‘PAPER GOING WELL,” wrote Daniel Patrick Moynihan, soon to resign as U.S. ambassador to India, in a December 1974 telegram to COMMENTARY editor Norman Podhoretz. “WE CAN’T DEAL WITH THIS WORLD IF WE DO NOT RECOGNIZE ITS IDEOLOGY.” During his time abroad, Moynihan had grown alarmed at the anti-Americanism and socialism of the Indians and other members of the nonaligned movement that professed neutrality between the United States and the Soviet Union. As was his habit, he put his thoughts on paper.
The result was some 60 pages of triple-spaced typescript that arrived in Podhoretz’s mailbox early in 1975. Podhoretz reorganized parts of the argument, inserted transitions, cut material, and showed it to the author. Moynihan was pleased with the revisions. His essay was published in this magazine’s March 1975 issue. Podhoretz arranged a press conference—the first in COMMENTARY’s long history—to mark the occasion of what was clearly a landmark article, entitled “The United States in Opposition.” The New York Times covered the event. “Moynihan Calls on U.S. to ‘Start Raising Hell’ in U.N.,” read its headline.
That was one way of putting it. Building on arguments he had made in a piece on Woodrow Wilson published in COMMENTARY the year before, Moynihan observed that the newly decolonized nations of the Third World constituted a majority in international forums such as the United Nations. It was a majority hostile to American interests and American ideals. To prevent the collapse of diplomatic institutions into proxies of the Soviet Empire, Moynihan argued, the United States should start behaving like a parliamentary minority. “It is time, that is, that the American spokesman came to be feared in international forums for the truths he might tell,” he wrote. Among those truths: Nations that privilege individual liberty over economic equality have a better record than socialist nations in producing both liberty and equality. “This is our case,” Moynihan concluded. “We are of the liberty party, and it might surprise us what energies might be released were we to unfurl those banners.”
“The United States in Opposition” was a significant event for both its author and the magazine in which it appeared. So impressed by the piece that he paid it the compliment of wishing he had written it himself, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger agreed with President Gerald Ford to nominate Moynihan for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Moynihan became the first of two special representatives to the UN who could trace their employment to articles they wrote for COMMENTARY. He used his position in Turtle Bay to defend aggressively the American cause. And he denounced the infamous “Zionism Is Racism” resolution that the General Assembly passed over his objections in November 1975. The fame that Moynihan earned from these courageous stands contributed to his election the next year as a senator from New York, an office he held until his retirement in 2000.
“The United States in Opposition” was also the clearest statement up to that point of COMMENTARY’s ongoing case for an assertive U.S. foreign policy grounded in the deep soil of the American political tradition. In a pair of articles that ran in April and July 1976, Podhoretz and longtime contributor Nathan Glazer broadened Moynihan’s argument to include the general conduct of American statecraft. “If it should turn out that the new isolationism has indeed triumphed among the people as completely as it has among the elites,” Podhoretz warned in “Making the World Safe for Communism,” “then the United States will celebrate its two hundredth birthday by betraying the heritage of liberty which has earned it the wonder and envy of the world from the moment of its founding to this, and by helping to make that world safe for the most determined and ferocious and barbarous enemies of liberty ever to have appeared on the earth.”
In “American Values and American Foreign Policy,” Glazer described the “great struggle” to define America’s self-image. “If it sees itself as a good country and a strong country—the way I would say the overwhelming majority of Americans did between 1945 and 1965—and if it is seen by others in the same way, it will feel confident in playing a large role in the world,” he wrote. “If it sees itself as a good though weak country (one present-day image of ourselves), or as a wicked and strong (another), or as wicked and weak, there will be a tendency to retrench and redraw.” For COMMENTARY, America is good and strong.
THE STANDPOINT that the magazine adopted beginning in the 1970s was critical of both liberal neo-isolationists, who followed their standard-bearer Senator George McGovern in urging America to “come home,” and conservative realists, who deemphasized ideology and human rights in relations between states. On one level, this stance was something of a departure for COMMENTARY, which had spent the 1960s flirting with revisionist attitudes toward the origins of the Cold War, and whose editor opposed U.S. intervention in Vietnam. On another level, however, Moynihan, Podhoretz, and Glazer remained committed to the vision of America and its place in the world that has imbued this monthly journal since its debut in 1945. Indeed, what strikes the reader of the COMMENTARY archives is the consistency of its approach to foreign policy over the past three quarters of a century.
That approach begins with a rejection of moral equivalence between totalitarian societies and free ones. It stands for the preservation of political and cultural freedom and the liberal values of pluralism, civil discourse, and tolerance. But it does not extend such tolerance to the intolerant, who would use freedom to extinguish freedom. It believes in the utility of military force when necessary to defend democracy. It is suspicious of international institutions where anti-American majorities present an ideological challenge to individual liberty and seek to constrain America’s freedom of action. And it believes that American strength abroad rises and falls with American self-confidence and willpower at home. What COMMENTARY wants to prevent is a failure of American nerve—a refusal to accept reality for what it is and to act accordingly in behalf of one’s own.
