Following is the text (slightly modified) of the Francis Boyer Award Lecture, delivered in Washington at the annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute on February 13, 2002, under the title “America at War: ‘The One Thing Needful.’ ”
It is now almost exactly five months since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the question I want to explore tonight is whether September 11 hurled us into a new era of American history.
Certainly, this is how it seemed. The most obvious symptom was that once again we were saluting our now ubiquitously displayed flag. This was the very flag that, not so long ago, leftist radicals had thought fit only for burning. Yet now, even on the old flag-burning Left, a few prominent personalities were painfully wrenching their unaccustomed arms into something vaguely resembling a salute.
Contemplating these people, I was reminded of the response to the bloody suppression by the new Soviet regime under Lenin of the sailors’ revolt that erupted in Kronstadt in the early 1920’s. Far more murderous horrors would pour out of the malignantly tenebrous recesses of Stalinist rule, but as the first in that long series of atrocities leading to disillusionment with the Soviet Union and to breaks with the Communist party, Kronstadt—in effect a workers’ revolt against the putative workers’ state—became the portent of them all.
Well, September 11 served as an inverse Kronstadt for a number of radical leftists of today. What it did was raise questions about what one of them called their inveterately “negative faith in America the ugly.”
September 11 reminded me, too, of a poem by W.H. Auden, transplanted from London to New York in a trade of poets (they got T.S. Eliot and we got Auden plus a few future draft picks). Auden’s poem, written upon the outbreak of World War II, was entitled “September 1, 1939.” It contained hostile sentiments about America left over from Auden’s Communist period, but the opening lines are so evocative of September 11, 2001 that it is no wonder they were quoted so often in the early days of our new war:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.
Auden’s low dishonest decade, of course, was the 1930’s, and its clever hopes centered on the construction of that workers’ paradise in the Soviet Union. Our counterpart was the 1960’s, and its less clever hopes centered not on construction, however illusory, but on destruction—the destruction of the institutions that made up the American way of life. For America was conceived as the great obstacle to any improvement in the lot of the wretched of the earth, not least those within its own borders.
Now, I recognize that, as James Q. Wilson has recently reminded us, the 1960’s are a long way off, and are in any event not an all-purpose explanation of everything that has gone wrong with this country since then. Where the hostility of American intellectuals toward America is concerned, I myself have traced it back to the period following the Civil War. Nevertheless, I am far from alone in my conviction that the radical movement of the 1960’s was the proximate source of the “negative faith in America the ugly” to which so many were converted both during and after that period.
Because, to me, the new patriotic mood represented a return to greater sanity and health, I fervently hoped that it would last. But I want to tell a story that will explain why I could not fully share the heady confidence of some of my political friends that this was a permanent and not an ephemeral change.
One day in the year 1960, I was invited to address a meeting of left-wing radicals. For my sins—sins of which I have been repenting for more than three decades by now—I was a leading member of this then tiny movement. The main issue around which it had first begun to coalesce was nuclear disarmament. But the subject on which I had been asked to speak was a new one that had barely begun to show the whites of its eyes. It was the possibility of American military involvement in a faraway place of which we knew little—a place called Vietnam.
Accompanying me that evening was the late Marion Magid, a member of my staff at COMMENTARY magazine, of which I had recently become the editor. As we entered the drafty old hall on Union Square in Manhattan, Marion surveyed the 50 or so people in the audience, and whispered to me: “Do you realize that every young person in this room is a tragedy to some family or other?”
Marion Magid’s quip brings back to life some sense of how unpromising a future there promised to be for that bedraggled-looking assemblage. No one would have dreamed that these young people, and the generation about to descend politically and culturally from them, would within the blink of a historical eye be hailed as “the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic this country has ever known.” These words, incredibly, would emanate from what the new movement regarded as the very belly of the beast: from, to be specific, the mouth of Archibald Cox, a professor at the Harvard Law School and later solicitor general of the United States. Similar encomia would also ooze unctuously from parents, teachers, clergymen, artists, and journalists.
