the white houseIn January 2001, political neoconservatism moved from think tanks, journals, and university classrooms into the foreign policy decision-making process of the Bush White House as vice-president Dick Cheney and secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed leading neoconservative thinkers as advisers at the highest levels on their teams. The most notable of these appointments included, in the White House, I. Lewis “Scooter’ Libby as the vice-president’s chief of staff, and at the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz (deputy secretary of defense), Richard Perle (assistant secretary of defense), and Douglas Feith (undersecretary of defense for policy). Many other neoconservatives also held advisory roles in the administration, such as Elliott Abrams, one of President Bush’s deputy national security advisers.

As we will see, Rumsfeld’s stacking of his team with neoconservative advisers at the Pentagon well-suited the militaristic foreign policy of the United States that emerged after 9/11. Many Americans at the time, and I admit to having been one of them, were unaware of neoconservatism as an approach to U.S. foreign policy or what that would mean militarily. And when we began hearing about it after 9/11, it seemed to have come from out of nowhere. Not so. The neoconservatives rise to power has a patient history tracing back decades.

I thought it would be good to look at its odd history, its leading figures, and its foreign policy influence, especially its militarism, in order to come to grips with its absorption into American conservatism today.

1930s-1950s. Francis Fukuyama, a former neoconservative thinker, wrote in America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy that neoconservatism traces its origins to “a remarkable group of largely Jewish intellectuals who attended City College of New York (CCNY) in the mid- to late-1930s and early-1940s, a group that included Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Philip Selznick, Nathan Glazer, and, a bit later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.” (In an email to me in July 2006, Fukuyama said: “even though I continue to agree with them [neoconservatives] on some issues, I don’t feel like I’m in their camp anymore.”) During the 1930s-1950s, this loose-knit group of liberal politicians, social scientists, and intellectuals belonged to the Democrat party, and the two most important ideas around which most of these liberal intellectuals coalesced, writes Fukuyama, was an intense anticommunism and opposition to utopian social engineering.

1960s. Things now get interesting. During the 1960s, this loose-knot Democrats began tightening around what they had concluded were a number of wrong-headed approaches to the most pressing issues of the decade.

orange flowerDomestically, they were rattled by flower power and by the decade’s social upheavals, fearing that America was becoming ungovernable. They were, however, sympathetic to domestic social reform, racial justice, and to tackling poverty – all of which were towering issues in the 1960s. But they did not like the way President Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) was handling these issues, and they reproached him for the expansive government policies behind his Great Society program, which arose in 1964-1965 to deal with such issues and sounded a bit utopian to these Democrats. Irving Kristol, for one, believed “that poverty could be overcome,” but not by government gigantism, “only by gradual economic growth that brought with it greater economic opportunities for outsiders” (Murray Friedman, The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy).

Regarding U.S. foreign policy, the group in principle was not opposed to international organizations, treaties, international law, and the UN, but their higher principle was that the United States ought to spread democracy in the world unilaterally. And they were serious supporters of Israel.

Key to understanding them for our purposes in this series of posts is that the group was strongly anti-communist. They loudly criticized what they perceived was the too-soft approach of the radical left to the Soviet threat, and their approach to diplomacy was more hard-nosed than what either realists or idealists practiced. They favored an aggressive agenda to Soviet expansion that included not only the promotion of American ideals, democracy, and free market economics overseas but also the rollback of Soviet expansion by military interventions. This went against the grain of all U.S. presidents during the Cold war era, as well as many other powerful Democrats and Republicans, who adhered to “containment” – the perennial U.S. policy of preventing communist expansion by means other than military interventions.

The group’s foreign policy in general made them unpopular with the political left, who criticized them for having left liberalism. It was during the 1960s the word “neoconservatism” began to be used invidiously by such opponents to describe the group’s move to the right and its emerging political philosophy.

In 1965, Kristol, with help from Daniel Bell, founded the journal Public Interest, which addressed questions about Democrat policy, such as urban renewal, law and order, education, and racial justice, and communism. “Led by Podhoretz and Kristol,” writes historian John Ehrman, “the neoconservatives used the pages of Commentary and Public Interest to warn against the dangers of radicalism at home and Soviet expansionism abroad” (The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs 1945-1994.)

Story continues in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Adam_Inglis & marcusrg respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)


  1. I am completely fascinated by your comment that these early democrat(?) neocons went against/disagreed with the existing outworking of the US containment policy at that time. I’m teaching this part of the Cold War to 16 year olds in the UK using a British exam course and nowhere in the textbook (or my supporting material) is this policy difference mentioned. I need to read more of Fukuyama and Friedman! Thanks so much.


    • Mismeret, thank you for taking time to send a note. I’m encouraged to hear that you are teaching this stuff to 16yr-olds in the UK (my home away from home). Every once in a while I get a note from someone (once even from Algeria!) saying how he or she is using some of my material in a classroom or asking permission to print it for handouts, so I’m glad that you are also finding some of it useful for your students.

      My take on neoconservative objections to containment is that it is consistent with the militarism on their worldview. Political historians such as Ehrman and others may not be so bold to say that when they talk about neocon objections to containment, but the more closely I read that political philosophy, especially from its advocates, the more the militarism stands out to me. I hope to bring that connection out more clearly in parts 2 & 3, because it is being increasingly absorbed into American political conservatism as a means of resolving troubled situations in the M.E.

      My view is that the militarism shows an unwillingness, if not an inability, to set rigid adherence to American exceptionalism to the side and enter into negotiations with adversaries wisely diplomatically. Instead, “diplomacy,” for the neocons, and now for many elected American conservative leaders, means that you first set some absolutized preconditions that adversaries must agrees to before talks can start. Of course, adversaries push back to that and relations continue to spiral out of control.

      Re neoconservative history, I have also found chapter 8 helpful, in a book by two of your compatriots, John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge, “The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America.”


  2. Hi Charles,

    Great series of Blogs. Keep it up.

    Just in passing and in relation to the events you describe as unfolding are you aware of Philip Jenkins book ” DECADE OF NIGHTMARES; THE END OF THE SIXTIES AND THE MAKING OF EIGHTIES AMERICA”

    Jenkins asks and undertakes an impressive attempt to answer the question that

    “haunts both the historical literature and the nation itself: how did the politically and culturally liberating promise of America in the sixties transform itself into the decade of reaction and denial that was the American eighties.

    I must admit (at 72 being a child of the sixties) I have never resolved that question for myself in any way that does not just deepen my sense of alienation from the Utopian American Project.

    9/11 has been such a world-view buster, such a radical paradigm shifter it does put down a world-historical ‘marker’ which signals the end of one era (or Age) and the commencement of another.

    It is no more clear than ever, namely it is

    (Christ’s) KINGDOM



    Keep Trucking..



    • Thanks for stopping by again, Bill. I’m familiar with Jenkins work and had a chance to spend some time talking with him years ago, before he was star. Interesting guy, and respected by both the left and the right. He’s just written an informative historical article in current issue of Christianity Today (Nov.), on the 2,000yr history of Christians in the M.E., musing about “are they on the verge of extinction there?”

      Thx for pointing out his bk on the 60s & 80s. I was unaware of that one. May check it out. As a child of the 60s, like you, I have tried to puzzle out the meaning, power, and teleology of the decade. Analysts from the Christian thinker Os Guinness to those of the political left like Todd Gitlin have been helpful, but I’ve yet to find an explanation that squares with my experiences and conclusions, probably because I’ve yet to run across a “Walter Wink” treatment of the decade. You can probably say the say something similar. After all, there’s more to a flower, hehe, than any plucking of its petals and putting them under a microscope! Even so, Maranatha!


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