Norman Podhoretz’s 'The Present Danger' at 40

Norman Podhoretz’s 'The Present Danger' at 40
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Forty years ago, Norman Podhoretz, then editor of Commentary magazine, wrote a book entitled The Present Danger. It was a small book—a little over a hundred pages—but its influence was substantial and its principal themes were profound. 

The book developed from a talk Podhoretz gave at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. It was written at a time when the United States had suffered from years of global retreat after the twin domestic crises of Watergate and Vietnam. Then President Jimmy Carter had entered office in 1977 proclaiming that the United States was free of its “inordinate fear of communism.” 

The Carter administration proceeded to cancel major weapons programs and stood by helplessly as two longtime U.S. allies in strategically important locations — the Shah in Iran and the Somoza regime in Nicaragua — fell to anti-American successor regimes. Meanwhile, Soviet military forces invaded Afghanistan, and Carter expressed surprise and shock that Soviet leaders with whom he had negotiated the SALT II Treaty would commit such international aggression. 

Examining possibility of America becoming ‘Findlandized’

Podhoretz expressed the fear that America was becoming “Findlandized,” and warned that if U.S. leaders did not reverse course “it would signify the final collapse of an American resolve to resist the forward surge of Soviet imperialism.” 

Podhoretz examined America’s post-World War II foreign policy from the origins of containment in the mid-to-late 1940s to the Carter presidency. Prior to 1947, Podhoretz wrote, the United States acquiesced “in the expansion of the Soviet empire.” The Soviets, he wrote, “had been permitted to occupy most of Eastern Europe and to begin installing puppet regimes in one after another of the countries of the region.” 

Belatedly, the Truman administration announced the “Truman Doctrine,” formulated the Marshall Plan, and eventually organized NATO to effectuate containment, at least in Europe. 

Another region where the U.S. acquiesced in the expansion of communist power was East Asia. Podhoretz in The Present Danger did not discuss the loss of China to Mao Zedong’s communist forces in 1949, but he did note the application of containment to the Korean peninsula after North Korean forces invaded the South in June 1950. This was the first military test of containment and in the end the U.S. and its allies successfully prevented the communists from unifying the Korean peninsula. 

America embraces containment

During that controversial war, Truman’s critics on the Right argued for a policy of “rollback” or “liberation,” which the Truman administration favored until Chinese troops massively intervened in October 1950. When Republican Dwight Eisenhower became president and ended the stalemated war with Korea still divided at the 38th parallel, the United States, Podhoretz wrote, “served notice on the world that it had no intention of going beyond containment to rollback or liberation.”

In the eyes of many policymakers and much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, containment had worked. South Korea remained non-communist. A decade later, Podhoretz noted, Vietnam presented the same challenge. “[T]here was no question,” he wrote, “that an effort was being mounted in Vietnam to extend Communist power beyond an already established line” between North and South Vietnam. The logic of containment called for a U.S. response. 

But frustration in Vietnam was even greater than in Korea, and it coincided with the rise of the New Left in the United States that rejected containment and viewed the U.S. as an immoral imperial power. (Podhoretz would later excoriate the New Left’s approach in his magnificent book Why We Were in Vietnam). The “best and the brightest” of the Kennedy-Johnson administration that began the large-scale U.S. military effort in Vietnam only to abandon the effort when their policies failed, effectively ended the bipartisan consensus behind containment. That bipartisan consensus and the confidence in America’s role in the world were both casualties of Vietnam.

From containment to detente to nothing at all

Without a stable U.S. consensus for containment, the incoming Nixon administration formulated the Nixon Doctrine, which Podhoretz described as “withdrawal, retrenchment, disengagement.” Containment, he wrote, gave way to “strategic retreat” and this new policy extended to broader U.S.-Soviet relations under the name of “détente.” Nixon and his key foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger, Podhoretz explained, “saw détente as an adaptation of containment to a set of changing circumstances—the best, in effect, one could now hope to do.” After Watergate and our defeat in Vietnam, Podhoretz noted, “the Carter administration seemed to see no need for containment at all.”

Podhoretz sensed that U.S. foreign policy had become infected with what he called a “culture of appeasement.” The United States during the 1970s détente signed arms control agreements that favored the Soviet Union and resulted in Soviet strategic superiority in land-based nuclear missiles. Soviet geopolitical advances in the Third World were accepted as the price for “no more Vietnams.” “[T]he culture of appeasement,” Podhoretz wrote, “created a situation in which rearmament became impossible.” 

Correctly reading the political tea leaves, however, Podhoretz also sensed the rise of a “new nationalism,” the notion that “the survival of liberty and democracy requires a forceful American presence in the world.” What had been missing from all of the foreign policy analysis, he explained, was the word “communism.” The Soviet Union, he wrote, was a revolutionary state — like Hitler’s Germany —“that . . . wishes to create a new international order in which it would be the dominant power and whose character would be determined by its national wishes and its ideological dictates.” 

Today’s ‘present danger’ is China

The same year that The Present Danger was published, Ronald Reagan, who embodied the “new nationalism” that Podhoretz wrote about, and who did not shy away from the word “communism” and understood the nature of the Soviet threat, was elected President. Reagan abandoned détente and implemented an offensive policy that brought down the Soviet empire. 

The “present danger” today is another communist power on the Eurasian landmass — China. It, too, wishes to create a new international order in which it would be the dominant power. China has engaged in a military build-up similar to the Soviet build-up in the 1970s. It has acted aggressively in the South China Sea and seeks to extend its geopolitical influence throughout Eurasia via the Belt and Road Initiative. It has cracked down on the freedom of the people in Hong Kong and has rattled sabers at Taiwan. China’s economic power and its geographical access to the sea make it in some ways a more dangerous rival than the Soviet Union was in the 1970s and 1980s.  

However, the “culture of appeasement” in this country still exists. Much of the foreign policy establishment and much of the Democratic Party leadership counsels engagement with China and warns against a new Cold War. There is not yet a bipartisan consensus for a policy of containment of China. We need only to follow Norman Podhoretz’s advice in The Present Danger to “energize . . . our determination to marshal the power we will need ‘to assure the survival and the success of liberty’ in the new and definitely more dangerous age ahead.”

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