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Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science, Kenyon College
Nothing rings in the holidays like thinking about nuclear weapons and proliferation. Last week, the 1991 START agreement lapsed, and the Obama Administration has been underway to negotiate its replacement, which is expected to include substantial cuts to American nuclear forces, even below the deep cuts made by George W. Bush in the 2002 Moscow Treaty. At the prodding of Vice President Joe Biden, the administration is also expected to push the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But ratifying these treaties and cutting our own forces may or may not have any effect on the desirability of such weapons to the world's worst regimes or their desire to proliferate nuclear materials to others.
One reason for skepticism that good example and parchment agreements alone will not suffice is given in Robert Joseph's Countering WMD: The Libyan Experience. A former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Joseph was one of a handful of persons closely involved in the peaceful rollback of Libya's nuclear weapons and missile programs. One the most successful, unprecedented (and underappreciated) episodes in the history of counterproliferation policy came on the heels of the revelation of the A.Q. Khan network's sales to Libya and others, and of course the end of the Hussein regime. Qadaffi said in a 2003 press interview that "I will do whatever the United States wants, because I saw what happened in Iraq, and I was afraid." Joseph enumerates lessons from the Libyan episode, including the importance of clarity and firmness in diplomacy, lessons which might today be usefully applied to the cases of North Korea and Iran.
Similar cause for doubt in the efficacy of traditional nonproliferation policy is suggested by Keith B. Payne's The Great American Gamble: Deterrence Theory and Practice from the Cold War to the Twenty-first Century. A former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Payne documents how the Cold War reasoning for nuclear deterrence continues to mask how we think about both nuclear weapons and missile defense today. The "gamble" here is the deliberate choice to emphasize purely offensive means of deterrence—lots of nuclear armed missiles—to the exclusion of missile defenses which could blunt an attack should it occur. Whatever the value during the Cold War, the continued proliferation of missile and nuclear technology suggests that this model may not work, yet strangely enough the Cold War calculus continues to fuel.Given the continued proliferation advances of bad regimes, he invokes Bob Dylan's line that "a slow train is coming up around the bend," and suggests that America will come to regret its continued acceptance of the homeland's vulnerability to ballistic missile attack.
Bona fide nuclear scientists Thomas C. Reed and Daniel Stillman also invoke the train imagery for proliferation in The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation, provocatively suggesting that nuclear and missile proliferation to rogue regimes like Pakistan and Iran began as conscious Chinese policy in the 1980s, and may remain in effect today, using North Korea as a conduit to first develop and then disseminate such materials to enemies of the West. Instead of Bob Dylan, Reed and Stillman invoke Edward R. Murrow's 1940 assessment of Britain's Chamberlin administration: "The people here feel the machine is out of control, that we are all passengers on an express train traveling at high speed through a dark tunnel toward an unknown destiny." The metaphor does not fit their argument perfectly, however, since they suggest that China is the engineer running the train, and that it has little concern for the well-being of its passengers.
John B. Kienker
Managing Editor, Claremont Review of Books
We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, by Matthew Spalding
Well organized, clearly written, expertly argued, this is perhaps the single best introduction to the political thought of the American Founding. Spalding builds his book around ten principles, each illuminating a different aspect of the American experiment, from the political theory of the Declaration of Independence and the structure of the Constitution, to family law, education, character formation, citizenship, and foreign policy.
American Virtues: Thomas Jefferson on the Character of a Free People, by Jean M. Yarbrough
Now in paperback, an excellent study of Thomas Jefferson's idiosyncratic political thought, a blend that included liberal natural rights theory, Scottish moral sense philosophy, Epicureanism, and agrarian romanticism. Yarbrough examines the full range of virtues Jefferson believed essential to perpetuate the intellect, character, and devotion that constitutional government needs to sustain itself. (The best single-volume life of the Sage of Monticello remains Merrill D. Peterson's Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography.)
The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989, by Steven F. Hayward
A monumental achievement, Hayward's two-volume account covering Ronald Reagan's rise in the '60s and'70s through his years in the White House is political history at its finest. This second volume reminds one especially how deeply Reagan had to know the conservative arguments to have any hope of making inroads against Communism abroad and—what proved to be a tougher foe—liberalism at home. So, read the first volume if you haven't, and then dive into this one.
The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility, by Angelo M. Codevilla
Newly updated and expanded to take account of the September 11 attacks and the 2008 bailout, Codevilla surveys dramatic changes in prosperity, civility, family life, religion, and national defense around the world, with examples drawn from the Soviets to the Swedes, from Italy to Israel, and a dozen other countries. When he turns his attention to modern-day America, he no longer finds the nation of free citizens described by Tocqueville, bound together by a devotion to limited, constitutional government; but one that more and more resembles Europe or even the Third World: a nation of favor-seekers profiting from their connections to government and content to be ruled by a powerful, decadent elite.
John Courtney Murray: Theologian in Conflict, by Donald E. Pelotte, S.S.S.
