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Political Science Quarterly Review of The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion

The following is the complete text of a review by Edward Morris of George Mason University of The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion. It appeared in the Political Science Quarterly, Winter 2014-2015.

“History,” Winston Churchill is reported to have observed, “is written by the victors.” The losers, if they are lucky enough to avoid vilification, are airbrushed out.

When it comes to our understanding of American foreign policies of the first four decades of the twentieth century, the history-writing victors have, for the most part, been liberal internationalists. Democrats and Republicans alike, in the wake of the Second World War, concluded that the task of making the world safe for America demanded active, global U.S. politico-military engagement. In the name of liberal international institutions, Washington’s “Farewell” injunctions against entangling alliances would be consigned to the waste bin of quaint anachronisms.

A policy shift of this magnitude necessarily required a reinterpretation of history—in this case, a rehabilitation of Woodrow Wilson and particularly Wilson’s rejected brainchild, the League of Nations. In the account of American foreign policy learned and taught by the Greatest Generation, a central tenet has been that America’s refusal to endorse Wilson’s league was a cardinal failure and critical factor in the road leading to World War II. While Wilson himself comes in for a share of the blame for his pathological rigidity and political ineptness, the great villains in the victor’s history are the opponents of the league. They—like the opponents of America’s entry into World War I—are dismissed as naïve, hidebound, paro- chial, short-sighted, or foolish.

But, of course, they were not. In this meticulously researched and won- derfully well-written intellectual biography of the preeminent opponent of the war and of the peace, Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, Richard Drake permits us to view the period through very different conceptual lenses. Drake carefully documents La Follette’s Progressive anti-imperialist thinking—with all its flaws and inconsistencies, as well as its extraordinary fundamental insights and flashes of brilliance—while tracing the intellectual path that took “Fighting Bob” from his roots as a McKinley Republican to his position as a holdout against America’s entry into World War I, an “Irreconcilable” opponent of the League of Nations, and an irreconcilable opponent of the liberal, internationalist policies of his own Republican colleagues.

Though damned as one by his political opponents, La Follette was no socialist. La Follette saw himself in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps more accurately, however, he can be understood as part of an older tradition, one that marks him an heir of Thomas Jefferson. For La Follette, the single issue around which everything else revolved was the fundamental danger to American republican democracy posed by the increasing power of the wealthy and by the foreign entanglements generated by their cupidity.

Whether or not one agrees with La Follette’s analysis, his understanding of the dangers posed to republican institutions and society by unconstrained national and transnational capital is laden with implications. Seeing the world through La Follette’s eyes, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the league was, in Drake’s words, “the enforcement arm of an international crime syndicate. American membership in it would be the final disgrace for the American Republic and its obituary” (p. 288). Thus, far from the guarantor of a just peace, the league was, like the Holy Alliance a century earlier, a coordinating body of repressive, rapacious, imperial powers, set in opposition to the free will of the world’s peoples.

Taking time to study La Follette—and taking time, too, to re-examine the competing vision and foreign policy program of the liberal Republican “isolationists”ofthe1920s—servestwopurposes.Obviously,itpermitsa more- realistic understanding of America’s troubled path toward hegemony on the world stage. More importantly, though, La Follette and other opponents of the league—“Revisionist” as well as “Irreconcilable”—offer intriguing alternatives for dealing with today’s global challenges. As useful as Drake’s book is for historians, it might most profitably be read by America’s political thinkers, political leaders, and policymakers.

George Mason University

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