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May 25, 2006

Southern comfort for the Stop the War Coalition: Brendan Simms on the reactionary roots of anti-interventionist thought

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge's Centre of International Studies - identifies some rather reactionary precursors to today's anti-war movement.

In The Mind of the Master Class: History and faith in the southern slaveholders' worldview, Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox Genovese assert that:

By minimizing the suffering of their own black slaves, [southerners] defended slavery at home all the more passionately while they struggled in the United States against an imperialist worldview that would subsequently impose unprecedented misery and mass slaughter on the world. The defeat of the slaveholders and their worldview opened the floodgates to the global catastrophe their leading spokesmen had long seen a borning.
Naturally, some have jibbed at the suggestion that the old south was the cradle of US anti-imperialism; or that, by implication, Abraham Lincoln was responsible for Vietnam and Iraq. This seems to George Fredericksen of the New York Review of Books to give the southern mind far too much credit, a suspicion reinforced by the fact that Eugene Genovese while no straightforward apologist for slavery has always sympathised with the anti-liberal and anti-capitalist, anti-globalist if you will, side to Dixie. The historical record also gives reason for scepticism: southerners such as President Tyler were ardent expansionists in the 1840s, even if their determination to incorporate formerly Mexican areas into the union was largely motivated by a desire to maintain the balance between slave and free states.

All the same, Fredericksen should not be surprised at Eugene and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's contention that the Old South, or at least its intellectuals, were early anti-imperialists, whose ideology can be contrasted with that which sustained later American interventions in world affairs. After all, the United States had partly come about in response to British busybodies who had tried to defend the rights of natives against settler encroachment, while during the War of Independence it was Britain's attempt to raise the slaves, which helped to push many southern planters firmly in the direction of patriotism. In the early nineteenth century southern intellectuals interpreted the world very much in terms of their own "peculiar institution". They drew comfort from the historical and contemporary ubiquity of slavery, and looked to respect for international law for its preservation. The Genoveses sum it up thus:

For Calhoun as for Trescott, Fitzhugh, and others, the safety of peoples and nations required a world order that allowed them to work out internal antagonisms separately.
There is therefore a clear connection between some of those who opposed the Vietnam War, or George Bush's democratic revolution on conservative grounds and those who have or have had some sympathy for the "good old cause" of the south. Broadly speaking, this school of thought holds that democracy is not for export, that all organically developed political systems should enjoy the protection of international law, that outside do-goodery does far more harm than good. It sees in abolitionism, in the attempts of the "Best and brightest" and the "neo-cons" attempts to remake societies with what they would argue were equally disastrous results. This is not to say, of course, that all those who opposed the Vietnam War or the removal of Saddam Hussein and the democratic remodelling of the Middle East, are so linked. The "southern" strand is one of many, but an important one in American thinking on foreign policy.

One could see it most recently in the figure of the West Virginia Senator, and former Ku Klux Klansman, Robert Byrd, whose eloquent and thoughtful speech against the liberation of Iraq gripped the imagination of many in March 2003. Much of his argument hinged on tradition and international law in a way of which his southern ancestors would have approved. He condemned the undermining of "international order" through the "radical and doctrinaire application of US power". Ironically, one of the websites that displays his speech, Common Dreams News Center, is subtitled Breaking news & views for the Progressive Community.

It was also evident for example in the campaign of Senator William Fulbright against the American involvement in Indochina. The title of his famous critique of US foreign policy The Arrogance of Power (1966) found its way into Byrd's neo-Fulbrightian speech of 2003. In his native Arkansas, Fulbright was no friend to desegregation in the 1960s, but to the rest of the world he was a respected dove, and critic of the "military-industrial complex". This was a matter of great irritation to the Senator for Washington State, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a strong civil rights supporter, who also strongly backed the war in Vietnam. How come, he used to complain, that he was dubbed an irresponsible hawk, and the reactionary Fulbright was considered the acceptable face of American foreign policy?

The Genoveses would understand why. The same principles which gave the right to northerners to tear apart the fragile socio-cultural ecosystem of Dixie, underpinned the struggle against communist dictatorship in Vietnam, and now sustain the project for democratic transformation in the Middle East.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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