The National Interest - The intellectual—and lightning rod—of the isolationists

Charles A. Beard (1874–1948) was no stranger to controversy. His iconoclastic 1913 Economic Interpretation of the Constitution cast doubt on the disinterest of the Founders, and during World War I he quit Columbia University in protest over the firing of a colleague. In the 1920s, he carved a niche as a critic on the left of the policies of the Republican administrations. Franklin Roosevelt initially mollified him somewhat, but Beard was always more comfortable in opposition than in agreement, and he soon discovered grounds for criticizing the Democratic president. In The Idea of National Interest and elsewhere, Beard attacked Roosevelt for building more ships and otherwise laying the basis for intervention in Europe and Asia. To Beard, foreign intervention was something that benefited not the American people generally but only the rich and well-connected—the same groups he criticized in Economic Interpretation.

Beard's writings abetted the isolationism of the 1930s, yet where much isolationist thinking was more emotional than rational, Beard offered a carefully reasoned theory of nonintervention, based on a challenge to received wisdom regarding foreign markets. Beard acknowledged that nonintervention would require abandoning some foreign markets, and he conceded this would have a negative direct effect on American incomes. But he countered that much, perhaps all, of this loss would be recouped in savings on weapons not required and wars not fought. And even if it were not recouped, there was more to life, and to the national interest, than money. "National interest involves stability and standard of life deliberately adjusted to each other in a long time perspective," he explained.

Beard applauded the neutrality laws but did not think they would hold. "We're blundering into war," he predicted in 1938. When war did come, Beard suspended his attacks on Roosevelt, but he rejected the administration's high rhetoric and its enthusiasm regarding America's partners. "I refuse to take the world-saving business at face value and think that Churchill and Stalin are less concerned with world saving than with saving the British empire and building a new and bigger Russian empire."

For his forthrightness, Beard fell under intellectual obloquy. Erstwhile allies criticized him for failing to condemn Hitler and the Japanese with sufficient vigor. But he did not waver. "History to come will pass judgment on them and me," he said.

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