More incredible yet, the ideas and attitudes of the new movement, cleaned up but essentially unchanged, would within a mere ten years turn one of our two major parties upside down and inside out. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously declared that we would “pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” By 1972, George McGovern, nominated for President by Kennedy’s own party, was campaigning on the slogan, “Come Home, America.” It was a slogan that almost perfectly reflected the ethos of the embryonic movement that I had addressed in Union Square only about a decade before.
But the pathetic impression my audience made on Marion Magid does not begin to explain why such a development would have struck anyone present that night as so unlikely. For the new movement was bucking a national consensus that came close to being universal. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman, recognizing a threat from Soviet expansionism, had embraced the policy of containment to deal with it. A year later, running for reelection, Truman had fended off challenges both from his Right, which regarded containment as—in the young Richard Nixon’s term—“cowardly,” and from his Left, to which the same strategy amounted to warmongering.
Truman’s victory, then, signified the coming together of the nation behind his foreign policy. But there was also a wider dimension to this burgeoning political consensus, and it was beautifully captured in a historic essay of 1947 by George F. Kennan. Much later, Kennan would deny that he had said what he said in that essay, what everyone at the time thought he had said, and what rereading the essay clearly demonstrates that he had in fact said. To wit:
The thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude for a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.
In “pulling themselves together” precisely for these reasons and in precisely this way, the American people were rewarded with a great burst of economic and political energy. Instead of the postwar depression that had been widely expected, there was unprecedented prosperity. And instead of turning inward, Americans demonstrated their willingness to pay the price in blood and treasure to fend off the advance of Stalinist totalitarianism, just as they had done after some hesitation in response to the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany. For this, too, they were rewarded, with an upsurge in pride and self-confidence.
But what was in some sense even more unprecedented was the effect on the country’s intellectuals. As Marxists of one stripe or another, many of them had only recently gloried in their “alienation” from American society. Now in the early postwar years most of them became anti-Communists, and they too joined, often to their own astonishment, in what the few remaining socialists among them petulantly derided as the “American celebration.”
Yet this did not result in the loss of creative power smugly predicted by the dissenters. On the contrary: the rediscovery by the formerly alienated of what Mary McCarthy, one of their brightest young stars, did not shrink from calling “America the Beautiful,” gave rise to a richer high culture than that of the 1930’s before or of the 1960’s that followed. I am thinking of the emergence in the 1950’s of a host of figures who shared, at least for a while, in the newly positive attitude toward American society: novelists like Saul Bellow; poets like Robert Lowell; critics like Lionel Trilling; philosophers like Hannah Arendt; theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr; political analysts like George Kennan himself. And the same story unfolds when we venture beyond writers into the realm of painters, sculptors, architects, and composers.
In going over this familiar ground, I am trying to make two points. One is that the nascent radical movement of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was up against an adversary that looked unassailable. Yet even so—and here is my second point—to the bewilderment of almost everyone, and not least of the radicals themselves, they blew and they blew and they blew the house down. Even some of the rediscoverers of “America the Beautiful,” including Mary McCarthy, did another 180-degree pirouette and contributed a bit of emphysemic blowing themselves.
Here we had a major turning point that slipped in under the radar of virtually all the pundits and the trend-spotters. How well I remember the late John Roche, a political scientist then working in the Johnson White House, being quoted by the columnist Jimmy Breslin as having dismissed the radicals as a bunch of “Upper West Side jackal bins.” Jackal bins? What were jackal bins? As further investigation disclosed, Roche had said “Jacobins,” a word evidently so unfamiliar to his interviewer that “jackal bins” was the best he could do with it in transcribing his notes.
