Chodorov’s rejection of war was motivated largely by the growth of the state that accompanied it and that savaged individual freedom. Chapter 11 of his autobiography, entitled “Isolationism,” summarized his position:
When the enemy is at the city gates, or the illusion that he is coming… the tendency is to turn over to the captain all the powers he deems necessary to keep the enemy away. Liberty is downgraded in favor of protection. But, when the enemy is driven away, the state finds reason enough to hold onto its acquired powers.… It is inherent in the character of the state.
Chodorov stressed war’s devastation of economic liberty as well:
Taxes imposed ostensibly “for the duration” have become permanent, the bureaucracy built up during the war has not been dismantled, and interventions in the economy necessary for the prosecution of war are now held to be necessary for the welfare of the people. Whichever side [of the war] won, the American people were the losers.
The American people were burdened with permanent bureaucracy, more restrictive laws, higher taxation, militarism, and inflation because interventionism’s main goal was to expand the state’s sphere of control. Why did people accept such violations of freedom during peacetime? In large part because the state instilled constant fear of an “enemy” into them.
The Cold War and McCarthyism
Chodorov saw the Cold War for what it was: a continuation of interventionism in a different guise. The Cold War is generally dated from the 1947 Truman Doctrine through to the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine was a foreign policy measure that sought to contain the Soviet Union and communism, which were viewed as quintessential threats to America. Direct military involvement was not its primary strategy. Instead, it provided financial and other assistance to regimes that appeared vulnerable to communism; this led America to support oppressive regimes that were perceived to be anti-communist.
The analysis (Chodorov’s journal) immediately began to attack the Truman Doctrine as “dangerously imperialist” and futile because “communism is already the religion of Europe.” Why? The April 1947 issue explained. American involvement in Europe had nourished communism through war and post-war policies that caused hopelessness and poverty. People were prevented “from producing by destroying the tools of production, by condoning wholesale robbery and the rooting up of populations.” The solution: embrace a laissez-faire attitude toward Europe; that is, leave Europeans alone to reconstruct their markets and their lives.
Chodorov’s main reason for a laissez-faire approach was not benevolence toward Europe, although he certainly felt genuine compassion. His purpose was to spare Americans the domestic impact of interventionism.
There is … an even more vital argument in favor of minding our home affairs. If we go along with this poking into the business of Europe, what will happen to the liberty we have left in America? Already there is a “Red” witchhunt afoot, and experience tells us that … the definition of Red will include every person who raises his voice against the going order. Mass hysteria will conveniently support such a definition.
The “Red Scare” — also known as “McCarthyism,” named after Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin — was a tool of interventionism; it stirred up politically useful fear of “the enemy” and rage toward him. The fear became hysteria in 1949 when the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device, eliminating America’s nuclear monopoly.
McCarthy’s ostensible goal in his Senate investigations in the early 1950s was to expose communist infiltration of the American government and society by which radicals sought to overthrow the system. Suspected communists were generally subpoenaed and asked to turn over the names of other so-called subversives.
A favored tactic of persuasion was to blacklist an uncooperative person, which often led to this person being fired and rendered unemployable. Since most hearings were based on unsubstantiated charges and flaunted due process, the term “McCarthyism” has become a synonym for character assassination and unjust proceedings that damage or destroy its target. The hearings were akin to the show trials for which the Soviet Union was rightfully condemned.
Chodorov viewed the hearings as heresy trials and hypocritical. They were heresy trials because people were being persecuted for their beliefs, not for any harm they had inflicted on the person or property of another. Moreover, the act of punishing beliefs was extraordinarily dangerous on a domestic level. “If men are punished for espousing communism,” he warned, “shall we stop there? Once we deny the right to be wrong we put a vise on the human mind” and turn to “ruthlessness.” On a foreign level, using force against an idea was futile because ideas cannot be killed no matter how many people die or accept bribes.
The trials were hypocritical because the “judge” believed in an all-powerful state; they simply wanted the power to be in the right hands — theirs. The men who sat in judgment never asked those in the hot seat if they advocated state power, Chodorov observed. This was because they too “worship power.” He interpreted the question, “Are you or were you a member of the Communist Party?” to mean “Have you aligned yourself with the Moscow branch of the church?” To the extent federal agencies had a communist problem, Chodorov offered an easy solution. “The only thing to do, if you want to rid the bureaucracy of Communists, is to abolish the bureaucracy.”
