History is written by the winners, but Bill Kauffman has a deep affection for the losers of American history. "My political heroes have a cumulative record resembling that of the Washington Senators," Kauffman said last week at the Cato Institute's Hayek Auditorium. Or perhaps, he adds, the Washington Generals, those woebegone foes of the Harlem Globetrotters.
In the new book that he was hawking, Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism, Kauffman examines the truncated careers and besmirched reputations of those who opposed America's wars of expansion and conquest.
Manifest Destiny never manifested itself to such opponents of expansion as Fisher Ames, a Massachusetts Federalist who denounced Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase as the acquisition of "a great waste, a wilderness unpeopled with any beings except wolves and wandering Indians."
That the Constitution gave the president no power to make such an acquisition was an embarrassment for Jefferson, who had accused Federalists like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton of coveting unconstitutional power.
Jefferson got over the embarrassment -- telling his Cabinet "the less that is said about any constitutional difficulty, the better" -- but not so his Virginia kinsman John Randolph, who called the Louisiana Purchase "the greatest curse that ever befell us."
If this expansion by peaceful acquisition offended Randolph, the War of 1812 horrified him. With some justice, the Virginia congressman accused the hawks of coveting Canada and declared: "The Government of the United States was not calculated to wage offensive foreign wars...and whosoever should embark it in a war of offence, would put it to a test which it was by no means calculated to endure."
Randolph's words nearly proved prophetic. The War of 1812 gave us our National Anthem, but it was also intensely unpopular among New Englanders, who convened the Hartford Convention in December 1814 and might have sought a separate peace, had not the Treaty of Ghent ended the war first.
With rare exceptions, American opponents of war and empire seem doomed to obscurity if not infamy. We sing of "bombs bursting in air" over Fort McHenry and the belated New Orleans victory of Andrew Jackson, who went onto the White House and whose face adorns the $20 bill. There are no songs or memorials to John Randolph, nor is he commemorated on our currency.
KAUFFMAN LABORS to rescue and reinvigorate the memory of Randolph and others who sought to guard against the "the insidious wiles of foreign influence" and "to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world." George Washington -- isolationist!
That this policy was counseled by the Father of Our Country in his 1796 Farewell Address should suffice to make nonintervention a respectable position, and yet as Kauffman notes, advocates of war don't hesitate to denounce opponents of war as un-American traitors.
Such was the case with the America First Committee, which opposed U.S. entry into World War II. The committee had "a Main Street Republican base," Kauffman said last week in his presentation at the Cato Institute. It was " as American as Geronimo and the Rotary Club" and included such notable figures as future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and future President John F. Kennedy.
Yet "the mendacious claims" of the committee's critics have "curdled into popular myth," Kauffman says, so that its opposition to war is characterized as pro-Nazi. This smear against the America Firsters, he says, "set the stage for later libels against anti-war movements and personages."
"The Good War," as it has been called, led to "an unprecedented uprooting of our population, the hypertrophying of the American state, the delivery of half of Europe to Stalin and Soviet tyranny," Kauffman notes. "Why is this thought to be the best possible outcome of that bloody lustrum? And why are we essentially forbidden to ask if there might have been other paths that might have produced better outcomes?"
Nineteenth century advocates of American empire acquired Hawaii, which became a state two years before the Honolulu birth of the current Democratic presidential frontrunner, whom Kauffman derides as "sort of this placeless Yuppie."
KAUFFMAN IS A devoted fan of "Little America," which resides in places like his beloved hometown of Batavia, New York -- the kind of people Sen. Barack Obama famously described as bitterly clinging to God and guns.
"We don't start the wars," Kauffman says of small-town Americans. "That's the job of the big city-winners who don't need religion or guns -- they have Blackberries. But we and our children fight and die in them, disproportionately."
Kauffman sees rootlessness -- he frequently uses the Latinate synonym "deracination" -- as both a cause and corollary of American empire. "We should fear and despise the fury of the deracinated -- the McCains, the Hillarys, the neocon publicists -- people who have hatreds, but what do they love, other than the wielding of power?...The launchers of American wars have tended to be displaced persons, men without homes."
The internationalist viewpoint is alien to Kauffman. "I can't comprehend, let alone love, the world," he says. "I can only love or understand my little piece of it -- the street where I live, the dirt under my feet."
Kauffman acknowledges that most conservatives seem unwilling to consider a return to the noninterventionist stance of the Old Right, citing this year's Republican presidential debates.
"Ron Paul at these Republican debates would say, 'Why do we have troops in 130 countries?' These guys looked at him as if he'd announced he was from Neptune. They'd snicker and they'd snort," he says. "I wish there was a more robust debate. Even the calling of names would be preferable to the deafening silence we have today."