On March 23, 1922, Edmund A. Walsh, a thirty-seven year old American Jesuit priest, arrived in Moscow. Walsh was part of a papal mission sent to Russia to provide relief for a devastating famine that had begun in 1921. What Walsh found was not only mass starvation, but religious persecution - in 1922 twenty-eight Orthodox bishops and over 1,200 priests were murdered.
Government processions lampooned religion, as did plays. It was all in keeping with the 1918 Decree on the Separation of Church from State and School from Church. In his diary, Walsh wrote that in the inchoate communist system he say something deadly; he feared “for the consequences of the economic, the political, the social, the religious, educational orders…of [the] entire world.”For the next three decades, until he suffered a stroke in 1952 then died in 1956, Edmund Walsh was one of America’s greatest anti-communists. He was also, as Patrick McNamara explains in his compelling and thoroughly researched book A Catholic Cold War, an intellectual, popular speaker, member of the cocktail party elite in Georgetown, a critic of academic political correctness before the term existed, a believer in a public square informed by the religious values of the people, and advocate for preemptive strikes against potential enemies years before conservatives became neo. He was, in short, a giant - and would no doubt be celebrated as such in the culture were his fight against Nazis and Joe McCarthy rather than Bolsheviks and Stalin.
Walsh grew up in Boston in the late 19th Century, a time and place that imbued in him a powerful sense of patriotism; as McNamara notes, Boston’s Irish Catholics were able to assimilate more smoothly than Catholic in other cities, largely because the episcopal leaders of the city discouraged separatism. Walsh entered the Jesuit novitiate in Maryland in 1902, and then taught as a Jesuit scholastic in the high school section of Georgetown University.
It was at Georgetown that Walsh’s life changed. In May 1912 he attended the dedication of the statue of John Carroll, Georgetown’s founder and the first American bishop. The speaker was Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward D. White, who spoke of the similarities between John Carroll and his cousin Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Justice White claimed that America and Georgetown were founded on similar ideas: natural law, morality, the rights of man, freedom ordered to the truths of Christianity. The speech, as McNamara notes, “invokes two themes Walsh would pursue in his own public career - how Georgetown’s and the nation’s history intersected, and how democracy and religion mutually reinforce one another.”
After World War I Walsh founded - or co-founded; there is a complex and tiresome dispute about it that is the only part of A Catholic Cold War that drags - the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. Soon after he was sent by the Vatican to Russia to help provide famine relief. Upon his return he wrote The Fall of the Russian Empire: The Last of the Romanovs and the Coming of the Bolsheviki, and soon found himself in demand on the lecture circuit and in the upper reaches of Washington power. He was an advisor to Truman and to the Nuremberg trials. In 1929 Pope Pius XI sent him to Mexico to help negotiate church-state relations. In 1931 he convinced the Iraqi government to allow a Jesuit school in Bagdad. He was in the word of one historian “practically an institution by himself.”
Sadly, Walsh had one substantial blind spot: anti-Semitism. His books, articles and lectures did not reveal it, and it is mostly confined to footnotes, but Walsh subscribed to the idea popular beginning in the late 19th century of “Jew as revolutionary.” McNamara quotes anti-Semitic Jesuit writing from around the time Walsh entered the society, and reveals that Walsh used as a source the book The World Revolution, a piece of ultra-right wing claptrap. To Walsh. Communism was “a wholly Jewish movement.” He would later write that “the Jew was not the cause of the Russian Revolution, but the entrepreneur, who recognized his main chance and seized it shrewdly and successfully.” And yet, after World War II Walsh denounced Nazism in terms as strong as those he had used to communism. He interrogated Nazi sympathizers, and rebuked a Jesuit who questioned the objectivity of the trial. It was, he said, “an expression in legal terms of the conscience of humanity.”
Walsh was also a pioneer of a certain kind of American foreign policy - and an early debunker of moral relativism foisted on people from the elites. Long before the 1960s, decades before neoconservatives (and more than half a century before First Things), Walsh wrote the following: “[In the 20th century] men were encouraged to have light opinions on everything and firm faith in nothing - except the impossibility of faith in anything….The bourgeois demolition squads in philosophy, art, letters, education and religion delighted in blowing up the bridge between man and his higher destiny. The crippled man at the very nerve centers of spiritual perceptivity - and now blame their victims for limping. The sophisticates had their day for a hundred years and now they have their pay. They may be appalled; they should not be surprised. Prophets of negation and enemies of any absolute law and duty, they created a moral vacuum which Hitler tried to occupy; but communist power prevailed and populated the void with Marxist ideas.”
Walsh also spoke of preemption long before the War on Terror. In 1952 Walsh published a piece, “The Spiritual Aspect of Foreign Policy” in The Catholic Mind magazine. In “The Spiritual Aspect of Foreign Policy,” one can see America’s post-9/11 neoconservative foreign policy laid out in full. In the face of a new, messianic and totalitarian threat, America must preemptively strike the enemies who are bent on destroying us. The days of strict realism, of sharing the world with our enemies, are over Walsh: “What the world is witnessing, and what American policy makers must cope with, is not a conventional or localized upheaval involving this or that nation. They are facing a dynamic world crusade designed to recast all humanity in the image and likeness of a new god, a new culture and a new paganism, in which the dignity of human personality is to be weighed and computed solely on the scales of economic production and collectivized agriculture…..The conflict is between two interpretations of man’s nature and ultimate destiny….Historically, [the Soviet threat] is comparable to the conquests of Genghis Khan and his hordes in the 12th century, the Moslem invasion of Europe in the 8th century and the Turkish menace to Christendom which was halted at Lepanto in1571.”In the 1950s, Father Walsh conflicted with George Kennan, the architect of the school of “realism” in foreign policy. Kennan felt that the Soviet Union could be contained at various points on the globe. To Walsh, Kennan missed the moral and spiritual nature of the struggle. Walsh felt it was a no-win situation in which there was no alternative to engaging the enemy, even if that meant preemptive strikes and fully military engagement with any and all communist states. (Today these old paradigms have been largely replaced by replaced by liberal internationalism, which seeks to go through the UN for every crisis and refuses to see any moral superiority ion the values of the West, and neoconservatism, or what Charles Krauthammer calls “democratic realism.” Democratic realism seeks to changed regimes and democratize enemy countries, but it also realizes limits. It goes one country at a time, allowing despotic governments to stay in place – for now – if it helps the march to eventual peace. Neoconservatism believes, as George Bush, echoing Walsh, said in his second inaugural speech, that there is a natural moral law that guides human dreams and desires for freedom and demands more attention and respect that mere policy.) Walsh encouraged Kennan to drop “the legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems.” Kennan declared untenable “the assumption that state behavior is a fit subject for moral judgment.” Walsh retorted that “an honest adherence to international law and observance of the moral law, even by governments, has been a constant theme in American state papers.” Furthermore, America is called to reject the idea that “what might be immoral or criminal in the individual suddenly achieves a mysterious immunity when conspirators band together and act in unison as a government.”
During a dinner in his honor in 1952, Walsh suffered a stroke. He had been a tireless worker his entire life, writing from midnight until dawn and then sleeping for a few hours before heading to give a class or a lecture or meet with Washington panjandrums. He died in 1956, and was soon forgotten. Hopefully Patrick McNamara’s terrific book will help remedy that: