They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons

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9780385511810: They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons

The neocons have become at once the most feared and reviled intellectual movement in American history. Critics on left and right describe them as a tight-knit cabal that ensnared the Bush administration in an unwinnable foreign war.

Who are the neoconservatives? How did an obscure band of policy intellectuals, left for dead in the 1990s, suddenly rise to influence the Bush administration and revolutionize American foreign policy?

Jacob Heilbrunn wittily and pungently depicts the government officials, pundits, and think-tank denizens who make up this controversial movement, bringing them to life against a background rich in historical detail and political insight. Setting the movement in the larger context of the decades-long battle between liberals and conservatives, first over communism, now over the war on terrorism, he shows that they have always been intellectual mavericks, with a fiery prophetic temperament (and a rhetoric to match) that sets them apart from both liberals and traditional conservatives.

Neoconservatism grew out of a split in the 1930s between Stalinists and followers of Trotsky. These obscure ideological battles between warring Marxist factions were transported to the larger canvas of the Cold War, as over time the neocons moved steadily to the right, abandoning the Democratic party after 1972 when it shunned intervention abroad, and completing their journey in 1980 when they embraced Ronald Reagan and the Republican party. There they supplied the ideological glue that held the Reagan coalition together, combining the agenda of “family values” with a crusading foreign policy.

Out of favor with the first President Bush, and reduced to gadflies in the Clinton years, they suddenly found themselves in George W. Bush’s administration in a position of unprecendented influence. For the first time in their long history, they had their hands on the levers of power. Prompted by 9/11, they used that power to advance what they believed to be America’s strategic interest in spreading democracy throughout the Arab world.

Their critics charge that the neo-conservatives were doing the bidding of the Israeli government -- a charge that the neoconservatives rightfully reject. But Heilbrunn shows that the story of the neocons is inseparable from the great historical drama of Jewish assimilation. Decisively shaped by the immigrant exerience and the trauma of the Holocaust, they rose from the margins of political life to become an insurgent counter-establishment that challenged the old WASP foreign policy elite.

Far from being chastened by the Iraq debacle, the neocons continue to guide foreign policy. They are advisors to each of the major GOP presidential candidates. Repeatedly declared dead in the past, like Old Testament prophets they thrive on adversity. This book shows where they came from -- and why they remain a potent and permanent force in American politics.

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About the Author:

Jacob Heilbrunn writes regularly for the New York Times, Washington Monthly, and National Interest. He is a former member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board and was a senior editor at the New Republic. He lives in Washington, DC.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Exodus

And you, stand here by Me and I shall speak to you all the commands and the statutes and the laws that you will teach them, and they will do them in the land that I am about to give them to take hold of it.
Deuteronomy 5:28

It's the same with all you comfortable, insular, Anglo–Saxon anti–Communists. You hate our Cassandra cries and resent us as allies—but, when all is said, we ex-Communists are the only people on your side who know what it's all about.
Arthur Koestler, The God That Failed

I call them utopians...I don’t care whether utopians are Vladimir Lenin in a sealed train going to Moscow or Paul Wolfowitz. Utopians, I don’t like. You're never going to bring utopia, and you're going to hurt a lot of people in the process of trying to do it.
Lawrence B. Wilkerson, chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell in GQ
In the spring of 2003, shortly after the liberation of Iraq, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb attended a party in Washington, D.C., for Melvin Lasky. They hadn’t seen one another since a conference in Berlin in 1992 celebrating the end of the cold war. Now they were enjoying a sentimental reunion at which these eighty–year–olds reminisced about their years at the City College of New York in the 1930s. As Lasky held forth, Kristol waspishly intervened to tell the room that “none of you know what the first magazine” was that he had published an article in—an obscure Trotskyist publication called the Chronicle. After Kristol observed that the then–eighteen–year–old Lasky “rewrote every sentence in the piece,” Lasky responded, “That was the last recorded moment your prose needed help.”

It was a telling moment. For all the joviality, their reminiscences weren’t about going out for sports or their old professors. Instead, they were about the intensely political sectarianism of the left. Decades later, the passions that had first impelled them into politics had hardly dimmed; as Lasky later recounted to me, “The memories are very sharp, it’s not like an old man who says, ‘Who? What college were you in?’ ”

Their saga began in Russia. At the turn of the twentieth century, Jews, overrepresented in left–wing and revolutionary movements, intent on creating a utopia, went on the attack against capitalism and imperialism. As one Yiddish newspaper put it, “With hatred, with a three–fold curse, we must weave the shroud for the Russian autocratic government, for the entire anti–Semitic criminal gang, for the entire capitalist world.” (1)

So pronounced was this phenomenon that in a 1927 study titled “The Jew as Radical,” the Russian historian (and apologist for Stalin) Maurice Hindus maintained that Jews had an innate propensity to radicalism dating back to their biblical origins. Indeed, the Menshevik exile Simeon Strunsky, who would end up on the editorial board of the New York Times, sardonically recalled the intensity of Marxist debates that had been transported from Europe to the United States: “I remember quite well those pioneer Yiddish labor papers of the ’90s with their learned editorialettes of six or seven columns and five thousand words about what Werner Sombart thought of what Boehm–Bauwerk said about how Karl Marx slipped up in a footnote on page 879.” (2)

Of the avatars of world revolution, no one beckoned more alluringly to a new generation of young Jewish radicals than the Russian exile Leon Trotsky. As Jews, they were deeply influenced by their parents’ flight from czarist oppression and the rise of fascism in the 1930s, but they also sought to transcend the religiosity of their elders. Some joined the American Communist Party, at least until the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop pact dividing up Poland and the Baltic States between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. A much smaller segment became Trotskyists, attacking both Stalinism as a perverted form of communism and New Deal liberalism. The Trotskyist intellectuals saw themselves as martyrs, a kind of aristocratic intelligentsia.

