The Phony Charge of Imperialism
To hear opponents of the war on Iraq tell it, America has become
the new Rome: a swaggering empire bent on imperialistic
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
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
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune