Book Review

Roundtable on Democracy in Exile: Reply to Reviewers by Daniel Bessner

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 final entry in the Democracy in Exile roundtable.

Roundtable on Democracy in Exile: Reply to Reviewers by Daniel Bessner

Before I turn to the substance of my response, I would like to thank Gene Zubovich for organizing this roundtable, and Anne Kornhauser, Thomas Meaney, and Jeremi Suri for their participation. I have learned an enormous amount from each of these scholars—several of whom are cited in Democracy in Exile—and it was with great pleasure that I read their thoughtful reviews. I further appreciate the questions they raised, which I hope to now answer in some detail.

In her review, Kornhauser makes several points that center on the question of what Speier really thought about democracy; that is to say, whether he was committed to it at all. As she notes, Speier turned away from substantive democracy in the 1930s, when he began to argue “that democratic political institutions ought to be insulated from public opinion and participation.” This fact, Kornhauser suggests, “raises questions about the extent of Speier’s democratic faith.” As she aptly inquires: “does this sort of thinking deserve the moniker ‘democratic’?”

To answer her question directly: no, I do not think this type of thinking could or should be described as democratic. The problem that I sought to solve was why someone like Speier, who claimed to support democratic political structures and dedicated his life to defending an (admittedly imperfect) American democracy, advocated policies and programs that he himself considered to be against the democratic spirit.

I found that the notion of crisis provided the solution to this puzzle. Furthermore, I believe “crisis” is far more essential to the history of twentieth-century U.S. national security thinking than has heretofore been recognized. It was the idea of crisis, imported from Weimar, that enabled professed democrats like Speier—and Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, Edward Shils, Gabriel Almond, Daniel Lerner, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and dozens of others—to reconcile their avowed (and often deeply-felt) commitment to democracy with an anti-democratic project. Simply put, the diagnosis of crisis, or what we intellectual historians—informed by the language of the fascist jurist Carl Schmitt—commonly refer to as the “state of exception,” allowed intellectuals like Speier to offer time-limited defenses of “‘dictatorial devices of political organization’” otherwise considered indefensible. (85)

The problem with this diagnosis, however, was that it was only workable when the identified “enemy” who was engendering the “crisis” was actually defeatable. As I write, “in the 1930s, the possibility of a decisive fascist defeat meant that Speier’s diagnosed crisis was temporary; in the Cold War, the unlikelihood of a final Soviet defeat [due to the advent of nuclear weapons, the emergence of bipolarity, etc.] made Speier’s diagnosed crisis long term.” In other words, “Speier’s moment of crisis transformed into an era of crisis, in which emergency measures became perpetually justified.” (2) The idea of crisis provided the escape hatch that enabled someone like Speier to consider himself a devoted democrat even as he affirmed that the public should have little influence on U.S. foreign policy.

Indeed, the conviction that crisis justifies anti-democratic behavior has become common amongst the U.S. national security elite. As former director of the National Security Agency (NSA) Keith B. Alexander stated in 2013 when defending mass surveillance: “We’re holding this hornet’s nest [of surveillance technologies] … and we would like to cast it aside, but if we do it is our fear that there will be a gap and the potential for another 9/11.” Alexander here recognizes that surveillance technologies are dangerous and anti-democratic—hence the term “hornet’s nest”—but asserts that they must be used to prevent a crisis—“another 9/11.” Similar to Speier, Alexander invokes crisis to excuse behavior that exists outside the boundaries of traditional democratic norms.

