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Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. –H.L. Mencken

Book Review: A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson & Roosevelt


a-century-of-war-coverAlthough originally published in 2006, with the last few years’ agitation for war in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iran, and now Ukraine, John Denson’s book, A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson & Roosevelt, is as timely as ever for showing us the methods and lies politicians use as pretext for war.

The book is a combination of a lecture given at the Mises Institute and various articles published at Mises.org or LewRockwell.com.  Although it is only a bit over 200 pages, it is packed full of revisionist history–the good kind.  Each chapter stands on its own, but together they are quite powerful in making the case against interventionist war and empire.

Chapter one serves as the introduction to John Denson’s book and was originally given as a lecture at the Mises Institute.

Chapters two through four are about Lincoln’s war, WWI (briefly), and America’s entry into WWII.

Chapter five compares Lincoln’s “treachery” and Roosevelt’s political manipulation, both used to get their enemies to fire the first shot and thus legitimize starting or entering their own particular conflict.

Denson uses the last two chapters to discuss American foreign policy in the 21st century, 9/11, and the subsequent American invasions of the Middle East, and then to highlight the absurdities of war by discussing the Christmas Truce of 1914 between British and German troops on the Western Front.

Like any good scholarly work, A Century of War contains generous (10 pages) bibliography and recommended reading sections, ranging from Lord Acton to Fareed Zakaria.

Chapter 1 – A Century of War

The main thrusts of this chapter are two-fold.  The first is that if we are to prevent interventionist war the power of the state must be limited.

Denson states:

We should learn from the war and welfare century that the greatest discovery in Western civilization was that liberty could be achieved only through the proper and effective limitation on the power of the state.  It is this limitation on the power of the state which protects private property, a free-market economy, personal liberties and promotes a noninterventionist foreign policy, which, if coupled with a strong national defense, will bring peace and prosperity instead of war and welfare.  It is not democracy per se which protects freedom.

Denson’s second point is that it “will be more important than ever for intellectuals of the future to have a correct understanding of the philosophy of individual freedom and of free-market economics in order to fight collectivism in the twenty-first century.”

To the second point, I readily agree.  Educating people in these principles is why Aaron and I blog, podcast, and engage with people in conversations about these important topics.

To the first point, however, I would dissent on the “strong national defense” piece.  There is no limiting a state to defense only.  Any state with a sufficiently “strong national defense” will eventually do what John Quincy Adams said America should not–go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”  Even the act of providing said defense can only be had at the expense of the individual freedoms of those it is supposedly protecting.

Chapter 2 – Abraham Lincoln and the First Shot

The essence of this chapter will be no surprise to anyone who has read some real history (like Tom DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln) concerning Lincoln and the so-called Civil War.

But Denson hones in on the details around the firing on Fort Sumter by the confederacy and provides such damning evidence of Lincoln’s duplicity and “treachery” that not even Jon Stewart and his panel of “experts” could refute the case.

Beginning in December 1860 and using primary sources, Denson gives us an almost daily chronicle of events leading up to the firing on the fort on April 12, 1861.  Along the way he refutes the “mythology which has surrounded Lincoln”, particularly that he wanted to free the slaves and that he tried to prevent the war, by quoting Lincoln’s own words.

From Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

And then to this part of the speech which the South considered to be a declaration of war:

The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.

Denson continues by examining Lincoln’s acts as “America’s first dictator”, including his suspension of habeas corpus and the arrest and deportation of many of his opponents.

He ends with this, emphasis in original:

In summary, Lincoln brought about the “American System” envisioned by his hero Henry Clay, which included extremely high tariffs to protect Northern industry from foreign competition, internal improvements for Northern business from tax revenues collected primarily in the South, and a centralized federal government strong enough to be “aggressive abroad and despotic at home” as stated by Lee.  None of this could have been achieved without destroying the American Republic created by the Founding Fathers, and this could not have been done without a war that excluded the South from Congress and then left this region prostrate from 1865 until the middle of the twentieth century–a century which saw Lincoln’s nation involved in two world wars with the German nation, which Bismarck had created.

Chapter 3 – The Calamity of World War I

Western Front (Belgium), Menin Road Area, Chateau Wood 29 October 1917

Western Front (Belgium), Menin Road Area, Chateau Wood
29 October 1917

If I have any major criticism of Denson’s book it would be about this chapter, which is a mere three pages dealing with “the war to end all wars”.

Instead of giving us some of his excellent revisionist history about WWI, Denson points us to Oxford professor Niall Ferguson’s book, The Pity of War, as an “iconoclastic attack on one of the most venerable patriotic myths of the British, namely that the First World War was a great and necessary war…”

I was quite disappointed in this chapter as a prelude to chapter four on the second world war, especially in light of the fact that Denson says in chapter four that “This unfair treaty [The Treaty of Versailles, which ended WWI] led directly to the resumption of war in 1939 between Germany, France, and Great Britain which evolved into WWII.”

Although Denson does include details about Wilson and WWI in chapter four, it is mostly about the end of the war and Wilson’s role in the Treaty of Versailles as a lead up to WWII.

This seems to be a bit of a cop out since Wilson’s name is on the cover.

Chapter 4 – Franklin D. Roosevelt and the First Shot

Denson comes out swinging in this chapter, combating the idea that WWII was a “just” or “noble” war because it was supposedly defensive, Pearl Harbor was supposedly unprovoked, and America was fighting Nazism and fascism.

