The Asymmetrical Rhetoric of War and Peace
Posted Aug 23, 2005

The Asymmetrical Rhetoric of War and Peace
by Gary North

Rhetoric is the technique of verbal persuasion. Those of us who favor limited civil government and extensive self-government like to think that logic is on our side. The problem is, rhetoric isn’t.

In 1947, novelist and advertising copy writer Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay that has become a classic: “The Lost Tools of Learning.” I first read it as an insert that was stapled inside an issue of National Review in 1961. In 1977, I reprinted it in an issue devoted to education when I was editor of R. J. Rushdoony’s Journal of Christian Reconstruction. From there, the article spread into the home school movement.

Her thesis was this: the medieval trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric is essential for understanding education. Young children learn grammar rapidly and well, beginning around age two. Sometime around age 10, they begin to master the art of logic. Finally, when they reach puberty, they begin learning rhetoric. They want to persuade their parents, and they find that logic is not sufficient.

Sayers did not mention two other facts. First, the schools of biblical interpretation have always been divided into three main camps: the grammatico-historical school, the school of theology, and the school of symbolism, which is better known as the allegorical school. Each of these factors is present in all schools of biblical interpretation, but one of them always predominates in a particular biblical interpreter.

Second, the same three factors are present in advertising, especially direct-response advertising: grammar (the offer), logic (proof), and emotion. What those of us who write direct-response copy know from years of measurable responses to our ads is that emotion sells. Logic is there to justify the emotional commitment that the copywriter’s copy produces in the reader.

Rhetoric mobilizes emotion. Its primary goal is to produce an emotional response that in turn produces a specific action.

Here is the problem facing those who favor limited civil government and extensive self-government: personal responsibility is a difficult sell. From the day that Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, mankind has been in a fruitless quest to shift blame and avoid personal responsibility for failure. “Success has a hundred fathers, while failure is an orphan.”


The problem we face is this: the rhetoric of limited government rarely matches the appeal of pro-state rhetoric, which invokes something perceived as more grand than individual liberty. This is especially true during wartime. Great wartime speeches tend to survive in the textbooks. Great peacetime speeches do not. During war, there are no great anti-war speeches. They cannot persuade people of the futility of war, so no one in authority delivers them. Private citizens who do go to jail or lose their jobs. This is why H. L. Mencken ceased his anti-war tirades after the United States entered the European war in 1917. He deliberately avoided writing about the war altogether.

During peacetime, there are so many pro-war speeches that a few become classics. In contrast, great anti-war peacetime speeches are always the subject of retroactive ridicule, once the shooting starts. Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace in our time” may be the most ridiculed four-word political phrase in modern history. In this sense, pro-war and pro-peace rhetoric are inherently asymmetric. War wins in the textbooks and the polling booths.

Historians are always looking for documents that illustrate the mood of an era, or at least the historian’s version of that mood. There is nothing like a short political speech by a major politician to make this point for the author. In wartime, a speech by a general is also useful. It is no accident that the movie Patton begins with a cleaned-up version of one of his famous speeches to the troops. He was a master of rhetoric in a military environment. So was McArthur, who extended this mastery to politics.

The two great masters of political rhetoric in the English-speaking world were Lincoln and Churchill. The power of their rhetoric carries into their speeches’ written texts. Huey Long’s rhetoric doesn’t, for his was the rhetoric of the stump speech. Most political rhetoric is. Rhetoric for the ages is usually not sufficiently time-sensitive to be motivational.

If I were teaching a course on rhetoric, I would use Lincoln’s two inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg Address is perhaps the greatest single speech in American history. My generation was forced to memorize it. It is short enough to memorize.

Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, which got him the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1896, had greater influence than any other political speech in American history. Bryan self-consciously and systematically destroyed the old limited-government tradition of the Democratic Party. Yet reading that speech today, one is hard-pressed to understand why it stole the hearts of the attendees in 1896. It is not difficult to see why the Gettysburg Address has exercised enormous influence for well over a century.

Also at Gettysburg that day was the greatest orator of the era, Edward Everett: a former U.S. Senator, a former governor, and a former president of Harvard College. He spoke for two hours. No one remembers what he said. The written copy of the speech is over 13,000 words. Lincoln spoke after Everett. The speech received little response from listeners. But Everett wrote to Lincoln praising the speech, which lasted about two minutes. He said that Lincoln’s speech had captured the meaning of the event far better than his speech had.

The speech is powerful because Lincoln used the language of the sacred to describe a battlefield graveyard. To hallow ground is to create sacred space. In reciting the familiar King James Bible’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, men say “hallo-wed [hallowed] be thy name.” Lincoln said, “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate ? we can not consecrate ? we can not hallow ? this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” He said this in preparation for the most rhetorically powerful defense of war in American history:


It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us ? that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion ? that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ? that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom ? and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

He was wrong about one thing: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here. . . .”

