What Happened to the Peace Progressives?


Robert Farley comments on the chapter of George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower that deals with the interwar period:

Herring pays a fair amount of attention to the Peace Progressives, a group of mostly Midwestern, mostly Republican lawmakers. The Peace Progressives believed in both world peace and fiscal responsibility; in so doing they made the (almost heretical in the current political climate) connection that weapons cost money, and that the interest of small government is best served by tight limitations on the size of military forces. The pursuit of international routes to peace (Kellogg-Briand Pact, for example) abetted the interest in fiscal responsibility by reducing the need for large military establishments. I think it’s odd that this combination (preference for low tax, low domestic expenditure, low defense expenditure) seems to occur so rarely in the American political context; perhaps the development of the military-industrial complex served to capture pro-business (such that the term has any meaning…) legislators, or the perceived threat of communism helped purge Republican party doves?

I think the factors Farley mentions certainly do play a role. The dawn of the Second World War and then the Cold War made the case for a large defense establishment much stronger on its merits. But the prolonged existence of said defense establishment helped establish support for a large defense establishment as an entrenched commitment of the American right.

But I would also point to another factor. If you look to, say, the Cato Institute you’ll find some admirable work on defense budget issues that in a lot of respects is the heir to the thinking of the interwar “peace progressives.” And that’s about as it should be since if you want to find modern-day admirers of Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding, you’d best look to outfits like Cato. But one important difference between the peace progressives and today’s right-wing defense skeptics is that the peace progressives were committed internationalists who believed in things like the Washington Naval Treaty, the Kellog-Briand Pact, and other multilateral arms control and conflict prevention efforts.

In my view, the approach to world affairs that’s broadly skeptical of the desirability of gargantuan military forces and aggressive use of force simply isn’t tenable without that component. A modern-day worldview that aims to reduce unnecessary defense expenditures and allow those resources to flow to productive use needs to be engaged with things like the effort to pass a Law of the Sea Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the efforts to restrict the use of land mines and cluster bombs, the effort to establish an International Criminal Court, etc. These days, such an approach to foreign policy tends to be advocated by people (like me) who have a more social democratic approach to domestic issues. Which is good for us. But I think we could use more allies on the small government right.