The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
War and the Intellectuals

The tendency of America’s highly educated elites to oppose war and assume an adversarial posture against the government turns less on principle than it does on sociology.

Published on December 12, 2012

The future of American strategy will be shaped, as always, by the intersection of American power and the global circumstances in which it is situated. American strategy will also be shaped, however, by what American leaders think they ought to do with and about foreigners. Among those thoughts, no concern is more central than the proper role of the use of force in American national security policy. 

The use of war as an instrument of state is always controversial, and recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have if anything sharpened that ongoing debate. One question arising from it is whether there is a growing tendency for members of the American elite to support the use of force less than do other Americans. Since elites by definition have a leading role in society, their tendency to oppose the use of force as a matter of principle could affect the character of American foreign policy even more than factors like America’s relative economic or military power. In addition, sharp disagreements between elites and other Americans over the use of force could be accompanied by serious internal conflicts within the United States, with possible consequences for the effectiveness of American foreign policy.

The United States has been divided over the use of force as an instrument of policy for at least two centuries. With the exception of World War II and the early Cold War era, a significant component of the educated American elite has been more opposed to war compared to American non-elites, and still is today. We need to understand why. 

The explanations usually on offer do not suffice. Antiwar elements of the elite tend to argue that educated Americans are simply smarter and see the costs of war more clearly than less educated Americans. This is pretty plainly an inadequate, not to mention a condescending and undemocratic, account. It is non-elite Americans, after all, who have disproportionately suffered the human costs of war, and non-elites suffer the pains and enjoy the benefits of living under American government just as much as do the elite. Those Americans more inclined to support the use of force, on the other hand, tend to argue that educated elites today are the radical product of the 1960s, which turned American universities into adversary culture havens and made them reflexively anti-government. This explanation does not recognize that the antiwar sentiment of more educated Americans pre-dates the 1960s by at least fifty years, and reflects a long-term cultural struggle between the most highly educated Americans, on the one hand, and populist leaders, on the other, for cultural influence. It also does not explain why the educated elite united with the rest of the country during World War II and the early Cold War, but did not do so before or after those periods.

The American disagreement we see today over the use of force goes back all the way to cultures that have been in conflict since colonial times. It begins with the tension between New England college-educated clerics, the most highly educated group of its day, and uneducated frontier preachers. Nineteenth-century Americans with less schooling felt looked down upon by over-schooled clerics. Highly educated Americans for their part were afraid of what they saw as the crude passions of less educated Americans. This tension became relevant to questions of war and peace because popular American culture was in part the product of the Scots-Irish people and culture, which constituted the largest wave of immigration to the United States in the 18th century. That culture was more prone to use force in response to challenges, and more inclined to advocate war when America was challenged. 

The educated New England elite had by the end of the 19th century lost its Puritan character, but it had not found a compelling replacement for it. Its younger elements were increasingly dissatisfied both with the New England provincialism, which was what remained, and the commercialism of new industrial American wealth. The younger educated elites began to redefine themselves as disinterested intellectuals who were or ought to be the moral leaders of society, and who pledged loyalty to a cosmopolitan ideal that legitimized the independent intellectual by justifying their unwillingness to subordinate themselves to the national majority. 

In that context, war threatened American intellectuals, not because war was costly to America, but because war aroused popular passions that threatened them by demanding they serve the nation, not their consciences. War, therefore, was dangerous for the educated elite not because of what it might do abroad to the national interests of the United States but because of what war did to the elites’ social and political position at home. Since war threatened to tip the balance of power against the educated elite, at the beginning of the 20th century the heirs of the New England Brahmans made common cause with Jewish immigrants in favor of a cosmopolitan ideal and against populist nationalism and war. This pattern was visible as early as 1915 and has persisted in one form or another since then.

From this perspective, the anomalous period in recent American history was from World War II to the early Cold War. The fascist and communist threats meant that cosmopolitanism had to be defended by war. The intellectuals’ fear of American military nationalism persisted, because it continued to threaten dissent, but most members of the educated elite accepted war in the 1940s as a legitimate and necessary instrument of American foreign policy, and accepted the threat of war in the 1950s on the same basis. They therefore devoted themselves to national service in World War II and the early Cold War. 

