Neoconservatism, the movement that began as a gathering of young intellectuals in the sixties and ended as an ideology from which many political leaders took their inspiration, underwent an “extraordinary transformation”13 over the decades. In the historical book Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement, Justin Vaisse takes the reader on a journey through the movement’s transfiguration, which he breaks up into three stages. Vaisse reveals the origins of neoconservatism as well as the influence it took on many political decisions.
Before it became neoconservatism, it was simply a transfusion of different political ideas which were influenced by the events taking place at the time. The origins of the movement actually go back to a school, the City College of New York City. The free institution served as a “political sandbox”1 which opened students to the different perspectives of the world. Because there were no anti-semitic quotas for accepted students, different groups including Communists, Trotskyists, Jews, Catholics, gathered at the school and met in alcoves to discuss ideas. Particularly the Trotskyist group of CCNY harbored significant neoconservative figures and was the place where anticommunist seed took root, setting the key principle in neoconservative ideology. Neoconservatism originated from Cold War liberalism, particularly groups like the Americans for Democratic Action, which was considered the “vital center of liberalism”2 in 1947. The ADA underwent a debate in the late 1950’s between liberals who believed that they needed new ideas due to the age of affluence and liberals who wanted to follow traditions. This ended in the split between the New Left and the conservatives on the right who wanted to stick to the center. In 1968, there was a power shift in the ADA towards the Left, leaving the liberals and center enthusiasts defeated. This changed the makeup of the ADA, now mostly consisting of students, professionals and intellectuals who advocated the redistribution of wealth and power and total withdrawal from the Vietnam war. All these ideas helped to contribute to beginnings of neoconservatism and create a foundation for its values and principles.
The true birth of neoconservatism doesn’t date until at least 1965. Vaisse breaks it down into two options: 1965 with the publication of The Public Interest and the Berkeley free speech movement, or 1967 when clearly neoconservative articles like The Commentary were being published and the movement reached its threshold. The Public Interest was a magazine published by two renowned neoconservative figures, Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol. It introduced new scientific and social knowledge and criticized the government’s failures. Its key ideas consisted of the following: “First, the state cannot do much to remake society… [Second], the state itself creates expectations it cannot satisfy… [Third], the fundamental obstacle to successful state intervention was… a cultural phenomenon, a matter of ideas or morals.”3 Another factor to the birth of neoconservatism was the event of the Six-Day War (1967-1968) and the black civil rights movement which drew many Jewish intellectuals who were suffering from an identity crisis to turn to and contribute to neoconservatism. The Jewish population actually made up about 30 to 50 percent of the New Left population since they shared many of the same beliefs, including civil rights, as most of the white youth who protested against black segregation were Jews. Neoconservative Jews also played a large role in the American interference in the war in the Middle East against Israel. This challenged the initial foreign policy that called for the withdrawal from the war in Vietnam. Rather, most neoconservatives believed in the need for a strong America to defend democracy in not only Israel but all over the world. The Commentary marked the shift and end of the first stage for neoconservatism towards the right and the liberals discontent, as it consisted of heavy critiques of the New Left.
As the first age ended with the seeming disintegration of left wing liberals, the second age began with the revival of democratic party, although it too fell into a time of crisis later. In 1972, the Cold War liberalists now known as the Scoop Jackson Democrats created the Coalition for a Democratic Majority whose goal was to “recapture the soul of the Democratic Party.”4 However, new coalitions which called for more radical movements in order to further democratize actually failed in reaching the majority, only representing elites. After this failure, the real initiation of the CDM launched on December 1972 with new principles. They realized that the voters must be respected and satisfied with their creation of a fair society. Their foreign policy rejected isolationism and defeatism and was shown through the title of the manifesto, “Come Home, Democrats.”5 Like original neoconservative ideas, the Democratic Party still called for a ceasefire in Vietnam and cuts in the defense budget. The second age was more involved in politics and foreign affairs than in the first age, which was more concerned about domestic issues and intellectual debates. This shift in priorities happened because of a variety of social factors. First, domestic issues decreased causing no need for exclusive concern. Second, Soviet expansion was a growing reality and seemed to call for American involvement. Lastly, the growing influence of strong neoconservative personalities helped push Democrats to be more involved in foreign affairs. Particularly, the Jackson Vanik Amendment put forth by the leader of Scoop Jackson Democrats, Henry M. Jackson, embodied the goals of the new foreign policy and made intervention in the Soviet Union possible. It was ideological as it put democracy and human rights at the heart of all Soviet relations and prioritized the assertion of American martial power. The new foreign policy also encouraged interference in Israel, pleasing many Jewish neoconservatives.
