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H-Diplo | ISSF
Roundtable, Volume II, No. 1 (2011)

A production of H-Diplo with the journals Security Studies,
International Security, Journal of Strategic Studies, and the
International Studies Association’s Security Studies Section (ISSS).

| http://www.issforum.org

Christopher Ball, H-Diplo/ISSF Managing and Commissioning Editor
Diane Labrosse, H-Diplo/ISSF Editor at Large
George Fujii, H-Diplo/ISSF Web and Production Editor

H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable Review of Justin Vaïsse. Neoconservatism: The
Biography of a Movement. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780674050518.
Published by H-Diplo/ISSF on 7 January 2011
Roundtable Editors: Diane Labrosse and Thomas Maddux
H-Diplo Web Production Editor: George Fujii and John Vurpillat
Commissioned for H-Diplo/ISSF by Thomas Maddux, California State
University, Northridge
Stable URL: http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/ISSF/PDF/ISSF-Roundtable-2-1.pdf


Introduction by Marc Trachtenberg, University of California at Los Angeles
Review by John Ehrman, Independent Historian
Review by Robert G. Kaufman, Pepperdine University
Review by Daniel Sargent, University of California, Berkeley
Review by Gil Troy, Department of History, McGill University
Author’s Response by Justin Vaïsse, The Brookings Institution
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Introduction by Marc Trachtenberg, University of California at Los Angeles

Justin Vaïsse has emerged in recent years as perhaps the most perceptive
French analyst of current American politics and foreign policy. But he
is a historian by training, and in writing his book on neoconservative
movement, his primary goal was to understand the neoconservative
movement as a historical phenomenon. The book is not a polemic or a
journalistic account. It is a scholarly analysis, based not just on
published materials, but also on a series of interviews and on a good
deal of archival work, especially in the Rosenblatt papers at the
Johnson Library and in the papers of the Committee on the Present Danger
at the Hoover Institution.1 Given that sort of approach, Vaïsse, as John
Ehrman writes in his comment, is able to deal in a fair-minded way with
a topic that “seems to arouse great passions.” Robert Kaufman, the most
critical of the four reviewers here, basically agrees. Vaïsse, he notes,
“has raised the tone and the substance of the debate about who
neoconservatives are and what neoconservatism means.”

And as a trained historian, Vaïsse begins by raising a question about
change over time. “The original neoconservatism of the 1960s,” he points
out, “had nothing to do with the muscular assertion of American power or
with the promotion of democracy.” It took little interest in foreign
policy, and its central message was “to stress the limits on state
action.” But over the next forty years, the movement “transformed itself
so thoroughly as to become unrecognizable.” The focus shifted from
domestic to foreign policy; neoconservatism moved “from the left to the
right side of the political chessboard”; the movement “left the world of
sociologists and intellectuals for that of influence and power.” And
above all there was a dramatic change in political philosophy, from one
that stressed the limits on power to one based on the belief that
American power could bring about very fundamental political change in
the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East, and in particular
in Iraq. Who in the early years of the movement would have thought that
the movement would develop along those lines? “The idea,” says Vaïsse,
“that the federal government should take it upon itself to administer
and even democratize an unknown country of 25 million people 6,000 miles
from Washington, D.C., would have seemed absurd to the original
neoconservatives” (pp. 3-4). How then is that change to be understood?

He gets at the issue by tracing the development of the movement over
time. He breaks its history down into three periods—an approach that
makes sense to the reviewers: a first period, when a number of
intellectuals, associated above all with the journal The Public
Interest, were reacting to what were seen as the failures of the “war on
poverty”; a second period, when the neoconservatives became more
involved in politics and more interested in questions of foreign policy,
and especially the question of the interpretation of the Vietnam War;
and a third period, beginning around 1995, when the movement began to
emphasize the need for a quite assertive foreign policy. Vaïsse sees
here “three very different political and intellectual logics, loosely
related to one another” (p. 6). The continuity from period to period—or
at least from the first two to the third period—seems more institutional
than conceptual: the neoconservatives had set up a kind of
“counterestablishment,” a network of “like-minded magazines, think
tanks, committees, journalists, and intellectuals” which was the “real
source of power of the neoconservative movement over its three ages”
(pp. 203, 206, 267).

But what sort of power did the movement actually have? This is an
important issue for Vaïsse: “one of the aims of this book,” he says, “is
to show concretely how ideas take hold and spread to the point where
they influence political decisionmakers” (p. 20). He believes in
particular that Ronald Reagan’s “support for democratic forces around
the world” was “without a doubt due to specific neoconservative
influence” (p. 191). And he believes neoconservatism played a
major—although far from exclusive—role in shaping policy during the
George W. Bush period (pp. 13-15). The reviewers, by and large, do not
really disagree with that claim. Gil Troy especially sees the
neoconservatives as the “ideological and intellectual vanguard of the
Reagan Revolution”: “These are not Ivory Tower intellectuals. These
citizen-activists use their brain power to change the world.”

But as Daniel Sargent suggests at the end of his comment, the whole
question of the political impact of ideas is hard to get at: how, he
wonders, do we measure the impact of ideas “in relation to other
historical factors”? Certainly the neoconservatives themselves claimed
they had played a major role; Vaïsse gives a remarkable quotation from
Norman Podhoretz to that effect on p. 186. And more independent
observers sometimes argued along the same lines: “Without The Public
Interest, no Newt Gingrich,” George Will wrote (p. 205). But is it
really clear that Reagan’s foreign policy or even George W. Bush’s was
influenced in any fundamental way by neoconservative ideas?

