Books May 2006

Blood for No Oil!

A new manifesto finds a model in the Truman era for returning liberals to political centrality in America. But the comparison is hopelessly inexact

Whether intentionally or not, Peter Beinart sets out to challenge and annoy the American Left from the first three words of his title. “The good fight” is a nostalgic, hymnal term that the mixed bag of remaining “progressives” still reserve very much for themselves; it is most commonly used to invoke the Spanish Civil War and, in particular, those Americans who went, under the ostensible banner of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion but under the effective command of the Comintern, to take part in it. And as one looks back on it now, this episode of heroism and betrayal is remarkable for one thing above all: it represents the only time in modern history that American radicals were in favor of, or had a direct hand in, any “foreign entanglement.” Their highest moral exemplar, as badly as it ended, is in fact the great exception that violates their rule.

Seeing the title, I had hoped that Beinart would open with a challenge to the myth of “premature anti-fascism” and would point out that otherwise during that period the American Left had made common cause with the isolationists and even, for a while, with the idea of a formal military pact between Stalin and Hitler. Trace elements of this mentality survive to our own day: both Gore Vidal and Patrick J. Buchanan still revere the figure of Charles Lindbergh, whose influence was so inadequately captured, from the traditionally wearisome New Jersey Jewish keyhole, in Philip Roth’s Plot Against America. (The moving spir-it of today’s, a preening figure named Justin Raimondo, is also given to paeans in favor of Lindbergh’s charismatic manliness and authority.)

Instead, Beinart opens the story with the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948—the setting of another Philip Roth novel, this time I Married a Communist. In that year, a strategic majority of the American Left worked hard for a man who would have given Eastern Europe to Stalin (and perhaps some of Western Europe, too) with the same insouciance that—until Stalin himself had been attacked—it had allowed the region to be given to Hitler. Had the Wallace campaign done as well as had been predicted, the chief domestic effect would have been to throw the election to Thomas Dewey. But as it was, the era of the tough-minded “Cold War liberal” had begun. Beinart’s book locates the crucial step in this evolution at the founding of Americans for Democratic Action, or ADA, in the Willard Hotel in Washington in January 1947. Present for this event were Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther, Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., David Dubinsky, and—Beinart’s personal hero—Reinhold Niebuhr.

It is easy to summarize what attracts Beinart to this group: in a breathtaking moment of reactionary parochialism and insularity, Henry Wallace had declared against Marshall Aid for Europe but supposedly in favor of civil rights and the rights of labor. By assembling a distinguished group that endorsed Marshall Aid and had seen through communism, but that took a forward position on New Deal programs and the emancipation of black Americans, the ADA had echoed Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, who in the Willard Hotel almost a century earlier had “sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat.” Beinart gives due credit to the unjustly forgotten Bayard Rustin, who was perhaps the true genius of the civil-rights and democratic-socialist movements, but his emphasis on Niebuhr is what truly informs the book, because this solemn old Protestant theologian provided a constant warning against American hubris.

Beinart’s aim is to refashion this tradition for the war against jihadism, and to reposition American liberals as the friends of democracy and equality at home and abroad. The Truman administration presents a rough pattern of what he admires, from its desegregation of the U.S. armed forces to its willingness to confront communism in Greece, Turkey, and Korea while relying, where it could, on local democratic forces rather than on regional oligarchies. He seeks to represent the upward curve of domestic reform, especially the amazing burgeoning of the civil-rights movement, as intersecting nicely with “containment” overseas and the demonstrated willingness to employ force—even annihilating thermonuclear force—as well. Result: prosperity at home and “peace through strength” abroad.

This retrospective optimism is in many ways too neat. In the first place, the Allied victors in 1945 had decided to leave fascist despotism in place in Spain and Portugal, and to recruit Hitler’s spies and rocket scientists, from Reinhard Gehlen to Werner von Braun, into a new “national-security state.” In the second place, there were always leftists, notably I. F. Stone, who understood that the Wallace campaign was a fellow-traveling fiasco. In the third place, there were more-centrist liberals who voiced grave concern over Washington’s policy in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Lebanon in 1958 (all these episodes are omitted by Beinart), and elsewhere, and who did not think that the Cold War was a license for imperialism. Finally, there has probably never been a more hubristic rhetoric—or practice—than during the time of the New Frontier (which so memorably featured the rhetorical skills of Schlesinger). Within a decade and a half of the Willard Hotel meeting, the Camelot darling of American liberals had risked global catastrophe over Cuba and committed the United States to the degrading role of successor to the French Empire in Indochina, all the while dragging his feet on the only idea whose time actually had come: Rustin’s beautiful scheme for a march on Washington. There’s no mystery about the rise of the New Left. John F. Kennedy was more of a sellout in terms of the ADA’s guiding principles than even the most credulous liberal should have been prepared to accept.

This does not excuse those who reverted to post-Vietnam isolationism and who regarded the later advent of the “KKK” (the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, and the Khalq faction of Stalinism in Afghanistan) as nothing more than an invitation for America to “come home.” And it has been demonstrated in more than one case that a crisis ducked by liberals will recur as an opportunity taken, or even seized, by conservatives. Without the American Right (and “vital center”) there might have been no shah or Somoza to be overthrown in the first instance. Easy propaganda points can be made to the effect that the United States’ ruling establishment is often the author of its own misfortunes. But this does not exempt the citizens of the country, confronted with chickens from whatever roost they may originate, from deciding whether or not these birds of ill omen should be shot down. And on this visceral point, as Beinart eventually concedes with infinite regret, the Right appears to speak with less ambiguity.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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