Since its founding, The New Republic has been issuing opinions about when and where the United States should go to war. What follows is a survey of some of the positions taken by the magazine’s editors and columnists on a number of military interventions, stretching from World War I through this week’s Leon Wieseltier piece on Syria. (Note: This history is admittedly incomplete, with gaps where archives weren’t available online.)
WORLD WAR I
Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann, founding editors, initially maintained an isolationist stance. But things got a bit wobbly after the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, which occurred six months after the publication of the magazine’s inaugural issue. The Germans, the editors declared, “should clearly understand that even though sacrifices are made to avoid war, the sinking of the Lusitania no less than the sinking of the Maine will be remembered. It is bound to make a grave difference in the subsequent relations between the two countries.”
Still, TNR resisted backing the invasion. Lippmann counseled neutrality, writing “the nation which wishes to count for peace must be prepared if necessary to count against its enemies.”
The magazine changed course in November 1916; per the Encyclopedia of American Journalism, Croly “began to advocate a more interventionist policy that led to the magazine’s eventual support of a Congressional war declaration in April 1917.” (Lippmann later joined the Wilson administration.)
WORLD WAR II
According to Merrill Peterson’s Coming of Age with The New Republic, the magazine’s regret for “riding Wilsonian ideals into Europe’s war in 1917” was the catalyst for its reversion to isolationism during World War II. “This nation has to be ready for allied disaster in Europe,” said the editors, who believed that the country’s attention belonged on the home front.
THE ICELAND OCCUPATION
In May 1940, British troops invaded Reykjavík, shortly after Germany occupied Denmark and blocked communications between Iceland and Denmark. A year later, Britain transferred responsibility to the United States. “The American occupation of Iceland,” proclaimed the editors, is “grand good news.”
In the very early years of the war, TNR published “pro-Diem articles” by Joseph Buttinger, a friend of the South Vietnamese president.
By 1962, the editors were calling on President Kennedy to “act decisively now to regroup non-Communist political forces[.]” The next year, they were concerned about the domino theory, warning that “[n]either the US nor its allies can take a military defeat on the Southeast Asian mainland” because to do so would jeopardize “the major prize in Asia, or perhaps the world: India.”
In 1985, the editors acknowledged that an invasion of Nicaragua was not “morally or politically justifiable.” But, they argued, “that does not relieve us of responsibilities to the democratic resistance movement that has formed in Nicaragua and among Nicaraguan refugees and exiles.”
THE GULF WAR
In 1987, TNR ran an article called “Back Iraq: It’s Time for a U.S. Tilt” by Daniel Pipes and Laurie Mylroie, which argued that the US ought to provide Iraq with weapons. (Mylroie, as Peter Bergen would put it years later, “believes that Saddam was not only behind the ’93 Trade Center attack, but also every anti-American terrorist incident of the past decade, from the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the leveling of the federal building in Oklahoma City to September 11 itself.”)
Four years later, the magazine felt less sanguine about Iraq and ran a cover of Saddam-as-Hitler, mustache included. To buttress support for the Bush-led invasion, TNR published “[a] comprehensive case for the use of force” by Congressman Stephen Solarz (D-NY), who had met with Saddam Hussein twice and did apparently not care for him.
In 1994, TNR seemed ambivalent about the incursion into Haiti. “The best way to keep casualties to a minimum would have been to stay home in Fort Drum,” they allowed. However, “now that we’re in, we can’t leave without something more tangible to show for our efforts than a “safe and secure environment,” or even a zero American body count.”
Back in 2001, when the US first began bombing Afghanistan “with the morally spectacular assistance of Great Britain,” the editors felt it was “important for Americans to understand that, if these indeed are the war plans of the American government, Operation Enduring Freedom represents a great correction in the contemporary American understanding of warfare.”
“So enough about the pluralistic future of the Hindu Kush,” they wrote a week later. “We are destroying one of the world’s most primitive and tyrannical regimes, but we have perfectly just reasons of our own for doing so. This time we are not making the world safe for democracy, we are making the world safe for Americans.”
Shortly thereafter, the editors complained that “[t]here is something exceedingly strange about America’s war in Afghanistan. It appears to be a war that involves little in the way of real American combat.”
THE SECOND GULF WAR
Even before it was cool, TNR was prepped for an invasion of Iraq. Less than two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, while downtown Manhattan was still a smoking crater, the magazine ran a story by former CIA director R. James Woolsey. He advised: “Intelligence and law enforcement officials investigating the [attacks] would do well to at least consider another possibility: that the attacks … were sponsored, supported, and perhaps even ordered by Saddam Hussein.”
But a year later, the editors groused about “the Bush administration’s unconvincing arguments about an Iraq-Al Qaeda tie”, noting sorrowfully that such allegations “only convince skeptics that this White House will offer any rationale for war.”
The week before, the magazine had mocked a speech given by Al Gore in opposition to the forthcoming war. The editors said “it sounded like a political broadside against a president who Gore no doubt feels occupies a post that he himself deserves. But bitterness is not a policy position.” So there!
How eager were the editors for engagement in Libya in March 20011? Here’s the headline the day after the US began military operations: “In Libya, Obama Finally Did the Right Thing.”
A few months later, in June 2011, the magazine turned its attention to Sudan. To force the government there to stop killing its citizens, the editors suggested “arming the South Sudan government with surface-to-air missiles … or leaning on China, a close ally of Sudanese leader Omar Bashir, to use its influence to stop the violence[.]”
Last August, the editors acknowledged that with Syria, unlike Libya, “a military intervention is not possible[.]” However, Obama and Secretary Clinton, they said, “should be relentless in speaking out on behalf of the protesters. And they should not send mixed signals about whether we think Assad should stay in power.”
But by February, the editors were now saying it was “time to act.” “Should the United States act on these options? It is not an easy question, but we think that the case for doing so is starting to look stronger than the case against.” Although “[t]o be clear, we do not want to see troops deployed to Syria.”
Their recommendation instead? “[T]hat the United States and its allies look for ways to help the rebels hold off Assad’s troops, by arming them or using some degree of airpower on their behalf, or both.”
In this week’s Washington Diarist column, Leon Wieseltier revealed, in addition to a strong antipathy to Rachel Maddow: “Trashing force may win you a lot of friends, but it is stupid. There is nothing ‘artificial’ about the primacy of defense because there is nothing artificial about threats and conflicts and atrocities. The American political system’s ‘disinclination’ to war must not be promoted into a disinclination to history. We are not the country we were in the eighteenth century, as every liberal insists about every other dimension of American policy. Anyway, this is what President Jefferson said in 1806: ‘Our duty is, therefore, to act upon things as they are, and to make a reasonable provision for whatever they may be.’”
And in the history of The New Republic the reasonable provision seems to almost always be: military might.