A Reply to Kevin Mattson

A Reply to Kevin Mattson

By failing to assemble a coalitional politics that went beyond the ideology and logic of security, Cold War liberals became unwitting participants in liberalism’s decline.

President-elect John F. Kennedy with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on January 9, 1960 (Bettmann via Getty Images)

This is a reply to Kevin Mattson’s “Virtues of Cold War Liberalism.” Read Michael Brenes and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins’s original article, “Legacies of Cold War Liberalism,” here.

We thank Kevin Mattson for taking the time to respond to our essay. We have learned much from Mattson’s work on the history of postwar American liberalism and appreciate his careful reading of our arguments and the collegial spirit of his engagement. We hoped our essay would provoke debate and discussion. To have a well-respected and accomplished scholar like Mattson offer such a thoughtful critique proves—to us at least—that we have succeeded in this goal.

Mattson is correct that the mid-twentieth-century notion of “consensus politics” is mythical. There are clear differences between the Cold War liberals and the right-wing figures he references: Joseph McCarthy, General Douglas MacArthur, Richard Nixon, and William F. Buckley Jr. We do not contend that a liberal consensus existed in a normative sense. But that does not mean that Cold War liberals did not attempt to create one; that they did not forge an anticommunist “tradition” that echoes in a post–Cold War present. It is this false consensus—of liberals’ reliance on “security” as the basis for mass politics—that is at issue for us.

A politics premised on “security,” we argue, has become a problem for liberals who, either unabashedly or unintentionally, rely on the anti-democratic institutions of the national security state to save us from our most avaricious (or just our most democratic) impulses—as Cold War liberals once argued, and as apparently many liberals did in the years following Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

We believe, as does Mattson, that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is an archetypal figure of postwar liberalism. In fact, he helps us understand some of their unexpected deviations as the decades wore on. Schlesinger’s book The Vital Center postulated a liberalism that obliges “the ultimate integrity of the individual” in the face of “the totalitarian left and the totalitarian right.” But by the end of the Cold War, Schlesinger’s vital center had transmogrified into a cantankerous, near reactionary screed against identity politics. Schlesinger’s 1991 book, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, in many ways a sequel to The Vital Center, noted, and in some ways lamented, the end of “an era of ideological conflict.” He feared that the lack “of a unifying American identity” after the Cold War gave license to “militants of ethnicity” and agents of “political correctness” (on both the left and the right) who imperiled a faith in America’s democratic destiny. Without a national purpose, argued Schlesinger, we are atomized by differences; our greatness, our exceptionalism, is in doubt.

The end of the Cold War created an ideological vacuum, in other words, that was filled by “multiculturalism on the left and monoculturalism on the right.” The Disuniting of America presaged Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal and other anti-identitarian screeds—and downplayed the left’s call to build a robust, European-style social democratic state.

Among Cold War liberals, the fall of the Soviet Union did not compel the self-reflection critical to any liberal project. Instead, there was a continued search for enemies, both foreign and domestic, to explain liberalism’s limits. Why were Cold War liberals like Schlesinger seemingly more interested in explaining how liberalism’s chances to pursue a revived New Deal were limited by “identity politics,” rather than unburdened by the end of the global fight against communism? The answer to this question, we believe, reflects the political limitations of Cold War liberalism: it was not a vehicle to achieve the ends of equality and universal freedom in a post–Cold War America.

In fact, Cold War liberals were unwitting participants in liberalism’s relative decline in American politics. They failed to assemble a coalitional politics that went beyond the ideology and logic of security, and instead helped to create a coalition that kept the national security state intact beyond the fall of the Soviet Union.

And while Mattson sees distinct divides between liberals and conservatives on foreign policy, when measured against the broader history of American foreign policy, such differences are negligible. Talk of “rollback” and “preemptive war” by conservatives proved to be just that: talk. For all their muscular bombast, and their claims to foreign policy iconoclasm, presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan achieved greater political success by appropriating the language of Cold War liberalism to justify a repackaged form of containment (Nixon’s policy of détente) and by adopting Cold War liberals’ devotion to military Keynesianism (as Reagan did through his defense buildup).