These elements function as a kind of editorial genetic code. They have been expressed throughout the tenures of the magazine’s four editors, who have applied them in various ways to changing global environments. Between 1945 and 1960, when Elliot E. Cohen’s COMMENTARY was a home for liberal anti-Communism, the philosopher Sidney Hook regularly contributed pieces critical of that “ritualistic liberalism” that willfully ignored the dangers of totalitarianism and pretended that negotiations alone were the route to “peaceful coexistence.” “If we do not teach the empirical temper of mind we run the danger of debasing our whole intellectual currency, of so confusing rational discourse about freedom of the press, economic democracy, national self-determination, free and unfettered elections, that nothing will appear clear but the logic of the iron fist,” Hook explained in the March 1948 issue.
Early on, the magazine grappled with the relationship between intellectuals and America, and with the question of whether critical minds had to assume an alienated and oppositional attitude toward the country where they lived and worked. Its editor and writers concluded that there was plenty in this country that was worthy of affirmation. “Our civilization, deformed as it is outwardly, is still an accomplishment,” wrote the critic Mary McCarthy in the September 1947 issue. “The past is at length outside,” she added. “It does not disturb as it does Europeans, for our relation with it is both more distant and more familiar. We cannot hate it, for to hate it would be to hate poverty, our eager ancestors, and ourselves.” A few years later, the German historian Golo Mann marveled at the persistence of the American creed, and the differences between the American outlook and the European one. “Americans were conservative only in that they held on to certain basic democratic principles, regarded them as established in this land for all time,” he wrote. “Everything else was expected to change, improve, expand indefinitely.”
The February 1960 issue was the first Norman Podhoretz edited. Not satisfied with what he took at the time to be the excessive sobriety, prudence, and rectitude of the “vital center” liberalism of the 1950s, Podhoretz opened COMMENTARY to radical writers such as Norman Mailer, Paul Goodman, and James Baldwin, and to critics of American power such as the historians Staughton Lynd and H. Stuart Hughes. Throughout this period, however, Podhoretz also continued to publish cold warriors such as Sidney Hook and Irving Kristol. And his criticisms of American foreign policy did not extend to the entirety of American life.
Nor could Podhoretz join in the chorus denouncing the Vietnam War as proof of the irredeemable corruption of the United States. “My position in the mid-sixties was more isolated than it had been a few years earlier, since even Hans Morgenthau had now joined in the moralistic clamor,” he wrote in Breaking Ranks (1979). “And the moralistic clamor itself had almost inevitably led to the idea that the entire policy of trying to check the spread of Communism was and always had been morally wrong as well. This was not an idea I could accept.”
As the Sixties went on, Podhoretz grew disillusioned with the nihilistic excesses of the counterculture, and with the anti-Americanism of those segments of the left for whom the Vietcong and Ho Chi Minh were not just forces of nationalist sentiment but the moral superiors of the GIs defending South Vietnam from invasion. The rise in anti-Semitism that accompanied Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 and the New York City teachers’ strike in 1968 disturbed him greatly. The June 1970 issue inaugurated his intellectual campaign against “the Movement” and its antiwar, anti-bourgeois, anti-Zionist, and Black Power manifestations.
It was during this phase of the magazine’s life that COMMENTARY acquired its reputation as a neoconservative outlet. Podhoretz began to assemble a roster of contributors who held, as he wrote in The Present Danger (1980), a “highly positive view of the values implicit in the constitutional and institutional structure of American civilization and their belief that the survival of liberty and democracy requires a forceful American presence in the world.” Edward Luttwak, Walter Laqueur, Richard Pipes, and Jeane Kirkpatrick joined Moynihan and Podhoretz in raising alarms about the erosion of American power and the expansion of Soviet influence. And they in turn were joined by younger writers, such as Carl Gershman, Elliott Abrams, and Joshua Muravchik, who advocated the incorporation of human rights into a foreign policy of military strength and democracy promotion.
The election of Ronald Reagan gave the neoconservatives the opportunity to translate these ideas into policy. “There was a powerful positive message in the Reagan campaign to which, as everyone should also have known, the American people were very decidedly in a mood to respond,” Podhoretz wrote in the January 1981 issue. “It was this: the decline of America, far from being inevitable or the fault of the people themselves, is a consequence of bad policies pursued by the government and can therefore be reversed by shifting to other policies.” Kirkpatrick became UN ambassador, Abrams became assistant secretary of state for human rights, and Gershman became president of the National Endowment for Democracy. Even as President Reagan hired COMMENTARY authors and championed freedom throughout the world, however, the magazine continued to pressure his administration for the quick deployment of anti-ballistic-missile defenses and against arms-control concessions to the Soviets.
