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Book Review: The Forty Years War

The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons, from Nixon to Obama by Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman

I mentioned this book previously, expressing some serious skepticism of the authors’ core argument of a struggle between President Richard Nixon and the Neocons. Nevertheless, I ordered a copy and found The Forty Years War to be an absorbing read; for those with an interest in the administration of Richard Nixon, the history of the late Cold War period or the politics of American foreign policy, this book is a must read. I have a good working knowledge from my own research of primary and secondary source material related to Richard Nixon and his battle to re-shape American foreign policy and national strategy; yet I can say that and Colodny and Shachtman, working with newly transcribed archival material, demonstrated that we still have much to learn about the inner workings of the Nixon administration.

The authors have three important themes in The Forty Years War:

1. The intellectual legacy of militarist- moral idealism of Fritz G.A. Kraemer, the German-born Defense Department geopolitical theorist who was a mentor, adviser or ally to a glittering constellation of policy makers including Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, James Schlesinger, Fred Ikle, Andrew Marshall, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld and others. Shachtman and Colodny call Kraemer:

“….the unacknowledged godfather of the George W. Bush administration’s ways of relating the United States to the rest of the world – more so than the philosophies of the university of Chicago’s Leo Strauss or those Trotskyites turned conservatives who founded the neocon movement”

2. That there has been a “forty years war” for the control over U.S. foreign policy not between Left and Right or Hawks and Doves but between foreign policy “Pragmatists” in the mold of Richard Nixon and “Neocons” or more broadly (and accurately in my view), “Hardliners” adhering to the rigid moralism and supreme confidence in military supremacy of Fritz Kraemer.

3. That Watergate, contrary to the orthodox historiography (argued by historians like Stanley I. Kutler and Robert Dallek), was exploited and aggravated by Kraemerites and proto-Neocons, especially General Al Haig, specifically to bring down Richard Nixon in an attempt to smash detente and institute more aggressive U.S. posture in the Cold War. Haig emerges as a central villain in the Watergate conspiracy in The Forty Years War and Nixon’s ability to inspire disloyalty in his closest aides is breathtaking.

While illuminating and deeply provocative, The Forty Years War is a quirky book, almost two different books with the first half devoted to the Nixon era and the second half sailing from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. In a sense, this is unavoidable because it is the Nixon administration docs that are being rapidly declassified and subsequent administrations will not be releasing similar material for years or decades. Equal depth of treatment for every administration would also have swelled the number of pages to a staggeringly unmanageable size for authors and readers alike.

I am also not comfortable with the authors’ casual use of the label “Neocon” to describe a range of policy makers on the right, some of whom are not at all neoconservatives in a tight or ideological sense of the term. Toward the end of The Forty Years War, Colodny and Shachtman draw more nuanced distinctions that I think, is a more precise rendering of the positions of various figures in Republican administrations or Congress.

The Forty Years War is a book that deserves to have a much higher public profile as Colodny and Shachtman are marshalling new evidence to challenge conventional interpretations of late Cold War political history and foreign policy.

Strongly recommended.

3 Responses to “Book Review: The Forty Years War”

  1. Seerov Says:

    Surprisingly (to me anyway) Kraemer was a Lutheran. 

  2. zen Says:

    Yes. The man was culturally Prussianized to the core it would seem, right down to wearing a monocle.

  3. JV Says:

    Sounds good.  I will have to add it to the pile.  Is this the first book about the end of Baby Boomers?  Their impact from when they could first vote, Nixon, through their Presidents, Clinton & Bush, and control of culture until their power started to wane with the election of BB?  The interesting comparison would be to compare this story of elected political power vs. the cultural power that the Baby Boomers exercised when they retreated enmass from the ballot box after Nixon won to focus on society.  The intersection being "The Culture War" of recent as the generations change and flail about seeking the new norm.

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