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Gabriel Kolko Revisited, Part 2: Kolko Abroad


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Gabriel Kolko’s historical writing hinges on the interrelations of economic, political, and ideological power in American history. His later work increasingly focused on those phenomena in relation to war, peace, and empire. As his project went forward, Kolko increasingly departed from that Marxist framework in which state power becomes so utterly subordinate as to be historically negligible. The result has been a more realistic, but no less radical, critique.

In The Roots of American Foreign Policy (1969, especially chapters 7 and 8), Kolko connected the domestic and foreign aspects of American political capitalism in terms of class, state and private institutions, economic goals, and supporting ideology. We find here very useful reflections on the forces and ideas underlying “vaunting and fear” and “perpetual war for perpetual peace” (timeworn Old Right phrases) as inevitable companions of American foreign activities. (We can only sample some key points here.)

Class. With similar class origins and the same education, the “very top foreign policy decision-makers were … intimately connected with dominant business circles in their law firms.” The result has been a “dual relationship — one which uses the political structure to advance the domestic and global economic interests of American [political] capitalists,” one that “has characterized Washington leaders for the better part of this century.”

Ends and means. U.S. policymakers use the dependence of raw-material-producing nations as leverage for gaining access to their markets and resources. Strangely enough, for all the American rhetoric about free enterprise, America “is the world’s leading state trader, even though it has consistently attacked this principle when other industrial nations used it to advance their own neocolonial export positions.”

Ideology. Having described the U.S. political economy elsewhere (see part 1 in last month’s issue), Kolko notes that “neo-Hamiltonian” ideas serve as “a justification for the political capitalism that was the most critical outcome of American liberal reform” in its domestic and overseas dimensions. Interestingly, the relatively nonideological American military had failed (as of 1969) to rally around this Hamiltonian ideology of “the positive and predatory state.” The career of Robert McNamara as a corporate-liberal, technocratic secretary of defense “showed how fully the Military Establishment was merely the instrument of warfare liberalism in the Fair Deal-Great Society period.”

World War II

American Non-Diplomacy, 1943– 1945. Kolko’s Politics of War (1968) set out many broad themes that would dominate his later work. U.S. policymakers in 1943–45 found themselves faced with three overriding issues: (1) the global, revolutionary Left; (2) the Soviet Union as a great power and suspected source of all revolutions; and (3) Britain as enemy and rival, mainly because of its sterling bloc and imperial trade preference.

In important respects the real drama began in Italy, where Anglo-American occupation policies set precedents for later occupations: precedents the Soviet Union might exploit as its headlong pursuit of retreating German armies left Soviet forces in possession of Eastern Europe. To keep Italy away from the sterling bloc, Americans elbowed Britain aside, but U.S. and British forces jointly suppressed Italian political activity, disarmed the Resistance, and kept fascist administrators in place, as needed. Britain was promoting France — soon to be liberated — as a phony Great Power subordinate to a projected, British-dominated Western European economic bloc.

Ironically, the French Communist Party, feared by all, had become a patriotic, nationalist bulwark of order. Kolko reasons that if the Soviets (as reputed) controlled the French CP, then Soviet intentions were quite moderate. In Belgium the British repressed the Left. Here was another precedent for the rule cujus regio, ejus economia — whose region, his economy (my phrase). Anglo-American rivalry and their shared suspicion of Soviet intentions affected policies toward every nation about to be occupied by any of the three powers.

Despite Western expectations, the Soviets followed a pragmatic, country-by-country strategy as their armies came westward. In contrast, Kolko writes, “By the end of 1944 both the United States and Great Britain had intervened in the internal affairs of every major Western European nation in order to contain the Left and proscribe each other’s influence, systematically restricting Soviet influence as much as possible while Russia fought the European land war in the theater of central importance.” Underneath mounds of verbiage, then, a de facto division of Europe was in the cards from mid-1943, well before anyone ever yelled “Cold War!” The Soviets, willing enough “to leave the Greeks and Yugoslavs to their own fate,” could not afford such luxuries in Poland or Romania.

As of 1944, American strategic planning was shifting from the German to the Soviet menace, but policymakers postponed almost all diplomatic issues, biding their time until U.S. predominance could settle them in America’s favor. American peace plans, from 1941 forward, consisted of: (1) economic goals “inherited almost completely from the world view of Woodrow Wilson”; and (2) improvisation to meet crises and enforce those goals. Goals were “highly explicit in the economic field,” and American reconstruction of the world economy was “by far the most extensively discussed peace aim.”

Open doors and raw materials. Throughout Politics of War Kolko stresses the centrality of Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s conception of free trade as American officials’ chief war aim, aside from bare victory. This “free trade” was of course the famous Open Door policy, which was considered to be a global panacea, and which entailed a very large role for American state power as its motor of progress. As Kolko puts it,

For an international free trade doctrine, the Hullian program, which in principle received the approbation of most business organizations and firms interested in the subject, seemed to rely much more strongly on the Federal government’s active and continuous intervention than Adam Smith’s invisible hand, but nearly a century of pragmatic business-government relations had determined the precedent.

