Thursday, November 24, 2011

The "Great Leaders" Were Mass Murderers

By Anthony Gregory
The greatest leaders, according to conventional appraisals, are usually those who draw the most blood. Most opinion makers distance themselves from Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and their ilk, although even here who can doubt they tower over modern history precisely because of their bloodletting? But in the West and especially the United States, historians, journalists, pundits, and especially politicians tend to admire leaders in proportion to the powers they claimed and exercised, which almost always corresponds with war making and killing.
"One of the most pernicious legacies of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao," writes Ralph Raico, "is that any political leader responsible for less than, say, three or four million deaths is let off the hook. This hardly seems right, and it was not always so" (p. 163). This is an astute observation, and it has relevance even in considering the "civilized" leaders of the United States and its allies, to say nothing of the second-tier communist butchers who continue to enjoy a cult following.
Historians, conservative and liberal, when asked to rank US presidents, consistently put war presidents around the top and the ones who oversaw relatively peaceful years for the republic near the bottom. Across the spectrum, commentators adore both presidents Roosevelt and swoon over the idea of another Truman in the White House. Poor Warren Harding, whose years were prosperous and relatively free, is universally ranked as one of the greatest disappointments. Woodrow Wilson, his predecessor, whose reign yielded over 100,000 dead Americans, a pulverized First Amendment, a nationalized economy, not to mention cataclysmic diplomatic consequences throughout the world, was one of the best, everyone seems to agree.
In the 20th century, it was Democrats who did the most to expand power, from the Progressive Era and New Deal to the Great Society. And, perhaps not coincidentally, they were most responsible for America's biggest wars — the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Yet certainly by the time of the George W. Bush administration, if not much earlier, the Republican line was to claim the most power-hungry of Democratic presidents as their own proper antecedents, and in fact to criticize modern Democrats for betraying their 20th century roots as the party of power.
Right after Bush gave his second inaugural address in January 2005, championing an active Wilsonian role for US foreign policy in the new century, conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh had this to say:
What the president did today was make the case for spreading human liberty, defending human dignity, which were once largely the preserve of liberalism. If you go back and look at FDR's speeches and look at the number of times he mentioned God in his inaugurals. Go back to JFK. "We will fight any foe. We'll go anywhere. We will do whatever it takes to spread freedom and liberty." Hey, he couldn't be a liberal Democrat today. JFK couldn't be. Truman couldn't be. They were committed to the triumph of liberty in the world, and that's what this speech was about today, the triumph of freedom and liberty in the world — and it is now conservatism that is propelling this.
For years, libertarians were accustomed to describing this brand of conservatism as "neoconservatism" — a bastardization of the breed that had adopted its interventionist thirst for democratic revolution from the Left, and particularly from Trotskyite Marxists. Yet throughout the Cold War, official conservatism from William F. Buckley on down was not particularly inclined toward the Old Right antiwar position, and in today's world most conservatives do seem much more attracted to FDR-style governance, especially abroad, than they do toward anti-interventionism. Even when the price of war is domestic liberty, and conservatives are presented with this trade-off, most choose the glories of war and empire over the simple serenity of peace and republicanism, as witnessed in the fact that nearly all prominent conservative pundits would prefer one of the warmongering big-government Republicans to Ron Paul in the Republican primary.
There is no question that one's comprehension of the nation's history determines one's outlook on foreign affairs. The United States is currently involved in nearly half a dozen wars, and it is widely seen as nothing unusual. A whitewashed understanding of US history is in play in Americans' acceptance of their empire. All the major wars are sold to the public with warnings about the need to stop the world's next Hitler. In the mythology of American war making, Hitler is at once the greatest enemy of human decency ever to walk the earth and yet also the perennial threat who will resurrect in the form of a Noriega, a Milosovic, a Saddam, or a Gaddaffi, if America does not stand guard. Hitler is simultaneously beyond comparison and yet the demon against which to compare all other dictators.
Yet just as important as the demonization of America's greatest arch nemesis in history is the glorification of America's greatest superheroes on the world stage. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and (perhaps we can call him an honorary American at the least) Winston Churchill stand as giants in the usual narrative of international progress, and despite their flaws — some of which historians quickly concede, proud of the balance and sophisticated nuance of their work — these men represent goodness nearly as much as Hitler represents evil. Just as important, the great wars these allegedly great men presided over have come to represent virtue and redemption nearly as much as the Nazis have come to symbolize barbarity.
Ralph Raico dissents. In his terrific book Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal, the venerable historian acquaints the reader with the dark side of such revered great leaders. His volume could be called an antihagiography, yet that is perhaps a grandiose descriptor for what is in ways not so presumptuous a project. All it takes is a fair account of what these men in power actually did to destroy the textbook interpretations. But Raico has done this deed masterfully, with a keen grasp of an enormous amount of literature and a deep understanding of the domestic history, foreign entanglements, shifting alliances, power politics, and sound economics. This combined with the author's obvious fondness for the great traditions of Western civilization and his alluring writing style — which is accessible, artful, and scholarly while being just often enough polemic — makes for a terrific addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in modern history, US foreign policy, or the story of human freedom.


  1. "Great Wars and Great Leaders" - A Review.

  2. It's disgusting that people refer to politicians as "Leaders". It makes them look like childish fools. Do they also refer to rapists as "Lovers"?

  3. Anon 12:06,