According to their own prolific writings, they started out purely as an intellectual response to events such as the Spanish civil war, the Moscow show trials, the Hitler–Stalin pact, and the New Deal. Frequently scanted, or even missing altogether from this tale of brilliant and ambitious young intellectuals, is their Jewishness, which enters into the story as an over–the–shoulder glance at the vanishing “world of their fathers.” In their seemingly inexhaustible stream of memoirs and autobiographical essays, the Jewish intellectuals who became the core of the neoconservative movement present themselves as fully secularized, their ideas and attitudes bearing little, if any, relation to the Jewish past or, in some cases, even to the immigrant milieu of their youth. Their Trotskyist past appears as a minor episode, paling in comparison to the supposed real emergence of neoconservatism in the late 1960s. One exegete of neoconservatism says that “despite its current popularity, the ‘Trotskyist neocon’ assertion contributes nothing to our understanding of the origins, or nature, of neoconservatism.” (3) Another, Joshua Muravchik, maintains that hardly any neoconservatives have been interested in Trotskyism, let alone sincere believers.

But as the sons of Jewish immigrants, they undoubtedly had a special perspective, one torn between tradition and assimilation, buffeted by radical winds, in love with ideas, consumed with ambition to participate in the great doings of the world outside the immigrant ghetto. Contrary to some of their critics, the neoconservatives hardly remain political Trotskyists in any meaningful sense. Their fling with Trotskyism did, however, endow them with a temperament as well as a set of intellectual tools that many never completely abandoned—a combative temper and a penchant for sweeping assertions and grandiose ideas.

Some of that grandiosity was rooted in the generational tensions between Jewish immigrant fathers and their Americanizing sons, which often took the form of disagreements about religion and politics. Put otherwise: the religiosity of the fathers was sublimated by the sons in radical politics. Trotsky, as a literary critic, a historian, a politician, and a warrior, captured their youthful imaginations. But on a deeper, unconscious level, they appear to have identified with Trotsky as a way of breaking with the paternal religion while maintaining the radical faith of their parents. They saw Trotsky as a kind of secular Jewish prophet who had been betrayed by the murderous “bureaucrat” Stalin.

The young radicals could hardly have grown up in a more intensely Jewish world. Yiddish theater, journalism, and literature flourished on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The social reformer Jacob Riis dubbed it “Jewtown,” while Henry James referred to it more delicately as “The New Jerusalem.” Whatever Lower East Side Jewish life was called, the children, desperate to Americanize, sought first to escape it, then to memorialize it. According to Irving Howe, the Jewish socialist intellectual who did more than anyone to re–create it in World of Our Fathers, “Often enough it was the purity of their vision—the moral firmness induced by religion or set free by radicalism—that provided the energies for realizing their personal ambitions.” (4) The literary critic Alfred Kazin recalled in his own memoir that he was expected to shine by his immigrant parents: “I was the first American child, their offering to the strange new God; I was to be the monument of their liberation from the shame of being—what they were.” (5)

Though the parents hoped for careers in medicine, law, and business for their sons, or as musical and intellectual prodigies, Marxist radicalism was the most common route of escape. As teenagers, they would stand on soapboxes in New York—known as the most interesting city in the Soviet Union—and demand a more just society. They didn’t have to be told about the grinding, carking poverty created by capitalism; they saw people living in hovels all around them and foraged themselves for fruits and vegetables on the Lower East Side docks. As a sixteen–year–old freshman at City College, for example, Sidney Hook helped create the Social Problems Club, an organization made up of socialists, syndicalists, and communists that saw itself as part of the world revolution emanating from Moscow. In a number of stories and novels Saul Bellow, who grew up in a working–class milieu in Chicago and traveled to Mexico in August 1940 to meet Trotsky, captured the febrile intellectualism of the young immigrant Jews lecturing their elders on the fine points of Hegel and Marx while still in their knickers.

In America the Jews would no longer be downtrodden and contemned. But for a number of radical children, this was not enough. They didn’t want in. They wanted out. They saw themselves as the avatars of a secular movement that would overturn the old order in America as well. After all, no matter how hard they worked, there were still quotas at the Ivy League universities. Then there were the fancy clubs, the legal and financial firms that saw Jews as interlopers who would soil their proud escutcheons and were to be kept at bay. Smarting with unsuppressed social resentment, the young Jews viewed themselves as liberators, proclaiming a new faith. They embraced a cosmopolitan creed that supposedly left behind the stifling religious customs of their elders as well as the warring nationalisms that perpetually dragged Europe into strife and combat.

Even as they nursed these illusions, however, the radical generation of intellectuals serenely ignor...

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