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Gabriel Kolko on the Foreign Policy Consequences of Conservatism’s Triumph

Gabriel Kolko (1932-2014), a longtime contributor to Counterpunch, burst onto the field of American historical scholarship with the publication of The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (1963). He had published other works, but this book made him an historian of widely recognized importance. With astringent irony, he transformed our understanding of the Progressive period in American history. Formerly imagined to have been an unalloyed movement for the reform of business, Progressivism stood revealed by Kolko to be a reform movement for business, or regulation for the benefit of the regulated.

The book bulges with examples of Kolko’s thesis, chief among them the Federal Reserve System, which the bankers themselves devised to perfect their control over banking and monetary policy. Reform in the Progressive context meant prevention of the radical social change that the plutocratically controlled country needed. Kolko wrote, “It is business control over politics (and by ‘business’ I mean the major economic interests) rather than political regulation of the economy that is the significant phenomenon of the Progressive Era.” He thought that this outcome signaled the definitive victory of Alexander Hamilton’s conception of the perfect unity of politics and economics in domestic and foreign policy. Although Kolko in The Triumph of Conservatism paid little attention to foreign policy issues, he did point out that the reorganized American banking system undertook the financing of the Entente nations in the First World War, an investment process that would lead Washington to intervene militarily in the conflict.

The previous year, in 1962, Kolko had turned his attention directly to American foreign policy, in an article for The Western Political Quarterly, “American Business and Germany, 1930-1941.” Arguing against pro-business historians who had held that the corporate capitalist establishment played no special role in promoting American involvement in the Second World War but rather merely reflected the general pro-Allied attitudes of the public at large, he showed how the actual facts of the matter were otherwise. Kolko did so in two ways. First, he documented the complicity of the FDR administration and top American businessmen in readying the nation for war, while the president duplicitously assured the public in his famous campaign pledge of 1940, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” That is precisely what he planned on doing with the cooperation of the War Resources Board, created the previous year and, in Kolko’s description, “composed entirely of top capitalists who soon became dubbed the ‘Morgan-Du Pont’ group.” Kolko assiduously and to devastating effect compiled administration assurances that the business community would have nothing to fear from government meddling in the profit structure of the war industries. There followed an invasion of Washington by the dollar-a-year men who ran the war agencies as the military-industrial complex took its permanent place in American life.

Second, Kolko explained how corporate America practiced ecumenical portfolio diversification by maintaining close business ties with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Kolko unearthed documentation about cartel arrangements in which American companies participated as the war progressed. General Electric, U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel, General Motors, Dow Chemical, Du Pont, the Aluminum Company of America, and—above all—the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey continued to honor contracts with chemical giant I. G. Farben and other German concerns “seeking profits wherever and however they might be made, irrespective of political circumstances.” All this corporate money-making would be explained after the war as a case of archly deceiving Germans pulling the wool over the eyes of blameless American entrepreneurs. Kolko countered that the historical evidence furnishes no support at all for such an argument and concluded that during the war a glaring distinction can be observed between the business press and the behavior of business.
As the Vietnam War embroiled American cities and college campuses in anti-war demonstrations, rallies, teach-ins and marches, Kolko continued to write about the connections between foreign policy and domestic politics as a way of understanding how American wars did not emanate from outside the country but inside it. He collaborated with Studies on the Left, a radical journal launched in 1959 in Madison, Wisconsin. He had studied at Wisconsin as a graduate student, obtaining a master’s degree there in 1955 before moving on to Harvard for a Ph.D. Fellow students involved in founding Studies on the Left remembered Kolko as an exceptionally sophisticated thinker and welcomed him as a contributor to the journal.

In 1966, Kolko published in Studies on the Left “The Decline of American Radicalism in the Twentieth Century.” Radicalism had declined in America because of its own internal failings, chiefly its excessive reliance on Marxism. The mechanistic optimism of dialectical materialism, had made radicals true believers in the myth of inevitable progress toward a socialist outcome in history. Consequently, they had not bothered to keep up with the changing reality and enormous power of capitalism: “not one important or original theoretician emerged in the entire history of American socialism.” Kolko faulted the left for failing to develop a credible socialist alternative to the political and economic realities of twentieth-century America. He described the capitalist status quo there as “a make-believe world of democratic rhetoric concealing controlled politics,” but for its domestic and foreign policies the ruling class had absolutely nothing to worry about from the feckless left. By the implication of his argument, the foreign policy of such a world hardly could differ in its essentials from the controlled politics at home. In the lexicon of Kolko, control applied to foreign policy signified the politics of empire.

The implied aside of 1966 regarding American foreign policy became the explicit thesis of The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945 (1968), the foundational Kolko text for his subsequent writing on international relations. To explain American policy and strategy during that most terrible of all wars, he followed this principle: “The historian can only understand the nature of a system and its functional ideology from its practice, as opposed to its rhetoric.” Just as Kolko earlier had put to one side the published declarations of patriotic principle by American businessmen in the way they explained their actions during the war, so did he treat Washington’s Atlantic Charter message about the Four Freedoms as the basis of the country’s war effort. Freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear served admirable propaganda purposes in concealing the real reasons for American intervention in the war.

Kolko thought that Washington had one overarching objective in the war: to save capitalism at home and abroad. From the beginning, even before Pearl Harbor, the government’s salvation plan for capitalism called for American control of the world economy. This objective placed an unbearable stress on the Grand Alliance among the United States, Russia, and Great Britain. Obviously, the only thing that the Allies had in common was their opposition to Nazism and Fascism. By 1944, with the military defeat of the Axis Powers plainly in view, the Grand Alliance began to fall apart.