To be sure, both presidents found certain neoconservative notions
congenial, but neither president saw the world exactly the same way that
the neoconservatives did. “There is no doubt,” Vaïsse says about Reagan,
“that the president shared the neoconservative sensibility, but there is
also no doubt that he had an antinuclear sensibility, and an evangelical
sensibility, and a pragmatic sensibility, and, above all, a politician’s
sensibility” (p. 195); the neoconservative Reagan coexisted with “other
Reagans” who took a less hard-line view (p. 196). Bush, he says, was
“not a neoconservative,” although he “did incorporate numerous
neoconservative ideas into an ‘astonishing ideological cocktail,’” which
had many other important ingredients (p. 14).2 And both presidents, as
time went on, tended to separate themselves from the neoconservatives.
Reagan switched from a “bellicose policy to a policy of peace” (p. 197).
As for Bush, although his “rhetoric became increasingly neoconservative
in his second term, in fact he moved more toward realism and to all
intents and purposes abandoned the ‘freedom agenda’ that he had
previously promoted” (p. 258).

What then does this imply about the impact of neoconservatism as a
political movement? Reagan might have believed in promoting the spread
of democracy abroad, but such notions (as Sargent points out) have deep
roots in American political culture, especially at the level of public
rhetoric. The United States, after all, went to war in 1917 “to make the
world safe for democracy”—or at least that was the way U.S. policy was
rationalized after the country got involved in that conflict. What was
new, above all in the post-Cold War period, was not the Wilsonianism,
but the military component, a point Vaïsse has no trouble recognizing.
(On p. 12, he quotes Pierre Hassner’s phrase about a “Wilsonianism in
boots,” a play on the French notion of Napoleon as the “Revolution in
boots,”and a term that calls to mind Arthur Schlesinger’s reference to
the neoconservatives as “Wilsonians with machine guns.”3) But if the
core ideology is a constant, doesn’t that suggest that it is the shift
in the global balance of power, resulting from the collapse of the
Soviet Union, and not any great conceptual breakthrough, that
essentially accounts for the emergence of what people call a
neoconservative foreign policy? That certainly is the way neorealists
like Kenneth Waltz interpret the change in U.S. policy that took place
after 1991. The United States during the post–cold war period, Waltz
argued even before George W. Bush came to power, “has behaved as
unchecked powers have usually done. In the absence of counterweights, a
country’s internal impulses prevail, whether fueled by liberal or by
other urges.”4

So the argument that neoconservative ideas played a key role in shaping
American foreign policy is by no means intuitively obvious, and to make
an argument in this area, it seems to me, one really has to make an
argument about the ideas themselves—that is, one has to make a judgment
about the intellectual quality, the intellectual distinctiveness, and
indeed the intellectual power of the basic notions that lay at the heart
of the neoconservative movement. And while Vaïsse clearly has a high
regard for the neoconservatives of the first age, he takes a much less
positive view of neoconservatism from the late Reagan period on. He sees
a movement “frozen in time” (p. 197), locked at the end of the Cold War
into a mindset that prevented many neoconservatives from understanding
the extraordinary changes then taking place in the world. His judgment
of the third-age neoconservatives is particularly sharp: they are
arrogant, both intellectually and politically, especially with regard to
the Middle East (p. 261); they are dogmatic and intellectually lazy (p.
265). What one had, therefore, was scarcely a case of brainpower
changing the world. And indeed it seems that what Vaïsse really thinks
is that it was not the power of the neoconservatives’ ideas, but rather
their organizational ability—the network of institutions they were able
to create and their skill in moving into the Republican power
structure—that largely accounts for whatever influence they came to have.

And those assessments are linked to a series of judgments about the
policies the neoconservatives were associated with, to a certain extent
under Reagan, but much more under George W. Bush. Reagan succeeded with
Gorbachev not because he followed the neoconservative lead, but because
he parted company in his second term with people of that ilk. And Vaïsse
takes a dim view of the Bush presidency, and especially of those aspects
of the Bush policy linked most closely to the neoconservatives: “Bush’s
failure in Iraq,” in particular, was also “the failure of
neoconservatism” (pp. 3, 260)—a view which Ehrman shares, but with which
Kaufman strongly disagrees.

But Vaïsse’s fundamental goal is not to sit in judgment on the
neoconservatives, and indeed this book is not just about a particular
political movement. Vaïsse’s interests are much broader than that. His
goal as a scholar is to understand American politics and American
society as a whole. A study of neoconservatism is a window into
something much broader, and this book shows that this sort of study
really can tell us something basic about “the way in which American
political society works” (p. 20).


