Book Review

Roundtable on Democracy in Exile: “Permanent Democratic Emergency”

The Book

Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual

The Author(s)

Daniel Bessner

Editor's Note

This is the first full entry in the Democracy in Exile roundtable. Check here  for the introductory essay from Gene Zubovich.

Fleeing Germany for a more liberal political climate in the United States, Hans Speier joined a chorus of émigrés who condemned their new home’s liberalism. In the years before Pearl Harbor, when isolationist American public opinion stubbornly kept the country out of war, Speier criticized citizens who “have difficulty in recognizing the illiberal rule of violence and war in politics.” “Liberals like to beautify history,” Speier condescended, “by substituting for the struggle between the might of right and the might of wrong, the alternative between might and right. And for some noble and impolitic reason they are convinced that their own right must always conquer the might of others (86).”

For German intellectuals who lived through the rapid destruction of Weimar democracy at the hands of Nazi goons, American liberalism felt dangerously naïve. They had watched the sophisticated and educated citizens of Germany stand by while the fascists exploited tolerant and open institutions to nurture intolerance and repression. Liberals on both sides of the Atlantic admirably pursued the “perfectibility of man (153),” but that blinded them, Speier wrote, to the deeply imperfect world of modern politics. Speier demanded that Americans recognize a difficult lesson of history: “democracies in modern wars will have to adopt dictatorial devices of political organization, at least for a time.” Describing the promotion of lies and other propaganda by fascist regimes, Speier explained: “the techniques of preparedness as they are being developed in the dictatorial countries today indicate at least the direction into which democracies will be forced to move when war comes (85).”

A German-trained sociologist (a disciple of Karl Mannheim), Speier combined his advocacy of what many called “political realism,” with direct participation in the university, think tank, and high-level policy discussions that created (especially after 1941) a coherent American government capability for public opinion manipulation. He began studying the topic as part of the New School’s “University-in-Exile,” and then joined the U.S. war effort (especially through the nascent Foreign Broadcast Information Service and the Office of War Information). After the war, Speier joined RAND, where he led the powerful Social Science Division for more than a decade, shaping some of the most influential foreign policy research. Speier played a direct role in the formulation of U.S. psychological warfare strategy, and its application in the central cockpit of Cold War conflict. Speier’s work, according to Daniel Bessner, encouraged the failed East German uprising of June 1953.

Bessner’s book, Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual, offers a clever and revealing play on words. Speier was an exile from Germany, and he also contributed to the exile of certain inherited democratic traditions. He was formed by the traumatic collapse of Weimar democracy, and he brought those “lessons” into the American vernacular. In a time of great “emergencies”—fascist and communist threats to civilization—Speier called for “exceptions” to standard democratic practices.

Bessner’s book sympathizes with Speier, but it documents a tragic irony. Speier’s “exceptions” never ended during a long Cold War, as Soviet nuclear power grew and other threats to American power multiplied, abroad and at home. Speier’s “temporary” deviations from democracy were “perpetually normalized”—permanently distorting democracy, in Bessner’s account. Democracy in Exile emphasizes the growth of a massive military-industrial complex, the increase in elitism among an incestuous network of policy advisers, and declining public accountability. This is the road from Weimar to Vietnam for Bessner, populated by numerous émigré intellectuals, like Speier, who feared the weaknesses of democracy and advocated ever-more aggressive American efforts to contain challengers. Bessner closes his book with an account of how the refugee from intolerance in Germany became, by the 1960s, intolerant toward American students who dared to question the wisdom of destroying villages in Southeast Asia to, somehow, save democracy. Speier condemned the “unmanageability of the people, and the undermining of authority” by naïve liberals, now turned anti-war activists (226).

In some ways, Speier’s intellectual and policy trajectory is familiar. It follows lines well documented among other more famous German émigrés who became Cold Warriors, including Carl Friedrich, Hans Morgenthau, Hans Kohn, Henry Kissinger, and many others.[1] These men were never fully accepted within traditional American institutions, but they gained enormous influence from their fluency with the “totalitarian” dangers of modern mass politics, and their ingenuity in providing new justifications for strong executive powers within a democracy. They were convenient servants to strong leaders—politicians, generals, and other intellectuals—who felt an imperative to “save” democracy, often from itself. They helped to cultivate, promote, and implement a Cold War policy consensus that was profoundly anti-populist.

Although Bessner’s book does not look beyond the Cold War, it appears that contemporary political populism is a long-overdue rejection of the policy elitism chronicled by Democracy in Exile. Then again, power remains concentrated and insular in American society—note the near homogenous composition of the president’s cabinet, Congress, and corporate boards. Yet, almost every public intellectual in the United States today condemns this state of affairs.

Why do public intellectuals seem so inconsequential? Did they ever matter as much as Bessner claims Speier did? Bessner’s book offers a powerful deconstruction of the democratic pessimism at the core of elite foreign policy thinking during the Cold War. The relationship between this valuable intellectual history and actual policy-making—during the Cold War and after—merits deeper exploration by Bessner and other talented historians.

[1] See, among many others, Udi Greenberg, The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); Adi Gordon, Toward Nationalism’s End: An Intellectual Biography of Hans Kohn (Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2017); Jeremi Suri, Henry Kissinger and the American Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007).

About the Reviewer

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a Professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books, most recently: The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office. Professor Suri writes for major newspapers and magazines, and he frequently appears on radio and television news programs. He has received numerous teaching and research awards, including the 2018 Pro Bene Meritis Award for the Promotion of the Humanities. In August 2018 Professor Suri will begin a new weekly podcast, “This Is Democracy.” Professor Suri’s professional webpage is: http://jeremisuri.net.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.