This was one of the best assessments I’ve heard so far on a lot of interesting topics from Donald Trump to America-First Committee to making anti-war movies. Bill Kaufman is a highly intelligent, highly literate, and articulate man. I liked his take on Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Babbitt, that it is a story about how middle-America gave more and more ground to the power brokers the large cities–New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Los Angeles, etc. Minnesota-bred novelist. Achieved fame throughout the 20s through Main Street and Babbitt. Like Mencken, and he laugh out loud. Scoffer at small town idiocy and the Rotary Club and everything. Real beef was that small town wasn’t itself. Falling prey to standardization, and people were adopting their ideas from the distant capitals. That plays out in a lot of Lewis’s books, especially Babbitt. He loved George Babbitt. Lewis was card-carrying member of the America First Committee. Americans were too henpecked by the cultural capitals. So Lewis by 1941 was a card-carrying member of the American-First Committee, which opposed U.S. involvement in WWII, despite the fact that he’d been a long-time crusader for racial justice. He was outraged when the German government wanted to reprint one of his novels in the 30s. Told them that his name was Levinson. Lewis was a great figure. Gore Vidal, Edward Abbey, or William Fulbright. He was an iconoclast. He was idiosyncratic. He was an American original, which is to say that he was an original American. You couldn’t put him in a box.
Tom Woods says . . . .
All right, you’ve got this chapter, “The Merchants of Death of Sunset Boulevard,” and in there, North Dakota Senator Nye, referring to the movies, says, “They have become the most gigantic engines of propaganda in existence to rouse the war fever in America and plunge this nation to her destruction.” Now, that is a stunning quotation from a US senator, but what I’m curious about is, of course today the movies have gotten a little more subtle sometimes. It’s not quite so obviously hitting you over the head. But it’s not that much more subtle, so I’m curious to know how do you think the movies have changed in this regard particularly, with regard to the military and adventurism and stuff like that. I mean, haven’t we seen some critical movies these days?
Kauffman answers Woods decisively:
Well, today, like, in movies, yeah, you can claim it’s an antiwar movie, but once you see men in battle, it’s almost impossible not to put yourself in their place, as we do when we sit in the movie theater. So I always thought Dorothy Day, Henry Thoreau, Gandhi, you know, they could go into Full Metal Jacket and by the end they’d want to be napalming a Vietnamese baby. It’s impossible to make an antiwar film, and so yeah, these movies all — and these movies are usually made of course with the cooperation of the US military. And they almost always end up — I mean, it’s one thing to respect military men, as I do. I mean, I do think that — but it’s tough to separate sometimes the people from their mission, and so I think that, you know, it’s — I don’t know.
Militarism, martial-ism has become a kind of secular religion, and it’s dispiriting, that the default position of most Americans used to be antiwar. There’s a tremendous anti-militarist heritage in this country, as you know, going all the way back to the Revolution. But that was lost I think in the second half of the 20th century, with the Cold War especially, and even know while we have — well, I’ll leave it there.
This background on the America-First Committee, its founders, and its origin was interesting:
The America First Committee was born in September 1940 at Yale Law School. Its founders included Kingman Brewster, later president of Yale; Robert B. Stewart, Jr., who was the heir the Quaker Oats family and who later served as US ambassador to Norway; Sargent Shriver, later head of the Peace Corps, Kennedy in-law, McGovern’s running mate in ’72; Potter Stewart, who was a Supreme Court justice. You know, it had 800 — either 800- or 850,000 members depending on the source, so it was by far the largest antiwar group in American history. Under its banner, speakers ranged from Norman Thomas, the head of the Socialist Party, long time leader of Socialists in America, to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter. There was an American Legion contingent: Hamilton Fish, a longtime congressman was one of the founders of the American Legion. Hanford MacNider, who was the National Committee Chairman of the American Legion. Its financial base, it was not, like, all funded by George Soros or Bill Gates. I mean, its financial base was broad; it was mostly Midwestern manufacturers. Sterling Morton of Morton Salt, J. Hormel of the Hormel meatpacking, the Quaker Oats people.
This was good–
The FDR administration and some of FDR’s worst hatchet men like Harold Ickes would call the America First-ers pro-Nazi in the way that people in the Gulf Wars called those of us who were against the war in Iraq pro-Hussein or pro-Saddam.
Amazing insights . . .
After the Second World War, that didn’t happen. We went right into a cold war, where we had a new enemy, the Soviet Union, and the slanders stuck. And the thing is while these people were still alive, while people who lived through it were still alive, the slanders weren’t as effective. I mean, if you look at the careers I just mentioned of the founders of the committee, they all had fantastic careers according to the standards of the American establishment. I mean, people who had worked with them, they knew the America First Committee was fine; it was a middle American antiwar group. But those people have almost all died out now, and so it’s, you know, “when the legend becomes fact print the legend,” so you have these smears by these a-historical slanderers. It’s remarkable. Yeah, you just mentioned JFK. JFK was not active in it, but he sent the committee, I think it was a check for $100, saying what you people are doing is essential and vital.
Buckley claimed that the U.S. has to accept the military state because of the Soviet Union.
Kauffman calls into question Buckley’s Soviet Union comment and then proceeds to highlight Pat Buchanan’s impressive, post-war stance. Was glad to read this.
KAUFFMAN: Post-Cold War? Yeah, that was an interesting period, because if you’ll recall, William F. Buckley said — I think maybe he wrote it in the mid-late ’50s — that conservatives have to accept the existence of this enormous, militarized, semi-totalitarian state because of the existence of the Soviet Union, which he said was a world historical evil empire. Now, if somehow by some miracle the Soviet Union should disappear or be pulverized into smithereens, as some National Review editors desired, we could return to being what Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s UN ambassador, later calls a “normal country.” Well, all of a sudden the Soviet Union peacefully dissolves. Remarkable. And it opened up — all of a sudden new paths were opened. You know, roads not taken — all of a sudden the roadblocks were removed. There were all kinds of new possibilities. It was really a heady time. I compare it in some ways to the ’30s or the early years of the Depression, which, awful as they were, nevertheless all kinds of new and interesting philosophical and ideological avenues opened up. And it was very fruitful. And I think the same thing was true in the early 1990s. I mean, the tragedy on the American Right is that almost the only guy who really did sit down and rethink everything was Pat Buchanan. I was never a fan of Pat — I mean, I always thought he was a great — he had a great style; he was very punchy, but I thought, eh, you know, sort of this authoritarian Catholic who likes Joe McCarthy and General Franco — I’m Catholic, by the way, so I guess I can say that. Although I guess we can always rip on Catholics —
WOODS: We can always — yeah, it doesn’t matter who you are.
KAUFFMAN: Yeah, they’re not a protected class.
WOODS: (laughing) That’s right.
KAUFFMAN: But anyway, Buchanan was the one guy who, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all of a sudden this extreme Cold War era, this fixture in the Reagan administration who detente, who wanted to overthrow the Sandinistas and all this kind of thing. He sits back, he thinks, he ponders, he reconsiders, and he becomes, you know, for the next 25 years, really one of the most impressive spokesmen for peace in the country. By the early ’90s he’s saying, look, we should withdraw all our troops from Europe, we should maybe withdraw from NATO, we should not go to war against Iraq in ’91, we should downsize the military substantially and cut the military budget. But unfortunately very few people in the establishment Right had the integrity and honesty of Buchanan.