Throughout his career, Lincoln appropriated the language of the King James Bible to create biblical-sounding phrases. He personally was not a believer in the authority of the Bible, but he was a masterful appropriator of its rhetorical power. This was a major factor in the power of his rhetoric.

Churchill was a wartime leader who had the great good fortune that Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941. This was the most short-sighted single political decision of the twentieth century. Nothing else comes close. The Axis pact did not compel him to do this, for it was a defensive pact, and Japan had started the war. America’s entry into the war bailed out Churchill. His speeches became rhetorical classics because his side won the war.

Hitler was a master of rhetoric. He was the probably the greatest master of large-crowd rhetoric in history, for he understood the psychology of large crowds. He planned every detail of those mass meetings. To this was added the loudspeaker.

I am not impressed with what I see and hear because the film clips always show him shouting. Rhetoric is not all shouting. Printed texts have no shouting. At most, they have underlines. In any case, he lost. Had he won, his wartime speeches would today be classics of German rhetoric. There were no wartime German anti-war speeches.

The winners write the history textbooks. They use wartime rhetoric to spice up their textbooks, which need spicing up.


Most people most of the time are self-interested. This perception was Adam Smith’s great legacy to the modern world. Or, rather, it was Bernard Mandevelle’s legacy by way of Smith, who officially opposed Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees.

In peacetime, men pursue their self-interest. There are few joint endeavors that command both loyalty and self-sacrifice. Husbands and wives are tied to a treaty of mutual support. But the concentric circles of jointly bound people become progressively less influential the further out from the family they are.

In contrast, most people in time of war become group-oriented. Soldiers march into battle as a team. To keep them from running away, every link in the military chain of command focuses on elevating courage over self-interest, which is identified as cowardice. This same commitment to a larger cause dominates the civilian labor force. Tax-resistance becomes for the civilian what running away is for the soldier: an act of betrayal.

This is why war is the health of the state. This is why leviathan and Mars are always linked by a treaty of mutual understanding.

F. A. Hayek once noted that the experience of participating in wartime economic planning agencies persuaded British and American business leaders of the benefits of central planning. He made this observation at a conference whose proceedings were later published as a book: Defense, Controls, and Inflation (1952). Businessmen came out of World War II as Keynesians or worse.

It takes long chains of reasoning to defend the free market as a means of coordination. Most people cannot follow these long chains of reasoning. Adam Smith invoked the rhetorical image of the invisible hand. That was an effective tactic. It worked because Western intellectuals in the mid-eighteenth century associated this image with providence. Of course, this image would not work well in tribal animist societies. They would conclude that free trade is good because, if you don’t adopt it, the Hand will get you.

The problem was that Smith’s image failed to persuade intellectual socialists, who appeared soon after The Wealth of Nations appeared. They had abandoned the idea of providence. Smith’s image failed to persuade them. They looked instead for an institutional replacement for the non-existent Deist god of the Scottish Enlightenment. They found it in the state: the visible hand.

It took two centuries for the popularity of the image of the visible hand to fade. It took the visible failure of the Soviet Union, 1989?91, to convince most Western intellectuals that the visible hand of central planning could not be relied on to deliver the goods. The Soviet Union’s visible hand had come down with a bad case of arthritis. It always had been arthritic, but the USSR projected military power and imposed systematic domestic violence. Most Western intellectuals respect visible power above everything else.

They are still unable to follow long chains of economic reasoning, but they have looked at what China has done under the free markets and what socialism did for Russia, and they finally have concluded that the free market does work like an invisible hand.

The logic of the free market has not persuaded them. The visible results have persuaded them. This is better than nothing, but only for as long as the present capitalist order, at whose center is state-created central banking, continues to deliver the goods.

For people who cannot follow detailed chains of economic logic, the visible hand is more believable than the invisible hand.


The case for peace is mostly logical. The case for war is mostly rhetorical. So, men keep going to war.

Sin has a more ready market than righteousness. “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? (James 4:1).

Individual power has a more ready market among political leaders than individual self-restraint. Mises understood this when he gave a one-word answer to the question, “What would you do if you were given complete power over the U.S. economy.” His answer: “Resign.”

The rhetoric of war has a more ready market than the rhetoric of peace.

Then what offers hope? Reality. The visible hand of war, like the visible hand of central planning, eventually produces widespread losses. Eventually, someone says, “Let them eat rhetoric.” The caloric content of rhetoric is nil.

When the rhetoric of the sacred no longer extends to military funerals, the visible hand of war is getting close to the end of its popularity. When a military graveyard is no longer believed by the public to be hallowed by the latest conflict, the case for war has weakened. Swords are not yet being converted into ploughshares, but the politicians who favored war with their rhetoric are beginning to resemble Damocles. Meanwhile, our President is not a rhetorical Lincoln. He is more of a rhetorical Hudson.

July 11, 2005

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit is also the author of a free multi-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright ? 2005

Originally published on the Lew Rockwell website at and reprinted with permission.