Justin Vaïsse is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings
Institution and serves as the Director of research for its Center on the
United States and Europe. After a first stint at Brookings as a Visiting
Fellow (2002-2003), he worked as a special adviser for the French Policy
Planning Staff (2003-2007). A graduate of L’Ecole Normale Supérieure and
Sciences Po, he received his Agrégation in history in 1996 and his Ph.D.
in 2005. He has been successively a teaching assistant at Harvard
University (1996-1997), an adjunct professor at Sciences Po (1999-2001
and 2003-2007), and a professorial lecturer at SAIS – Johns Hopkins
University (since 2007). He is the author of numerous books on US
foreign policy, including Washington et le monde: Dilemmes d’une
superpuissance, with Pierre Hassner (Paris: Autrement, 2003). He is
currently working on a group biography of four Harvard students of the
1950s who transformed US foreign policy (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Stanley
Hoffmann, Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger).

John Ehrman is an independent historian. He earned a bachelor’s degree
in history and political science at Tufts University, a master’s in
international affairs from Columbia University, and his PhD from the
George Washington University. He is the author of The Rise of
Neoconservatism (Yale, 1995), and The Eighties: America in the Age of
Reagan (Yale, 2005), as well as numerous articles and reviews on modern
American conservatism.

Robert G. Kaufman is Professor at Pepperdine University’s School of
Public Policy. He received his BA and PhD from Columbia University and
his JD at Georgtown. He has written three books: Arms Control During the
Pre-Nuclear Era(Columbia University Press); Henry M. Jackson, a Life in
Politics(University of Washington Press); and In Defense of The Bush
Doctrine (University Press of Kentucky). He is working on two book
projects, the most immediate of which is A Tale of Two America’s: Ronald
Reagan, Barak Obama, and the Future of American Politics. He also is
working on a more long-term book project: A biography of Ronald Reagan
focusing on his Presidency and his quest for it. Kaufman has written
frequently for scholarly and popular publications, and done commentary
on television and radio.

Daniel Sargent is Assistant Professor of History at the University of
California, Berkeley. He graduated with a PhD in International History
from Harvard University in 2008. He is a co-editor of The Shock of the
Global: The 1970s in Perspective (Harvard, 2010) and is currently
working on a history of American responses to globalization in the
1970s, provisionally titled “A Superpower Transformed: Globalization and
the Crisis of American Foreign Policy in the 1970s” (Oxford University
Press, Forthcoming).

Marc Trachtenberg got his Ph.D. in history from Berkeley in 1974, taught
history at the University of Pennsylvania for the next twenty-six years,
and has been a professor of political science at UCLA since 2000. He is
the author of a number of books and articles on twentieth century
international politics, most notably A Constructed Peace: The Making of
the European Settlement, 1945-1963, which came out in 1999. His book The
Craft of International History, a guide to historical method for both
historians and political scientists, was published in 2006.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a
visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. A
graduate of Harvard University, he is the author of six books on the
modern presidency, including Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan
Invented the 1980s, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction and
Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.


1 The sources are listed not in the book itself but in a website the
author posted as a companion to the original French version of the book:
http://neoconservatisme.vaisse.net/doku.php. That website also has an
extensive analysis of the pamphlets put out by the Committee on the
Present Danger. The companion website for the English-language version
of the book, http://neoconservatism.vaisse.net/doku.php, does not have
that material, but it does contain copies of a number of important
documents Vaïsse cited in the book.
2 The internal quotation is from a book on the neoconservatives by Alain
Frachon and Daniel Vernet published in Paris in 2004.
3 Pierre Hassner, “Etats-Unis: l’empire de la force ou la force de
l’empire?” Institute for Security Studies, Cahiers de Chaillot, no. 54
(September 2002) (http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/chai54f.pdf ),
p. 43. Vaïsse and Hassner, incidentally, co-authored a short book called
Washington et le monde: dilemmes d’une superpuissance (Paris: Autrement,
4 Kenneth Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War,” International
Security 25, no. 1 (summer 2000), p. 24.

Review by Gil Troy, Department of History, McGill University

If Neoconservatives have been the black sheep of the Reagan Revolution
since the Iraq war debacle, they have been wayward children
historiographically for much longer. The term “neoconservative” has been
around for nearly half a century, suggesting that these conservatives
are not all that “neo” or new to conservatism after all. But as Justin
Vaïsse notes in his thought-provoking new book, the fog is so thick
around Neconservatism’s origins, definitions, and character that even
the person who supposedly coined the term, Michael Harrington, used the
label in a different context than legend suggests. Vaïsse’s great
contribution to the discussion comes when he resists the urge to boil
down the movement to one essential characteristic or crusade. Instead,
with a good historical sense, he defines “three ages of
neoconservatism,” which he labels the times of: “Liberal Intellectuals
in Dissent,” “Cold War Democrats in Dissent,” and “National Greatness

In many ways, the debate about what neoconservatism is and was parallels
the raging historiographical debate about the nature of Progressivism.
For nearly a century now, historians have been dueling about that late
nineteenth-century, early-twentieth-century, reform movement, impulse,
moment. The first draft of the analysis, written by Progressives
themselves, internalized and romanticized the Progressive narrative. In
his multi-volume classic, Main Currents in American Thought, the
Progressive author Vernon Parrington described all of American history
as divided between haves and have-nots, while lionizing his fellow
Progressives for fighting the good fight in favor of the have-nots.
Subsequently, as interpretations multiplied, the definitions blurred. In
the 1950s, the historian Richard Hofstadter went sociological, defining
Progressives in The Age of Reform as up-and-coming urbanites allied with
fading Brahmin elites suffering from status anxiety. In the 1960s,
Gabriel Kolko went ideological and critical, describing the Progressive
movement in The Triumph of Conservatism as the march of the “haves,”
with big businesses seeking stability and a welcoming environment for
political capitalism. By 2005, in A Fierce Discontent Michael McGerr
went spectral, tracking the various Progressive impulses that helped
shape the twentieth century, while for many of America’s elites,
Progressive simply became shorthand for a good person and a political
idealist. [1]

