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April 24, 2001

Howard Homan Buffett:


by Joseph Stromberg

AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL

Howard Homan Buffett was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1903 and died in 1964. In those years he was an eyewitness to the wholesale abandonment of the American traditions of limited government at home and minding our own business overseas. He did not gladly go along with the main drift of his times, however.

In his four terms as Republican Congressman from Nebraska’s second district, 1943-1949 and 1951-1953, Buffett emerged as a trenchant critic of the domestic statism and foreign interventionism of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal. A committed "isolationist," he served as Midwestern campaign director for Senator Robert Taft’s ill-fated run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952. At the end of his second congressional term, Buffett returned to Nebraska and worked in banking. Even in that occupation he was a bit out of step, as a consistent advocate of gold-based sound money.

Buffett’s consistent defense of classical liberal, free-market, republican, and anti-interventionist positions makes him an interesting, if little remembered, forerunner of today’s libertarianism and anti-Establishment conservatism. He was, as Murray Rothbard later pointed out, the most hard-core of the dwindling handful of Old Right politicians in the early Cold War period. Buffett contributed occasionally to such journals as Human Events, The Freeman, and later, New Individualist Review.

In 1954, Buffett became interested in the work of a right-wing journalist called "Aubrey Herbert." In February 1956, Murray Rothbard wrote Buffett that he (Rothbard) was in fact Aubrey Herbert. They had met the previous summer at Ludwig von Mises’s seminar in Austrian economics. Buffett and Rothbard corresponded for years, became friends, and commiserated with one another over the drift toward war, imperialism, and centralization, which was aided and abetted by the current leadership of the American right wing.

EMPIRE, CONSCRIPTION, AND CONTROLS

Congressman Buffett’s speeches in the House reflect his continuing and systematic grasp of the issue of liberty vs. statism and the key role which war and empire play in undermining the former and promoting the latter. Thus, on March 22, 1944, he protested Secretary of the Interior Ickes’s plans to spend $165,000,000 on an Arabian oil pipeline. He characterized the proposal as "this gigantic long-distance venture into imperialism." Such an asset would have to be defended by enlarged military forces, which might be based on conscription. Said Buffett further:

"It would terminate the inspiring period of America’s history as a great nation not resorting to intercontinental imperialism. This venture would end the influence exercised by the United States as a government not participating in the exploitation of small lands and countries…. It may be that the American people would rather forego the use of a questionable amount of gasoline at some time in the remote future than follow a foreign policy practically guaranteed to send many of their sons, if not their daughters [!], to die in faraway places in defense of the trade of Standard Oil or the international dreams of our one-world planners."

Buffett was primed to question the emergent Cold War at a time when the hot war, World War II, had just ended, and many of the wartime controls he hated were still in force. Thus, on March 11, 1946 he complained of "the use a second time of American national network facilities by Mr. Churchill for warmongering purposes." Was Churchill’s newfound concern about communism just "a buildup for a British loan"? On March 28, he commented prophetically that "We see no advantage in dodging the facts [that] if this tension with Russia keeps up, the military will probably succeed in imposing permanent conscription, will become the dominant factor in making and directing our foreign policy…. and will insist on the projection of American military power – of course, only as a measure of ‘security’ – into every part of the earth."

TRUMAN’S DOCTRINE AND GLOBAL MISSION

Consistent with his stubborn opposition to conscription, controls, and militarism, Buffett declined to sign on for Harry Truman’s Cold War crusade. Discussing the Greek-Turkish Aid Bill – effectively the first legislative battle of the Cold War – on March 18, 1947, he censured the Roosevelt-Truman record on foreign policy, which had itself led to the expansion of communist influence. He wondered if the Administration was "qualified, because of an almost overnight reformation, to be given a blank check for a crusade against communism."

Buffett predicted that: "In the pattern developed through the war years [World War II] of deficit spending, this administration combination would dress up every spending scheme as vital in their anti-Communist program. Attempts at economy would again be smeared as reactionary efforts to save dollars at the cost of the lives of American boys. Patriots who try to bring about economy would be branded as Stalin lovers. The misery of the people, from continued militarism and inflation, would soon become unbearable. As their anguished protests became vocal, the shackles of regimentation and coercion, so lately thrown off, could be refastened in the name of stopping communism at home."

Another harmful consequences would be permanent conscription. Even worse, the policy would be counterproductive: "instead of restraining communism abroad, it will shore up ruling politicians everywhere and actually promote the spread of communism." Thus, "every ruler, be he tyrant or parliamentary politician, will claim the threat of communism is most dangerous in his land," leading to an endless series of interventions and handouts. It would be a great disaster "if this Congress votes to allow the Administration to take us into an American attempt to determine the pattern of human life everywhere."

Not surprisingly, Buffett spoke out against conscription bills in June of 1948. During his last term in Congress, the Korean War was rapidly undercutting what remained of right-wing anti-interventionism. He was not impressed with the manner of US entry: "Truman entered that war by his own act," that is, entirely without constitutional authority. According to Murray Rothbard, Buffett always believed that if the secret Congressional testimony of Admiral Hillenkoeter were ever declassified, it would reveal that South Korea had begun the shooting war in Korea.1

Buffett’s warnings, however prescient, went largely unheeded. In the years after his retirement from Congress, his disillusionment with the new school right-wing interventionists and with US foreign policy became total. But he never changed his fundamental outlook. In 1962, he wrote of the evils of conscription and the policies which demanded it: "In its abolition of freedom, peacetime conscription overshadows all other collectivism and regimentation. When the American government conscripts a boy to go 10,000 miles to the jungles of Asia without a declaration of war by Congress…. what freedom is safe at home? Surely, the profits of U.S. Steel or your private property are not more sacred than a young man’s right to life."2

Here Buffett ties together the whole bundle. Imperial foreign policy is costly, reduces liberty, and risks war and militarism, which in turn reduce liberty while increasing costs. With syllogistic precision, Buffett zeroed in on the logical consequences of empire and the eternal conflict between power and liberty.

TRYING TO REASON WITH AN IMPERIAL SEASON

Unlike National Review magazine, Buffett really did stand athwart the path of "history" yelling Stop! In this respect, the only Member of Congress who bears comparison with Buffett is Ron Paul, Republican of Texas. The latter is principled and sound on precisely those issues with which concerned Buffett.

Unhappily, fame does not always descend on those who might be thought to deserve it. Type "Buffett" into a search engine, and you will come up with the Congressman’s son, the zillionaire, fractional-reserve banker Warren Buffett, who obviously has rejected his father’s views on money. Or you might come up with a younger Howard Buffett, who is an ecology-friendly photographer, among other things.

Shortly, you will come up with Jimmy Buffett, singer and novelist. This Buffett’s critics have dismissed his music as a combination of middle-aged self-pity and Caribbean escapism. Certainly, it is hard to imagine Congressman Howard Buffett taking up a life of Gulf Coast hedonism. Still, as presently famous Buffetts go, I much prefer Jimmy.

Coming Soon: A Short History of War-Mongering at the National Review (to Which Is Added A Note on That Journal’s Britannic Predecessor).

Notes

  1. Murray N. Rothbard, "Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal," Ramparts, VI, 4 (June 15, 1968), p. 49.
  2. Howard Buffett, "An Opportunity for the Republican Party," New Individualist Review, II, 2 (Summer 1962), p. 12. For Buffett’s speeches, as quoted above, consult the Congressional Record.
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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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