Podhoretz retired in 1995. The following winter, in a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, he delivered a “eulogy” for neoconservatism in which he said that “in foreign affairs, neoconservatism has not so much lost its distinctiveness within the larger conservative community as its own internal identity.” And yet the foreign policy that a decade later would become synonymous with neoconservatism was already taking shape within COMMENTARY’s pages. The historian Robert Kagan, who had served in Reagan’s State Department, wrote a series of powerful essays for Podhoretz’s successor, Neal Kozodoy, in which he argued that the future of democracy depended on America’s ability to uphold the liberal international order it had built after World War II.
Kagan held a broad view of American interests and responsibilities. “When the hegemonic power does not react to violations of the principles it is widely known to espouse,” he wrote in April 1996, “a doubt is raised about its willingness to preserve not only those principles but also its hegemony.” That meant problems ought to be addressed early regardless of whether they appeared at the “periphery” of American power or within its “core.” It meant that America ought to pursue a policy of what Kagan and frequent co-author William Kristol described in Foreign Affairs as “benevolent global hegemony.” And it meant that the distinction Kirkpatrick famously had drawn between totalitarian governments and authoritarian ones in her landmark 1979 COMMENTARY article “Dictatorships and Double Standards” no longer applied. “For the day we adopt a neutral attitude toward the fate of democracy in the world is the day we deny our own essence, an essence rooted in a commitment to certain principles which we believe to be universal,” Kagan wrote.
By 1999, Podhoretz had aligned himself, despite some qualifications and reservations, with Kagan’s worldview. “The particulars on which everyone more or less agrees begin with the issue of the American military,” he wrote in the magazine’s December issue.
We are persuaded that the cuts in the defense budget have been much too deep, and that along with beefing up both our conventional and nuclear forces, we are in urgent need of the protection against missiles that Reagan envisaged and that after so many years has still not been provided. This means abrogating the ABM treaty and, beyond that, giving up on the delusion that arms-control agreements can make much, if any, contribution to our safety and security. … There is also agreement on China. No one imagines that China today poses the kind or dimension of the threat that the Soviet Union once presented, but we all insist that it should not be helped by the United States to develop into an analogous terror to our children and grandchildren. A similar measure of agreement exists on the proposition that the aim of American policy should be to topple both Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic instead of allowing them to remain in power.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 reinforced the importance of American leadership as well as the desirability of what Podhoretz called the “main political idea” of his foreign-policy persuasion: “that the United States should do everything it can to encourage and support the spread of democracy.” It also spurred the construction of a new intellectual framework for the magazine. If the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union was akin to World War III, Podhoretz reasoned, then the post-9/11 conflict with the forces of radical Islam was akin to World War IV. Like the Cold War, the global War on Terrorism had an ideological component. “It is a war in which those of us who see Islamofascism as the latest mutation of the totalitarian threat to our civilization and who insist on the correlative necessity of meeting and defeating it, are pitted against those who think that the threat has been wildly exaggerated and does not in any case require a military response,” he wrote in World War IV (2007).
Every month, Kozodoy’s COMMENTARY published lengthy, rigorous, and trenchant explications of the Bush Doctrine. It connected the events of World War IV to the global campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state and inflict harm on the Jewish people. It convened symposia on President Bush’s Freedom Agenda and the nature of the fight against jihadism. It made arguments for and against (though mostly for) military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. And it responded to the setbacks to the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to the revival of anti-Semitism and the rise of a neo-progressive movement that repudiated much of what the magazine stood for, including the primacy of political liberty, the economics of growth, and a foreign policy of American assertion.
FORTY-NINE years after his father became editor, John Podhoretz took the reins with the February 2009 issue. Revitalizing the magazine’s design, and bringing on board several young contributors, including Jonah Goldberg and Abe Greenwald, John Podhoretz has had to reckon with serious challenges to the COMMENTARY point of view, not only from the left but also from the populist right. The classical liberalism that animated Sidney Hook in the last century has come under bitter attack in the present one. The unapologetic defense of democracy and human rights for which Moynihan stood has few visible spokesmen on the national scene. The willingness to commit military forces to shore up the American-led liberal world order has all but collapsed. And America itself has come under renewed criticism by a radical left for whom this country is systemically racist, historically suspect, and fundamentally unjust.
In 1985, at a dinner to celebrate his first 25 years editing the magazine, Norman Podhoretz told his guests, “COMMENTARY has defended America at a time when America has been under moral and ideological attack. COMMENTARY has defended the Jewish people and the Jewish state when they, too, and for many of the same reasons, have been subjected to a relentless assault on their legitimacy and even their very existence. For me there has been no conflict or contradiction involved in defending this dual heritage by which I have been formed.”
Nor should there have been. For as Moynihan wrote, we are of the liberty party and make no apologies for it. The moral and ideological attack on America that Moynihan and Podhoretz and their comrades fought against has resumed. It threatens to disestablish American preeminence by extinguishing the civilizational self-confidence on which that military and economic superiority rests. And so a rising generation is called to unfurl the banners of freedom once more.
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