Dec 6, 2013
Warren Cohen on the Rise (and Fall) of the Neocons
Posted on Mar 6, 2008
A dozen years ago, in a review of John Ehrman’s “The Rise of Neoconservatism,” I dismissed the neocons as a spent force, hardly distinguishable from the Republican right to which writers such as Norman Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, and Irving Kristol and his son William had attached themselves. Many of those to whom I had referred were so-called Reagan Democrats, one-time liberals who had despaired of what they perceived as the unwillingness of Democratic leaders, specifically George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, to appreciate the Soviet threat and act appropriately in defense of Israel. But they were no more satisfied with efforts of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford to achieve and maintain détente with the Soviets. They helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, and a few of them, notably Jeane Kirkpatrick, served visibly in his administration. For the most part they served as a claque, extolling his tough anti-communist rhetoric. They had far less influence on Reagan’s policies than they imagined, as evidenced by their outrage when he worked with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War. Nonetheless, it’s clear that I buried them prematurely. Old writers never die—at least not all at once—and sometimes they beget offspring who carry on the family traditions.
Who were—or are—the neocons? Some analysts have traced the older ones back to a Trotskyite cell at the City College of New York in the 1930s. Those most prominent today are alleged to be connected in some way to Leo Strauss, a German-born political philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago. Some of these—and others—are perceived as disciples of Albert Wohlstetter, a defense intellectual who also taught at Chicago but did his most important work as a consultant to the RAND Corp. In “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons,” Jacob Heilbrunn follows all of these trails but declares Max Shachtman, a prominent American socialist who veered right in the 1960s, to be the “founding father of neoconservatism.” Shachtman urged his followers to support the Democrats in the 1950s in hope of pushing the party left but turned against the Democrats—and the New Left—in the late 1960s in response to their opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Heilbrunn has trouble defining neoconservatism and concludes that it is not an ideology but rather a mind-set, one shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience (social resentments and status anxiety), memories of the Holocaust and the 20th century battle against totalitarianism. Obviously, he perceives most neocons to be Jews, echoing the conservative icon Russell Kirk’s classic crack that neocons too often thought the capital of the United States was Tel Aviv. Heilbrunn concedes that not all neocons are Jews but neglects to note that most Jews are not neocons.
Heilbrunn is eminently qualified to write on the subject. He is himself Jewish, his family experienced the Holocaust, and much of his early career was spent in the company of leading neoconservatives at The National Interest in the days when Irving Kristol was the publisher and alongside Charles Krauthammer at The New Republic. He readily concedes his own youthful attraction to the movement, but is less forthcoming about when and how he turned away. Indeed, the book is peppered with statements that could easily have come from Norman Podhoretz or David Frum. He claims that the foreign policy establishment “loathed the idea of Israel.” He offers a gratuitous put-down of the late Edward Said, “a smooth, urbane purveyor of much nonsense about the Middle East.” He accepts the charge that American liberalism was “hostile” to Israel in the 1960s and 1970s when another analyst—certainly this one—would suggest that many liberals became critical of Israel as the occupation of the West Bank unfolded. Finally, when he suggests that if funds had gone to Ahmed Chalabi as intended by the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, the chaos that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein might have been avoided, he’s certainly sounding a neocon theme.
Although Heilbrunn sees the neoconservative movement as beginning in the 1950s, it’s really not until the late 1960s that the New Left and the Black Nationalists were perceived by the generation of Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz and younger men such as Martin Peretz, later publisher of The New Republic, as a threat to Western civilization. Like most other American Jews, they were exhilarated by Israel’s victory in the Six Day War of 1967—and appalled when young American leftists and blacks denounced Israeli imperialism. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) anticipated the 1974 U.N. resolution in 1967 by equating Zionism with racism. Black anti-Semitism directed at Jewish shopkeepers and teachers in the United States astonished and frightened many Jews, some of whom had been in the forefront of the fight against racism. The liberal demand for affirmative action to compensate blacks for centuries of oppression was profoundly troubling to men and women who had fought against quotas for Jews and found comfort as members of a meritocracy. The radical disruptions of universities and the efforts of black families to take control of New York public schools away from Jewish teachers were frightening indications of what might happen in the United States. Heilbrunn provides a useful insight, suggesting that some of the men who became leaders of the neoconservative movement had memories of the collapse of the Weimar Republic—and were determined not to let it happen in America.
Lyndon Johnson once complained that many Jewish intellectuals, although delighted by his use of American power in support of Israel, led the opposition to his use of that power in Vietnam. Kristol, Podhoretz, Shachtman and others among the older men and women who became neoconservatives chose to support the war in Vietnam. It was part of the struggle against communist totalitarianism. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, both of whom imagined a less assertive American foreign policy, held no attraction for them. Nor did Nixon or Kissinger, whose quest for détente with both the Soviets and the Chinese they viewed as immoral. They looked instead to Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, a hawkish Democrat, who, guided by Dorothy Fosdick and Richard Perle, understood the Soviet threat and would support Israel. By the 1970s, these Jewish upstarts were engaged, Heilbrunn contends, in a civil war against a foreign policy establishment that had gone soft after the war in Vietnam.
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