Much ink has been spilled, a few gallons of it by me, in the struggle to explain how and why a great “Establishment” representing so wide a national consensus could have been toppled so easily and so quickly by so small and marginal a group as these “jackal bins.” I will set aside the race riots that broke out in one city after another, because I am concentrating here exclusively on foreign affairs. In that arena, the usual answer to the question I just posed is, in a word, Vietnam—the subject of my talk that night in Union Square. In this view, it was by deciding to fight an unpopular war that the Establishment rendered itself vulnerable.
But the problem is that Vietnam was a popular war. At the beginning, all the major media—from the New York Times to the Washington Post, from Time to Newsweek, from CBS to ABC—supported our intervention. So did most of the professoriate. And so did the public. Even when all but one or two of the people who had either directly led us into Vietnam, or applauded our intervention, commenced falling all over themselves as they scampered to the head of the antiwar parade, public opinion continued supporting the war.
No matter: public opinion had ceased to count. Indeed, even reality itself had ceased to count. Consider the Tet offensive of 1968. It was, as all now agree and some vainly struggled to insist then, a crushing defeat for the Communists. But Walter Cronkite had only to declare it a defeat for us on the CBS Evening News, and a defeat it became.
Admittedly, in electoral politics, where numbers are decisive, public opinion remained potent. None of the doves contending for the presidency in 1968 or 1972 could beat Richard Nixon. But even Nixon felt it necessary to claim that he had a plan for getting us out of Vietnam. Furthermore, in another part of the forest of electoral politics—I mean the Congress—public support for the war had almost no influence.
In other words, on Vietnam, elite opinion trumped popular opinion. Nor was this phenomenon restricted to foreign policy. It extended into a newly antagonistic attitude toward America that ranged from skepticism about our character and intentions to outright hatred of everything we were and represented.
It hardly needs stressing that this attitude found a home in—to round up the usual suspects—the world of the arts, the universities, and the major media of news and entertainment, where intellectuals shaped by the 1960’s, and their acolytes in the publishing houses of New York and in the studios of Hollywood, held sway.
But it would be a serious mistake to suppose that the trickle-down effect of the professoriate’s attitude was confined to literature, journalism, and show business. John Maynard Keynes once said that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Keynes was referring specifically to businessmen. But practical functionaries like bureaucrats and administrators were subject to the same rule, though they tended to be the slaves not of economists but of historians and sociologists and philosophers and novelists who were very much alive even when their ideas had, or should have, become defunct.
It was by no means necessary for the practical men to have studied the works in question, or even to have heard of the authors of those works. All they had to do was read the New York Times, or switch on their television sets, or go to the movies—and, drip by insidious drip, a more easily assimilable form of the original material would be absorbed into their heads and their nervous systems.
These, in sum, are some of the factors that make me wonder whether September 11, 2001 will have turned out to mark a genuine turning point comparable to December 7, 1941. I was not quite twelve years old when President Roosevelt sought and obtained a declaration of war right after Pearl Harbor, but I remember the period well, and I cannot recall so much as a peep of protest out of the isolationists who had previously opposed our entry into that great conflict. And if the Germans and the Japanese now became more intensive subjects of study in this country, it was not in order to love or justify them but to learn better how to defeat them.
Now here we are in the early days of another war that may well be supported by an even larger percentage of the public than Vietnam was at the beginning. Today, however, the numerically insignificant opposition is stronger than it was in the early days of Vietnam. The reason is that it still maintains a tight grip over the institutions that had been surrendered to the anti-American Left by the end of the 1960’s.
Take, for a start, the literary community, which can stand in for the world of the arts in general. No sooner had the Twin Towers been toppled and the Pentagon smashed than a fierce competition began for the gold in the anti-American Olympics. One of my old ex-friends, Susan Sontag, seized an early lead in this contest with a piece in the New Yorker in which she asserted that September 11 was an attack “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” Not content with that, she went on to compare congressional expressions of support for the man she characterized as our “robotic President” to “the unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress.”
