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Free Trade: The Engine of Revolution

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To say that a country so remote and insignificant as Korea is our first line of defense [against communism] is to say that every nation in every part of the world is also our “first line of defense” — a conception which is obviously fantastic and grotesque to the borders of megalomania.

—Louis Bromfield, 1954

Louis Bromfield (1896–1956) may be the most underrated voice of the “Old Right,” especially in connection with its opposition to the Cold War.

The Old Right was a loose coalition of anti-statists and anti-interventionists in the early-to-mid20th century who opposed the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and spoke against American entry into both World War I and World War II as well as against subsequent Cold War policies. As a generalization, and with notable exceptions, the Old Right was a libertarian-leaning branch of the Republican Party, which included the prominent Senator Robert Taft and Representative Howard Buffet. The anti-imperialist and free-market stands of the Old Right were a beacon that drew young activists such as Murray Rothbard.

The journalist and novelist Bromfield was a notable exception to many Old Right generalizations. Historian Joseph Stromberg offered a thumbnail intellectual sketch of the man. He “was a sort of Northern agrarian, a Jeffersonian democrat of the Old Northwest.… As a Jeffersonian agrarian, Bromfield believed free trade to be essential to the development of agriculture across the globe.” Bromfield criticized the New Deal, though he gave a nod to some of its programs, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority. He supported intervention into World War II but turned adamantly antiwar thereafter, lending a powerful voice in opposition to the Cold War. His critiques demonstrated an almost unique insight into the revolutionary fervor that swept much of the post–World War II globe. His analysis seems as fresh today as in the 1950s.

The post-WWII anticommunist hysteria

Bromfield vehemently opposed the anticommunist fever that propelled the American military into postwar Asia. Instituted in 1947 by President Harry Truman, the foreign policy of “containment” inserted a military presence into or near nations that were vulnerable to invasion or influence by stronger communist ones; this was the rationale for the Korean War (1950–1953). Meanwhile, the larger communist nations were targeted by a slate of economic and other sanctions intended to contain them and to cause domestic collapse.

Bromfield’s main nonfiction book was A New Pattern for a Tired World (PDF), which Rothbard called “a hard-hitting tract on behalf of free-market capitalism and a peaceful foreign policy.” In it, Bromfield argued that a policy of containment strengthened communism in both the weak nations America was “protecting” and the strong nations viewed as threats. Why? America’s military presence in weaker nations propped up local tyrants who were willing to cooperate with the U.S. agenda. Meanwhile, the populace at large looked at the American soldier as just the next face in a long history of occupying colonizers. Sanctions against the stronger nations were equally destructive. They imposed little personal hardship on the ruling elite, but they did increase the abject misery of average people.

Containment had four broad and bad consequences. First, it placed tyrants in power over occupied people who then resented the United States for their oppression. Second, it increased the general poverty, helplessness, and fear in the populace; these were conditions from which communism had arisen and upon which it fed. Third, sanctions allowed the ruling elite within the larger communist nations to point a finger of blame at America for hardships and so deflect the blame from themselves.

The fourth bad consequence Bromfield perceived came from his political interpretation of the rebellions sweeping Asia. Perhaps more than any other anti–Cold Warrior, Bromfield viewed the uprisings as basically anticolonial rather than communist. They aimed at throwing off a history of unjust rule and exploitation. They embraced or turned communist because Russia had not oppressed them for centuries, communism promised a better life, and America emulated the old colonial powers.

The negative foreign policy was doomed to fail. Bromfield wrote, “we are in the position of Canute [a Viking king] commanding the waves to stand still, and seem unable to distinguish between Communist conquest and the drive of small nations for independence and freedom from exploitation.” If left to their own devices, the small nations would resist communism as a new “conqueror” or they would bear the generational brunt of accepting it. In either case, it was their nation and their problem.

Free trade is the best containment of communism

What, then, was an effective method for America to battle communism? In writing of communist China, Bromfield maintained the best strategy was “opening up all trade … co-operating with her in the field of know-how and even perhaps capital investment.” These acts promoted the conditions that favored freedom; they created the rising prosperity and beneficial interactions from which goodwill between peoples flowed globally.

Moreover, loosening trade had the advantage of also threatening the status quo of tyranny and communism because it promoted what has been called a “revolution of rising expectations.” The term was popularized during the 1950s to describe a situation in which people’s realistic hope for a better future leads them to demand political change. Thus, Bromfield thought loosening trade was the Third World’s best path away from communism and America’s best defense against it.

Not insignificantly, containment also had the consequence of destroying domestic liberty within the United States. In A New Pattern, Bromfield wrote of containment, “Worst of all perhaps is … that the United States must draft its young men, spend billions on equipment and aid, waste its precious natural resources, set up air-fields and projects, secret or otherwise, everywhere, and occupy half the nations of the earth … in order to defend them and ourselves against the dubious power of a Soviet Russia.”

Why is Bromfield not better remembered?

The reason for Bromfield’s relative obscurity as an anti–Cold Warrior is probably due to a combination of factors.

  • He acquired considerable fame as a prolific short story writer and novelist, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1926 for the novel Early Autumn. Several of his works were converted into movies, and his reputation was linked far more to his fiction than to his political texts.
  • He also acquired great fame as an agrarian and environmentalist who advocated sustainable farming. He established Malabar Farm in Ohio, which became, arguably, the most famous experiment in agriculture in American history. It is now run by the state as Malabar Farm State Park. This, too, may have overshadowed his politics.
  • A New Pattern was published in 1954, at a time when the Old Right had been all but replaced by the New Right, which advocated interventionism; it was epitomized by William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater. According to Rothbard, by the time A New Pattern issued, the book “began to seem anachronistic and had almost no impact on the right wing of the day.”

A New Pattern for a Tired World deserves to take its place as one of the most insightful analyses of foreign policy that has issued from the individualist movement. It recognizes the incredible power of free trade as a foreign policy weapon. That power is the exact opposite of what current wisdom proclaims. Cutting off trade does not punish “the enemy” but strengthens him.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).