I have always been one of those really odd misfits: a partisan Southerner who has always harbored a profound admiration for the firebrands of what is now known as “the Old Right,” those almost exclusively Midwestern and Western political leaders, many of whom identified with Progressivism, who hewed closely to the principles outlined in George Washington’s Farewell Address.
They regarded the United States as an undertaking not only conceived in liberty grounded in the principles of the 18th century Enlightenment but also one sworn to oppose intervention and imperialism at every turn.
America, after all, was the outgrowth of a coalition of sovereign States, former colonies, that had broken free of the most powerful and extended empire in history. It was emerging even in Washington’s presidency as one of the most singular nations in history, one that soon would be regarded as history’s most successful post-colonial enterprise.
Why would these former colonials want to squander it all by building an empire of their own? That essentially was Washington’s reasoning as well as that the Old Right tradition that was most prominent in the years between the two world wars.
I was discussing a similar topic earlier this week with a relative. Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address not only is significant for what it warned about but also how it characterized the United States and how Americans historically have regarded themselves: as a people for which the task of empire-building not only was an entirely new and alien concept but also inimical to Ameican experience and identity.
That is why I read with great interest this article about the protests that spontaneously broke out among American troops in every theater of operation in the months following World War II.
If there is one thing that I have learned through my long reading of history it’s that old habits really do die hard. A burst of revolutionary idealism was released in 1776 and it has never dissipated. And even the Old Right, which many people had assumed had exited the American political arena after the Pearl Harbor attack, has staged a remarkable comeback, certainly within the last 30 years since the Pat Buchanan presidential insurgency.