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Ohio University Electronic Communication Date: 09-Jul-1995 10:15pm EST To: Remote Addressee ( _MXfirstname.lastname@example.org ) From: Diplomatic History Dept: History HDIPLO Tel No: Subject: REV: Ehrman, Rise of Neoconservatism Date: Sat, 08 Jul 1995 04:51:55 -0600 (CST) This book review by John C. Springer is copyright (C) 1995 by Boston Book Review. Fair use copying allowed; distributed free to Internet users via: http://www.bookwire.com/bbr/bbr-home.html THE RISE OF NEOCONSERVATIVISM: INTELLECTUALS AND FOREIGN AFFAIRS 1945-1994 John Ehrman Yale University 241 pp. $27.50 Review by John C. Springer Featured in BBR June 1995 _________________________________________________________________ Pity the neoconservatives. Like Soviet rocket scientists looking for a new employer and Latin American death squads in search of CIA funding, neoconservatives-the hawkish Democrats who broke with the party for being soft on communism-have been cast adrift by the cold war's end. As neoconservatives search for a new mission, John Ehrman, a lecturer in history at George Washington University, has reviewed their history and accomplishments in his new book The Rise of Neoconservatism. As Ehrman explains, the roots of neoconservatism date back to a late-1930s debate within the American left. Communists and Progressives sought radical changes in American society and worked with the Soviet Union and other Communist organizations to bring about those changes. Their rivals, the liberals-forerunners of today's neoconservatives- agreed on the need for social and economic reform. Yet liberals were staunchly anti-totalitarian, hence anti-Soviet, in both domestic and foreign policy. The Soviet-American alliance during WWII blunted liberals' anti-Soviet fervor. But with the rise in superpower tensions between 1946 and 1949 the liberal call to contain communism became the foundation of U.S. foreign policy. The twin pillars of the liberal position, expansion of democracy at home and resistance to communism abroad, were together known as the "vital center." Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explained the vital center this way in 1949: "We must commit ourselves to . . . the struggle within the world against Communism and fascism; the struggle within our own country against oppression and stagnation; the struggle within ourselves against pride and corruption; nor can engagement in one dimension exclude responsibility for another." The vital center gave coherence to American foreign and domestic policies until it crumbled in the late 1960s. Revisionist historians had begun chipping away at the vital center a decade earlier by portraying the United States as an imperialistic power that had started the cold war. As American casualties in the war in Indochina escalated, Americans increasingly questioned the morality and wisdom of their nation's anti-Communist crusade. On the domestic front, the rise of the New Left and black and student militancy-what Ehrman calls "radicalism run amok"-challenged the values and institutions of liberal democracy. The collapse of the vital center pushed neoconservatives and the Democratic Party leadership in opposite directions. Party leaders reacted to the Indochina debacle by abandoning the vital center's foreign policy pillar of aggressive anti- communism. To neoconservatives, in contrast, the U.S. defeat in Indochina signaled rising Soviet power and thus demanded a stronger U.S. anti-Communist commitment. In domestic policy the Democrats continued to back large-scale federal programs to combat poverty and other social ills. Again in contrast, neoconservatives, horrified at the militancy of American leftists and increasingly skeptical of federal social programs, drifted rightward on domestic issues through the 1970s. The break came during the Carter administration. Jimmy Carter's fuzzy moralism and his coolness toward Israel (many neoconservatives were Jewish and strong supporters of Israel) convinced the bulk of neoconservatives that the Democratic Party was beyond salvation. In 1980 they voted Republican, contributing to Ronald Reagan's victory. "Coping with Success" is the title of Ehrman's chapter on Reagan's first term. The successes were immediate, as neoconservatives such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliot Abrams gained important policymaking positions. The coping came later, as neoconservative ideologues like Commentary's Norman Podhoretz began complaining that Reagan spent more time talking about rolling back communism than doing it. On balance, though, Reagan policies from Star Wars to Nicaragua to Grenada to Afghanistan showed that this was the neoconservatives' heyday, and most of them knew it. The real trouble came when the Soviet Union first reformed, then imploded, leaving neoconservatives without an enemy. Throughout this account Ehrman writes clearly and sympathetically, without the annoying self-righteousness of many of the neocons themselves. But his book, like much neoconservative thinking, sometimes feels oddly disconnected from world events. Ehrman practically ignores the Sino-Soviet split, which proved that international communism was not monolithic and which should therefore have forced the United States to consider anti-Communist and anti-Soviet policies independently. Similarly, in Ehrman's telling the neocons learned nothing more from Vietnam than not to trust other Democrats on foreign policy. And as Ehrman notes, in the late 1980s Commentary was still describing the Soviet Union as an expanding totalitarian nightmare, when in fact the country was caving in on itself. This stubbornness toward reality shows up also in Ehrman's description of the career of New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the first neoconservative intellectual to win elective office. Ehrman first praises Moynihan's reliance in the 1970s on "ideas from the late 1940s" and then criticizes Moynihan's later "confused and contradictory" statements questioning Reagan policies in Central America. The world itself became more confusing and contradictory after the late 1940s; it is to Moynihan's credit that he finally reconsidered his earlier theories in light of new realities. With world communism in full retreat, neoconservatives have turned their attention to domestic affairs-William Kristol has become one of Bill Clinton's chief tormentors-and are promoting broadly laissez-faire policies. In foreign affairs they are calling for a reduced American involvement motivated by material national interests rather than ideology. They are becoming, in other words, more like traditional conservatives ("paleoconservatives"). Will the neocons thus disappear as a distinct group? Ehrman predicts "a renewal of neoconservative foreign policy thinking in the mid-1990s." But if that thinking is just selective interventionism based on the principles of realism, there's nothing inherently neoconservative about it. (Another, scary possibility is a new ideological crusade, with Islam replacing communism as America's worldwide enemy.) What made the neocons interesting was that unlike many on the right, they saw America's weaknesses and unlike many on the left, they also saw its strengths. Neocons lost that balance when they abandoned, in Schlesinger's words, "the struggle within our own country against oppression and stagnation." Now that their side has won the struggle against the Communists, neocons may well join their vanquished rivals in the dustbin of history. _________________________________________________________________ John C. Springer is an editor living in Somerville. _________________________________________________________________ Received: 09-Jul-1995 10:16pm