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Defending America First

By Milton Batiste

Defend America First is a collection of antiwar editorials written by Garet Garrett in the years 1939-1942 and put together by Seattle Times editorial writer Bruce Ramsey. "The editorials preserved here can be read as arguments about America's future," writes Ramsey in his introduction to the book. "Unlike most antiwar arguments today, they are from the political right. They are common to two closely related schools of thought, the paleoconservatives and the libertarians."

Employing the labels now in use, we might say that Garrett was not a libertarian himself, but perhaps a paleoconservative. Still, Ramsey thinks that libertarians will find much to savor in Garrett, the defender of "exuberant self-reliance and bottled-up government." Indeed. But Garrett was first and foremost an American nationalist. There was, in Ramsey's words, a "strain of Hamilton in him." Garrett was for a strong central bank and for tariff protection of home industry. He was also in favor of the draft and libertarian writer Rose Wilder Lane chastised him for it.

Edward Peter Garrett was raised on a farm in Iowa, attending school through the third grade. After that he learned from reading books. He left home by jumping a train to Chicago. When he became a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., he changed his name to Garet Garrett. In 1922 he began his association with the leading magazine of middle-class America, the Saturday Evening Post. Later, Garrett became the magazine's chief editorial writer. Eventually, after twenty years, he was turned out of the Saturday Evening Post in a general purge of America Firsters. In a note to Herbert Hoover on that occasion, Garrett wrote, "You are perhaps aware that the Satevepost has lifted up her garments to the New Deal."

In Garrett's opinion, the New Deal and Roosevelt's warmongering were two sides of the same coin. "The most ominous event in the history of the American Government has been the sudden rise in the power and authority of the executive will," Garrett wrote in October, 1940. "It does not begin now in the emergency of national defense. It began in the economic emergency." President Roosevelt's battle against the Depression was not going well and the prospect of war brought a second chance for greatness. As Garrett noted in April, 1939: "The New Deal was going badly. That was in October, 1937. Suddenly, out of the blue, in a speech at Chicago, the President proposed that we should have to quarantine the aggressor nations of the world." This was the key to much that happened in the following years.

In 1940-41 the question was whether America should fight for Britain. Garrett's answer was no. America was not ready to pick a fight. Garrett had warned his readers that the president was neglecting America's natural defenses: "The first of these, more important in many ways than armament, is to keep our industrial machine at high key and in full production. This we have failed to do. Our machine is running down. And our second most important natural defense is to mind our own business." Garrett's vision for America was not pacifist. He declared, "We do not shrink from war. That is not our history. Only let it be our war, not a foreign war."

The anti-interventionists were accused of many things. President Roosevelt called them "defeatists". Garet Garrett offered a different definition of that term: "They are defeatists who have doubted the power of America to stand alone in its own hemisphere, to defend itself against any agrressor or combination of aggressors, to make its own world impregnable."

Garet Garrett left the Saturday Evening Post on March 12, 1942. "His views," notes Bruce Ramsey, "were not wanted." Garrett had made it clear that if America marched off to war, he would fight on the side of his country. But the former editorial writer was sixty-four at the time. He could not join the armed forces. Instead, the man of letters went to work for a local shipyard, building Army freight boats. He even brought his own tools.

It was a silly thing to do, of course. The shipyard job proved to be to tough for an elderly gentleman. Garrett went back to writing, but there seemed to be little or no room for his views in newspapers or magazines. In search of an alternative outlet for his ideas, he turned to book projects.

In 1944 Garrett found a publisher in Idaho - The Caxton Press - for a 1938 essay that analyzed the New Deal as a coup d'etat: The Revolution Was. It is fitting that Defend America First is also published by Caxton Press, one of the oldest independent publishing houses west of the Mississippi. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Caxton published Herbert Spencers Man Versus the State, Isabel Patersons God of the Machine, as well as the collected letters of Rose Wilder Lane and Albert Jay Nock. Todays owner, Scott Gipson, has revived the company as a publisher in the Old Right tradition. Caxton political titles in print include Ayn Rand's Anthem, William Graham Sumner's  What Social Classes Owe Each Other , and Garet Garrett's Salvos Against the New Deal.

 

April 16, 2003

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