In the aftermath of 9/11, a time when the United States had just been attacked by foreign enemies and the overwhelming majority of Americans, especially those whose opinions enjoyed wide publication and amplification, rallied around the flag to support the nation-state’s aggrandizement and march toward war, the libertarian movement took a major hit and was divided as in no other time in recent memory. Among purportedly free-market voices, the Mises Institute was one of the very few that resisted the hysteria and held firm to the classical liberal commitment to peace, warning against the stampede toward collectivism and mass bloodshed.
At the time, antiwar American libertarians, myself included, felt somewhat lonely as we saw the majority of free-market thinkers, especially those on the right, embrace the nationalism and socialism of the central state. It was a hard time. But we had the internet. We had a modern libertarian movement, which, thanks largely to Rothbard, had a radical wing which rejected the statism that overcame many of our more conservative and moderate fellow travelers. We had Mises.org, LewRockwell.com, Antiwar.com, the Independent Institute, the Future of Freedom Foundation, Strike the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise and a number of other organs of opinion that maintained their dedication to peace, liberty and private property.
In retrospect, as the war on terror has failed, our movement has gained in strength and some time has passed, we were never all that alone. We have even found some allies, at least on this issue, on the radical left and the paleocon right.
How much worse, how much more difficult it must have been to be a libertarian in the days of World War II. In Chapters 5 and 6 of The Betrayal of the American Right, Murray Rothbard surveys the impact of FDR’s war on the Old Right — or, more precisely, how that war became the major defining moment for the Old Right, which would later develop into modern libertarianism. Many leftists who opposed Wilson’s war corporatism, the Versailles Treaty, and progressive crusades against sin had already abandoned their individualism for the mess of pottage in the form of FDR’s Mussolinian New Deal. But nothing would divide the anti-FDR coalition and drive many a patriotic Jeffersonian into hopelessness like the total nationalization of American life that came with U.S. entry into World War II.
The America First Committee had been refused places to meet before U.S. entry; now the group was dissolved and its de facto leader enlisted into the Armed Forces. Many business leaders who had resisted New Deal socialism were now swept up in the patriotic fervor and grand effort against fascism abroad. And certainly on the Communist left, now that the United States, rather than Hitler, was allied with Stalin, there was very little antiwar agitation whatever. Indeed, warmongering, collectivist Americanism was upheld as the new communism, and all around there was nearly nothing but voices for central planning and global revolution. People on the left and right cheered as the US became just a bit more fascist, holding hands with totalitarianism abroad, to defeat Hitler â€“â€“ even as they also pointed to Hitler’s economic nationalism as something from which America could and should learn a thing or two.
It was a chilling time, when Rothbard’s own socialist uncle would reassure his dad that he’d “be safe in the postwar world, ‘provided that he kept quiet about politics.’” It was a time when Rothbard himself was unable to find a single soul on his college campus interested in the liberalism of America’s founding. It was a time when 40% of the economy was war spending, 10 million young men were enslaved into the military, total war became the norm and concentration camps were popping up in the United States. It was the last days of Nock and Mencken, who no longer had the prestigious publication outlets that had only a few years before. John Flynn, Garet Garrett and others were able to find positions and jobs but would never live to enjoy the influence they once had.
Yet it was also a time for a renaissance for the freedom movement that had come close to being totally crushed by the war. It was in the midst of World War II that three women, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand, published tracts on the individualist idea that would inspire a new generation. It was a time that a magazine called Human Events would be launched by a muckraking antimilitarist, a Quaker writer and an Old Right businessman. It was a time that Austrian Economics, brought to America by a Jewish economist who fled Nazi tyranny and popularized by his famous follower who had migrated to England, would come to be planted into the periphery of social thought from whence it would only grow and gain in influence. It was a time when young Rothbard would come of age and begin to integrate his already established belief in market economics with a whole comprehensive worldview addressing everything from property rights and civil liberties to foreign policy and the history of human freedom.
World War II was a turning point, to say the least, not just for what we call “the Old Right” but for what became known far and wide as libertarianism. While many conservatives joined the collectivist bandwagon long ago — and while many institutions founded in a backlash against Rooseveltianism have since joined the establishment — the remnant survived the war and, as it was not killed off completely by it, was ultimately made the stronger. These chapters alone make Betrayal an indispensable read for any modern lover or student of liberty, if for no other reason to remind us of how important an incredibly popular and misunderstood war was in forming our dissident tradition. While Vietnam and the war on terror have tested and helped define our movement we must remember our origins as a radical movement that barely survived a time when the nation was most united behind domestic central planning and foreign intervention. Understanding this part of our past will help ensure that we will never feel as alone as Mencken, Nock and Rothbard and his dad must have felt. It will help us withstand the most difficult temptations to succumb to the state and its murderous exploits in the future. At a minimum, we must remember that a torch was kept alive, just barely, through the darkest of times, in just a few obscure publications, all so it could be passed to us who now effortlessly blast the message to thousands through fiber optics in a world of freer expression and more open dissent than they ever enjoyed. We must remember. We owe it to them and their heroic refusal to cave in to the statist revolution of their time.