A superb introduction to the scholar-priest who did so much to reconcile America with the Catholic Church and the Catholic Church with America. Pelotte helpfully provides the historical context in which Murray wrote, bringing alive the drama of his arguments, which were banned by the Vatican in the 1950s and then, within in a decade, triumphed at the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration on Religious Freedom. For more perspectives on Murray and his influence, see John Courtney Murray and the Civil Conversation, edited by Robert P. Hunt and Kenneth L. Grasso. All of Murray's writings, including his book, We Hold These Truths, are available here.
The Hercule Poirot Novels and Stories, by Agatha Christie
With her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie introduced the world to a dandyish little Belgian detective with an egg-shaped head and fantastic moustaches. Hercule Poirot's "little gray cells" and "order and method" would be on the case for nearly six decades in short stories and novels that would secure Christie's reputation as the Queen of Crime, and make her the best-selling author of all time. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, and Poirot's final bow in Curtain (published posthumously) stand out for their sheer creativity. Skip the exhausted later novels and the bewilderingly awful The Big Four, unless you're really addicted. Also not to be missed is David Suchet's definitive portrayal on the small screen.
Daniel J. Mahoney
Professor of Political Science, Assumption College
Winston Churchill is the preeminent statesman of the 20th century—humane, indomitable, magnanimous, and committed in the best English fashion to decency and liberty under law—and Paul Johnson is one of our most reliable guides to the 20th century as well as an elegant practitioner of the "Plutarchian" art of the moral biography of exemplary statesman and tyrants. Johnson's new book Churchill, coming in at a mere 180 pages, does not disappoint. Eschewing hagiography, Johnson nonetheless ably captures the grit, intelligence, and determination of an authentically great man. He is particularly good at showing the reasons why Churchill made such a difference in 1940 (those reasons go beyond his magnificent, morally clarifying rhetoric) and the permanent lessons to be learned from his character and example. And as an amateur painter himself, Johnson has some illuminating things to say about Churchill as painter as well as Churchill as orator.
Aurelian Craiutu and Jeremy Jennings are to be commended for collecting Tocqueville's letters, speeches, and writings on America after the publication of the second volume of Democracy in America. Tocqueville on America after 1840: Letters and Other Writings allows Anglophone readers to come to terms not only with Tocqueville the political philosopher, the analyst par excellence of the unfolding "democratic revolution" that filled him with cautious hope as well as "religious dread," but also with the self-described "half Yankee" who fretted about the growing materialism and lawlessness in a country whose experiment in republican self-government meant so much to him and to "the cause of humanity." We see the French statesman and political thinker lamenting the growing strength of the slavery party in the United States and pleading, as he put it in his contribution to the anti-slavery Liberty Bell in 1856, for an end to "the spectacle of man's degradation by man." This critic of dogmatic egalitarianism and the evils of chattel slavery hoped that Americans would have the prudence and decency to "grant equal civil liberty to all the inhabitants of the same empire, as God accords the freedom of the will, without distinction, to the dwellers upon earth." This volume thus reveals "the humanity of the aristocrat," as Raymond Aron once put it, as well as a man capable of generous and affectionate friendship with so many of his American interlocutors. And in a moment that every American can appreciate, we see Tocqueville inquiring, discretely to be sure, about the status of his investments in American railroads which he feared had been badly hit by the economic crisis of 1857 (luckily he was spared!).
The fall of 2009 saw the publication of the "restored" 96-chapter version of Solzhenitsyn's greatest novel under its original title In the First Circle. Solzhenitsyn originally wrote the work as an "underground writer" between 1955 and 1958 after a prolonged period in Soviet prisons and camps, as well as in internal exile, and with no hope for its publication in the foreseeable future. In 1964, he prepared a "distorted" 87-chapter version of the work that he hoped, wrongly it turned out, might make it past Soviet censors. It was that version that appeared in less than adequate translations in England and America in 1968. In 1968, Solzhenitsyn "restored" the work making some additional changes along the way. It is this version that has finally appeared in English in a splendid translation by the late Harry T. Willetts. One can not say enough about this book. It combines a searing critique of totalitarianism, an exciting detective story, an account of friendship and philosophy surviving, even flourishing in the "first circle" of gulag/hell, a relatively privileged scientific research prison at the edge of Moscow at the end of 1949. The five chapters on Stalin, which are unlike anything else in modern literature, renew Plato's critique of the soul-destroying character of tyranny in the Gorgias. In addition, the book beautifully captures Solzhenitsyn's own odyssey, in the form of his alter ego Gleb Nerzhin, from Marxism, to skepticism, to a much more substantial affirmation of natural moral conscience and justice, "the cornerstone, the foundation of the universe!" From beginning to end, Solzhenitsyn ties his critique of tyranny to a critique of the "stupid" thought of Epicurus that "our feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction are the highest criteria of good and evil." A hedonistic calculus, Solzhenitsyn suggests, can provide no principled ground for opposing the Tyrant's claim that his pleasure is good or for affirming the choice-worthiness of a life lived according to conscience.