Another of my old ex-friends, Norman Mailer, who had been uncharacteristically slow out of the starting gate, soon came up strong on the inside by comparing the Twin Towers to “two huge buck teeth,” and pronouncing the ruins at ground zero “more beautiful than the buildings were.” The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen had beaten Mailer to the punch with similar imagery, extolling the destruction of the World Trade Center as “the greatest work of art ever,” against which “we composers are nothing.” But Stockhausen then repented of this remark, possibly because on second thought he considered it unfair to his own music.
No such second thoughts came from Mailer. Still playing the enfant terrible even as he was closing in on his eightieth year to heaven, he gathered steam in denouncing us as “cultural oppressors and aesthetic oppressors” of the Third World. And in what did this oppression consist? It consisted, he expatiated, in our establishing “enclaves of our food out there, like McDonald’s,” and in putting “our high-rise buildings . . . around the airports” of even “the meanest, scummiest, capital[s] in the world.”
So much for the literary community. Then there was the campus, to which I am tempted to apply Hamlet’s words: “Fie on it! O fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,/ That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely.” A report issued shortly after September 11 by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or ACTA—whose founding chairman was Lynne V. Cheney—cited about a hundred malodorous statements wafting out of campuses all over the country that resembled Sontag and Mailer in blaming the attacks not on the terrorists but on America.
I realize that the stench emitted from the groves of academe has long since penetrated into all our nostrils. But I think another whiff would sharpen our sense of the noxious weeds still flourishing there that could, under the right circumstances, grow to a truly monstrous size. Here, then, are a half-dozen typical samples:
- From a professor at MIT: “The best way to begin a war on terrorism might be to look in the mirror.”
- From a professor at Brown: “What happened on September 11 was terrorism, but what happened during the Gulf war was also terrorism.”
- From a professor at the University of New Mexico: “Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote.”
- From a professor at Rutgers: “[We] should be aware that, whatever [September 11’s] proximate cause, its ultimate cause is the fascism of U.S. foreign policy over the past many decades.”
- From a professor at the University of Massachusetts: “[The American flag] is a symbol of terrorism and death and fear and destruction and oppression.”
- From a professor at the University of Texas: “[The terrorist attack] was no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism . . . that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime.”
When the ACTA report was issued, cries of “McCarthyism”—that first refuge of a left-wing scoundrel—were heard throughout the land. A New York Times editorial later chimed in with the epithet “repugnant.” Yet what repelled the Times about the report was not statements like the ones I have just cited. It was that ACTA had “attacked dozens of professors for having reacted to the terrorist attacks in ways its authors considered inappropriate.”
Inappropriate! One could scarcely find a better current illustration of what George Orwell meant when he wrote in 1946 that “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” And I cannot resist revisiting Orwell’s much-circulated crack about a comparably demented piece of anti-American vitriol that a leftist British intellectual spewed out during World War II: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that,” said Orwell; “no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
But much as I revere Orwell, I prefer a homelier version of the same crack, whose author was the aunt of Saul Bellow. After overhearing a passionate ideological dispute around her own kitchen table between the future Nobel laureate for literature and his radical friends from the University of Chicago, she muttered: “Smart, smart, smart. . . . Stupid.”
Like the professors in the ACTA report, Susan Sontag, too, claimed that her freedom of speech was being placed in jeopardy. In this peculiar reading of the First Amendment, she is free to say anything she likes, but the right to free speech ends where criticism of what she has said begins.
Actually, with rare exceptions, the only attempts to stifle dissent on the campus were directed at the many students and the few faculty members who supported the war against terrorism. All these attempts could be encapsulated in a single phenomenon: on a number of campuses, students or professors who displayed American flags or patriotic posters were forced to take them down.
As for Susan Sontag’s freedom of speech, I have in my possession a file several inches thick containing transcripts of fawning interviews with her in periodicals and on television programs after her New Yorker piece appeared.
