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.