The idea of crisis also helps answer another of Kornhauser’s questions, namely, what, exactly, did Speier think should constitute a workable democratic system? In effect, we do not really know, because the diagnosis of crisis allowed Speier to avoid systematically thinking through what exactly he meant by “democracy.” After Hitler, democracy became for Speier—and, I would add, for many in his generation, including Morgenthau and Kissinger—“the vague, negative image of authoritarianism, a concept largely shorn of substantive content.” (17) Speier’s proceduralist understanding of democracy was undertheorized because for him the central question of the age was not how to develop a workable democracy, but was how to ensure that “totalitarians” did not conquer the world. For this reason, he did not provide answers to the several questions with which Kornhauser ends her review. Speier’s silence on these issues, though admittedly frustrating for intellectual historians, reveals that the idea of crisis enabled some midcentury thinkers to ignore difficult questions about what exactly they were defending as they helped the United States construct its domestic and global imperium.

In Thomas Meaney’s generous review, he asks an important question about my sensibility: “To what extent does the problem of influence matter to Bessner?” Indeed, this is a question often asked of intellectual historians of foreign relations, who have one foot in a subfield very much concerned with understanding why a particular policy was enacted or a particular action undertaken. The problem for intellectual historians is that it is methodologically extremely difficult to claim with any certainty that “X” idea influenced “Y” policy. Though this is possible in certain extraordinary cases—for instance, when Speier personally oversaw the development of the Office of War Information’s propaganda directives—in general, the policy process is too byzantine to easily connect a policy to an idea.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that intellectual historians should ignore the question of policy influence, as demonstrating influence is a crucial means to display ideas’ causal effects (which they do indeed have). In terms of the chapter of Democracy in Exile that focused on early Cold War foreign policymaking (chapter 6), what I attempted to do was “trace Speier’s ideas from a report he wrote or a meeting he had through the government bureaucracy and into a policy paper” by examining “the similarities between Speier’s language and arguments and those that appear in government documents that he had a reasonable chance of influencing.” In other words, I endeavored to “establish … correlations between his ideas and policy” (265n2), while being fully aware of the methodological difficulties in doing so. It is up to readers to decide whether or not I succeeded.

Both Meaney and Kornhauser ask to what degree Speier “compare[s] to fellow German refugees.” In my view, he embodies a strand of émigré thought endorsed by so-called “realists” who were traumatized by Weimar and who made their careers as foreign policy professionals in the United States. But, in some sense, it is not especially surprising that manifold exiles shared a rather jaundiced view of democracy and international relations. To my mind, the more intriguing question is: Why did so many American defense intellectuals embrace the émigré perspective as their own? I believe that the answer to this question is found in the Jewish identities of several of the early Cold War’s defense intellectuals. Indeed, it is striking how many of the first generation of U.S.-born defense intellectuals were Jews, including Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, and Albert Wohlstetter—all Speier’s colleagues at the RAND Corporation. Though scholars have generally ignored the relationship between Jewish identity and national security thinking, the links between the two seem clear; it is not particularly shocking that, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, Jewish intellectuals embraced the tragic perspective of the exiles, most of whom were their co-religionists. Stanley Kubrick, in short, got it wrong: the real Dr. Strangeloves were not Nazis, but were rather liberal Jews scarred by history.

Finally, in his review Jeremi Suri notes that one might consider “contemporary political populism [to be] a long-overdue rejection of the policy elitism chronicled by Democracy in Exile.” I agree with this assessment, and would add that if we are to ensure that in the future experts exert influence—as I believe they should—then we need to establish democratic mechanisms that enable the people to sanction experts for poor advice. Donald J. Trump’s election to the presidency—which was opposed by the entire expert class—indicated that experts no longer enjoy popular legitimacy. While there are many reasons why significant portions of the demos presently reject expertise—the rise of Fox News and other pseudo-propaganda networks, the democratization of cultural life impelled by social media, etc.—a crucial reason they do so is because a small group of well-connected elites have made poor decision after poor decision. To take examples solely from the realm of international relations, the failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were all supported by the foreign policy establishment. In my opinion, the legitimacy of expertise can only be restored if experts themselves are held accountable for bad advice. If they are not, our foreign policy establishment will remain staffed with the very same people whose myriad failures led manifold Americans to reject expertise as such.