After a few years, McCarthyism abruptly halted. A turning point came in 1954 with a nationally televised 36-day hearing on accusations against U.S. Army officers and civilian officials. The American public watched McCarthy’s savage tactics with disgust. When Joseph Nye Welch, special counsel for the army, proclaimed to McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency,
sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” McCarthy lost public support. Unfortunately, at this point, interventionism and bureaucracy were so embedded into the American fabric that McCarthy’s fall from grace did not diminish them.
The Old Right was fading. Under the leadership of William F. Buckley, Jr., editor of the National Review, the New Right was ascending; it embraced a strong foreign policy of intervention. In The Freeman of August 1954, Buckley summed up the schism in conservative ranks through one question, “What are we going to do about the Soviet Union?” On one side were “containment conservatives” and isolationists who detested communism but believed the domestic consequences of a militant foreign policy were prohibitive. Chodorov fit into the later category, although he would have demanded to be labeled “an individualist”; in a 1956 letter to National Review, Chodorov wrote, “I will punch anyone who calls me a conservative in the nose.”
On the other side were “interventionist conservatives” who wanted to launch aggressive action to destroy Soviet power. Buckley correctly predicted the fissure would “ultimately … separate us.” The interventionist conservatives soon dominated and became the New Right.
The later Chodorov
Chodorov sharply differed from conservatives on several issues. He did not share their embrace of big business, for example, because it rushed to compromise with the state in return for privileges that harmed Americans. This not only betrayed true capitalism, it also opened the door to Marxism. Communism would arrive in the United States not on Main Street, he believed, but through Wall Street.
Nevertheless, Chodorov was held in high esteem by the conservative movement. One reason: In 1953, Chodorov founded the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI), with Buckley serving as president. ISI was the first national organization designed for conservative students and campus outreach. ISI listed its core beliefs as limited
government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and Judeo-Christian values. It became very influential and had 50,000 members by the end of the twentieth century. Now it is known as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Another reason Chodorov garnered the respect of conservatives was because he wrote and edited prolifically, often debating prominent members of the New Right. In 1951, Chodorov became the associate editor of the then-isolationist periodical Human Events with which analysis merged. He held this post until June 1954, after which he resumed the editorship of The Freeman for a brief time. Books became his primary focus, however. They included One is a Crowd: Reflections of an Individualist (1952), The Income Tax: Root of All Evil (1954), The Rise and Fall of Society: An Essay on the Economic Forces that Underlie Social Institutions (1959), and Out of Step (1962).
Chodorov died on December 28, 1966, after having a major stroke in 1961 while teaching at Robert LeFevre’s Freedom School. He had lived through America’s watershed period on foreign policy: World War I and II, the Truman Doctrine, and the Red Scare. After this, America abandoned the isolationism that had such deep roots in its history and soul. As Chodorov foresaw, the state swelled in size, and Big Business became its partner in interventionism through the military-industrial complex.
Chodorov’s legacy is best remembered for its many positive effects. Just as he looked to Albert Jay Nock as a role model and for inspiration, generations of libertarians have held Chodorov up as a paragon of intellectual integrity and indefatigable commitment to freedom. In an excerpt from One is a Crowd — entitled Time for Another Revolution — he wrote:
Were the disposition of the current crop of Americans comparable to that of their forbears, a new revolution, to regain the profit of the first one, would be in order. There is far more justification for it now than there was in 1776. But, people do not do what reason dictates; they do what their disposition impels them to do. And the American disposition of the 1950s is flaccidly placid, obsequious and completely without a sense of freedom; it has been molded into that condition by the proceeds of the Sixteenth Amendment [which imposed a Federal income tax]. We are Americans geographically, not in the tradition. In the circumstances, a return to the Constitutional immunities must wait for a miracle.
In a real sense, Chodorov created the miraculous revolution for which he longed. He was the man behind the man who sculpted modern libertarianism in the 1960s. And, true to Chodorov’s gentle nature, his revolution is both peaceful and persistent in its demand for individual liberty.
This article was originally published in the July 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.