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by H.W. Brands

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-300-09021-8
Publisher: Yale Univ.

A brilliant autopsy of a dearly departed American political tradition.

Liberalism, the doctrine premised on the ability of government to effect social good, is “indubitably dead,” yet another casualty of the Vietnam War. So writes Brands (History/Texas A&M Univ.; The First American, 2000, etc.) in this provocative essay, which attributes the collapse of faith in the system to Cold War–era missteps on the part of leaders such as John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon (and, to a lesser extent, their successors). The struggle to contain and defeat communism defined the American government after WWII; that struggle, Brands maintains, was both a creation of liberalism—a point sure to irritate liberals—and the chief vehicle by which liberals could maintain their power in a nation traditionally hostile to big government, at least in peacetime. The onset of the Cold War effectively silenced conservatism, writes Brands, after politicians who would have berated the Truman Administration for engaging in an undeclared war anywhere else refrained from criticism because of their “proprietary attitude toward Asia,” which assumed that Korea, and later Vietnam, were properly America’s to defend. The conservatives lost still more ground, Brands continues, when President Eisenhower endorsed big-government measures such as the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the interstate highway system in the name of national defense (though such things, he hastens to add, were also fueled by “reasons that had nothing to do with the danger of Russian air raids”). Thus co-opted, conservatives remained an ineffectual force until the loss of Vietnam and Nixon’s policy of détente exposed the sham of containment, disgusting the electorate, making the world safe for the likes of Ronald Reagan and the Eisenhower-like Bill Clinton, and routing fans of big government once and for all—unless some renewed threat to national security returns power to Washington.

Brands’s argument, carefully made and easily followed, will be of interest to a wide range of readers.