Libertarians and Non-Interventionism, Part IV

I have written three prior posts (here, here, and here) expressing skepticism about non-interventionism, the foreign policy favored by most libertarians. As set forth in these essays, I contend that while non-interventionism is a credible defense strategy, it is not the doctrinaire individualist position and, indeed, that libertarians may reasonably reject it.

Part of the basis for my stance is the obvious potential counter-example presented by WW2. It is non-controversial that in the few years prior to our entry, Roosevelt flouted the principles of armed neutrality, actively and openly assisting the Brits against the Nazis, while coordinating with other Western powers to deny Japan access to the war materials it needed to continue its brutal aggression in East Asia.

Thus, more hawkish libertarians often cite WW2 as a triumph of the interventionist approach, saving the world from conquest by the Axis powers, and thereby sparing countless millions from death or enslavement. There is no denying the aggression of or the massive, unspeakable war crimes committed by Germany and Japan prior to our entry into this war, so non-interventionists wishing to vindicate their preferred policy are driven to formulate “creative” responses.

Robert Higgs, a well-known libertarian, provides an excellent example in his essay “How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor.” He writes there, “Roosevelt and his subordinates knew they were putting Japan in an untenable position [by the embargo] and that the Japanese government might well try to escape the stranglehold by going to war.” And, further, FDR and his minions failed to alert Pearl Harbor to this threat because “the impending attack constituted precisely what they had been seeking for a long time.” However, as shown below, this effort to debunk the apparent success of interventionism in the “good war” amounts to little more than a transparent attempt to change the subject.

Note first that this conspiracy theory is nothing new, and is convincingly rebutted by R.J.C. Butow, an academic with far more expertise in this area than the source cited by Higgs. But, much more to the point, the “Roosevelt deliberately left Pearl Harbor undefended” argument is silly, on multiple grounds. Most obviously, had FDR alerted Pearl Harbor in advance of the strike, it wouldn’t have prevented the Japanese strike (an overt act of war), but merely limited the damage it did to US naval forces.

Moreover, the attack on Pearl was just one part of a much broader Japanese assault. As the Wikipedia entry on Pearl Harbor notes, “Over the next  seven hours there were coordinated Japanese attacks on the U.S.-held Philippines, Guam and Wake Island and on the British Empire in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.” Alerting Pearl Harbor wouldn’t have stopped this campaign, nor prevented an enraged American public from demanding a declaration of war.

The key point, elided by Higgs, is that unless Roosevelt was willing to acquiesce in this, Imperial Japan’s ongoing effort to subjugate and enslave East Asia by the same monstrous methods used by Hitler in Eastern Europe made war between the US (and its allies) and Japan (and its allies) inevitable. I will concede that it is plausible that had the US elected to remain strictly neutral in the years preceding Pearl Harbor, both with respect to the European and Asian belligerents, we might have escaped entering into these conflicts, at least in the short run. That is a far cry, however, from vindicating this strategy, even from a narrow US perspective.

In the 70+ years following the conclusion of WW2, Americans have gained immensely from being able to engage in voluntary, mutually-beneficial exchange with the nations of Europe and Asia, including Germany and Japan, such as trade, investment, and travel. It is very unlikely that these opportunities would have been available in a world dominated by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Moreover, had the Axis powers conquered or imposed a one-sided peace that left them masters of Europe and Asia, there is no reason to think that this would have satisfied their ambitions. There is little doubt that Hitler would have continued work on the development of nuclear weapons, and there can be no question of his willingness to use them against any nation standing in the way of his megalomania. US neutrality during WW2 might well have only delayed our war, bringing it about on much less favorable terms.

I have said nothing so far about the humanitarian costs of non-intervention. In the absence of US involvement, which proved decisive, Hitler would have continued his genocide against the Jews and the mass murder of other “undesirables,” and the Japanese war machine would have continued to slaughter and enslave millions of innocent Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, etc. Clearly, American leaders owe their primary loyalty to their citizens, but it seems remarkably callous to assign no weight at all to the interests of innocent others.

Of course, it is in the very nature of counterfactuals that we can have little confidence that they would unfold as expected. However, using the tools available to us, it is sensible to conclude that, from the perspective of US citizens and humanity at large, FDR’s active support of the UK, China, and other allies from 1939 to 1941 was the correct policy. This is the central point, and non-interventionists have no good answer.

All sane persons desire peace, but it is perhaps worth remembering in this context these words of John Stuart Mill, whose “harm principle” is often cited approvingly by libertarians:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse…A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.




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