The Phony Charge of Imperialism

COMMENTARY Political Process

The Phony Charge of Imperialism

Apr 10th, 2003 2 min read

Former William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Joseph is a former William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society.
To hear opponents of the war on Iraq tell it, America has become the new Rome: a swaggering empire bent on imperialistic conquest.

We've heard it all before. It was, in fact, the most oft-repeated charge against both the United States and Britain at the outbreak of World War II.

Churches led the peace movement of the 1930s, and religious leaders joined other isolationists in seeing only the darkest motives at work among the Allied forces. "Is this essentially a war to make democracy secure," Albert Palmer, president of Chicago Theological Seminary asked scornfully, "or is it a clash between two great imperialisms?"

Harry Emerson Fosdick, the celebrated Baptist preacher, called a war for democracy a contradiction in terms. "Whoever wins it," he said, "there is bound to be less democracy than there was before." Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes dismissed the European conflict as an "immoral clash of competing imperialisms." Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of The Christian Century, denounced an Anglo-American alliance against Germany as "the vastest imperialistic enterprise history has ever known."

This criticism persisted even after the German war machine had overrun half a dozen European states, captured Paris and bombed London -- after the pathologies of Nazi rule became widely known. How could some of America's most prominent religious thinkers have so badly misjudged Hitler's gathering storm?

Writing in March 1941, philosopher Lewis Mumford offered perhaps the most trenchant critique of the psychological and spiritual mood of the anti-war movement. In the backdrop, of course, was the devastation of World War I and the punitive Treaty of Versailles. But Mumford detected something much deeper. Liberal and progressive groups "had told themselves a fairy story" about the modern world: They confused material progress with moral progress. They trusted too much in human reason to resolve conflicts. And, most importantly, they clung to what Mumford called "the dogma of the natural goodness of man."

The rise of Hitler's Germany discredited that dogma, contradicting the pacifists' most sacred beliefs and hopes. Yet instead of admitting their mistake, they became "outraged utopians," directing anger at Versailles, America, Britain -- everything and everyone except the Nazi devil in Berlin. "In an orgy of debunking," Mumford wrote, "my generation defamed the acts and nullified the intentions of better people than themselves."

The debunking has returned, only with slogans like "Pax Americana," "No Blood for Oil," and "Blessed are the Peacemakers." Many insist even now that the liberation of Iraq violates Jesus' law of love. Such sloganeering recalls the same childish assumptions about human nature and human societies. Although ideologies change, all tyrannies are an assault on the moral norms of civilized states. Saddam's regime -- with its death squads, contempt for its own population and lust for weapons of mass murder -- represents an especially grievous variety.

It's worth remembering that the world's leading democracies, America and Britain, have confronted this threat with military precision and a concern for innocent life unrivaled in the history of warfare. Both nations' leaders have pledged repeatedly to help create the conditions in Iraq for political and religious freedom. Thousands of tons of food and medicine already have been delivered. With each passing day, the charge of imperialism sounds more and more like the restless soul of the enraged utopian.

Perhaps, after Saddam's defeat, we might hope for an exorcism of this spirit from the war's detractors. That plainly was Mumford's wish in 1941. "A human society in which men will not help their neighbors to resist evil and struggle for justice will presently cease to exist as a society," he warned, "since it will lack even the animal loyalties that are necessary for survival."

-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.

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune