Samuel E. Konkin 3rd
A Libertarian 2nd
Michele Flynn Stenehjem, AN AMERICAN FIRST: JOHN T. FLYNN AND THE AMERICA FIRST COMMITTEE (Arlington House, New Rochelle, NY, $8.95)
John T. Flynn was one of us.
I expect three reactions to that evaluation. First, there will be the conservative “libertarians” and Birchers who will wonder why that could be considered a contentious statement. After all, did not Flynn fight the Red Conspiracy for his last 20 years, expose “That Man In the White House,” and support all sorts of rightist and McCarthyite groups in the fifties? To the radical libertarian, hardly a recommendation.
Second, a very few radical libertarians, knowing of Flynn’s support for political candidates and of his self-silencing on the War question after Pearl Harbor in the interest of “national unity” will raise up their hands in horror at the embracing of this non-“purist.”
Third, and by far the largest reaction I expect, is “Who?”
From 1939 to 1941, the single, overriding issue for everyone in the U.S.A. was World War 2. Should the U.S. enter?
The side it should enter on was never in question, since Germany, Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania were “fascist”—and hence reprehensible. But fascist Poland was to be valued (though not democratic Finland). And half-fascist France, Conservative-Socialist Britain, monarchist North Africa, Yugoslavia and Greece, and various other bastions of “liberal democracy” evoked the sympathy of the American liberal press—and saving the British empire.
Nonetheless, the “Great Debate”—as the War question battle was often called—cut across the Spectrum. Covert fascists seeing Franklin Roosevelt as the American Duce supported interventionism. Pro-German Nazis opposed entry simply because it was on the “wrong” side. Many conservatives, especially Southerners, were bellicose and jingoist; others from the North and West were isolationist. The big press, TIMES on both coast, TIME, PM and LIFE were pro-war; but Hearst, McCormack and Patterson opposed entry.
While New Deal “progressives” were all for King Franklin’s Crusade, the old progressives, such as Sen. Burton Wheeler, Philip LaFollette, and the “other” Roosevelts, were solidly opposed. The Communist Party U.S.A. opposed entry—until June 1941. Then it disseminated the most blistering smears imaginable against its former anti-war allies and called for Congressional witch-hunts against the “uh-American“ anti-war movement.
What of libertarians? Hell, James J. Martin was unheard of at the time, but anti-war, and Murray Rothbard had yet to discover anarchy, and was an interventionist. Chodorov, Mencken and Nock were isolationist, of course.
And then there were the liberals. “Liberal” in U.S. parlance includes Social Democrats, but Norman Thomas, later used by the CIA in the Dominican Republic, and perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate, worked as an all-but-in-name member of Flynn’s New York Chapter of the America First Committee (NYC-AFC). Thomas was, in fact, involved in Flynn’s more liberal front, Keep America Out of War Congress. Another covert supporter of NYC-AFC was Chester Bowles, considered a liberal archetype by many conservatives in the 1960s. Bowles remained in the closet most of the time because of fear of business loss (he was in the sensitive advertising industry)—but so did many conservatives, such as the brothers Richardson of Vick Chemical.
The heroism of Flynn, Oswald Garrison Villard, Charles A. Beard and classical liberals of that ilk has been well-presented by New Left revisionist Ronald Radosh in his PROPHETS ON THE RIGHT (see review in NEW LIBERTARIAN WEEKLY # 1, 11/30/75). The only new things Ms. Stenehjem has to offer concerning her father’s purge from liberal media and blacklisting by Roosevelt was to add the problems he faced from the infiltrating Coughlinites, Bundists, Christian Frontists, and even pro-administration provacateurs.
[FIXME: link to NLW?]
Concerning the book at hand, Ms. Stenehjem is neither hard-core nor a great writer. But her Subject matter is Fascinating and carries the book. More than anything else, AN AMERICAN FIRST is the story of an incredible series of mistakes, martyrs, mobilizations and mixed premises. And finally, of defeat when Roosevelt finally goaded the Japanese into their fatalistic attack on Pearl Harbor.
Most of the mistakes of the AFC can be attributed to their mixed premises. Not just the problems of a wide “pop front” constricted strategy, but far more important, AFC limited itself to direct pressure on Congressmen, and then to propaganda to the constituents of marginal legislators to pressure their Representatives. NYC-AFC was thankfully saved from direct entry into electoral activity by its dissolution in December 1941. AFC worked above all to be respectable, and eschewed civil disobediance, sabotage, and active and passive resistance.
The anti-Viet Nam War “isolationists” used all of the above, appealing directly to the masses—and won the critical point. And where the Student Mobilization Committee and peace groups welcomed Commies, Trots, and Maoists. Flynn shunned association with Nazis and anti-Semites.
Only Charles Lindbergh was unafraid to say what was common knowledge in 1941: that Jewish organizations and Jewish-owned media were acting, out of a mistaken ethnic solidarity and from an unmistaken fear of threats to themselves, as hard-core warmongers. And although Lindbergh and Flynn hastened to point out that some Jews recognized that the fascist threat came from the New Deal and not the Third Reich, the pseudo-liberals pilloried Lindbergh for intolerance and spattered the AFC with guilt-by-association.
Now to answer why the three reactions to my embracing of Flynn are wrong. Flynn was a liberal in the 1930s—but a “classical” one. In fact, he came close to being a “radical minarchist”—like many of the modern limited government libertarians who have embraced the anarchist’s radical analysis of American society while clinging to the “minimal state” out of philosophical con- fusion.
Flynn was not only pro-free market, his only serious Statist deviation in the 1930s, while writing “Other People’s Money.” a column for the NEW REPUBLIC, was support of anti-trust. Rightly he feared the corporate statists Morgan, Rockefeller. et al; wrongly, he thought the limited state could and should deal with them. The war issue finally taught him that the enemy was Washington, and no succor could be gained from that quarter against the “triumph of conservatism“ of the Wall Street “progressives.” Thus, almost coincidentally and certainly fortuitously, from Dec. 1940 to Dec. 1941, when organizer of the NYC-AFC, Flynn held an incredibly pure libertarian position, far more so than any other figure in America First.
And he was hard-core, cheering up the flagging spirits, resolving to push ahead during the Lend-Lease and convoy defeats, keeping the faithful pleased, the group pure, and writing tirelessly to match the pro-War media blitz article for article.
No, it didn’t end well. Flynn dissolved the Committee when the bombs hit Pearl, and refused to allow others to carry it on against a “united war effort,” though he and Thomas did attempt to defend civil liberties during the War-repression. He found only that the New Deal democratic fascists had no use for “unity” on any terms but surrender, and he could never sell his writings again outside the rightist press: AMERICAN MERCURY, Devin-Adair books, HUMAN EVENTS, a few innocuous pieces for READER’S DIGEST. Roosevelt wanted unconditional surrender—from the Axis and from his domestic opponents. If nothing else, Flynn’s martyrdom is a valuable lesson to the modern isolationist, radical libertarian that there is no relief from the struggle against the State, that the price for selling out will never cover the costs.
For John T. Flynn fought the only good fight available in the bleak, unlibertarlan 1940s. And then, at least, he was one of us.