished.

Further Readings

Cole, Wayne S. America First: The Battle against Intervention. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1953.

Ekirch, Arthur A., Jr. The Civilian and the Military: A History of the American Antimilitarist Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers. Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War. Chicago: Open Court.

“Lyoff N. Tolstoy.” Liberty and the Great Libertarians. Charles T. Sprading, ed. San Francisco: Fox and Wilkes, 1995 [1913]. 204–217.

Mises, Ludwig von. Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition. 3rd ed. Irvington‐​on‐​Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1985 [in German, 1927].

———. Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time. New York: New York University Press, 1983 [in German, 1919].

Radosh, Ronald. Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Richman, Sheldon. “New Deal Nemesis: The ‘Old Right’ Jeffersonians.” The Independent Review 1 no. 2 (Fall 1996): 201–248.

Rothbard, Murray N. “War, Peace, and the State.” Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature, and Other Essays. 2nd ed. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2000 [1974].

Stromberg, Joseph P. “Imperialism, Noninterventionism, and Revolution: Opponents of the Modern American Empire.” The Independent Review 11 no. 1 (Summer 2006): 79–113.

Robert Higgs
Originally published