The Dean of Non-Interventionism

Just as villains can be more compelling than heroes, are dissidents more intriguing than the leaders of history?

“I’ve been interested, in some ways, in the history of losers,” Justus Doenecke tells The American Conservative.

Doenecke, who taught at New College of Florida from 1969 to 2005, made his reputation in the historical profession through an open-minded reappraisal of arguably the most prominent group of American losers in the twentieth century: the pre-World War II anti-interventionists. These were the middle Americans who saw Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy as the path to bankruptcy, chronic overseas war, and presidential dictatorship.

It’s a story he was practically born to narrate.

“I grew up in Brooklyn. People always think of New York as very liberal, but there are pockets of extreme conservatives, in fact you would call them reactionaries,” Doenecke explained. “My father was a building estimator, and he hated Roosevelt. He didn’t like the regulations of the New Deal, he didn’t like trade unions. You know, ‘son of a bitch ruined America.’ And he had all these conspiracy theories. Every single book that came out trying to prove that Franklin Roosevelt planned the Pearl Harbor attack, my father owned.”

Emerging from this heavy dose of Old Right upbringing, where his parents worshiped the newspaper columns of Westbrook Pegler and George Sokolsky, Doenecke sought to prove that the America First movement was not the bund of kooks, knaves, and antisemites they’d been smeared as ever since the Eastern press saw fit to label them “isolationists.”

In a series of extensively researched and balanced books, starting with Not to the Swift: The Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era (1979) and culminating in Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941 (2000), Doenecke found the anti-interventionists to be astute American patriots, with coherent strategy and cogent criticism of Roosevelt’s path to war.

In the words of libertarian scholar Ralph Raico, “Students of the greatest antiwar movement in American history, revisionists and nonrevisionists alike, are permanently in Justus Doenecke’s debt.”

Doenecke sought to prove that the America First movement was not the bund of kooks, knaves, and antisemites they’d been smeared as ever since the Eastern press saw fit to label them ‘isolationists.’

Although he hasn’t written on them as extensively, Doenecke’s interest in “losers” extends to the Confederacy and the Loyalists of the Revolutionary War. “When I first started teaching at New College I taught a course called ‘Dissent in American History.’ I’m also interested in all kinds of socialist and left-wing groups for that reason too. Things that deviate from the vital center, in a way,” he said.

This focus on nonconformity is the through-line between his previous work and his newest arrival, More Precious Than Peace: A New History of America in World War I, published in March. It’s the anticipated sequel to his 2011 book, Nothing Less than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I. The first book covers the years 1914-1917 and the second 1917-1918.

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The past decade has seen numerous books related to the First World War published in conjunction with its centennial. What separates Doenecke’s from its predecessors is his willingness to give a podium to dissent.

“As one who has spent much of his career examining Americans who took a dim view of U.S. foreign policy from 1931 to the early Cold War, I am now continuing to examine foes of U.S. intervention, this time scrutinizing their opposition to the way the nation waged World War I,” he writes in the introduction.

Almost every page is interspersed with opinions and objections from a broad cast of characters challenging the Woodrow Wilson administration as either too lenient or too harsh: the newspaper chain of iconoclast tycoon William Randolph Hearst; Socialist and New York City mayoral candidate Morris Hillquit; former president and Wilson’s bitter bête noir Theodore Roosevelt; prolific and lifelong Germanophile George Sylvester Viereck; Wisconsin progressive and anti-imperialist Senator Robert La Follette; and magazine editor George Harvey, whose loathing of the German nation crossed into the genocidal.

This uproarious chorus reminds the reader that no public policy is made in a vacuum. From the enforcement of the Espionage and Sedition Acts to the pronouncement of war aims and his Fourteen Points, Woodrow Wilson wasn’t having a one-way conversation but was both reacting to and attempting to lead a contentious and discordant body politic.

More than half the book concentrates on the homefront and domestic developments, the most engrossing of which is the American public’s shift from being unsure of its participation in the European war to a frothing hysteria that could be satisfied with nothing less than unconditional surrender. 

Despite a lopsided vote in favor of war—only fifty congressmen and six senators voted against—there was uncertainty about how much involvement voters would countenance, and even whether the United States would meet Germany on the field of battle. Three out of every ten army conscripts were illiterate, many having no idea who the Kaiser was. When someone from the War Department appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to request the first appropriations for an American Expeditionary Force, Majority Leader Thomas S. Martin of Virginia (who voted for war) responded, “Good Lord! You aren’t going to send soldiers over there, are you?”

But as spring turned to summer, censorship carefully curtailed access to information through propaganda organs like George Creel’s Committee on Public Information and new laws like the Espionage Act of 1917. As Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler approvingly told his faculty, “What had been tolerated before became intolerable now. What had been wrongheadedness is now sedition.”