Similarly, for years, the discussion about neoconservatism began and
often ended with the quip of one of its founders, Irving Kristol, that a
conservative is a liberal who has been “mugged by reality.” (p. 275)
Neoconservatives defined themselves – and were mostly defined – as
refugees from the 1960s, ex-radicals, and ex-liberals who saw the light
as the New Left succumbed to the forces of darkness and nihilism.
Simultaneously – not sequentially – neoconservatism was defined
sociologically as a mostly urban Jewish movement, with the
neoconservative poster children being those refugees from the immigrant
ghettos of New York and New York’s City College who both succeeded
professionally and traveled ideologically, as Kristol did, from left to
right. As the legends about neoconservatism’s power grew, and the
inevitable backlash began, critics spoke ominously about
neoconservativism’s reach, until, during the George W. Bush
administration, “neoconservative” was popular Democratic shorthand for
pro-Israel, pro-Iraq war, aggressive imperialist insiders who seduced
George W. Bush and derailed America.

As popular disdain – at least on the left – for neoconservatism grew –
the phenomenon itself seemed fuzzier. A movement that initially seemed
most concerned with domestic affairs was now defined by its foreign
policy. A movement rooted in New York’s rhythms, ambitions, obsessions,
pretensions and grit, had shifted its center of gravity to the sanitized
whiteness and power games of Washington, DC. A movement founded and
first defined publicly by Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick
Moynihan, and Jeane Kirkpatrick was now led and defined by their
intellectual offspring, sometimes quite literally their children as with
William Kristol. And a movement that was part of the surge of confidence
during the Reagan era now seemed mired in the pessimism of the George W.
Bush-Barack Obama years. In fact, the character of the movement can seem
so elusive, that even after 271 pages Justin Vaise still admits:
“neoconservatism is such a diverse thing that the term has always been
close to meaningless.” (p. 271)

In truth, Vaïsse’s organizing principle for the book and for
understanding the movement contradicts this defeatist remark. His three
phases are well-defined and convincing. The first, “Liberal
Intellectuals in Dissent,” portrays the first wave of neoconservatives
in flight from the Sixties radicals, in despair over America’s crisis of
confidence, and in doubt that either scholarship or policy can solve
America’s problems. The second stage, “Cold War Democrats in Dissent,”
shows the growing concern with foreign at the expense of domestic
policy, with a particular focus on the threat posed by the Soviet Union
in the 1970s despite talk of detente. Finally, the new wave of
neoconservatives emerged as “National Greatness Conservatives,” fusing
traditionally liberal Wilsonian idealism with the post-9/11 conservative
patriotism of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

Along the way, Vaïsse deftly navigates through the thicket of myths and
facts regarding neoconservatives. He slays the Straussian dragon,
showing that the impact of the philosopher Leo Strauss often has been
exaggerated. Some neoconservatives were Strauss’s students, even his
protégés. But many other neoconservatives had many other, more
significant, influences. Similarly, Vaïsse shows that the caricature of
neonconservatives as hawkish Likudniks advancing Israel’s interests is
exaggerated. Vaïsse reveals that not all neoconservatives were Jewish
and not all Jews were neoconservatives. He should have added a
corollary, and explored the fact that, nevertheless, most Jews who
became Republicans were neoconservatives. More broadly, during and just
before the Reagan Revolution, neoconservatism served as the great
outpatient clinic for disappointed Democrats, helping them find a way
into Republicanism and Reaganism without feeling that they were
violating core ideals or their fundamental identities. Neoconservatives
let Democrats, intellectuals, cosmopolitans, and Jews into the
Republican Party without having to join the Chamber of Commerce, belong
to a country club, conquer Wall Street, or wear docksiders.

Vaïsse, like the movement itself whose “biography” he is recounting,
sometimes gets bogged down in the inside baseball of the neocons and
their allies. The acronyms fly fast and furious, in unconscious homage
to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal alphabet soup and the Left’s
hyper-factionalist compulsion to found splinter groups during the 1930s
and 1940s.

For all his good work, Vaïsse disappoints at the end, succumbing to the
definitional essentialism the rest of his book shows is too sweeping and
simplistic. Insisting that neoconservatism will remain a player on the
national scene, he argues that “neoconservatism is fundamentally a
manifestation of patriotism or even nationalism.” (p. 279) This
conclusion is akin to writing a book about Christianity and saying it is
fundamentally about belief in God. Yes, there is an up-beat nationalism
shaping the neoconservative worldview. But nationalism in America takes
on many forms. There is the don’t-tread-on-me nationalism of Tea Party
activists, the-with-me-or-against-me nationalism of Fox News, the
supremacist nationalism of white militants, the messianic nationalism of
evangelicals, the multicultural nationalism of Barack Obama, the
up-with-democracy internationalist nationalism of the Wilsonians and the
universalist do-gooders, the pragmatic nationalism of the Clintons. In
short, if Vaïsse wants his definition of neoconservatism to hinge on
nationalism, he needs to find the right adjectives to narrow the term
and give it some bite.