The Cold War foreign policy consensus—represented by the amalgam of foreign policy elites that cycled in and out of successive Republican and Democratic administrations—reflected a bipartisan compromise. This “middle ground” ultimately undermined a domestic project to restore social democracy; today, it buttresses the power of the national security state in a neoliberal context.

We agree with Mattson that many uses of Cold War analogies since the 2000s have been “sloppy” and anachronistic. But whereas Mattson sees Cold War liberalism as offering an affirmative and utilitarian contemporary legacy—a critique of American hubris that also rescues the left from its indulgence in utopian thinking—we believe that Cold War liberals are the progenitors of these analogies. These analogies (often heuristically reduced to one name, like Stalin or Mao) are indeed sloppy but have nonetheless been historically effective for liberals concerned that undue dedication to the national security state will weaken America’s commitment to democracy.

Mattson fails to take seriously the effect of Cold War analogies in justifying the Iraq War. In his widely read book, Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman saw little functional difference between Islamic terrorism and Soviet communism. He therefore exhorted liberals to fight the menace of Islamic totalitarianism like the Cold War liberals of yesteryear fought tooth and nail against Soviet totalitarianism. This line was also taken up by bestselling authors like Bernard-Henri Lévy, Sam Harris, and George Packer to justify military interventions. When C. Wright Mills used the term “Cold War liberalism” in the early 1960s to critique what he called the “N.A.T.O. intellectuals of the liberal establishment,” it was this sort of legacy that he envisioned.

Which brings us to Mattson’s focus on Reinhold Niebuhr. Mattson invokes Niebuhr throughout his response as a chastening voice for leftists—reminding us of the “fallibility” of human nature. Even though this history is rather well known, in our original article we sought to show how it lives on today, most importantly in America’s forever wars, which the Niebuhr-inspired Obama did little to mitigate. Taking one’s cue from Niebuhrian witticisms and Lutheran ironies can all too easily lead us down the path which Niebuhr himself followed: from a commitment to class struggle in his democratic thought during the 1930s to the Niebuhr of the 1950s, who spoke of the “fluidity of the American class structure” and the decline of “social resentments.” In The Irony of American History (1952), he claimed that power had become “equilibrated” in the United States; “disproportions” and “disbalances” had been satisfactorily redressed.

The Irony of American History passed over the question of race in America—a silence that has inspired some of Niebuhr’s fiercest critics, most notably James Cone, the great black liberation theologian. Meanwhile, the book characterizes the Middle East as a “decadent Mohammedan feudal order” of “sleep-walking cultures in which the drama of human history is not taken seriously.” The entirety of the Asian continent, Niebuhr argued, is incapable of Western democracy since it does not “have sufficiently high standards of honesty to make democratic government viable.” While Niebuhr cautioned against American liberal crusading abroad, we need to remember his reasoning: it would be a lost cause, given the dishonest, decadent, and feudal societies of poorer nations. Intellectuals like Niebuhr were rightly accused of prioritizing security concerns, and thus military spending, over welfare and the New Deal.

In large measure, Mattson’s piece is speaking past ours: we are principally concerned with the legacy of Cold War liberalism. Mattson seems primarily preoccupied with separating the Cold War liberals of yesteryear from their right-wing contemporaries. He presumably feels the need to do this because he thinks our story presents Cold War liberals, and the legacy they have bequeathed us, as ignoring the right’s ascendancy.

But nowhere do we dismiss conservatives’ unyielding effort to oppose a progressive agenda. Our essay, instead, aimed to examine the intellectual artifacts of earlier liberal ideology: in the state of higher education, in the much ongoing and persistently circular “culture wars,” in critiques of left-wing populism, and in how intellectuals, policymakers, and political leaders invoke security logic to justify hawkish policies. To rectify liberalism’s failures, we argue liberals must look inward, rather than making the possibility of social democracy contingent on the relative strength, or existence, of a stated enemy.

This is to say that we are more concerned with the legacy of the Cold War as a problem of the liberal political imagination. The choice between this “pragmatic” liberalism—a liberalism defined by the actions of its opponents—and the revanchist right is a false one.


Michael Brenes teaches history at Yale University. He is the author of For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History and a postdoctoral fellow in the history department at Dartmouth College.


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