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Anything for War? George W. Bush and the Shadow of FDR

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In 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, “I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell lies if it will help win the war.” Now in wartime it certainly may be necessary for a general or a commander in chief to try to misinform or deceive the enemy about a planned attack or about the defense positions and strength of one’s own troops. Military victory and saving the lives of one’s own armed forces may depend upon it.

But FDR misled and lied about more than simply matters of “military security.” He deceived the American people during the two years prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor about his secret commitments to Great Britain to enter the war on the Allied side, about his aggressive naval confrontations with German U-boats in the North Atlantic at a time when the United States was a neutral power, and about his planning of a military confrontation with Japan in the Pacific while he was publicly claiming a desire to keep America out of the Asian conflict between China and Japan.

During the war, FDR insisted that the post–World War II period would be different from the times after earlier wars. There would be no secret treaties, no shifting of borders or political decisions without the consent of the people concerned, and no attempt by “big powers” to control the international political order. He lied to the American people and deceived them about each of these as well, as he made secret agreements with Stalin about territory and people in Eastern Europe and North Asia. And he set up the United Nations and the postwar international institutions precisely so the “big powers” could dominate the political and economic system of the world.

The political legacy that FDR left behind was one of greatly increased executive power at the expense of the other two branches of the federal government, as well as at the cost of a reduction in authority among the state governments. And 12 years of New Deal policies at home saw the intrusiveness and control of government greatly expanded over all facets of economic and commercial life in the United States. FDR once referred to himself as “the juggler” who kept the balls flying in the air, with those around him never completely knowing what his right and left hands were doing or why.

Men and ideas were something to be manipulated and experimented with. Everything was expendable — the traditional constitutional restraints on government power, and the economic freedom and property rights of the citizenry — for the purpose of staying in power. But what was the power for? At home it was to remake the society over in the image of the New Dealer planners and social engineers who claimed to know how people should live in their economic and social activities, with the government expanded as a paternalistic provider of all good things. And abroad it was to extend the New Deal to the rest of the world through the destruction of two totalitarian evils in the form of fascism and Nazism through an alliance with Stalin’s communist totalitarianism — regardless of the cost in human lives, physical destruction, and lost freedoms for tens of millions around the globe.

Republican news columnist Peggy Noonan has recently praised “Dubya’s New Deal: The President Sacrifices Whatever He Must to Win the War — Just As FDR Did,” on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (May 17, 2002). Noonan admits that those who have criticized President George W. Bush for supporting protectionist tariffs for the American steel industry and for signing a new multi-billion-dollar farm subsidy bill are completely correct in saying that these run against the free-market principles the Republican Party claims to endorse.

She says that President Bush’s political base “will forgive him, the nonbase hasn’t noticed he did anything that needs forgiveness, and the opposition can hardly knock him for taking policy positions they’ve long supported. Why will the base forgive Mr. Bush?” Noonan answers, “Because they know it’s all about the war. Which means it’s all about the 2002 congressional elections, less than six months away. Mr. Bush caving in on tariffs helps the Republicans in Pennsylvania and elsewhere; his caving on the farm bill deprives the Democrats of an issue in the farm states.”

In doing this, Noonan says, “GWB is doing an FDR…. FDR would sacrifice anything, he’d tack left, right and center, to win World War II…. Mr. Bush is doing the same thing. He is accepting what he thinks he has to accept (pork, a bad trade bill) in order to keep and expand the power balance he has in Washington, and in order to keep from angering or offending your basic, normal, politically nonobsessed citizen.” If the congressional House and Senate were to both go Democratic in the November 2002 elections, “his ability to prosecute the war will be weakened, perhaps fatally. Power will shift and his opposition, no longer fearing his popularity, would go for his throat. The war effort, such as it is, would be compromised. He has to keep his popularity high.” And, Noonan argues, “Mr. Bush will do almost anything to keep this from happening.”

Now why should Bush be willing to do “almost anything” to maintain himself and his political party in power? Noonan explained this in her next Wall Street Journalcolumn on May 24, 2002, entitled “Open Your Eyes: Bush’s Message in Berlin.” She quotes from the president’s remarks in the capital of Germany that “in this war we defend not just America or Europe; we are defending civilization itself.” And what is that common civilization? Said Bush, “We believe in free markets, tempered by compassion. We believe in open societies that reflect unchanging truths. We believe in the value and dignity of every life.”

Now terror and terrorist acts have been a means of trying to bring about political change for centuries. The modern political-philosophical roots of terrorism can be found in the underground revolutionary movements that emerged in Europe out of the French Revolution and in Imperial Russia in the second half of the 19th century. The proponents of terrorist methods have argued that radical political change as well as educating “the masses” about their “real” and “true” interests could be brought about by the use of violence, against those in high political authority and to undermine the belief in the legitimacy of the existing political establishment. Nationalists, socialists, and religious extremists have used it as a “weapon of choice.” Both individuals and groups have been the targets of terrorists. And terrorism has been used against both dictatorships and democracies. Terrorist organizations have operated on their own, and sometimes with the aid and support of a government.

