Against the New Deal: Selections from the
Evening Post 1933–1940

by Garet Garrett. Edited by Bruce Ramsey.
Caxton Press (Caldwell, Idaho), 282 pp., $12.95 paper,

America First: The Antiwar Editorials
of the
Saturday Evening Post, 1939–1942

by Garet Garrett. Edited by Bruce Ramsey.
Caxton Press (Caldwell, Idaho), 285 pp., $12.95 paper,

book cover imageAlong
with figures such as Albert Jay Nock, Irving Babbitt, and
the Southern Agrarians, Garet Garrett (1878–1954) is
a member of what is known as the pre-War Right. These editors,
critics, and essayists, now largely forgotten, inhabited
an America so different in its concerns, interests, and values
from the one in which we live today as to be almost incomprehensible.
Their America, for all its obvious faults, still consciously
placed itself within the political traditions of its Founding
and the larger Christian heritage of the West, which stressed
the importance of traditional values, limited government,
and a suspicion of power, especially power asserted without
legal boundaries for supposed common goods.

In contrast, as the supposed beneficiaries of the New Deal,
the Great Society, the New Frontier, and countless other
government programs over the last half-century, notions of
self-government have almost disappeared from national discourse.
We have come to rely on government (especially the federal
government) assistance almost reflexively. Any truly contentious
issue is passed on to what Russell Kirk called the “archonocracy,” in
particular the Supreme Court, for authoritative rulings.
And as the recent Lawrence decision shows, laws
based on traditional morals are considered immediately suspect
by the elites. Even purportedly conservative politicians
now praise “democracy” rather than the republic
writers like Garrett defended. Given these massive changes,
Garrett seems like he comes from another planet. Is there
even a reason any longer to care about what such antediluvian
figures have to say?

This new two-volume collection of Garrett’s essays
and editorials offers an affirmative answer to that question.
For the questions that concerned him are those that should
be at the center of any organized political society. How
do we guarantee freedom? What is the place of government
power in preserving liberty? When should a nation go to war,
and for what cause? As Bruce Ramsay explains in his introduction,
Garrett was a libertarian at home but a nationalist abroad;
that is, he did not see any objection to tariffs on foreign
trade or other protective measures in light of the enormous
internal market for goods and services, which he felt should
be kept as free as possible from government interference.
This would have the added benefit of preventing American
reliance on other countries for essential goods. He therefore
did not accept the rhetoric of what we now would call the “global
marketplace” in pursuing American interests.

Born in a small Illinois town, Edward Peter Garrett (he
did not change his name to Garet until his early twenties;
curiously, at least to me, Ramsay does not explain the reason
for the change) lived much of his early life on a farm in
Iowa. He experienced first hand as a boy the depression of
the 1890s. By 1932, after some years moving around, he had
been a newspaper manager and for the last decade the lead
economics writer for the influential Saturday Evening
. He was the author of several books, the most famous
of which are perhaps his novel The Blue Wound (1921)
and his collection, The People’s Pottage (1953).
He watched the deepening economic crisis of the 1930s with
dismay, but not (at first) with excessive alarm. It was not
as bad, after all, as the depression he had lived through
in his youth. Eventually, however, Garrett realized that
the nation had reached a political turning point.

It is difficult now even to remember the looming political
and economic crises of the early 1930s. In 1932, the aristocratic
former New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt had swept
into power promising in his inaugural address to ask Congress
for “broad Executive power to wage a war against the
emergency, as great as the power that would be given me if
we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” In 1933,
Congress granted him those extraordinary powers, and the
fateful analogy between social policy and warfare had begun.
One by one, Garrett attacked each piece of FDR’s proposed
solution: the National Recovery Administration and its collectivist “blue
eagle,” the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the devaluation
of the currency, Lend Lease, and almost ever other Roosevelt
initiative. He saw in them not the “simple intention” of
solving the crisis, but a “complex intention, not restoration,
not prosperity as it had been before, but a complete new
order, scientifically planned and managed, the individual
profit motive tamed by government wisdom, human happiness
ascendant on a plotted curve.” In these “emergency
measures” Garrett anticipated the rise of government
by experts and the welfare state. These actions also produced
a sea-change in the way people thought of their government:
they came to accept the loosening of any restrictions on
its unilateral action, as Garrett argues in a brilliant essay
included here on the elimination of the gold standard, “A
Particular Kind of Money.”