Vaïsse’s ultimately generic conclusion reflects a broader methodological
miss. He spends more time burrowing deep into the movement’s factions
and internal tiffs without investing enough in connecting
neoconservatism to other major movements of the time, especially
Reaganism. In the index, the entry for Ronald Reagan takes up slight
less space than the entry for Penn Kemble. Placing neoconservatism in
its broader context would yield two helpful conclusions. First, the
three ideas which define Vaïsse’s phases are three of the bigger ideas
that have shaped modern conservatism. With their focus on the limits of
the Great Society and social policy, the need for a muscular skepticism
vis-à-vis Soviet Communism, and the desire to fight terrorism with an
expansive democratic ideology as well as an aggressive military stance,
neoconservatives have in been the ideological and intellectual vanguard
of the Reagan Revolution. They have been the leading Big Government
conservatives, far less obsessed with shrinking the budget or cutting
taxes but far more concerned with the quest for national greatness.

Second and related, they have developed and disseminated these ideas
through an elaborate institutional infrastructure of think tanks,
conferences, ad hoc advocacy groups, journals, articles and books. All
these define the movement as intellectual, creating a conservative
alternate universe to the more left-leaning academic world. To
neoconservatives, development and dissemination have been equally
important and defining. These are not Ivory Tower intellectuals. These
citizen-activists use their brain power to change the world. They
believe that if an intellectual tree falls in the policy forest and no
one hears it, the silence is real and negates the effort. They are, and
always have been, a particularly self-conscious and exhibitionist group
of intellectuals, reading the public, seeking popular appeal, working
the corridors of power, securing access and getting either acclaim or
notoriety but always attention. Just as Progressives were ultimately
defined by their vision of national reform and their mode – their heavy
reliance on experts, commissions, and rationalizing structures –
neoconservatives can be defined by their vision of American greatness
and their mode – their commitment to their pragmatically-oriented,
policy-obsessed, publicity-hungry, intellectual hothouses producing big
The biggest headline is that these ideas and institutions have gotten
traction, especially in the two-term presidencies of Ronald Reagan and
George W. Bush. The neoconservatives were not the only intellectuals of
the Reagan Revolution, but, in many ways, they were the paradigmatic
intellectuals of this era, which may or may not have ended. The
fuzziness with both the neoconservatives and their Progressive
predecessors is a mark of integrity and impact. Complex movements,
ideas, and impulses which matter will take on different forms. They make
their mark in various, sometimes contradictory, ways.

These days, with the growing caricature by Obama supporters of
Republicans as ignorant, impatient, and intolerant, perhaps
neoconservatism will begin its fourth phase. Distancing the movement
from the unrealistic and premature Wilsonian triumphalism of the Iraq
War, neoconservatives can emerge as the intellectual Republicans, the
muscular nationalists seeking American greatness from the red-side of
the great, often-overstated modern American divide. Judging from the
analysis developed in the book, they have the think tank infrastructure
and an army of smart, ambitious, savvy game players poised to do just
that. And they have just enough common threads intellectually and
ideologically to weave a product that will perpetuate their brand, with
their logo, as usual, most prominently and cleverly displayed.


1 Vernon Parrington, Main Currents In American Thought, vols I-III (New
York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1927); Richard Hofstadter, The Age of
Reform (New York: Vintage, 1955, 1960); Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of
Conservatism: A Reintepretation of American History 1900-1916 (New York:
The Free Press, 1963): Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and
Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920 (Oxford
University Press, 2005).

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The Washington Times, 1-14-10


By Leslie Holmes

Oxford University Press, $11.95, 144 pages


By Stephen Lovell

Oxford University Press, $11.95, 144 pages


By Gil Troy

Oxford University Press, $11.95, 168 pages

Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

“This is a book,” writes University of Melbourne political scientist Leslie Holmes, “about a dream … that for too many became a nightmare.”

The book is “Communism: A Very Short Introduction,” and it is one of three related volumes released recently as part of Oxford University Press’ invaluable, sprawling Very Short Introduction series. The other two Very Short Introductions that we will consider are “The Soviet Union,” by Kings College reader Stephen Lovell, and “The Reagan Revolution,” by McGill University historian Gil Troy. These three authors help document the nightmare that was communism and how most of the world finally managed to jolt itself awake from it.

“The overwhelming majority of states that were Communist as recently as the late 1980s have now moved on,” explains Mr. Holmes, former president of the International Council for Central and East European Studies. “While, formally, five Communist states remain, the two successful ones (China and Vietnam) are so largely because they have jettisoned many of the original basic tenets of communism and are in some important areas – notably the economy – already post communist.”

Of the other three holdouts, Laos is a “backwater” that is beginning a transition to capitalism, North Korea is an isolated kingdom, and Cuba is trying to hold back American influence, with a little help from U.S. sanctions. In another decade or so, it’s possible that the few remaining nations will not even bother to describe themselves as communist.

The near total collapse of communism is a really remarkable thing, given how ascendant world communism looked for so long. From the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the reds were on a roll. Mr. Holmes reminds us, “By the 1970s, more than a third of the world’s population lived in a Communist system.”

