Why I love the Grand Old Party. Part III.

"And that is the issue of this campaign that makes all of the other problems I have discussed academic, unless we realize that we are in a war that must be won.

"Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state have told us that they have a utopian solution of peace without victory. They call their policy "accommodation." And they say if we only avoid any direct confrontation with the enemy, he will forget his evil ways and learn to love us. All who oppose them are indicted as warmongers."

"Let's set the record straight. There is no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there is only one guaranteed way you can have peace--and you can have it in the next second--surrender.

"Admittedly there is a risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson in history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the specter our well-meaning liberal friends refuse to face--that their policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight and surrender."

--Ronald Reagan, "A Time for Choosing," 1964

Foreign Policy: Peace through Strength.

This is certainly an area in which my big-RR Republican world view trumps my little-r republicanism. Recently, a reader of this blog struck a little-r republicanism cord, when he denounced:

"a 'strong defense,' which [is a euphemism for] a gigantic world-wide military infrastructure. I find it a violation of the principle of small government to have a military which spends more than the rest of the world combined, and which not only makes our government bigger, but seeks to become or control the government in foreign countries such as Iraq."

This is not unlike Pat Buchanan's famous "republic not an empire" sentiment. These dissenters have a point. Lower-case republicanism inveighs against standing armies. Why? Standing armies tempt despots to employ force to threaten the liberty of the people. Moreover, standing armies allow rulers to make war on foreign enemies, causing destruction and deprivation for the many in pursuit of wealth for the few.

Therefore, when the framers eschewed the republican principle of a solely defense-oriented militia, and empowered the federal government to "raise and support Armies" and "provide and maintain a Navy," they rejected a fundamental assumption of their Revolutionary ideology.

Why did they do it?

Blame the rock-ribbed realism that so many of them had adopted during the War for Independence. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, there were very few ideologues left among the founders. Keenly aware that external threats posed a mortal danger to their fledgling republic, they created a stronger central government better fitted to protect American interests.

For over 200 years, Americans have argued over the role and magnitude of the military. Frankly the Republican Party has a mixed record in terms of support for "strong defense." Early forerunners to big-R Republicanism (leaders such as Washington, Adams and Hamilton) preached military preparedness and strength--but neutrality in the affairs of the world. The forerunners to big-R Republicanism during the Early National Period, the Whig Party, battled against militarism and expansion, while their opponents pursued a continental policy best known today as Manifest Destiny.

However, as the nation grew into an industrial power, the Republican Party view of the world changed. Republicans built a fearsome Navy during the late nineteenth century, which Teddy Roosevelt famously showed off with a grand tour of the world in 1907. And the Republican Party, believing in the power and necessity of the market revolution and intent on protecting US international business interests, committed to an armed force with global reach. Notwithstanding, even after TR, the US military was more often than not ill-fitted and ill-prepared for war during for the entire epoch.

Fast forward: Post-1945. In the aftermath of WWII, Americans grudgingly accepted the nation's role as military super power and leader of the free world. That is, Americans, led by Harry Truman, reluctantly stepped forward to fill a vacuum left by the devastation wrought by the Second World War in which the old balance of power and spheres of influence paradigm (excuse the poli-sci word) collapsed.

It would be unfair and inaccurate to imply that Republicans had a monopoly on "strong defense" as a core principle during the Cold War. For the most part, American post-WWII foreign policy was bipartisan and centrist. Truman (not a Republican) launched "containment," the Eisenhower administration embraced it, and the campaign of John F. Kennedy (not a Republican) heartily reaffirmed it.

To say that the containment consensus was unanimous, however, is also inaccurate. In the Republican Party, conservatives were divided between the stubborn devotees to small-r republican tenets mentioned above, sometimes ham-handedly called "isolationists," and the more zealous anticommunists, who favored aggressive action against the Soviets and their "expansive tendencies." The more moderate Eisenhower followed the course Truman set, continuing the policy that sought to check Soviet expansion but rejecting an aggressive program to facilitate regime change in the USSR.

However, the 1960s saw a much deeper division of thinking in the nation. As the bipolar world took shape, and then later as Vietnam played out, many formerly staunch non-Republican anti-communist liberal voices (think Eugene McCarthy) began to question not only the wisdom of Vietnam but the basic assumptions of the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan spoke to the already apparent disagreement on the Soviet threat and whether our role as Cold War belligerent was warranted. Looking back, Reagan's 1964 statements were prescient. By 1976 and 1980, his patriotic jeremiad was much more politically and culturally relevant.

Reagan represented a much more aggressive stance toward the Marxist-Leninist empires. He famously called the Soviets "evil" during a time in which most enlightened Americans preferred to accept the subjugation of Eastern Europe as a fait accompli.

The Democratic Party produced Ronald Reagan (he campaigned and voted for Harry Truman in 1948). But only the Republican Party could have offered him a home by the 1970s. The Scoop Jackson Democrats were being marginalized by that time, and the Jeane Kirkpatrick Democrats were converting to neo-conservatism.

Why do we need a military more powerful than any other in the world? For our entire history we have lived in a hostile world. For the first fifty years, we survived on grit and Providence. For approximately a century after the War of 1812, we benefited from the blessings of geography and the benevolence of the British Navy. We emerged as a world power during the twentieth century and outlasted a short-lived empire bent on our destruction (if we can believe their own propaganda and archives).

Today, the world is a much smaller place--but no less hostile. We are safe as long as we are strong. The world order policed by the United States, as imperfect as it might be, is much more benevolent than the next world order we are likely to see. The world counts on the United States. In fact, the initial schadenfreude in many quarters of the world over our recent misfortunes and missteps, in many places, is giving way to dread.

Note: The full transcript of "A Time for Choosing" is available here courtesy of the Reagan Library and Reagan Foundation.

BG Posts:
1. My Big-R Republicanism: Part I (History, the Market and Morality)
2. My Big-R Republicanism: Part II (Judicial Restraint)
3. Eisenhower Republicanism