The example of FDR presents a challenge to conservative
principles: It cannot be denied, for example, that it was
due largely to American arms that a great evil was stopped.
The United States was correct to be allied with the free
traditions of the West against the Nazi horrors. In retrospect,
it seems, the arguments of the prewar isolationists were
misplaced. And, of course, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
threw most criticisms of the country’s drift toward
war into irrelevancy. Some have interpreted these facts to
mean that the actions Roosevelt took prior to entry into
the Second World War were justified because the outcome was
successful and the cause was just. But this variant of the post
hoc, ergo propter hoc
logical fallacy should not distract
us from legitimate criticisms of the Roosevelt administrations.

Garrett denounced the actions Roosevelt took in 1940 that
moved the United States away from neutrality to quietly siding
with the Allies. Although Garrett thought the country should
stay out of the conflict entirely, he in particular condemned
the President’s duplicity in failing to acknowledge
to the American people that the country had in fact taken
sides. In an editorial dated October 19, 1940, Garrett criticized
Roosevelt’s pledge to take “measures short of
war” to protect America, even as he was quietly allowing
the sale of armaments to France and Britain:

It is notorious, nevertheless, that the American government
is not neutral. The people are bound by the Neutrality Law,
but the Government itself has systematically violated it
by acts of intervention hat were, in fact, acts of war. Then
why has the law not been repealed? Because, from the point
of view of the executive will, that was not expedient. The
executive will was resolved to intervene. The people were
not. The people believed what the Government said, that was
keeping them out of war by measures short of war, and when
measures short of war had led to acts of war they could sooner
be persuaded to condone a policy of subterfuge and degradation
of law than to accept all at once the status of belligerency.

In that paragraph lay a critique not only of Roosevelt’s
actions, but for many foreign policy actions in the subsequent
six decades. Garrett’s opposition to such secretive
policies was based in a belief in honest government and the
protection of freedom. If the country were to go to war,
so be it; but it must know why it is doing so, and how it
arrived at the decision. Indeed, once the country had entered
the war, Garrett resigned from his position at the Post and
volunteered (at age 64) for service. He was no pacifist,
but he did have a clear eye for the threat war presented
to freedom.

For contemporary conservatives, Garrett cannot be easily
categorized. His distaste for international efforts would
not sit well with today’s conservative establishment,
but he is not a traditionalist either. As Ramsay notes, Garrett “honored
the strong,” a libertarian position that does not accord
with the strong communitarian strains in American life. One
need not embrace the welfare state to believe that unbridled
capitalism is not a recipe for freedom. As he wrote in an
essay on the Seattle labor leader Henry Beck, one man can
have the force of government. Garrett’s libertarian
beliefs caused him to side with the Henry Fords of the world
rather than the Becks, but either could be a threat to freedom
through manipulation of the economic or political process.

In the Western tradition, freedom has objects that transcend
merely unlimited freedom, and the project of civilization
is to help individuals realize those objects. This element
of the Western tradition is largely absent from these selections,
so we do not know how Garrett’s views of the economic
crisis fit within his larger understanding of freedom. To
be fair, Garrett was a newspaperman, and these essays by
their nature are devoted to the pressing practical issues
of his day. Ramsay’s introduction and notes, while
helpful, nevertheless leave some remaining gaps. For example,
it would have been helpful to flesh out further the distinction
between free trade nationally and national interest internationally,
which places Garrett as an intellectual ancestor to figures
such as Patrick J. Buchanan and Gore Vidal. Nevertheless,
these two volumes fill an important gap in conservative writing.

Gerald J. Russello is
the editor of the University Bookman and lives in Brooklyn.