In 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall was torn down, the same year Ronald Reagan boldly declared “the Cold War is over,” Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson wrote in the latest edition of his popular textbook “Economics” that the “Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” Mr. Lovell provides the perfect rebuttal to that sort of blinkered theorizing in his survey of the Soviet Union: “The Soviet order ended as it had started: with food queues.”

There aren’t many remaining out-and-out apologists for communism left, but some thinkers have offered creative arguments for why it failed. Karl Marx theorized that communism was the stage that an economy could reach only after capitalism, but the places that communism really took root – Russia, China, Cambodia, etc. – were not industrialized, and the communist regimes felt they had to sacrifice a great deal of their citizens’ blood, sweat and foolish bourgeoisie dreams to secure a better proletarian future.

The result was buckets of blood – senseless death on a massive scale. Perhaps 100 million people were killed by communist governments in the 20th century, and, no, that’s not counting most wars. Mr. Lovell says his task is to “characterize the Soviet Union, not pass sentence on it,” but any accurate characterization will invite angry condemnation.

Forget, for a moment, the purges, the gulag, the show trials and most other state-sponsored forms of violence. Even when the communists weren’t actively trying to kill people, they still often managed it through dogmatic determination and malign neglect.

The efforts to collectivize agriculture brought famines, killing millions of innocent people. This is illustrated by one haunting photo in Mr. Lovell’s book, captioned “A starvation victim in Kiev, November 1932.” In the picture, one man lies on his back on the sidewalk while half a dozen people mill around him. No one looks at him or gives any indication that he is anything other than a part of the landscape. People chat. A father takes his son’s hand and shuffles him away. Nothing can be done about it, so the people avert their gaze.

Mr. Lovell and Mr. Holmes look more at communism’s interior deterioration but do say that outside agents hastened its demise. Mr. Holmes writes that “by the beginning of the 1980, leading Western nations had a new generation of much tougher-minded anti-communist leaders, notably Margaret Thatcher in the UK (1979) and Ronald Reagan in the USA (1980). The tide was about to turn, and the days of Communist power’s expansion were over.”

Mr. Troy does a good job showing the part Ronald Reagan’s statesmanship played in hastening communism’s end in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. President Reagan’s religious upbringing and his reading of free-market economists played a role, as did his anti-communist credentials. He knew that communism had gotten human nature dead wrong and that a command economy couldn’t work; thus he knew where the Soviet Union was vulnerable.

The surprising thing, to many of President Reagan’s critics, is that he showed how vulnerable he could be as well. “[W]hile recovering from John Hinckley’s bullet,” Mr. Troy reminds us, “Reagan wrote a surprisingly warm letter to soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev” and he would reach out to Mikhail Gorbachev, which helped to make the Soviet Union’s dissolution relatively bloodless. He wanted world peace and – for one all-too-brief moment – he got it.

Jeremy Lott is editor of Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency” (Thomas Nelson, 2007).

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By Gil Troy, The News & Observer, 2-3-09

“The Reagan I Knew” by William F. Buckley Jr., (Basic Books, 240 page)

William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan were the conservative revolution’s odd couple. Buckley was the movement’s elitist prophet, scolding Americans polysyllabically. Reagan was its populist preacher, inspiring millions to join him in repudiating “big government.”

In this herky-jerky yet compelling valentine, “The Reagan I Knew,” Buckley recalls their relationship through 40 years of correspondence with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, interspersed with adoring commentary.

Readers should not expect to find thoughtful discourses on conservatism from Buckley or detailed reflections on governing from Reagan. The book — Buckley’s 55th and last, completed just before he died in February 2008 — is impressionistic. The book’s limits suggest the friendship’s boundaries, demonstrating one of the great Reagan paradoxes.

For all his legendary affability, Reagan was remarkably remote. Even his devoted wife, Nancy, called him an emotional “brick wall.” Reagan filled his letters to friends and strangers with homilies preaching conservative doctrine, but he neither shared doubts nor engaged in tortured debates. His governing philosophy seemed hatched fully formed. He lacked the capacity to regret, replay mistakes in his mind or apologize. In some this remoteness provoked anger, as evidenced through a series of scorching memoirs by spurned aides, especially David Stockman and Donald Regan.

Instead of moping about his powerful friend’s enigmatic distance, the aristocratic, infamously secure Buckley delighted in whatever contact they had. Marinated in a 1950s sensibility, the Buckley-Reagan exchanges reek of cigarette smoke and vodka martinis. They evoke a time when gentlemen corresponded rather than chatted on the phone or e-mailed, and delighted in their flirtatious, twinkle-in-the-eye banter.

They met in 1961. Buckley, 36, the National Review’s founding editor, was lecturing in Los Angeles. Reagan, 50, was a disenchanted Democrat and aging movie star slated to introduce the conservative wunderkind. Alas, the auditorium’s control booth was locked with the microphone off. Unruffled, Reagan opened a window, slid along a parapet two stories high, broke into the booth and turned on the microphone. This act — done with Reagan’s characteristic grace — anticipated their roles in the coming conservative revolution. Reagan’s bold moves helped broadcast Buckley’s ideas.

That bonding experience began a 30-year friendship. Despite Buckley’s swagger as one of America’s smartest smart alecks and Democrats’ caricature of Reagan the dummy, Reagan’s repartee easily matched Buckley’s.