The third stage is separate from the first and second stage due to the introduction of nuclear strategic neoconservatism which was founded by Nitze and the Wohlstetters. The basic foundations of their doctrine is stated in Albert Wohlstetter’s article, The Delicate Balance of Terror, which reveals the unstable and complex balance of power. In addition, third stage neoconservatives believed that the largest threat to the nation as well as world peace and freedom was Soviet hegemony. To combat this potential risk, politicians created the Committee on the Present Danger which sought to warn Americans against the threat of the Soviet Union in order to garner public support rearmament. This committee took inspiration from CDM which also rejected detente and had the same foreign policy concerning the Soviet Union. The Committee relied on exaggerated publications to spread the news and gather the attention of the population. Exaggeration was a common practice for neoconservatives because they believed that “fear was the best ally of those who favored a stronger defense posture and a larger military budget.”6 It was easy to ignite worry into the citizens because Soviet expansion was a reality in the Seventies as more nations, such as Nicaragua, Iran, and Grenada were falling under Communism and Americans’ confidence was wearing down. The neoconservative shift from left to right of the political spectrum took place during the second stage of the movement when the Democrats could not support their presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter. Third stage neoconservatives were Reagan supporters because they believed that he was the only one who could support and build a strong America. Reagan and his platform became the representative for neoconservatives with his win in the presidential election of 1980 and marked the official migration of the movement. Although the Coalition for the Democratic Majority couldn’t change their political stance, they still supported Reagan. The third stage CDM had three new priorities: for America to become a leading world military power, to stop communism and promote democracy, and to continue with economic expansion. Reagan took some influence from the neoconservatives as seen in his foreign policy, The National Endowment for Democracy, called for the encouragement of democracy rather than the total act of overthrowing the existing government. Reagan also accomplished the amazing feat of beating the Cold War utilizing another neoconservative idea, military assertiveness. Although many of President Reagan’s ideas were derived from the CDM, the coalition slowly started to lose influence and eventually faded away with the election of Clinton. President Clinton held very different ideas from neoconservatives as he delayed the use of force and war in Bosnia and focused on domestic issues. However, with the election of Bush Jr., neoconservatives regained some influence under the leadership of Irving Kristol. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the bond between neoconservatives and the Bush administration grew as their specialization in foreign affairs was taken into account.Although their influence in the decision to go to war with Iraq proved the growth in neoconservative power, the price and failure of the war would eventually backlash on the movement, causing their significance in politics to decline.
Vaisse uncovers the common misconception “that neoconservatives are people of the left who have turned to the right”7 revealing a whole history behind the movement and the impact it had on the political decisions that shaped the nation. The author runs through the origins, beginnings, climax, and downfall of the movement through Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement, proving that it was not a simple shift.
Although the movement takes place in America, Justin Vaisse is actually a French historian and the director of the policy planning staff at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He specializes in foreign affairs and international relations and has a PhD in contemporary history from L’Ecole normale superieure Lettres et sciences humaines. Some of his published works include États-Unis: le temps de la diplomatie transformationnelle, Le modèle américain, and most recently Barack Obama et sa politique étrangère8 . Although he is French, Vaisse has an excellent knowledge about America’s contemporary history concerning the movement of neoconservatism and American foreign affairs. Because the book was also published in 2010, it is up to date with recent events and provides a broader outlook on the entirety of the movement. It also carries a modern perspective on the historical ideology presented in his work.
Neoconservatism was actually praised in the Harvard University Press when it was first published. They called the book “essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the contours of our recent political past.”9 Vaisse’s book covers neoconservatism in depth, so if one were to learn about the topic, it is the only thing one would need to read. New York Times explains in their review that “Vaïsse draws on the facts to support his argument that neoconservatism has become doctrinaire,”10 supports the fact that this book is historically accurate and credible.
Justin Vaisse tells the story of neoconservatism in chronological order and in addition, breaks the movement into three different stages making it easy for readers to follow. Because of his thoroughness in explaining everything about neoconservatism including the origins of its ideas and how it began to the movement at its peak and at its lowest, the reader is never lost. However, sometimes Vaisse references events such as the “Six Day war”11 and the 9/11 attacks without explanation, making it difficult for readers without previous historical education to understand and requiring additional research. Nonetheless, Justin Vaisse does a brilliant job in proving the importance of neoconservatism and the influence the movement had on very recent political actions, even some that continue to affect society today. Because it is a contemporary piece, Neoconservatism is much more fascinating as it is more present in topic and explains many of the events happening today. Overall, the book is not only interesting but historically accurate and educational, raising the consciences of the readers to understand how some recent episodes came to be.
Justin Vaisse covers the entirety of the movement from the 1960’s liberalism to 1980’s conservatism in his novel, particularly the political aspect of the neoconservatism movement. He begins his book with the beginning of “Cold War Liberals”12(30) and their impending collapse to the growth of democracy and the shift from left to rightist conservatism, also known as neoconservatism. Vaisse goes into detail and gives specific reasons why those events that led to the transition of liberalism to conservatism happened. The book not only covers those reasons but gives the reader a political timeline, making it even easier to visualize. However, Justin Vaisse mainly covers the political aspect of the neoconservatism movement, describing more of the war events and presidential elections than cultural revolutions or economic situations during the eighties.
Historian Justin Vaisse does a phenomenal job in introducing and teaching about the neoconservative movement which contributed to a mass of recent political events. Through its separate political stages and literary timeline, Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement carries the entire story of the development of neoconservatism from the Sixties to the Eighties to present day providing a thorough explanation of both the highs and lows of the affairs of the government.
1.Vaisse, Justin, Neoconservatism:The Biography of a Movement. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. 22
2.Vaisse, Justin. 36
3.Vaisse, Justin. 55
4.Vaisse, Justin. 81
5.Vaisse, Justin. 90
6.Vaisse, Justin. 168
7.Vaisse, Justin. 180
8.”Justin Vaïsse.” Globsec.org. Globsec, n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.
9.”Neoconservatism.” — Justin Vaïsse. Harvard
Press, n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.
10.Gewen, Barry. “Leave No War Behind.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 June 2010. Web. 23 May 2016.
11.Vaisse, Justin. 50
12.Vaisse, Justin. 30
13.Gewen, Barry. “Leave No War Behind.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 June 2010. Web. 23 May 2016.