I would like to again thank Anne, Tom, and Jeremi for their thoughtful reviews. I hope their remarks and my responses will spur further discussions on the historical relationship between democracy, security, and expertise.

[Editorial note: Thomas Meaney’s name was misspelled in the original post.]

About the Reviewer

Daniel Bessner is the Anne H.H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor in American Foreign Policy in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. While the focus of this symposium obviously has been Speier, I think all four pieces (the three reviews and the author’s reply) have referred to Morgenthau in passing, and I doubt that most of these references have represented Morgenthau altogether fairly. For a significant part of his career he supported the Cold War consensus and probably drew now and then on the theme of quasi-permanent “crisis” that Prof. Bessner discusses here, but that does not account for the last period of his career.

    I am pretty sure that Kissinger, for instance, did not care enough about domestic politics or the condition of U.S. democracy to write anything like Morgenthau’s short article “The Coming Test of American Democracy” [*], which among other things criticized the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South and “Southern domination of Congress,” and I would be surprised if Speier had written anything like it either. Morgenthau’s vocal opposition to the U.S. role in Vietnam is well known, and a glance at Greenberg’s The Weimar Century, footnoted by two of the three reviewers here, shows that Greenberg devotes the entire last section of his chapter on Morgenthau to that. Also Morgenthau was ambivalent, to say the very least, about the role of nuclear weapons, a topic on which he expressed increasing concern in the last part of his career. Yet a reader of this symposium likely would come away from it lumping Morgenthau in with the other German emigres who are mentioned, and the Americans they influenced. While Morgenthau doubtless got a lot of things wrong, this lumping doesn’t seem fair to me.

    [*] Published in Commentary, Jan. 1964; reprinted in Truth and Power: Essays of a Decade, 1960-70 (1970), pp. 209-214.

  2. To Louis: Thank you very much for your deep engagement in this roundtable; I appreciate it.

    Two points:

    1) In my opinion, it is fair to lump Morgenthau in with émigrés like Speier and Kissinger. Nicolas Guilhot and I discuss why in this piece:

    2) I am aware Morgenthau opposed Vietnam, but in my view he did so for conservative and not progressive reasons. We discuss a bit why in this response to reviewers of the piece cited above:

    Thank you again for the engagement!

    All best,

    • Daniel,
      Thank you for the reply and the linked pieces, which I look forward to reading.
      — Louis

  3. in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, Jewish intellectuals embraced the tragic perspective of the exiles, most of whom were their co-religionists. Stanley Kubrick, in short, got it wrong: the real Dr. Strangeloves were not Nazis, but were rather liberal Jews scarred by history.

    Liberal Jews and Holocaust survivors were really genocidal crypto-nazis?

    • No, I don’t think liberal Jews and Holocaust survivors were really genocidal crypto-nazis; that would be a horrible thing to think, let alone say. What I’m saying is that Kubrick’s critique of the military-intellectual complex–a critique embodied in the figure of Strangelove–missed the fact that many real-life “Strangeloves” were of Jewish descent–including Herman Kahn, the most likely inspiration for Strangelove, with whom Kubrick met to discuss the film. (It is also probable that Kubrick put in some elements of Wernher von Braun into the Strangelove character, and perhaps Henry Kissinger, whose 1957 book made him relatively well-known).

      The interesting question to me is why so many liberal Jews embraced a position in the state that one of their fellow co-religionists would later criticize as crypto-Nazi.

      • I fail to see what my religion has to do with anything.

        Whatever claims Kubrick made about his inspirations or influences, the character Dr. Strangelove is a genocidal crypto-nazi, yes? I mean, I just watched the film again last year, so I’m pretty sure I’m not mis-remembering that. I also don’t remember any characters who seemed to be presented or portrayed as Jewish, but I wasn’t particularly looking for that.

  4. It is my religion as well, if that matters.

    My entire point is to highlight the irony that a type of character that was portrayed on film as a crypto-Nazi was in real life the exact opposite of that.

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