As I noted in part 1, Kolko adds American planners’ felt need for access to overseas resources and key raw materials to the William Appleman Williams school’s emphasis on the Open Door policy for American exports of goods and capital. This broadening of the applied Open Door reflected American policymakers’ own internal expansion of their operational ideology. A “right” to raw-materials access is a perfect counterpart to a “right” to overseas markets, and from at least May 1944, U.S. policymakers treated American access to raw materials as a self-evident implication “of the Open Door, which originally only meant equality with the most-favored foreign nation rather than [with a target country’s] domestic interests.”

The Open Door (or equal opportunity everywhere) for American corporate business was the key to U.S. world policy and something to which the United States would readily sacrifice its professed interest in overseas democracy. If American economic goals had been met, Kolko speculates, the United States could easily have tolerated total Soviet control of Eastern Europe, with that region back in its old, semicolonial economic role and the Russians as middlemen. “Rhetoric aside, expedient references to the Open Door … functionally meant American economic predominance, often monopoly control, over many of the critical raw materials on which modern industrial power is based.” There was little that was truly new in the full use of state power to shape this “free market.” With intermediaries like the Saudi oligarchs and the Iranian state on the payroll, America “saw underdeveloped areas primarily as a problem of raw-materials supplies, and that misery and stagnation would be the basis of such an American-led world was of no consequence in American planning for peace.”

Conduct of the war. Britain and the United States had long planned what became the terror bombing of World War II. In the Far East the Americans hoped to use both Russia and the atom bomb against Japan. In Kolko’s view (Politics of War), “The war had so brutalized the American leaders that burning vast numbers of civilians no longer posed a real predicament by the spring of 1945.” In the end, a “mechanistic attitude” prevailed. For U.S. leaders there was never any moral dilemma about using the new gadget. Elsewhere Kolko writes that, whatever the other side’s systematic inhumanity, “the Allies consistently transgressed traditional legal and ethical standards concerning civilians and war crimes,” and in Korea (1950–1952) the United States departed even farther from those rules.

Global planning and open doors. The United Nations grew up in the shadow of “the reality that America’s brand of internationalism was truly a plan for its own hegemony in the postwar world” (Main Currents of American History). U.S. plans for world monetary reform entailed accelerated trade and turnover, and massive overseas (private and state) lending as a floor under U.S. exports. American policymakers fielded their choicest “anticolonial” rhetoric as leverage in the quest for raw materials. Expected American control over the UN would make colonial economic resources available to all mankind, but mostly to American corporations. More practically, Washington used the leverage supplied by Lend-Lease and other means to open up the British trade bloc and to deprive Britain of its export markets in Latin America and, in time, its Middle Eastern and Iranian oil fields.

Anatomy of a War

The outcome of all this American effort was the classic Cold War system that “contained” defeated enemies (Germany and Japan) and certain victors (Russia and Britain) under the guise of containing communism. This broad story continues in Kolko’s Limits of Power, coauthored with his wife, Joyce Kolko (1972), but here we shall rush ahead into Vietnam, as treated in Kolko’s Anatomy of a War (1994 [1985]). In great detail Kolko sketches out the “vast orgy of violence [that] was the product … of the capital intensive premises of U.S. reliance on firepower. Officers fought the only war possible and the Vietnamese people paid a monumental price not because of individual caprices but because the United State’s entire military system performed exactly as it was intended to” (emphasis added).

Kolko thoroughly discusses the ideology and practice of “the Revolution” (the party in Hanoi and allied forces in South Vietnam) and tensions between them. In North and South alike, those resisting the Saigon government and American forces showed remarkable adaptability in military and economic affairs that belied the top-down Leninist party model.

War, economy, and state

Kolko’s Century of War (1994) is a broad study of the impact of modern wars on society and politics. One important conclusion Kolko draws is that “it was not the wisdom of Leninist revolutionaries, much less the glacially paced manifestation of Marxist axioms regarding the economy, but rather the folly of old orders that was the origin of the Left’s greatest political and ideological successes in the twentieth century.” Twentieth-century wars were the clearest expression of this universal ruling-class folly. (As for the war-bred Left, Soviet pragmatic conservatism and the power lust of left-wing leaders in various countries aborted its radical social and nationalist goals.)

World War I was a technology-driven train wreck that irreparably scarred European civilization and marginalized officer classes everywhere, sidelining their feudal-heroic values and replacing them with technocrats allied with heavy industry. If “stupidity in high places has been the bane of modern history,” Americans leaders — ever surprised, idiotically optimistic — earn special mention.

War, capital, and the state

Kolko’s tour of mankind’s bellicose folly leads him to conclude that conservative, Weberian, and Marxist theories of bureaucracy “gravely distort much of mankind’s past experiences” and leave researchers unable “to fathom the consummately self-destructive irresponsibility of leaders playing with the lives of their subjects and gambling on the very future of their social and political orders.” He sees some kind of radical, humanist exit as needed, but gives only hints in the works surveyed here. Kolko’s historical thought might seem to rest on methodological cynicism and justified anger. It is perhaps better to see it as the product of stark realism and considerable intellectual courage.

This article was originally published in the October 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Joseph R. Stromberg is an independent historian and writer who was born in Fort Myers, Florida. He received his B.A. and M.A. from Florida Atlantic University and his further graduate work was completed at the University of Florida. Mr. Stromberg was a Richard M. Weaver Fellow from 1970-1971. His work has appeared in the Individualist, Libertarian Forum, Journal of Libertarian Studies, The Freeman, Chronicles, Independent Review, Freedom Daily as well as in several books of essays.