Charles Austin Beard: Liberal Foe of American Internationalism

Article excerpt

You need only reflect that one of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the struggle for independence.

Charles Austin Beard [1]

It has been a little over a half century since the death of one of the preeminent historians of the twentieth century, Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948). A professor of history at Columbia, the author of numerous articles, essays, books and histories of the United States (a number of the latter co-written with his wife, Mary), and the recipient of prestigious academic awards, he earned the title of "dean of American historians." [2]

Lionized in his early career by much of the historical establishment, Beard fell out of favor with his fellow liberal and progressive academics because of his opposition to the nation's foreign policy in the years prior to World War II. While other scholars were receptive to pressures and allurements from the powers that be to support another American involvement in a foreign war, Beard remained, for the most part, an unrelenting critic of what he believed was a deliberate and mendacious foreign-policy course, one orchestrated by the Roosevelt Administration to take the country to war. Beard feared tragic consequences for America and the world.

Foreign-policy stance had personal costs.

Such a stance had professional and personal costs for the Indiana native, the effects of which have lingered to the present day, and helps explain why there is little mention of his life, career, or influence some fifty years after his passing. This neglect is undoubtedly due to Beard's later scholarship, which undermines what has become the standard historical interpretation and "truth" regarding America and the Second World War. This orthodoxy has been used by many in the postwar era to justify particular policies in the Western democracies. Beard, among others, questioned whether the United States' entry into the war and the resulting Allied victory over the Axis powers was a wholly necessary, beneficial, and heroic course of events. Those who have challenged the accepted interpretation of those times have been ignored, ostracized, or, worse, denounced as fascist sympathizers. [3]

This essay will discuss the later phase of Charles Beard's remarkable career when he broke with much of the liberal intellectual and political establishment over the country's entry into World War II. The article will examine his proposals for reconstructing American foreign policy and briefly analyze how his views on developments in the nation's economy during the decades prior to the war affected his outlook on foreign affairs.

The Making of a "Revisionist"

A host of factors led Beard to battle for American neutrality in the years leading up to the Second World War. One motive which has not been emphasized sufficiently was his fervent patriotism. Beard had a great love for America. He believed it to be a unique and divinely inspired nation, forged to be a beacon of light, peace, and hope for the rest of the world. George Leighton comments on this aspect of the historian's personality:" ... Beard regarded himself first of all, and seriously, as an Americn citizen. Though to him this meant being a citizen of no mean nation, there was nothing of the bigoted nationalist about him. Citizenship confers upon the holder certain rights, privileges, and responsibilities. Beard's personal history showed that he was aware of the privileges, that he was never slow in asserting the rights, and that he was not dilatory in assuming the responsibilities." [4] Leighton continues his description of this neglecteed feature of Beard's character: "The United States was no geographic al expression to him; it was a going concern in which he had a share, a stake, and damn the man who, for reasons of frivolity, ignorance, irresponsibility, or simply a desire to throw his weight around, jeopardized the Republic's prospects. …