And speaking of television, it was soon inundated with material presenting Islam in the most glowing terms. Mainly, these programs took their cue from the President and other political leaders. Out of the best of motives, and for prudential reasons as well, elected officials were striving mightily to deny that the war against terrorism was a war against Islam. They therefore never ceased heaping praises on the beauties of that religion, about which few of them knew anything.
But it was from the universities, not from the politicians, that the substantive content of the broadcasts derived, in interviews with Muslim academics whose accounts of Islam were—how shall I put it?—selectively roseate. Sometimes they were even downright untruthful, especially in sanitizing the doctrine of jihad, or holy war, or in misrepresenting the extent to which leading Muslim clerics all over the world had been celebrating suicide bombers as heroes and martyrs.
I do not bring this up in order to enter into a theological dispute. My purpose, rather, is to offer another case study in the continued workings of the trickle-down effect I have already described. Thus, almost within hours after September 11, the universities began adding courses on Islam to their curricula. On the campus, understanding Islam inevitably translated into apologetics for it, and most of the media dutifully followed suit. The media also adopted the stance of neutrality between the terrorists and ourselves that prevailed among the relatively moderate professoriate, as when the major television networks ordered their anchors to avoid exhibiting partisanship.
Here the great exception was the Fox News Channel. The New York Times ran an article deploring the fact that Fox was covering the war from—O the horror! The horror!—a frankly pro-American perspective. But the Times was relieved that no other network had so cavalierly discarded the sacred conventions dictating that journalists, in the words of the president of ABC News, must “maintain their neutrality in times of war.”
It is important to note that a few voices on the Right also blamed America for having been attacked. Speaking on Pat Robertson’s TV program, the Reverend Jerry Falwell delivered himself of the view that God was punishing the United States for the moral decay exemplified by a variety of liberal groups among us. Both later apologized for singling out these groups, but each continued to insist that God was withdrawing His protection from America because all of us had become such great sinners.
On the secular Right, we had the columnist Robert Novak, along with that born-again Coughlinite Pat Buchanan. In the opinion of these two, and others of like mind, it was not our disobedience to divine law but our friendliness toward Israel that had brought this attack upon us. That bin Laden had never been much concerned with the Palestinians made no difference to Buchanan and Novak: they knew better.
For the moment, though, the major fount of oppositional action remained on the Left, and it was mainly burbling in the universities. There, Eric Foner, a professor of history at my own alma mater, Columbia, was perhaps the most prominent among those who tried to turn the tables on ACTA by risibly condemning it for trying “to enforce a particular party line on American colleges and universities.” Foner also condemned the report as misleading, since the polls proved that there was “firm support” for the war among college students. “If our aim is to indoctrinate students with unpatriotic beliefs,” Foner smirked, “we’re obviously doing a very poor job of it.” Well, we know that parents who shell out $35,000 a year to universities like Columbia are not getting their money’s worth, but in this one perverse respect, at least, we and they can be grateful for it.
True, even at the height of the radical fevers on the campus in the 1960’s, only a minority of students sided with the antiwar radicals. But the nonradical students, though they were in the majority, were unable to make themselves heard above the antiwar din, and whenever they tried, they were shouted down.
So it was on the campus after September 11. There were, here and there, brave defiers of the academic orthodoxies. But mostly, the silent majority remained, well, silent, for fear of incurring the disapproval of their teachers, or were even punished for such crimes as “insensitivity.”
The nearly universal confidence in America and American virtue that developed during World War II had enough momentum in it to carry us into the very different war that we would soon wage against Soviet totalitarianism. And it was strong enough to create the consensus I described a while back. But it was not strong enough to withstand the assault upon it I also sketched some moments ago.
Will the consensus that spontaneously materialized on September 11 succeed in resisting the similar assault that began to be mounted against it within hours by the guerrillas-with-tenure in the universities, along with their spiritual and political disciples scattered throughout other quarters of our culture? Can this “tiny handful of aging Rip van Winkles,” as they were breezily brushed off by one recent commentator, grow into a force as powerful as the “jackal bins” of yesteryear?