The Bretton Woods financial and monetary conference that year presented a clear picture of how the world economic system would function under the suzerainty of the American-controlled International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The logic of this international arrangement per force ruled out an independent existence for Russian communism. In the context of the order created at Bretton Woods, conflict between Russia and the United States could not be avoided. Even the British, their special relationship with the United States notwithstanding, lost out. Although the outer shell of the British Empire would be preserved, its economic integrity could not survive the American proscription of independent economic blocs. Britain subsided into long-term decline, coerced by its poverty and shrinking empire into adjutant status at the mercy of American economic power, just as Washington had planned all along. Kolko distilled the essence of America’s policy at war’s end as “the classic pursuit of national self-interest in an ill-fitting wrapper of internationalist rhetoric.” Washington confidently assumed that the general interest of the world was synonymous with that of the United States. As a backup measure should sweet reason alone prove inadequate to the strategic needs of empire, a worldwide network of American military bases would protect and augment the new foundation of order.

Writing The Politics of War in the late 1960s, Kolko had the calamitous Vietnam War constantly before him as an object lesson of what went wrong in American foreign policy during the postwar period. The essential point was this: imperialism did not disappear after the war. The old colonial empires fell into decay, but America led the way in showing how new forms of economic imperialism would work. The moralism about democracy and human rights in Washington’s policies served as a cover for larger strategic goals and “its obvious concern for an immediate share of the economic spoils of colonialism.” For instance, the government’s campaign to avail itself of Iranian oil riches began during World War II and would be a point of ignition for the tragic manipulation and exploitation of the Iranian people. Kolko lingered over the “Petroleum Policy of the United States,” a 1944 document that illustrates the specific nature of Washington’s neo-colonialist intentions for the third world generally as a supplier of natural resources and a consumer of first-world exports. Exemplifying the unification of politics and economics, numerous former oil industry executives occupied key posts in the State Department. As the American-controlled International Monetary Fund and the World Bank established their dominance in world finance, poor and underdeveloped countries would continue to be ruled by economic overlords, as always under imperialism, but now in the holy name of the free world’s rules-based order.

In the conclusion of The Politics of War, Kolko observed how the economic and strategic interests of the United States caused the country to ally itself with assorted undemocratic regimes, including some egregious dictatorships. Washington welcomed any and all client states as long as they accepted their place in “the transformed world capitalist economy.” Their acceptance entailed opposition to the Soviet Union and all left-wing groups wherever they threatened the American-led bloc of nations. Meeting such real or imagined threats, the United States set the pattern for postwar world politics: “militant intervention into the affairs of literally every area of the world.” Kolko made it clear in 1968 that he understood the Vietnam War in the context of the economic and strategic aims analyzed in The Politics of War.

Kolko devoted much of the rest of his career to a further examination of the contradictions and tragedies in American foreign policy brought on by corporate capitalism’s politics of empire. He consistently had proclaimed his preference for non-Marxist socialism over capitalism, which in his view had a fatal defect: it always produced oligarchy. Under the auspices of capitalism, democracy could exist only as a word, not a political reality.

After a lifetime promoting socialism as a superior alternative to capitalism, in 2006 Kolko wrote his saddest book, After Socialism: Reconstructing Critical Social Thought. He began, “socialism in all its forms has collapsed and contemporary capitalism is failing, as never before, to build a civilization that can resolve the growing challenges the world faces.” He specifically mentioned environmental degradation as a mounting and fearsome threat. We must begin again, he contended, and rethink how we are to live together in peace. Opposition to capitalism for Kolko was more justified than ever because of its increasingly powerful failsafe mechanisms for causing wars, exacerbating income inequality, and polluting the planet. To repulse capitalist depredations, he previously had summoned the left to undertake a renewal of socialism. He now no longer thought that socialism could work in any form. Its demise left the status quo made by the triumph of conservatism more secure than ever before.

Wars would continue to furnish opportunities for specific interests to prosper. In 2006, Kolko had in mind the war in Iraq, which resulted in a proliferation of enormously lucrative arms contracts. The war profits and corruption embedded in the Pentagon’s business practices sparked little curiosity, let alone censure, in the deferential political class whose members on bipartisan lines went along with metastasizing military budgets as the perfectly normal price of freedom. For Kolko, the military budgets reflected the complete intellectual and moral collapse of America as it sank beneath the waves of debt, insolvency, and mayhem caused by the warfare state. He charged that chicanery and dishonesty had spread through the entire capitalist system. Misinformation and false information from Washington flooded through the corporate-owned media, which played a scandalous role in selling the Iraq war to the American people. Not that he thought China or Russia were any better. In both those countries, Kolko asserted, oligarchs ran everything through brazen looting operations of astounding magnitude. Nowhere could he find a sufficient store of morality or even ordinary sanity that would save the world from the warmakers. He had the kind of mind that is rare today, one ever-inclined to bash power structures on an equal opportunity basis.

Kolko has been gone since 2014, the year when the situation in Ukraine began to assume its present horrifying aspect. It takes very little effort to divine how he would judge the conflict there now. In the manner of Charles Austin Beard and William Appleman Williams, Kolko had warned that all America’s post-1945 wars would result from the same underlying cause: the quest for world economic hegemony that he saw as the principal foreign policy consequence of the triumph of conservatism. Concerning Ukraine, we would have received from him some scalding essays about the obvious intent of NATO’s encroachments toward the Russian border in America wanting Ukraine for its imperial system. Kolko seems to have had this kind of fatal attraction to imperialism in mind when in After Socialism he enjoined the American people to prevent “capitalists from pursuing the destructive and antisocial direction the world’s economic and political institutions are now following.” It can be inferred from this injunction that as the opening phase of our quest for a new value system to live by on our stricken and strife-torn planet we should have nothing to do with the war party.

This article first appeared on Counterpunch September 8, 2023

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