The following is an excerpt from Richard Drake's new book The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion, on sale now.
By Richard Drake
"Now men's opinions change, but perhaps the underlying causes of things do not." --Francesco Guicciardini, The History of Italy
"To a young man, getting an education in politics, there could be no sense in history unless a constant course of faults implied a constant motive." --Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
This book began as an attempt to understand a statement that Osama bin Laden made in his Messages to the World about World War I as the real beginning of the modern battle between Islam and the West. He declared on 3 November 2001 that the Treaty of Sèvres, which dealt with the outcome of World War I for the Middle East, inaugurated eighty years of Muslim humiliation at the hands of the West. At war's end, the entire Islamic world fell "under Crusader banners, under the British, French, and Italian governments. They divided up the whole world between them, and Palestine fell into the hands of the British." The United States, complicit through its banks and oil companies in the postwar exploitation of Islam, eventually inherited the mantle of European control over the Middle East, he explained. Contemporary events in the Middle East, then, should not be seen as isolated incidents, but "as part of a long chain of conspiracies, a war of annihilation in all senses of the word."
In fact as well as in bin Laden's mind, America's entry into World War I and participation in the Paris Peace Conference do belong prominently to the history of the war on terror. That global conflict brought the Muslim problem into the country's field of vision, if only at the periphery in the beginning. From there the problem inexorably moved toward the center and with 9/11 became the focal point of America's wars.
The political struggle over America's intervention in World War I brought individuals to the fore who understood the true stakes of the conflict and sensed its long-term consequences that we have with us still, including, above all, the legacy of the postwar decisions about the Middle East. I set out to identify individuals who, despite billowing clouds of government propaganda, correctly perceived the real meaning of the war and the peace that followed it. The writing of history began as an enterprise, conceived most fully by Thucydides, to give men a way of avoiding the mistakes of the past. To highlight the lessons of history, he held up the examples of individuals whose words and actions proceeded from a clear understanding of the common good and how to attain it: Pericles, Diodotus, and Nicias above all others. The manifold disasters stemming from World War I down to today's war on terror should inspire a renewed appreciation for Thucydides's approach to history, with its emphasis on statesmanship as the supreme good of politics.
I thought about writing a series of character studies on critics who foresaw some of the likely disasters to which the war would give rise. I searched for individuals who played a public role in the debates over America's wartime and postwar policies. Many men and women spoke out against the war. Voices emanated from both the left and the right in opposition to the fighting and then to the peace that followed. It did not take much time to assemble a long list of candidates for the kind of group biography that I hoped to write. As my reading in the general history of the era progressed, I noticed the frequency with which certain names appeared in accounts either of the anti-intervention protests or the condemnations of the peace treaties. In some instances, the same names figured prominently in both categories.
One of the names stood out above all the others: Robert M. La Follette. He opposed American intervention and then denounced the peace settlement as a confirmation of all his warnings about the likely consequences of a war to end all war. The role that he played possessed a unique importance because of his position as a highly visible and controversial United States senator. On the eve of America's intervention, he led the antiwar dissidents in Congress. After the United States went to war, he gained further notoriety as an implacable antagonist in Washington of conscription, the Espionage Act, and war profiteering. He always thought that the worst offense he committed during the war, in the eyes of those who called him a traitor and wanted him deported or shot, concerned his repeated assertions in public about the government's methods of paying for the fighting, by completely ignoring the financial resources of the rich in favor of bond drives and taxes on people who could least afford them. He continued to be in the forefront of the debates about American foreign policy in the postwar era, which he thought irredeemably out-of-joint because of what had taken place at Versailles. His criticisms of the war and predictions concerning the likely future of the aborning postwar world illuminate the historical background of the manifold crises that today confront the United States.
My attraction to La Follette grew when I made a trip to the Library of Congress archives where his papers for the World War I period are kept. The collection for his years as a senator, 1906-1925, contains 316 boxes of documents. It would take five trips to Washington, D.C., for me to go through everything in the La Follette collection. For the pre-Senate period of his career, I later learned that the Wisconsin State Historical Society holds materials that fill 161 reels of microfilm. The vast archival material on La Follette eventually compelled me to abandon my original idea for a group biography. On the assumption that my other figures, who included Jane Addams, Randolph Bourne, and William Yale, would generate similar amounts of documentation, I calculated that a group biography would entail more research time than a historian employed at a state university confidently could anticipate. As the documents in both La Follette collections revealed in remarkably profuse detail the life stages of an American anti-imperialist's education and some of the most important connections between World War I and the war on terror, I thought that I could accomplish my essential aims in the book even by restricting myself to the study of one person.
