Robert La Follette: America’s Anti-Imperialist Prophet
Among those who foresaw the dangers of imperialism, Robert La Follette deserves special remembrance.
Among the many Americans of past generations who foresaw the dangers that militarism and imperialism would bring to the United States, Robert La Follette deserves special remembrance as an exemplar of the patriotic statesmanship we need today.
La Follette cannot be said to have been a precocious critic of American militarism and imperialism. Unlike Mark Twain, William James, William Graham Sumner and other anti-imperialists of La Follette’s time, he interpreted the Spanish-American War of 1898 as a typically all-American exercise in the philanthropic bestowal of freedom and democracy on less fortunate peoples. It took him longer than it did these others to realize that Washington’s rhetoric about its wars had to be translated into honest English.
Nearly from his earliest days in Washington as a member of the House of Representatives during the 1880s, La Follette had understood that the city worked as a delivery system for the domestic policies desired by economic elites. Thirty more years had to pass before he began to see how the same pressures shaped foreign policy as well.
Not until 1911, when La Follette was in his mid-fifties, did revolutionary events in Mexico alert him to the status of that country as an economic colony of the United States. He began to understand then the connection between militarism and imperialism. To lend full integrity to their system of economic imperialism, American financiers and bankers would need a collection agency of well-armed soldiers and sailors.
Even before the United States entered the Great War in 1917, La Follette had begun to express concern about expenditures on the military. In that comparatively innocent age, military budgets still actually included the penny amounts, but even then the upward trend in spending worried him.
From 1914 to 1917, La Follette opposed American intervention in the war and took the lead on this issue in the U.S. Senate. He feared that American participation in the war would militarize the country forever and turn it into the absolute antithesis of George Washington’s benediction for the American people, in his Farewell Address: “Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”
La Follette opposed Woodrow Wilson’s call for war against Germany. Once the war was lawfully declared, however, he supported it, to the considerable extent of voting for nearly all the military measures proposed by the government. He condemned war profiteers and defended the right of protesters to voice criticism of the administration, but for the duration of the hostilities he backed Wilson.
La Follette’s political enemies in the war party nevertheless continued to view him as one of the most dangerous men in America, for his earlier opposition to the war and the way he insisted on the need at the end of the fighting for a just peace without indemnities for the vanquished or land grabs by the victors.
The harshness and vindictiveness of the Versailles settlement nullified all of La Follette’s hope that in the end the war would result in a better world. It seemed to him quite the worst treaty in the history of warfare. It documented the case that we had gone to war to make the world safe for Wall Street, not for democracy.
How plain it seemed to La Follette now that the only beneficiaries of America’s entry into the war had been the bankers and financiers who had lent billions of dollars to the Allies. By 1917, with the war going badly for the Allies and with Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, the specter of a default on these loans had concentrated the minds of the lenders. The American military then had made its world debut in a role that would lead to one command performance after another.
As with all wars, an embittered La Follette reflected, this one had been fought over territories, markets and resources. The war had erupted in Europe over the commercial rivalries of the combatant nations and the desire to extend their imperialistic policies. The United States government had entered the war because of its economic stake in the imperialist schemes of Britain and France. Billowing clouds of propaganda consisting of deceptions, half-truths, and lies could not conceal the home truth of the Treaty.
In La Follette’s eyes, Wilson had revealed himself at Versailles to have been a master of deceit. The ideals of the Fourteen Points address had been left at the door of the conference room where in secret the tragic fate of the postwar world had been decided.
La Follette had taken heart from the fourth point, in particular: “Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety.” In fact, however, astronomical military budgets continued in existence after the cessation of hostilities.
The only possible gain to be derived from a continuation of high levels of military spending, La Follette believed, would go to armaments manufacturers and to financial elites wanting powerful offensive forces to protect their interests and investments in foreign lands.
La Follette thought it ironic that we had come through a war against German militarism, said by our leaders to be the curse of mankind and solemnly proclaimed at the Versailles Peace Conference to be solely responsible for the outbreak of the Great War; yet in 1921 the American military budget was twice that of Germany in 1913. Why did we think, he wanted to know, that American militarism would be a force for good in the world? Especially when every lesson of history, including the one drawn from the pages of German history, should have led us to the opposite conclusion.
La Follette feared in the aftermath of the Great War that the United States would never get back to a rational basis in its dealings with the world. Wilsonian rhetoric about the unique marvels and glories of America’s selfless goodness, which became a permanent part of the American psyche, had robbed the country of the realism and sense of limits without which no people could keep their balance. Americans actually seemed to believe their own twaddle about their country’s freedom from those laws of history that governed the rest of the world.
The first law of American history, La Follette thought, concerned the democratically masked rule of an oligarchy. They already controlled most of the wealth in society, but they wanted it all. What these financial elites had done in America, they proposed to extend to the entire planet.
La Follette portrayed American finance and banking as a sinister force in the world. He ardently opposed the Marxist-Leninism of the Soviet Union, but increasingly wondered if the American system might also be a dictatorship of a subtler kind.
After visiting Russia in 1923, La Follette returned home and fiercely denounced the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat. He could see nothing but despotism, tyranny and terrorism emanating from a system that denied freedom to everyone but members of the ruling party.
At the same time, La Follette said that Wall Street enjoyed a disturbingly untrammeled power over the lives of ordinary Americans. Their jobs, farms and homes were at the mercy of economic overlords empowered to take everything, should it please them to do so.
La Follette did not live to see the Great Depression, but this economic catastrophe brought his financial predictions to pass. The mass outsourcing of American jobs under the dread auspices of globalization, bringing with it the complete defeat of the American working class, he also saw coming. In one of his most perceptive statements, La Follette declared in 1914, “capital has no sentiment, no sympathy, no patriotism” in the pursuit of profit.
To his dying day, he continued to believe in the cause of progressive politics as the only way for a democratic people to secure the aims of the good life, which included wisely conducted relations with the rest of the world.
Progressivism meant to him a system of government controlled by and for the people, not special interests. In economics, it meant a balanced and sustainable system of agriculture and manufactures, not a growth-mad ravaging of the earth and exploitation of its peoples for the exclusive betterment of the investing class. The endless military adventures necessary for the survival of such an investor-centric world would be the death of the country.
La Follette’s admonition, for the United States to try minding its own business for a change, belongs today in the political platform of any anti-imperialist party pledged to the restoration of the American Republic.
Richard Drake is a professor of history for the University of Montana. His book, "The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion" (University of Wisconsin Press) is scheduled to appear this month.
Photo: Flickr user Rochelle Hartman, creative commons licensed.
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