They create fear and suspicion among the general population in which they perform their evil acts, and governments often resort to extralegal and extraconstitutional methods to hunt down and defeat the practitioners of terrorism. This often plays right into the hands of the terrorists, who in fact hope that the use of repressive and intrusive methods by the government will generate anger and hostility among the people against the political authority they are trying to discredit and defeat.

But it is hard to see how present acts of “terrorism” are in themselves a threat to “civilization.” At least they are no more of a threat to Western civilization than were the terrorist gangs that were widely active in bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings in Western Europe in the 1970s with safe havens and financial support in the Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe. But no one, not even the U.S. government, argued that in the name of “civilization” military action should be undertaken to violently overthrow an “axis of evil” centered in Moscow at the time. Numerous commercial airplanes were being hijacked into and out of the Middle East in the 1970s, with loss of lives and destruction of property. But the answer to the problem was not seen in invading Islamic countries.

The mounting evidence has suggested that a good part of the blame for the fact that a terrorist attack of the magnitude of September 11, 2001, could be so successful lies with the incompetence of the police and intelligence establishments of the United States. And one wonders whether the U.S. government would be pursuing such an aggressive campaign abroad if such an act of terrorism had hit Stockholm or Tokyo or Bombay instead of New York and Washington. “Civilization” seems to be identified with “America.” This is a view that many in the world — even in countries that are also “democratic” and where there is a stated belief in the dignity of life — do not share. Civilization, in their eyes, is more than the views of the political establishment in Washington, D.C.

In his remarks in Berlin in May 2002, Bush said that part of this common civilization was “free markets, tempered by compassion. We believe in open societies that reflect unchanging truths. We believe in the value and dignity of every life.”

In the name of buying votes in targeted states in an attempt to win congressional seats, Bush has demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice both free markets and compassion. He has undermined the rationale for free trade, played into the hands of many in America and other parts of the world who desire protectionist and neomercantilist trade policies, and weakened competition at home at the expense of the general consuming public with the hope of bribing a handful of voters.

And he has committed tens of billions of tax dollars for years to come to privileged farming interests at the cost of higher food prices and wasteful use of land resources, all in the hope of swinging some voters in the farming states. What is compassionate in using tariff walls and taxing power to deny choices and less expensive goods to the American public?

What “unchanging truths” are to be beyond being touched by a president who may “do almost anything” to stay in power? If in the name of security and the war on terrorism individual freedom is compromised, private property rights are trespassed, methods of private communication and commerce are invaded and constrained, and tax burdens not only are not reduced but are increased, then what freedoms and liberties are the security and war measures meant to preserve and safeguard? And if it be said that these are merely “temporary” measures that will end once the national emergency has passed, the entire history of the 20th century has more than amply demonstrated that once freedom and property have been weakened or denied by government — regardless of the rationale and excuse — they are difficult or impossible to completely get back. The two world wars, the Cold War, and now the War on Terrorism have all brought more government control and power at the cost of personal freedom and economic liberty. Wars destroy freedom; they do not secure freedom.

A belief “in the value and dignity of every life” is not demonstrated by arresting or taking into custody thousands of people and denying them access to lawyers, visits by family members, or even a public record of who is being held and under what suspicion. Following the Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court stated in one of its decisions that the writ of habeas corpus could be suspended only if the civil courts, because of an invasion or a rebellion or the breakdown of public order, were unable to function, and then only with the approval of the U.S. Congress. Since none of these apply at the present time there is no legal or constitutional justification for holding people in custody, as the U.S. government has been doing, without arraignment, trial, or bail. (See, “Civil Liberty and the State: The Writ of Habeas Corpus” in Freedom Daily, April 2002.) And it is a travesty of justice to purposely hold people outside the jurisdiction of the courts precisely because of the fear that evidence and proof of guilt would be required to maintain their arrest and confinement.

Far more than terrorists and acts of terrorism, it has been governments around the world during the last 100 years that have done the most to violate those elements of civilization to which President Bush referred in his comments in Berlin. This applies to the U.S. government, as well. To the classical liberal, “free markets, tempered by compassion” means leaving matters of social concern to the initiative of private individuals and interested private groups. Yet Bush has pushed an agenda of greater government control over education, health care, and charity.

For the classical liberal, respect for “unchanging truths” and a belief in “the value and dignity of every life” are inseparable from an understanding of and respect for the individual liberty of all. Either individuals are free or governments control. Nothing in Bush’s nearly two years in office suggests that he understands the words he speaks in the context of the policies his administration has been following at home or abroad. And in this, Peggy Noonan is more correct than she realizes when she sees that George W. Bush is following the New Deal philosophy and policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is the politics of pragmatism cloaked in the rhetoric of principle. Its price is a loss of freedom as well as of truth.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).