Although the scholarly literature on La Follette is dauntingly extensive, the intellectual biography that I envisaged writing about him did not exist. A man of action himself, La Follette relied on men of ideas for inspiration and guidance. I set out to trace that web of influences in his life. The archives made this job relatively easy. They left almost no room for conjecture about the path that he followed from the routine Republicanism of his early years to the image that he had during and after World War I as one of the most dangerous men in America. I followed the documents wherever they led. By doing so, I ended up constructing a gallery of portraits anyway, although of a kind different from the one I originally had in mind. Instead of exploring the lives of diverse major figures, I present here one man and how he came to his understanding of America's role as an imperialist power, which by the end of World War I dominated world finance and already stood poised to assume the country's now officially proclaimed role as "the indispensable nation." La Follette long had foreseen the imperial destiny to which the American penetration and control of global economic markets, as well as the military implications of such policies, must lead. He set himself to oppose the course of American empire. The men and women who inspired him and conditioned his thinking are as much a part of the story as the battles he fought and lost.
Family, church, and school obviously exerted a powerful influence on La Follette. Biographies of him regarding those influences have been written. My interest in him concerns his education as an anti-imperialist. La Follette's own recollections about the critical political element of that education, as recorded in his autobiography, differ at a key point from what we learn about him in the archives. He claimed a political radicalism for himself that does not go as far back in his life as the autobiography describes. Indeed, as a young congressman in the 1880s, he found fellow congressman and future president William McKinley -- twelve years his senior -- to be the living paragon of all Republicans and second only to Abraham Lincoln in the party's historical Pantheon. He retained this faith in McKinley until his mid-fifties. In the fateful election of 1896 he denounced William Jennings Bryan as an irresponsible radical whose Populist economic ideas would destroy the country. La Follette joined the banks and Wall Street in supporting McKinley. In the even more momentous campaign of 1900, which unfolded as a referendum on the issue of American imperialism, he defended the country's acquisition of the Philippines and other territories from Spain as a blessing, not the curse that Bryan claimed it to be.
I hope to explain the process by which La Follette's conventional Republican views in foreign policy underwent a complete transformation. He early developed a reputation for radicalism in Wisconsin politics, first as an unsuccessful candidate for governor and then during his six years in the statehouse. This reputation rested entirely on domestic politics and, in particular, his crusade for clean government. Whenever in these years La Follette ventured an opinion about American expansion in the world, he could be counted on to support the flag, wherever it went. The book begins with La Follette in full patriotic clamor and then follows him along the path that he took to reach his anti-imperialist destination. The milestones along the way included Mexico, Western Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East. Events in those parts of the world and his reaction to them determined the structure of the book.
Francesco Guicciardini, the foremost Western historian between Tacitus and Edward Gibbon, conscientiously applied in his humanist-inspired work the professional axioms originated by Thucydides while adding a distinctive corollary of his own. When he wrote his classic book about the collapse of Italy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, he claimed that every important historical event unfolds essentially as a consequence of actions by the people in command who can be trusted to act in their own self-interest, the famous Guicciardinian particolare or particular. His rule is a good one for understanding the reasons why men go to war: they think that they are going to win and to gain from it. Guicciardini's thesis about an eternal clash of egotisms applies not only to the Hapsburg-Valois struggles that sealed Italy's fate for the next 350 years but perhaps also to world wars and wars on terror. The fundamental cause of Italy's misfortunes at the height of the Renaissance, the far-famed manifestations of which in art held no interest for Guicciardini beside the assorted assassinations and slaughters of the period, he attributed to the ambitions and greed of princes. The "particular" of such men, whether of the blood or the purse, is the one that matters through the ages and across cultures. Certainly, America has not proved to be an exception to Guicciardini's rule.
Reflecting in his autobiography on the role that he had played as his diplomat father's secretary at the Court of St. James during the Civil War, Henry Adams suggested something quite similar, with added specificity about the lines of force in American imperial policy emanating from what he described as the control of the country after 1865 by the banks. Adams, like Guicciardini, looked for unity in the seeming multiplicity of history. Beneath the chaotic surface of life, eternal principles of power abide. The knowledge that he had gained through his study of history, however, led him in the end to a quietist acceptance of the status quo. Exhausted by what Adams lamented as the futility of his education, he withdrew from political life. He chose not to oppose the growth of the empire and even ended, in a rather abject retreat from his earlier mildly anti-capitalist positions and repeated comments about Marx's importance, by celebrating the newly acquired realms as a splendid achievement. Friends of his had done the work of empire building, and the least he could do was to cheer for them. La Follette ultimately made different choices. He prized his hard-won education and used it as a weapon in the battles that defined the history of his time.