The answer no doubt depends primarily both on whether we are—God forbid—hit again by terrorists and on how well the military side of the war will go. Thus, antiwar activity on some campuses was dampened by our mind-boggling success in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the mopping-up operation there created an opportunity for more subtle forms of opposition to gain traction. Complaints began to be raised about alleged tramplings of civil liberties here at home, and then about the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo.
Though these concerns were soon shown to be almost entirely baseless and even preposterous, I suppose some people raised them in good faith. But it is also true that such issues could and did serve as a respectable cover for opposition to further military action. This is how it worked during Vietnam, when demonstrably false accusations of war crimes were lodged against certain lawful American military tactics, were uncritically accepted as proved, and were then used as a potent weapon by the anti-war movement.
Be that as it may, of one thing we can be sure: as the war widens, opposition will widen along with it. We could already see this happening after President Bush spoke of an “axis of evil” in his State of the Union speech in late January. In this single image, the President brilliantly defined our present enemies as a fusion of those we fought in World War II with the evil empire we battled in World War III, which is the name that one of our leading students of military strategy, Eliot A. Cohen, has rightly suggested we give to the cold war. The President now promised an expansion of the war to regimes that may or may not have been directly involved in September 11 but whose leaders were preparing to threaten us with weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, he declared that he would if necessary attack them preemptively. And he reiterated that we would prefer to fight along with allies, but that if we had to, we would go it alone.
As well we might have to do, given the anger and contempt this wonderfully bold declaration aroused throughout the world. Even the Europeans, after offering us their condolences over September 11, could scarcely let a decent interval pass before going back into the ancient family business of trying to prove how vastly superior in wisdom and finesse they were to us. Now they mocked the President as “simplistic,” while urging that our military operations end with Afghanistan, and that we leave the rest to diplomacy, in deferential consultation with the great masters of that recondite art in Paris and Brussels.
At home, much the same position was expressed by the New York Times and other publications ranging from the Center to the hard Left. In these precincts the President was hit for recklessness and overreaching, while terms redolent of Vietnam like “slippery slope” and “quagmire” were resurrected. Yet unlike the antiwar movement during Vietnam, which was almost completely made up of leftists and liberals, today’s developing opposition resembles the one we had during the run-up to the Gulf war. That is, a coalition is being formed of the hard Left, elements of the soft Left, and sectors of the American Right.
In a pungent foretaste of this bizarre ideological cocktail, Michael Kinsley on the soft Left recently allied himself with Pat Buchanan on the hard Right in indicting the President for evading the Constitution by proposing to fight undeclared wars. Meanwhile, the same charge was moving into the political mainstream through Democratic Senators like Robert Byrd, along with complaints from Senator Tom Daschle about the concept of an “axis of evil,” from which his advisers only yesterday persuaded him to retreat somewhat. Only yesterday, too, Al Gore endorsed the concept, but—like some Republican Senators earlier—he simultaneously endorsed the whining over American “unilateralism” in the chancelleries and chattering classes of Europe. There, it seems, they agree that an axis of evil does exist, but it is made up not of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea but of Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Condi Rice. Anyhow, all the toing-and-froing by the politicians was accompanied by a thousand reasons as to why the Bush Doctrine in its present form was the wrong way to go.
As this kind of thing metastasizes, a great responsibility will fall upon those of us who stand in awe of the moral courage and the strategic clarity President Bush has increasingly drawn out of his heart and soul and mind and guts since September 11. We will need to mobilize all our intellectual firepower to fight off the arguments against the Bush Doctrine, and to expose them for what they really are: appeasement and defeatism traveling under other names.
