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18 May 2013

World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals

The government and the Women's Committee recognised that immigrant, ethnic women were most in need of 'patriotic education.'

By Murray Rothbard

In contrast to older historians who regarded World War I as the destruction of progressive reform, I am convinced that the war came to the United States as the "fulfillment," the culmination, the veritable apotheosis of progressivism in American life.[1] I regard progressivism as basically a movement on behalf of Big Government in all walks of the economy and society, in a fusion or coalition between various groups of big businessmen, led by the House of Morgan, and rising groups of technocratic and statist intellectuals. In this fusion, the values and interests of both groups would be pursued through government.

Big business would be able to use the government to cartelize the economy, restrict competition, and regulate production and prices, and also be able to wield a militaristic and imperialist foreign policy to force open markets abroad and apply the sword of the State to protect foreign investments. Intellectuals would be able to use the government to restrict entry into their professions and to assume jobs in Big Government to apologize for, and to help plan and staff, government operations. Both groups also believed that, in this fusion, the Big State could be used to harmonize and interpret the "national interest" and thereby provide a "middle way" between the extremes of "dog-eat-dog" laissez faire and the bitter conflicts of proletarian Marxism. 

Also animating both groups of progressives was a postmillennial pietist Protestantism that had conquered "Yankee" areas of northern Protestantism by the 1830s and had impelled the pietists to use local, state, and finally federal governments to stamp out "sin," to make America and eventually the world holy, and thereby to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. The victory of the Bryanite forces at the Democratic national convention of 1896 destroyed the Democratic Party as the vehicle of "liturgical" Roman Catholics and German Lutherans devoted to personal liberty and laissez faire and created the roughly homogenized and relatively non-ideological party system we have today. After the turn of the century, this development created an ideological and power vacuum for the expanding number of progressive technocrats and administrators to fill. In that way, the locus of government shifted from the legislature, at least partially subject to democratic check, to the oligarchic and technocratic executive branch.  

World War I brought the fulfillment of all these progressive trends. Militarism, conscription, massive intervention at home and abroad, a collectivized war economy, all came about during the war and created a mighty cartelized system that most of its leaders spent the rest of their lives trying to recreate, in peace as well as war. In the World War I chapter of his outstanding work, Crisis and Leviathan, Professor Robert Higgs concentrates on the war economy and illuminates the interconnections with conscription.

In this paper, I would like to concentrate on an area that Professor Higgs relatively neglects: the coming to power during the war of the various groups of progressive intellectuals.[2] I use the term "intellectual" in the broad sense penetratingly described by F.A. Hayek: that is, not merely theorists and academicians, but also all manner of opinion-molders in society – writers, journalists, preachers, scientists, activists of all sort – what Hayek calls "secondhand dealers in ideas."[3] Most of these intellectuals, of whatever strand or occupation, were either dedicated, messianic postmillennial pietists or else former pietists, born in a deeply pietist home, who, though now secularized, still possessed an intense messianic belief in national and world salvation through Big Government. But, in addition, oddly but characteristically, most combined in their thought and agitation messianic moral or religious fervor with an empirical, allegedly "value-free," and strictly "scientific" devotion to social science. Whether it be the medical profession's combined scientific and moralistic devotion to stamping out sin or a similar position among economists or philosophers, this blend is typical of progressive intellectuals.

In this paper, I will be dealing with various examples of individual or groups of progressive intellectuals, exulting in the triumph of their creed and their own place in it, as a result of America's entry into World War I. Unfortunately, limitations of space and time preclude dealing with all facets of the wartime activity of progressive intellectuals; in particular, I regret having to omit treatment of the conscription movement, a fascinating example of the creed of the "therapy" of "discipline" led by upper-class intellectuals and businessmen in the J.P. Morgan ambit.[4] I shall also have to omit both the highly significant trooping to the war colors of the nation's preachers, and the wartime impetus toward the permanent centralization of scientific research.[5] 

There is no better epigraph for the remainder of this paper than a congratulatory note sent to President Wilson after the delivery of his war message on April 2, 1917. The note was sent by Wilson's son-in-law and fellow Southern pietist and progressive, Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo, a man who had spent his entire life as an industrialist in New York City, solidly in the J.P. Morgan ambit. McAdoo wrote to Wilson: "You have done a great thing nobly! I firmly believe that it is God's will that America should do this transcendent service for humanity throughout the world and that you are His chosen instrument."[6] It was not a sentiment with which the president could disagree.

World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals - II

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