He points out the hypocrisy in the “fact that Stalin and Soviet Russia were our allies and that we aided them with their oppression of millions of people during the war and thereafter is ignored.”

 Denson documents how Roosevelt first tried to provoke a war directly with Germany by the passage of the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 which provided Britain, the USSR, and other Allied nations with war materiel.

Having been unsuccessful at getting Hitler to fire first on this front, Roosevelt turned to his backup plan: Japan.

The evidence of Roosevelt’s deception about Pearl Harbor is so overwhelming that “apologists” for him and his war are forced to argue thusly (p.103):

Typical of such apologists is Professor Thomas Bailey, a Stanford University historian of diplomatic relations, who declares.

Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor…. If he was going to induce the people to move at all, he would have to trick them into acting for their own best interests, or what he conceived to be their best interests.  He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good….The country was overwhelmingly noninterventionist to the very day of Pearl Harbor and an overt attempt to lead the people into war would have resulted in certain failure and an almost certain ousting of Roosevelt in 1940, with a consequent defeat for his ultimate aims.

The last twenty pages of this chapter rely heavily on Robert Stinnett’s book Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor to paint the picture of Roosevelt deceiving the commanders in Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel and General Short, the subsequent cover-up, and the scapegoating of Kimmel and Short after the fact.  Stinnett relies on personal diaries as well as previously hidden documents which were kept secret in the Navy’s vault for over fifty years.

Denson concludes:

Stinnett’s book reveals the ugly truth of the crimes, if not treason, of President Roosevelt and leaves no doubt about how Roosevelt provoked the Japanese into firing the first shot and how he withheld essential information from his Pearl Harbor commanders that would have allowed them either to prevent the attack or protect themselves.

Chapter 5 – Lincoln and Roosevelt: American Caesars

In this chapter Denson compares Lincoln and Roosevelt on several fronts.  Both men maneuvered their enemy into firing the first shot, so as to legitimize starting or entering a war, even though they had both already essentially, if not explicitly, declared war by other means.

Both men had ample time leading up to the “first shot” in which to negotiate with the enemy and avoid hostilities.

Both men had plenty of opportunity to present the case for war to the Congress and ask for a declaration of war.  Neither did.

Denson also points out the economic interests and factors which played a role in both Lincoln and Roosevelt’s decisions to instigate war.  In Lincoln’s case it was to “prevent the South from establishing a free-trade zone with a low tariff” which would would compete with Lincoln’s Union special interest groups.  Denson correctly labels this as the “essence of fascism and the cause of many wars.”

In Roosevelt’s case, he was almost completely under the control of businessmen and bankers like Morgan and Rockefeller who wanted protection from their German and Japanese competitors.

Denson concludes:

Americans need to oppose and destroy the “imperial presidency” because of what it has already done and will do to our country and to our individual freedom.  The first step toward that goal is to recognize Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt for what they really were: American Caesars.

Chapter 6 – Another Century of War?

The title of this short chapter is taken from professor Gabriel Kolko’s 2002 book, Another Century of War?.  Denson quotes Kolko exclusively to make the point that America’s global interventionism since 1947 has had the opposite effect to its stated goal.

It has only brought instability, death, destruction, and chaos to the world in general and those countries which America has invaded and occupied specifically.

Denson commends Kolko’s book to us as:

 …a powerful warning to the politicians of “American Empire” about the dangers of hubris, or the arrogance of power, showing that we should abandon our interventionist foreign policy or suffer the same consequences as other empires (e.g., Athenian, Roman, Spanish and British) before us.

Chapter 7 – The Will To Peace

This chapter is only eight pages, but in my opinion, the most compelling and moving of all of them, and a perfect ending to this book.

Denson shares the story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914 between British and German troops through passages from Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.

The truce began on December 19th, 1914 when German troops left their trenches to recover their wounded.  The British followed suit and ended up engaging in conversation with the Germans and then they both helped each other bury their dead.

Of course this type of “fraternization” was forbidden by, at least, the British commanders, but it did not deter the men.

On Christmas Eve, the Germans began putting up Christmas trees and offered a cease-fire, an offer taken up by the British.  They sang Christmas carols together, recited the 23rd Psalm, played soccer together, and exchanged Christmas gifts.  The truce continued for two weeks.

Weintraub quotes a soldier speaking of the activities of the truce: “Never…was I so keenly aware of the insanity of war.”

It is a shame that some men must first experience war before coming to this realization.

My Conclusion

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

This is a fantastic book.  That I disagree with Denson’s advocacy of a strong national defense in no way takes away from the rest of his research and analysis.  To the contrary, I suppose the fact that I’m miffed about the lack of his own content on WWI is perhaps an indication of the quality of his workmanship.

Denson’s book has been added to the standard reading curriculum in the Clark house.

It seems only fitting to end the review of a book rebuking the ideas of empire, war, and statism with thoughts from someone who witnessed the horrors of war firsthand and died needlessly in the midst of them.

In the final chapter, Denson quotes from part of famed British soldier and poet Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est.  Part of the title is taken from the ancient Roman poet Horace’s Odes.  The entire line reads “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” and is roughly translated as “It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.”  Owen was shot and killed on November 4, 1918 attempting to cross the Sambre canal in northern France, one week before the signing of the armistice.  Here is his entire poem.

 

DULCE ET DECORUM EST by WILFRED OWEN

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.


Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.


If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

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