Buckley flirted with Nancy Reagan, addressing her as “Cherie” and imagining a rendezvous in Casablanca. He also befriended Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s two children, Patti and Ron Jr., occasionally mediating between the oft-neglected offspring and their frustrated parents.

Buckley and Reagan agreed that Communism was evil and America’s government was overgrown. By 1966, Reagan was running to be California’s governor and Buckley had started his public affairs television show, “Firing Line,” which would run until 1999. Reagan was an occasional guest.

For one memorable moment in the late 1970s, the two buddies clashed over returning the Panama Canal to Panama. The story of their televised debate is the book’s highlight, as the friends dueled with civility, wit, and flair. After the opening statements, Reagan, who opposed the treaty, paused, flashing his charming smile, then said, “Well, Bill, my first question is, Why haven’t you already rushed across the room here to tell me that you’ve seen the light?” Buckley retorted: “I’m afraid that if I came any closer to you the force of my illumination would blind you.”

Although Buckley was suitably deferential after Reagan became president, the jesting continued as did the occasional frank exchanges. In July 1981, after nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, Reagan reported, brusquely, “I am going forward on this first court appointment with a woman to get my campaign promise out of the way.” He added, however: “I’m happy to say I had to make no compromise with quality.”

Regarding Reagan’s other towering accomplishment, Communism’s collapse, Buckley feared Reagan was too wowed by Mikhail Gorbachev. He warned the president not to mothball America’s Pershing missiles too quickly under 1987’s sweeping disarmament treaty. Reagan told Buckley he relied on “our verification provisions and on the fact that Gorby knows what our response to cheating would be — it’s spelled Pershing.”

In the spirit of the book — and this remarkable friendship — Buckley credits Reagan for being right, knighting him the world statesman most responsible for defeating Communism. Buckley’s disagreement with Reagan regarding Gorbachev highlights the contrast between the two men.

An ideologue with political savvy, Buckley packaged his ideas to popularize them but ultimately cared more about staying consistent.

A politician with an ideological edge, Reagan rooted his policies in a broader vision but cared more about staying popular — and winning. Reagan’s surprising nimbleness was a key to his success; he was far more willing to compromise and change than his allies or his opponents expected. Reagan governed in America’s great centrist tradition of muscular moderation, balancing the ideal and the real, the politics of what should be done with the politics of what could be done.

This easy-reading, illuminating volume adds to the growing literature celebrating Reagan’s style and substantive achievements, especially in ending the Cold War. Reagan once again comes across as a deeper, smarter, suppler leader than Democrats acknowledged. Buckley offers an inspiring example, too. At a time when issues were just as serious, Reagan and Buckley showed how to talk politics and do politics, with a lighter touch, keeping a wry perspective that diluted the partisanship. This book commemorates William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan as successful revolutionaries and true gentlemen.

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University.

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The Grand American Narrative

As the united States prepares to inaugurate a new president, popular historian simon schama examines the country’s past to find hope in the present

By GIL TROY, Freelance, Canwest Newspapers, January 17, 2009

A conductor leads a military band rehearsing outside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington last Sunday. Barack Obama is to be sworn in as president Tuesday.

Many Americans – and friends of the United States worldwide – are greeting the new age of Barack Obama with particular glee. The giddiness is partly due to

Obama’s youth, eloquence and rock-star charisma, and partly because Obama’s inauguration Tuesday will

also mark George W. Bush’s retirement. In this early

example of what will probably become a library-full of Obama redemptive tales, historian Simon Schama identifies the Iowa Caucus that Obama won in January 2008 as the moment “when American democracy came back from the dead.”

Schama is one of today’s most readable and well-rounded historians. In an age of hyper-specialization, Schama has written lyrically and insightfully about the French Revolution and the African-

American slave crossing, about subjects as sweeping as the history of Britain and as specific as the works of Rembrandt. His histories are usually Rembrandt-like, vivid, realistic portraits displaying remarkable dimensionality and depth.

In this offbeat, journalistic yet nevertheless appealing book, Schama has produced an impressionistic work more akin to a Picasso during the artist’s rollicking, energetic, colourful Cubist period. This work finds inspiration for the future by sampling more than 300 years of U.S. history in a non-linear, creative way.

Reflecting the kind of efficiency that helps make Schama so productive, the book is a prose version of a similarly named BBC production. Back in his native England, Schama has become famous for narrating sprawling popular television documentaries. This project seems intended to reassure his fellow Brits that by looking at the United States’s proud history, they can rest easy about its future. The double-dipping may be responsible for the book’s herky-jerky and

occasionally obscure nature, as Schama seeks out particular sites and individuals who can illustrate his point, rather than developing his story chronologically.

Schama believes that the United States remains the beacon to the world, a magnet attracting more than a million immigrants

annually, a wellspring of liberal rights and noble ideals. The country works both because of its founding principles and because of its advantageous practical conditions.

Tackling the explosive issue of church and state, Schama praises the founders’ “daring bet” that “freedom and faith” could be

“mutually nourishing.” This delicious mix, Schama writes, “has made Americans uniquely qualified to fight the only battle that matters … the war of toleration against conformity; the war of a faith that commands obedience against a faith that promises liberty.” This tension, he believes, “turns out to be the big American story.”

Americans have struck the right ideological balance because they are blessed by what Schama calls “the wide blue yonder.”