Here an analogy with World War III may be illuminating. I believe that Ronald Reagan led us to victory in that war by reversing the post-Vietnam decline of American military might and by resuming a vigorous ideological struggle against the “evil empire.” For this he too, like President Bush today, was ridiculed as a simpleton and a “cowboy.” Which is why I also believe that no one campaigning on such promises could have been elected in 1980, and then could have prevailed in office over his ideological foes, if the ground had not been prepared by the neoconservative intellectuals who had for more than ten years been waging a fierce war of ideas against their former colleagues on the Left.
To be sure, the neoconservative contingent was preceded by conservatives to the manner born—and all honor to them. But the neoconservatives constituted a fresh wave of reinforcements. And because they possessed a more intimate fix on the positions of their old political allies, they were able to mount a newly aggressive and more precisely targeted offensive against the defamation of America by the Left, while effectively revivifying the case for regarding the Soviet Union as, yes, an evil empire.
My contention is that September 11 will have given rise to a genuine transformation only if, once again, the military forces we deploy are undergirded by an equally formidable intellectual campaign. Maybe the September 11 Kronstadters, those few veteran radical leftists who suddenly found themselves saluting the flag, will eventually take on this job. So far, however, they seem to be stopping short of a more thoroughgoing reconsideration of the assumptions behind their old faith in “America the ugly.”
Hence, for the time being, if—in a phrase I am borrowing from Matthew Arnold who borrowed it from the Gospel of Luke—“the one thing needful” is to be done, we old soldiers and our younger colleagues will have to do it pretty much on our own. A beginning has been made by a few dozen scholars, some of them fellow old soldiers here with us tonight, who have only just issued an open letter supporting the war. Their statement, entitled “What We’re Fighting For,” is an effort to counter the dogmas regnant on the campus. But it is, I fear, a little too defensive, and dwells too much on how far short this country falls from perfection, to satisfy the full demands of “the one thing needful.”
What are those demands? To describe them in language I have frequently used before, but that cannot be repeated too often, they are, first, to remind ourselves, and then to teach our woefully miseducated children, that this country enjoys more freedom and more prosperity more widely shared than any nation in the history of the world. It has thereby earned a place for itself among the greatest of all human civilizations. We need, after dwelling for so long on what may be wrong with us, to remember, and to celebrate, how much more is right and good and noble. We need to realize that the answer to the plaintively asked question, “Why do they hate us?,” is not for whatever crimes we may have committed, but for our accomplishments and our virtues.
Correlatively, we need to understand more clearly that these accomplishments and virtues have their source in the institutions designed by our founding fathers—institutions that have, just as they hoped, conduced to “the preservation of the blessings of liberty” for their posterity. Which is to say, us.
I for one pray that our victory in this war—World War IV—will result in the creation of conditions under which the same blessings can be heaped upon as many countries as possible. And I pray that it will set Islam onto a path of reformation from within. Both Judaism and Christianity began undergoing such a process centuries ago. Why should Islam alone remain forever exempt?
“America! America!”—sang Katharine Lee Bates in 1893—“God shed His grace on thee.” Appealing to God to shed the same grace on the rest of the world can no doubt be taken as a call for American imperialism. I confess that the word imperialism does not frighten me, but since a term like “leadership” would be less incendiary, I will resort to it.
In advocating such leadership by America, I do not make light of the widespread doubts that this country, by its very nature, is endowed either with the will or the skill to play even a benevolently imperial role in the world. But then the cadences of George F. Kennan in 1947 spring reassuringly back into my ears. To my delight, I heard echoes of his words in President Bush’s State of the Union speech. I heard them when he opened by affirming that it was history that had called America to action, and that it was “both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight,” and then again when he concluded that this represented “a unique opportunity” for us to seize.
But Kennan’s more eloquent formulation remains the locus classicus here, and so I want to conclude by quoting it once more, in an updated form as applicable to World War IV as the original was to World War III:
The thoughtful observer of Islamic terrorism will find no cause for complaint in its challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude for a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.
To which, surely, the only fitting response is a very loud and a very resonant amen.
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