Published: March 28 2005
George W. Bush's presidency has been a boon for the most ideological elements in US politics. Across the range of domestic and foreign issues, Bush has pursued an agenda more ambitious and consistently conservative than Ronald Reagan, solidifying the dominance of the right in the Republican party. Meanwhile, the sweep and force of Bush's challenge has pushed Democrats toward a heightened partisanship that is replacing Bill Clinton's effort to modernise the party's thinking with an unflinching defence of its historic beliefs.
In this combative climate, both parties now prize loyalty more than self-examination. Ideological certitude trumps scepticism. The loudest voices on each side routinely associate compromise with the abandonment of principle. And few anywhere across the ideological spectrum accept the wise admonition of McGeorge Bundy, John F. Kennedy's national security adviser, that the colour of truth is usually grey.
Kevin Mattson, the historian, arrives at this moment with a timely look at a generation of post-second world war liberal thinkers who not only recognised the limits of their own ideas but also saw flexibility and humility as indispensable to any successful public policy and political movement. Some of their ideas now seem outdated or flatly wrong. But their style of thought, as much as their conclusions, keeps these thinkers relevant today.
Mattson's cast is exemplary. Historian Arthur Schlesinger and economist John Kenneth Galbraith combined prolific production of books with productive government service. Newspaper editor James Wechsler charted an independent course with courage and wit. Towering over all is Reinhold Niebuhr, the Christian theologian whose brilliant and nuanced thinking represents a peak of 20th-century liberal thought. Together they played a critical role in defining the anti-communist left that dominated thinking in the Democratic Party from Harry Truman through to John F. Kennedy.
These thinkers, Mattson correctly notes, celebrated "pluralism and pragmatism". They believed fervently in a "national community" that would pursue greater opportunity and equality at home and resist the spread of communism, while encouraging freedom and prosperity abroad. But they also believed that no sector of society held a monopoly on wisdom and that intellectual and political competition between divergent interests served as "the best source for a healthy democracy". In foreign policy, they applied the same principles, urging America to act as part of a global community and resist the twin temptations of arrogance and disengagement.
These men were ultimately most impressive for rejecting absolutes in a polarising world. Niebuhr offered a peerless intellectual framework, arguing that the flaws in human nature doomed all earthly enterprise to imperfection, yet did not relieve humanity of the obligation to improve the world where it could. He provided reformers with a "fighting faith" that steered between utopianism and pessimism. Niebuhr counselled that, accepting both their own limits and the inevitability of unintended consequences, governments and individuals alike still needed to confront injustice and evil.
Armed with that perspective, Niebuhr and his contemporaries pursued a course between Henry Wallace and Joe McCarthy, rejecting both the Popular Front left that whitewashed the threat of communism and the manic inquisitors on the right who pathologically exaggerated it. They pursued social and economic reforms at home despite their awareness that none would succeed entirely. They maintained perspective, but avoided paralysis.
The experience of these postwar liberals seems most directly relevant to the debate over Bush's crusading idealism in foreign policy. In waging the cold war, Mattson's group did not reject the use of force or even deny the importance of idealistic goals. But they were consummate realists, who stressed the limits of America's reach and the flaws in its own example. They preached "containment" not "rollback" of communism. Restraint and balance were their watchwords.
These thinkers believed America could not depend solely on military strength or expect others simply to follow. They sought a foreign policy that would not rule out military confrontation but would rely more on the spread of American ideals and American help to improve life in the developing world.
At home, the nation needed to address the many ways it had failed to fulfil its promise; abroad, it needed to learn from its critics. Niebuhr, as usual, summarised the argument most profoundly, writing: "The pride and self-righteousness of powerful nations are a greater hazard to their success than the machinations of their foes."
Mattson understandably warns against applying examples of the past too directly to the choices of the present. But almost all the postwar liberals' advice about the cold war seems relevant to the decisions America faces today.
Even amid positive developments in the Middle East, America must still find ways to wield its predominant power without antagonising the world so much that it undermines its own security. It must set realistic goals, balance its ends with its means and better understand how others see its actions. In that effort, Bush - or any president - could find few better guides than Niebuhr.
Mattson, alas, is not the equal of his subjects. His treatment of their thinking, though insightful at points, is sometimes hurried and insufficiently crisp. The book drifts between biography and intellectual history and is not entirely fulfilling as either.
Even with these limitations, Mattson provides a service by thoughtfully reintroducing these thinkers to a new generation at a time when centrism and humility are under siege in US politics. Flawed in the execution, yet ultimately worthwhile in the attempt: that seems a fitting judgment for a book centred on the titanic Niebuhr.
WHEN AMERICA WAS GREAT
The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism
By Kevin Mattson