The thrust of Peter Beinart’s powerful and well-argued message in “The Good Fight” (HarperCollins, 288 pages, $25.95) is straightforward: The liberal left in America has abandoned its own best heritage for what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once called “doughface liberalism.” These liberals oppose terror and totalitarianism but recoil against taking any necessary steps to defeat it, fearful that their moral purity might be stained in the process.
Mr. Beinart first took up his case in a lengthy article in the New Republic, where he was editor from November 1999 until March 2006. He has now sought to explore how and why a once vital and dynamic American liberalism—devoted to asserting American power on behalf of democracy abroad as well as at home—went soft and, in Mr. Beinart’s words,“preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world.” He asks nothing less than that liberals (and Democrats) hark back to the much besmirched Cold War liberalism of President Truman, George Kennan, Hubert Humphrey, and others—and move away from the anti-interventionism of Michael Moore, George McGovern, and Howard Dean. The philosophical hero of “The Good Fight” is Reinhold Niebuhr, a man who gave up on pacifism. Niebuhr posited that Americans have to recognize their own capacity for inflicting evil by building restraints on unmitigated power, but not hesitate to act to prevent greater evils.
Niebuhr wrote about the crisis of the 1940s and 1950s, and Mr. Beinart asserts that Niebuhr’s careful balancing act still holds. Many liberals today focus all their anger on the Bush administration and the right, seemingly unaware that the major threat to liberal values is from the new totalitarianism emanating from radical Islam—which requires liberals also to “support military as well as economic and political efforts to fight it,” Mr. Beinart writes, even when their moral purity is compromised in the effort. In the era of the early Cold War, it was the group of Cold War liberals—centered in the newly created anti-communist group, Americans for Democratic Action—that fought the good fight and mobilized the nation’s support for resistance to Stalin’s aggressive international actions. They urged international economic development combined with military aid to bolster the West against Stalin’s growing threat, in contrast to the new emerging right, with intellectual leaders like James Burnham, who blanched at Kennan’s doctrine of “containment” and posited instead the creation of a new American empire. For them, containment, positing the slow erosion of communism, was moral relativism that accepted tolerating the evil of the Soviet Union.
The strongest portions of Mr.Beinart’s book are his historical accounts of the intra-liberal wars, as the forces of liberal anti-communism joined hands to defeat remnants of the pro-communist wartime Popular Front, symbolized by Henry Wallace’s dangerous attempt to attack Truman from the left while accepting overt communist support. Then, Mr. Beinart asserts, Cold War liberals understood that using American power to thwart totalitarianism abroad was the flip side of using the power of government to promote equality of opportunity and a commitment to civil rights for black Americans at home.
The Cold War liberal consensus came crashing to a halt with the onset of the Vietnam War and the cultural wars of the 1960s. The new left saw the old liberals as its principal enemy. The new group coined the phrase “corporate liberalism” to define what it saw as a failed commitment to the imperialist economic and political system. The choice the new left saw was between fascism and revolution, and it argued that those who favored using American power for good were only serving the nascent fascism lying beneath the surface. While the old generation of muscular liberals understood that the fight against Stalinism served as an impetus for domestic reform, for the new left, as Mr. B