Do you believe that economic sanctions are necessary to prevent the Iranian government from obtaining nuclear weapons? That small, Eastern European democracies living in the shadow of an aggressive Russia ought have the choice to join a defensive military alliance? That democracy promotion and the protection of human rights should be at the forefront of American foreign policy?
If so, you have probably been called a “warmonger.” It’s a favorite of the isolationist alt-right and the burgeoning, equally isolationist “dirtbag left.” Of course, the traditional left doesn’t shy away from it, either. “The rest of the world, almost unanimously, looks at America as the No. 1 warmonger,” says Jimmy Carter, who also has used the epithet to describe Sen. John McCain, a man who knows the costs of war better than most.
As a term of political abuse, “warmonger” is frequently deployed to assail individuals recommending measures far short of war, like the aforementioned Iran sanctions, NATO enlargement or human rights promotion. “Warmonger” belongs to the idiom of political propaganda, and like all propaganda, its purpose is not to clarify but to condemn — which is key to understanding its ignoble 20th century pedigree as a pejorative favored by fascists and communists, sometimes speaking in harmony.
In the years before American entry into World War II, isolationists frequently hurled the “warmonger” charge at President Franklin Delano Roosevelt over his support for arming Great Britain against the growing Nazi threat. FDR, according to the notorious Father Charles Coughlin, was “the world’s chief warmonger” and “the warmonger hireling of the Jews.”
Whether they knew it or not, Roosevelt’s critics were echoing Nazi propaganda. “Roosevelt main tool of Jewish Freemasonry; Sensational Document Reveals Connection of the Warmonger with the International Clique,” declared the Völkische Beobachter, the official newspaper of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, in the summer of 1941. That same year, in what was dubbed “The Warmonger Hearings,” a bipartisan group of isolationist senators launched an investigation into Hollywood’s alleged pro-war messaging, a foretaste of the House Un-American Activities Committee that would target communist influence a decade later.
For the two years that Nazi Germany was allied with the Soviet Union, American communists joined right-wing isolationists in denouncing Roosevelt as a “warmonger,” only to jettison that line of attack the minute Hitler turned on Stalin.
But after the war against fascism ended and the Cold War began, “warmonger” became a staple of communist propaganda again. When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Mo., Stalin referred to his erstwhile wartime ally as a “warmonger” and banned publication of the address in the Soviet Union. In 1950, as it set about occupying Eastern Europe, the Communist Information Bureau published a document titled “The Defense of Peace and the Struggle Against the Warmonger.”
The Soviets and their sympathizers in the West applied “warmonger” to everyone from Churchill (picketed at a 1946 speech in Madison Square Garden by members of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship) to Henry Wallace, the former Progressive Party presidential candidate who later confessed to being a dupe for Soviet totalitarianism. Like “fascist,” Moscow and its fellow travelers used “warmonger” to describe essentially anyone even remotely critical of the Soviet system and its foreign policy.
“Warmonger” was given a new lease on life after 9/11 and the response these attacks engendered from Western democracies. Today, virtually any measure undertaken to confront terrorist groups, rogue states or authoritarian regimes is routinely decried as “warmongering” by an ideologically diverse assortment of pundits and political actors.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, supporters of Donald Trump frequently assailed Hillary Clinton as a “warmonger” for advocating a no-fly zone in Syria intended to defend innocent civilians from Bashar Assad’s barrel bombs. On the left, Germany’s former foreign minister last summer decried NATO exercises as “warmongering” and “saber-rattling” designed to provoke Russia.
In both cases, and in keeping with the term’s dishonorable lineage, the behavior of the actual aggressor was conveniently ignored. Indeed, whether employed by communists, fascists, the alt-right or the isolationist left, what’s consistent about “warmonger” is how it’s applied only to the actions of liberal democracies. Those who complain most often about “warmongering” are conspicuously silent about the behavior of anti-Western regimes and movements, whether Russia (warmongering in Eastern Ukraine), Iran (warmongering in Syria), Hamas (warmongering against Israel) or Venezuela (warmongering against its own people).
Calling someone a “warmonger” is, then, a politicized form of the psychological phenomenon known as “projection,” whereby one ascribes his own nefarious conduct and motives onto others. By flinging the term at anyone who advocates a muscular response to terrorism and dictatorship, those who lob “warmonger” are faithfully carrying on the tradition of fascists and communists.
James Kirchick is filling in for Doyle McManus. He is a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution and author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.” Follow him on Twitter @jkirchick.