Having so much space has always allowed Americans to move on, start over, find a new spot. He exults: “Say howdy, give it a good poke and up will pop your very own piece of plenty: a crop of corn, a magic glint in the stream, a gush of black gold.” Even today, in a more developed, bureaucratic and sclerotic country, America’s great expanse remains redemptive. Schama celebrates the United States’s stunning diversity and complexity as a source of healing, the spur to “rejuvenating alternatives,” neither impeding order nor reform. The many alternatives mean that Americans never hit a dead end: “Americans roused can turn on a dime, abandon habits of a lifetime … convert indignation into action and before you know it there’s a whole new United States in the neighbourhood.”

Predictably, Schama venerates the country’s great constructive subversives, ranging from founders like Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to civil-rights revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer. Less familiar to readers will be Schama’s fascination with the Meigs family, an American dynasty whose story traces back to 1636 and tracks “the history of America.” The most prominent member of this clan was Montgomery C. Meigs, the quartermaster general of the Grand Army of the Republic

during the Civil War. Meigs and his family embody all the great virtues Schama recognizes in his adopted country – pragmatism and altruism, creativity and adaptability, passion and candour.

Ultimately, this book is history for hortatory purposes, applying the grand American narrative of the past to find hope in the present.

If Obama’s presidency gets bogged down in controversies, if he becomes a leader whose governing abilities cannot match his lovely ideals or the high hopes he generated, Schama’s book will end up on the ash heap of history, a reflection of Obama’s great potential and a sobering reminder, once again, of problems unsolved, dreams

unfulfilled, messianic expectations dashed and believers in democracy disappointed.

On the other hand, if Obama transforms the U.S. mood, and the country’s condition and reputation, Schama’s book will be hailed as prophetic, as both anticipating and helping to realize this great, healing Obama moment so many crave.

Gil Troy is a professor of U.S. history at McGill University.

The American Future: A History

By Simon Schama

Viking, 392 pages, $34

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Reviewed by Hubert Bauch, The Montreal Gazette, September 28, 2008

Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents

Gil Troy

Basic Books

341 pp., $29.50

– – – –

It’s a pity that this book had to go to press before the tickets for this year’s U.S. presidential election shaped up. It is nevertheless timely, coming as it does at the start of the sprint stage of the marathon that is a U.S. presidential race, which essentially begins the day after the last one ends.

Gil Troy’s review of past presidencies is an instructive guide to rating this year’s contenders. His thesis is that the most successful presidents have practised constructive moderation by embracing and defining the political centre of their times, rejecting extremism of the left and right, but at the same time seeking to reconcile conflicting currents of thought with enlightened compromise.

Going for the centre may sound like a no-brainer. It is the hoariest of political wisdom that the leader who best positions himself at the political centre that encompasses the broad majority of voters will be blessed with success. But as the Queens-born Troy, who now teaches history at McGill University, expounds in Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, that’s easier said than done.

“It is a high-wire balancing act,” he writes. “Leaning too far in any one direction or holding on too tight to heavy baggage risks a steep fall, often with no safety net.

“Vigorous responses have to be rationally based. Shrill debates obscure real dangers and risk hysterical overreactions.”

The successful practitioner must be a visionary, but cautious in the application of vision, able to compromise without abdicating principle, capable of firing the public imagination while respecting the bounds of realism. It takes not just moderates, as Troy puts it, but muscular moderates; not just centrists, but passionate centrists.

The governing idea is to think creatively, cultivate broad alliances and “push voters just enough so they move forward without losing their balance.”

Those who have masterfully succeeded at this in Troy’s book include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin Delano and, most lately, Ronald Reagan.

Prominent among those he counts as falling short on one essential count or the other include Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

He suggests Washington, with his power of personality, modesty of manner and diligent striving for common cause in forging a nation from a gaggle of disparate colonies, set a lasting tone for American democracy at its best, when it works in a spirit of civility and centrism.

Troy makes the point that the centre path is by no means the easy way.

His successful centrists tend to have in common that they catch flack from both sides of the ideological divide between left and right, including from their own partisans. Lincoln was reviled by both slavers and abolitionists for his incremental approach to emancipation, initially willing to allow some slavery in the interest of preserving the union; in his day, FDR was denounced as a stooge for both commies and capitalists.

Clinton gets marked down as a failure even though Troy hails him as a “political virtuoso” and an instinctive centrist. He gets written off for being bigger on talk than action, reluctant to stake his popularity on risky endeavours. The conclusion is drawn that “presidents who love to be loved too much fail to accomplish much.”

Bush II fails the moderation grade for the opposite reason. Where Clinton’s moderation lacked muscle, Bush came on with an excess of muscle and a dearth of moderation, content to be president of half the country and damn the rest.

This is a scholarly book, but most accessible to anyone with a serious interest in politics. It offers a sprightly tour of U.S. presidential history liberally sprinkled with bon mots and eloquently expressed insights, both Troy’s and those he quotes.

Another pity is that the book is entirely devoted to U.S. politics. It would have been interesting to get a take on how his thesis applies to Canada, and why the U.S. political centre is so markedly skewed to the right of where it lies in Canada.

But then, that could make for a whole other book.

Hubert Bauch is The Montreal Gazette’s senior political writer.

© The Edmonton Journal 2008

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