Finally, it is well worth returning to the best collections of essays by two humane thinkers and social critics who died in 2009. The Polish ex-Marxist turned philosophical Christian Leszek Kolakowski writes with depth and learning about the discontents of modernity in his splendid Modernity on Endless Trial. His essays admirably avoid the twin extremes of dogmatism and relativism, utopianism and despair. And Irving Kristol provides a sober anti-utopian reflection on the "democratic idea" in Neo-conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. His neo-conservatism had nothing to do with militant Wilsonianism and was deeply marked by his engagement with the thought of Leo Strauss and Lionel Trilling as well with "neo-orthodox" Jewish and Christian thought.
Harvey C. Mansfield
William R. Kenan, Jr.,Professor of Government, Harvard University
Shop Class as Soulcraft : An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Mathew B. Crawford
The weak point in modern scientific technology is that its products need to be repaired. Here is the phenomenology of the repairman,whose brain must work through his hands and on actual materials.
Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, by Christopher Caldwell
With a variation on the title of Edmund Burke's famous work, Caldwell studies Muslim immigration to Europe. He shows it to be a case of the crisis of the West and the weakness resulting from a loss of belief in itself.
Wilfred M. McClay
SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Judaism: A Way of Being, by David Gelernter
In this beautiful, passionate, imaginative, and deeply meditated book, David Gelernter has done far more than provide us with a handy distillation of Jewish doctrine or history or law or custom. Instead he has sought something deeper and more elusive: an account of the singular Jewish vision of reality, considered in its wholeness. The resulting work has the condensed power of a great poem, with imagery and insights that will linger long in the thoughts of readers. The book is propelled by an urgent recognition that there can be no Jewish future without a recovery of Judaism itself, of the beliefs and texts and images that give Judaism its sweep and grandeur. Yet all the book's readers, whether or not they are Jewish, will find in it an introduction, both winsome and startling, to a way of being in the world that they may never have fully imagined before—even though they have been carrying it around all their lives, resident in their very bones.
The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm, edited by Joseph Loconte
This book appeared five years ago, but deserves to be revisited repeatedly, particularly by those who think that the fecklessness of the West's religious leaders in addressing questions of war and peace and civilizational survival is a new thing. It is sobering to read, for example, these words from the editorial page of The Christian Century, dated May 8, 1940, just two days before Hitler would begin to overrun France and take control of the European continent: "For the United States to make a fateful decision to enter this war on the mistaken and irrational assumption that it is a war for the preservation of anything good in civilization will be the supreme tragedy of our history."
Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, by James Piereson
I'm just catching up with this remarkable book, which appeared a couple of years ago, but it has lost none of its power or relevance in the interim. In fact, I think it is going to take many years for its importance to be fully absorbed and appreciated. Piereson argues that the Kennedy assassination was misread, really quite outrageously, as an evidence of the violently racist underside of American society, rather than what it most obviously was, i.e., the act of a pro-Castro, pro-Soviet Communist, undertaken at the height of the Cold War. This misreading, he argues, undergirded a radical transformation in the liberal understanding of American history, with consequences that are with us more than ever.
The Housing Boom and Bust, by Thomas Sowell
Vintage Sowell: a lucid, jargon-free, and devastatingly accessible account of what happened and why—and why a drastic reformation of our economic system may be the worst of all possible responses.
Econoclasts: The Rebels Who Sparked the Supply-Side Revolution and Restored American Prosperity, by Brian Domitrovic
The book provides something that has been, incredibly enough, almost completely lacking in the economic and historical literature of recent years: a detailed and sympathetic (though not uncritical) account of the men who created the policy revolution that extricated the United States from the stagflation of the 1970s. In an irresistible and sometimes rollicking narrative—yes, I know that sound hard to believe, but read the book and you'll see—Domitrovic tells the tale of Robert Mundell, Arthur Laffer, Robert Bartley, Jack Kemp, Norman Ture, Jude Wanniski, and the other oddballs and outliers who made this revolution. Given what Domitrovic shows about John F. Kennedy's economic policies, it makes sense to read this in conjunction with Piereson's book above. But in any event, it is a book that could not be more timely, as we find ourselves in the grip of a neo-dirigisme that seems determined not only to forget the past but to condemn us to repeat it.
The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States, by George Santayana, edited by James Seaton
And speaking of Santayana...admirers of the sublime Spaniard's elegant prose and penetrating cultural observation will not want to miss this brand new edition of his most influential extended writings about America. Appearing as a volume in Yale University Press's "Rethinking the Western Tradition" series, and admirably edited by James Seaton, it also features critical essays on Santayana by Seaton, John Lachs, Roger Kimball, and yours truly. A perfect Christmas present for all your friends who savor the tart, epigrammatic words of an uncategorizable master.