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Homeward Bound

Herbert Croly's disappointment.

Liberals are no strangers to foreign intervention. Democratic presidents took the United States into two world wars, as well as Korea and Vietnam; Bill Clinton himself sent American forces to Haiti, the Balkans, and Iraq. But, if there was a connection between liberalism at home and intervention abroad, it generally ran from the former to the latter. Liberals believed that by intervening abroad they were spreading or defending liberal values. The Clinton administration's 1996 National Security Strategy, for instance, was based on "enlarging ... the community of democratic nations."

Herbert Croly, the founder and first editor of The New Republic, believed this, too. But he also believed the reverse: that a vigorous foreign policy could aid liberalism at home. As he argued in his 1909 masterpiece The Promise of American Life, "[I]t is entirely possible that hereafter the United States will be forced into the adoption of a really national domestic policy because of the dangers and duties incurred through her relations with foreign countries. "

During its first four years of publication, TNR would enthusiastically embrace this point of view. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Croly wrote exultingly to Willard Straight, the J.P. Morgan banker who had bankrolled the magazine, "During the next few years, under the stimulus of the war and its consequences, there will be a chance to focus the thought and will of the country on high and fruitful purposes such as occurs only once in many hundred years." But the war and its aftermath brought bitter disappointment to Croly, as his vision of an American liberalism strengthened by foreign engagement did not come to pass. Since then, the magazine he founded has continued to uphold liberalism at home and abroad, but it has abandoned the hope that war overseas would benefit the cause of liberalism at home.

CROLY'S CONCEPTION OF  liberalism was an answer to the Jeffersonian individualism that dominated much of nineteenth-century U.S. politics. Thomas Jefferson had believed that the United States would achieve both liberty and equality by the diffusion of small property ownership, becoming a land of yeoman farmers and craftsmen. But, by the dawn of the twentieth century, the balance between liberty and equality had been lost as the unhampered growth of free enterprise led to great corporations, urban slums, and a large, unruly, and underpaid immigrant working class increasingly drawn to radical politics. "The traditional American confidence in individual freedom," wrote Croly, "has resulted in a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth." Moreover, these "gross inequalities" threatened the "social bond" on which democracy was based.

Americans differed on how and whether to resolve this looming contradiction between unfettered liberty and equality. Socialists advocated sacrificing free enterprise itself for equality; some progressives and populists wanted to use the Sherman Antitrust Act to break up large corporations and restore Jeffersonian America; conservatives warned that tampering with economic laws would only make things worse. Croly, for his part, argued that to reduce inequality while retaining the efficiency of the market, Americans should regulate rather than break up the large corporations. A strong national government should legitimate the recognition of unions, adopt restrictions on hours and other social reforms, and redistribute excess corporate profits and unearned wealth. Wrote Croly, "The hope of automatic democratic fulfillment must be abandoned. The national government must step in and discriminate; not on behalf of liberty and the special individual, but on behalf of equality and the average man."

Croly's liberalism--which he originally called "progressivism"--provided the platform for Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party in 1912 and for TNR. But how could that platform win over a country still dominated by Jeffersonian individualism? Croly saw two paths: first, through a nonhereditary "aristocracy" of enlightened business leaders, lawyers, intellectuals, and politicians, such as Roosevelt or Straight, who put the national interest above their class interest; second, a process of national "education." One opportunity for this education was politics and the attempt to adapt legislation to solve social problems. But the other opportunity came from the "vigorous assertion of a valid foreign policy." While Croly did not share Roosevelt or Straight's enthusiasm for a U.S. imperialism, he agreed with them that the United States would have to abandon its isolationism and take its place on the world stage. "Hitherto, the American preference and desire for peace has constituted the chief justification for its isolation," he wrote. "At some future time, the same purpose, just in so far as it is sincere and rational, may demand intervention." And such intervention, Croly believed, would require collective unity behind a strong national government and the creation of a "really national domestic policy" based on the cooperation of labor and business. It would require, in other words, Croly's new liberalism.

In July 1914, as Croly was putting together the first issue of TNR, war broke out in Europe. In the editorial of that first issue, titled "The End of American Isolation," he wrote that the crisis "should bring with it a political and economic organization better able to redeem its obligations at home." Croly and the editors warned that, to create the conditions for peace, the United States might eventually have to join the war. "A nation does not commit the great sin when it fights," they wrote in December 1914. "It commits the great sin when it fights for a bad cause or when it is afraid to fight for a good cause." They further backed a new preparedness campaign, which, they argued, must include a commitment to the new liberalism: "Modern war requires the commandeering of much private property ... a large administrative machine composed of men with expert knowledge. Our present method of foozling with [i.e. , bungling] unemployment, sickness, age, and infancy, would break down utterly in a war that really tested the nation."

