A compelling polemic wrapped in a shallow history.
Though it certainly has its virtues, the book is a temporal work that may become stale in the near future. New York Times editorial board director Unger bases his arguments on sound principles—the United States has gone awry in its futile attempts to establish an impenetrable society safe from both interior and exterior threats. The author acknowledges the presence of a wide variety of global dangers, but he also recognizes that attempts on the part of the American government—especially the executive branch—to make the American state impermeable has led to substantial overreach. Unger shows how presidents starting with Franklin Roosevelt grasped what power they could under the auspices of keeping America safe, while at the same time holding on tight to what they inherited irrespective of whether or not previous dangers had receded. This process actually accelerated in the post–Vietnam War period when, perhaps paradoxically, the United States was at its most relatively powerful. Though mostly inarguable, the author’s case is not wholly original. Unger’s problem is not with his argument, but rather with his attempt to impose a historical apparatus upon it. The book is thinly sourced, allowing the author to dig only deep enough to confirm his viewpoint. However, readers who can look past these shortcomings will encounter an important perspective about opportunities missed and roads not taken. Unger writes clearly about the legitimate failings of American security policy, and his prescriptive final chapter in particular lays out possibilities for American practices going forward.
Though historians may not particularly value the book, Unger presents clear arguments about the futility of trying to make America invulnerable.