Postmaster General Albert Burleson, universally considered “a man of profound ignorance,” was given unilateral authority to decide what material constituted obstruction of the war effort and the ability to suspend it from second-class mailing rates; that way, actual publication was not barred but circulation would be impractical beyond a small local area. Thus the Wilson administration successfully shuttered the most popular socialist, Irish-American, and German-language dailies and journals without requiring armed men to smash printing presses.

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Public attention was mobilized by semi-private organizations like the American Defense Society and the American Protective League, which Doenecke says have been neglected by historians and secondary sources. These quasi-military structures, led by elite members of business and former politicians, possessed hundreds of thousands of members each. The former was a project of Theodore Roosevelt, the latter nurtured by Wilson’s Attorney General Thomas Gregory.

Vigilantism wasn’t uncommon. Ordinary citizens rounded up draft dodgers (“slacker raids”), tapped phones, rifled bank accounts and medical records, and even entered neighbor’s homes in search of spies and “Teutonic agents.” In April 1918, when a German-born baker in Illinois was assaulted by a group of drunks who wrapped him in the American flag and hanged him, the Washington Post responded that “enemy propaganda must be stopped, even if a few lynchings may occur.” More did occur.

In many ways, the domestic repression of World War I was more participatory and grassroots than during any other conflict in American history.

Critical industries were cartelized and economically directed out of Washington, D.C., although in a much more rudimentary way than would occur during World War II. Doenecke relates a decision where, in order to cope with a coal shortage, Harry Garfield, son of the assassinated president and designated fuel administrator, decreed the closure of all non-essential factories east of the Mississippi River for a week in January 1918.

It was a heyday for political demagoguery. Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico, later of Teapot Dome infamy, feared that if the Germans reached Paris, they—accompanied by 15 million Mexicans—would “next reach Chicago and cut your great United States in two.” Later on, Senator William S. Kenyon joked that if the Germans captured New York, his fellow Iowans would rejoice.

In many ways, the domestic repression of World War I was more participatory and grassroots than during any other conflict in American history.

Even Warren G. Harding, known today as a laissez-faire conservative, said in August 1917, “Not only does this country need a dictator, but in my opinion is sure to have one before the war goes much further.”

By October 1918, when Wilson was attempting to hammer out an armistice based on his Fourteen Points and a vision of “peace without victory,” most newspaper editors were clamoring for unconditional surrender even if it meant driving the Boche all the way to Berlin.

On the military side, Doenecke covers all bases in this well-rounded account. General “Black Jack” Pershing competes with Wilson as the predominant figure in the last third of the book, which details both his determination to keep American doughboys independent of the European command structure and his inability to adapt to mechanized warfare. An early chapter summarizes the war at sea against German U-boats, while two enthralling chapters relate the United States’ “extreme ineptitude and lack of perception” toward the Russian Revolution and our subsequent decision to intervene militarily. This was the “most difficult” section to write, says Doenecke, “because Russia is just a tangle of confusion.”

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The book concludes with the armistice on the Western front in November 1918. Although the negotiations at Versailles and Wilson’s final pitch for the League of Nations are left up to other authors, the closing tone leaves no ambiguity of what direction the peace will take.

It has become a meme among portions of the political right, particularly libertarians, to label Woodrow Wilson the worst president, the man responsible for every ill of the twentieth century. Contemporaries both left and right, militarist and pacifist, expose this conclusion as simplistic and exaggerated.

“I would say of people who would have a chance of being elected president, who would get enough mass support, I think Wilson far and away stands above the others,” Doenecke tells TAC, eliminating non-viable alternatives he personally admires such as Robert La Follette and Frank Cobb, chief editorial writer for the New York World.

It’s difficult to argue with his assessment. Charles Evans Hughes, the “bearded iceberg” and Wilson’s 1916 opponent, had no experience or interest in diplomatic matters; Theodore Roosevelt favored outright martial law and would have gone much farther than Wilson toward a presidential despotism; Henry Cabot Lodge, the cornerstone of Republican foreign policy in the U.S. Senate, favored a Carthaginian peace as harshly as Lloyd George or Clemenceau. 

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The reality of these circumstances is something any serious libertarian or conservative critic must address when reassessing the Wilson presidency. 

Like in all his past work, Doenecke’s method of historiography leans heavily toward the descriptive, eschewing any attempt to psychoanalyze or mentally deconstruct people nearly a century after their deaths. “I’ve never been taken with psychohistory at all. There are too many variables, too many things we don’t know. What do we know about a person between the ages of three to five, for example?” he asks. “You can only go so far with this kind of stuff.”

“Most of my work is sheer narrative. And in that sense I’m somewhat old-fashioned. I think narrative history is the only way we’re going to recover the discipline of history from the maelstrom it seems to be in now. And the most popular history, the history that the lay-person reads, is narrative history,” he concludes. “They want the story.”

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