Some critics of U.S. intervention, such as TNR contributor Randolph Bourne, warned that by going to war the United States would turn its back on the new liberalism and be infected by the virulent nationalism that had consumed Europe. But Croly insisted that Americans would be immune to the "usual war psychology" and would instead display a "spirit of nationalism [that] does not necessarily stand in the path" of a generous postwar settlement and a new international organization dedicated to peace. And, when the United States entered World War I, Croly and the other editors believed their hopes had been realized. Woodrow Wilson embraced their strategy for a nonpunitive peace. (TNR editor Walter Lippmann would go on leave to help draft Wilson's Fourteen Points. ) And the administration established government planning boards staffed by business and labor leaders who worked cooperatively to manage production. Thanks to the war, the nation envisaged by The Promise of American Life seemed to have come into being.

BUT CROLY AND the magazine's hopes were dashed by the war and its conclusion. Croly had hoped that the war would encourage a new, sober internationalism, but instead it inspired among policymakers what Bourne called "the reversion of senility to that republican childhood when we expected the whole world to copy our republican institutions." When the world failed to comply, Wilson accepted at Versailles exactly the kind of punitive peace that the editors had railed against. Croly also admitted that he had not understood "what the psychology of the American people would be under the strain of fighting a world war." Croly had hoped it would strengthen a new nationalism that put country ahead of individual, section, and class; instead it encouraged chauvinism and xenophobia, culminating in the Palmer Raids in 1919, in which Wilson's ambitious attorney general, alleging a plot by Russian and German immigrants, jailed and deported thousands of labor radicals who had no criminal records. "[O]ne hundred and thirty years after the foundation of the American government," Croly wrote, "the right of asylum was abolished, and the ancient institutions of banishment and exile reestablished."

Finally, instead of leading the country to embrace Croly's new liberalism, the war's end resulted in a sharp turn toward conservatism. Croly had hoped that war would legitimate a strong central government, but instead it had led to a "formidable reaction," in Bourne's words, "against the arrogance of the idol which demanded so many sacrifices." Croly had also hoped the war would strengthen the commitment of business leaders to an accommodation between business and labor, but, once it was over, they sought to overturn the state minimum-wage and eight-hour-day laws and to break up the unions that had been organized with government support during the war. Croly now called for "purging our own liberalism of its existing association with a dominant class whose psychology is determined by the practice of acquisition and exclusive possession and whose interests are opposed to the fulfillment of a human liberal ideal." Croly still believed that the United States had been right to join the war in Europe. But he no longer believed that, in seeking peace through war, the United States could create the kind of collective commitment to the common good upon which the new liberalism was based.

Sadly, Croly's bitter lesson was lost on many future liberals. During World War II, Vice President Henry Wallace contended that war would strengthen and expand the nation's commitment to the New Deal, creating the basis for a "new democracy." Yet the war's end led, if anything, to the constriction of the New Deal. Most recently, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, some liberals predicted that the war on terror would revive Democratic prospects. Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg reported three months after the attacks that "distrust of government is down" and that "the emerging mood and values in this new period ... reflect the instinctive impulses of Democrats surely more than they do Republicans." Yet it is now clear that the war on terror has strengthened Republican conservatism, providing cover for the Bush administration to promote policies that would increase inequality, roll back environmental and labor protections, and weaken Social Security and Medicare. Indeed, the war on terror has revived many of the older wartime pathologies-- from official xenophobia to evangelical illusions of omnipotence.

Croly remained at the helm of The New Republic until he suffered a stroke in 1928. During that time, he never abandoned his faith in the new liberalism itself. It would be redeemed by Franklin Roosevelt's Second New Deal in 1935. What war had failed to accomplish, the crisis of depression did, bringing pressure for change from a resurgent working class and a new elite of disinterested public servants. This magazine would also not abandon its internationalism in the 1920s, even in the face of the prevailing isolationism, and that faith, too, would be redeemed, although not until World War II. But, after the experience of World War I, Croly and the magazine would never again rest their hopes for domestic change on the prospects of war and intervention. That hope was shattered by Wilson's Department of Justice, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, and in the boardrooms of corporate America.