The debate over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in
Iraq has taken a strange turn. The Bush administration is now
accused of lying to the American people to drag the country into
Without a hint of absurdity, a senior military officer quoted by Time recently complained of "a predisposition in this Administration to assume the worst" about Saddam Hussein. A man who murdered more of his own people than any tyrant in recent memory and spent the last 20 years pursuing the world's most deadly weapons -- this man should have been granted the benefit of the doubt? We've heard this argument before, in the 1930s, when a cluster of intellectual moods first collided with totalitarian realities.
First, there were the "outraged utopians." In a March 1941 essay, philosopher Lewis Mumford said he watched his own generation become disillusioned by the failure of Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations to maintain peace after the First World War. Many entered the 1920s as hopeful internationalists, but their resentments multiplied with each political crisis.
By the late1930s, when Hitler began his murderous march through Europe, there was plenty to contend with. The utopians had "told themselves a fairy story" about the world, Mumford said, but the Nazi campaign against the Jews and against civilization itself contradicted the plot. They directed their wrath not at the fecklessness of the League, not at the Fascist devils in Berlin--but at the "wicked treaty," the Treaty of Versailles. "Instead of understanding themselves better," he wrote, "they made the war bear the burden of their frustrated idealism."
Today's embittered utopians are devoted to the United Nations as the only legitimate authority to resolve international conflicts. The notorious failures of the U.N.-to stop genocide in Rwanda, to prevent it in the heart of Europe, to effectively disarm Saddam Hussein--have upset their idealism. Yet they preserve the faith by making the United States carry the burden of their misplaced rage.
How else to explain the recent campaign to survey global disgust with America, led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a relentless internationalist? Or Sen. Tom Daschle's lament on the eve of the Iraq war: "I'm saddened that...we have to give up one life because this president couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country." Saddened? The diplomatic effort Daschle sought would have meant more nations joining a coalition-to wage war. No, such melancholy masks a nostalgia for an international order that does not exist.
Another defining mood of the 1930s was an agnosticism about the value of democratic societies. Writing at the same time as Mufmord, Protestant thinker Lynn Harold Hough observed that millions of young men had become "engrossed by their own psychopathic glooms." Universities were teaching them to scorn democratic institutions as a jumble of economic injustices and Hobbesian politics. The Great Depression gave them plenty of evidence.
Today's agnostics are those who were hardened by the failures of Vietnam and Watergate. At the outset of the Iraq war, Nicholas De Genova of Columbia University said he hoped for "a million Mogadishus" to afflict U.S. troops.Robert Bellah, writing shortly after Sept. 11, complained that America "has turned out to be a problematic society."Tony Campolo, a spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton, agreed. "There's a swamp out there called poverty and injustice," he said. "Osama bin Laden is our fault!"
What might soften this self-loathing? Not the discovery of weapons of mass destruction. When they are found, skeptics warn, everyone will assume they were planted there by U.S. forces.
A final trait of the pre-WWII generation was its "pitiless perfectionism." This was Reinhold Niebuhur's term for the impulse to hijack Jesus and the "gospel of love" in order to construct ideal political and economic systems. Domestically, it produced moralists obsessed with America's shortcomings. Internationally, it made pacifism the highest good: War involved too many ethical ambiguities to be a just alternative. Such pacifism, Niebuhr wrote after the fall of France, amounted to a "preference for tyranny" over democratic freedom.
The contemporary heirs of this spirit are found throughout the realm of liberal religion. The United Methodist Church, the U.S. Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, the Archbishop of Canterbury -- all invoked the ethics of Jesus to condemn the liberation of Iraq as "immoral." Yet they've said virtually nothing about the totalitarian horrors that Saddam inflicted on a generation of Iraqis.
Thomas Mann once wrote that the passage of time both cools and clarifies our emotions. "No mood can be maintained quite unaltered through the course of hours." It's beginning to look like Mann was wrong: The spirits of an earlier era are with us still, and the march of time has not yet put them to rest.
Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation, and a commentator for National Public Radio. He is editing a collection of religious essays for his book The End of Illusions: American Churches and Hitler's Gathering Storm, 1938-41 (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming).
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