As a result, the elite were able to exert significant influence over American foreign policy during this period. This was the time of the foreign policy “establishment” of Ivy League academics and Ivy League-educated “corporate internationalists” such as Dean Acheson, David K. Bruce, William Clayton, James Forrestal, W. Averell Harriman, Robert Lovett, John J. McCloy, Paul Nitze and Robert Patterson.1 The Vietnam War fractured that establishment and returned control of American foreign policy to the broader public. That revived old elite fears that war and nationalism would threaten their position in America. Ever since, all evidence has shown that the American elite aversion to the use of force has returned to its traditional pre-World War II position, with the denouement of the Vietnam War being the pretext, but not the reason, for it. 


here’s not much doubt about this return. Indeed, it has returned with a vengeance. In his last book the eminent political scientist Samuel Huntington assembled some fairly typical quotes to illustrate the point. Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago has denounced any emphasis on “patriotic pride” as “morally dangerous” and has argued for the superiority of cosmopolitanism, giving “allegiance . . . to the worldwide community of human beings.” Amy Gutmann of Princeton and then the University of Pennsylvania wrote that it was “repugnant” for Americans to learn that they are “above all, citizens of the United States.” Our primary allegiance “should not be to the United States or to some politically sovereign community”, but to “democratic humanism.” Richard Sennett of New York University spoke out against “the evil of a shared national identity”, stating that the erosion of national sovereignty was “basically a positive phenomenon.” George Lipsitz of the University of California, San Diego, opined that “in recent years refuge in patriotism has been the first refuge of scoundrels of all sorts.” Patriotism, in the view of these men and women, is rightwing, militaristic, male and white.2 This divide between the most highly educated Americans and those less so is not new. 

In the young United States, the most highly educated people were those with college degrees. It is useful to remember that a college education was an elite privilege until the end of the 19th century. In 1967, 34 percent of American high school graduates were enrolled in college, rising to 47 percent in 2008.3 In contrast, in 1870, Bureau of the Census data shows that only 2 percent of 17-year-old Americans had graduated from high school. Even more marginal in the 18th and 19th centuries were the graduates of colleges who taught subjects that went beyond agriculture and engineering. Looking at the eight Ivy League schools, the number of graduates grew from 42 in 1750 to 150 in 1800, 339 in 1850 and 1,300 by 1900. As a proportion of the total American population, Ivy League college graduates sharply declined from the 18th to the 19th century, as population growth far outstripped the sizes of the graduating classes. The proportion of Americans in this period with higher education does not increase greatly if the men enrolled in Congregational, Presbyterian and Episcopal seminaries are included, since their total annual enrollments were about 500 in 1830 and perhaps 1,000 in 1860. In this period college-educated men gravitated to the clergy. Some 1,507 of the 1,586 men who had been pastors of Congregational churches were college graduates in 1776. 

While there were non-clerical colleges at this time, such as the University of Virginia, the bulk of American colleges not affiliated with clerical education were first founded in the 1850s. The creation of the state-funded University of Michigan in 1855 as a school of agriculture provided the model for the Morrill Act, or Land Grant Colleges law, signed in 1862, which provided land and later money to endow colleges that taught agriculture, engineering and military tactics. The first college endowed by this law was Iowa State College. This act was extended to new states and to the states that had belonged to the Confederacy in 1890. The intent was clearly to provide practical training for work, not what we would now call a liberal arts education. 

By way of contrast, the graduates of the older colleges were men who were an educated but also a social elite. As Roger Finke and Rodney Stark observed in The Churching of America, those college-educated clergy “were recruited from and moved most comfortably within ‘society’—the social and financial elite.” But there was a price to be paid for this social position:


Genteel social origins, combined with advanced levels of education, often increased the social distance between the minister and many of his congregants, to say nothing of the barriers raised between clergy and the vast un-churched population. As democratic convictions grew, many Americans began to detect objectionable attitudes among the highly educated, often regarding them as snobs, who thought they were better than ordinary folks.4

In contrast to the college-educated class were the itinerant Methodist and Baptist revivalist preachers. In the 1844 assessment of the Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright, fewer than fifty of 4,282 traveling ministers “had anything more than a common English [grade school] education, and scores of them not that.” Without any established source of income or parish, these preachers had to appeal directly to the majority of people in cities and on the frontier who were also not well educated. They were hugely successful in this endeavor. The famous Cane Ridge camp meeting in 1801 near Lexington, Kentucky, attracted an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 participants at a time when Lexington itself had a population of only 2,000. 

The source of the appeal was twofold. First was the matter of style. Unlike the highly educated and intellectualized elite from Harvard and Yale, the preachers would speak to ordinary people in plain language about experiences they had in common with them: “The Baptist and Methodist preachers looked like ordinary people because they were, and their sermons could convince ordinary people because the message was direct and clear.” Second, the content of the message delivered by the preachers was not an erudite discourse on theology, but a simple message, emotionally delivered, conveying certainty. “No wonder that Baptist and Methodist services could so often become outbursts of emotional participation.”5

It was no wonder that the educated clerics felt threatened: The itinerant preachers invaded their turf and stole their parishioners. A local pastor, in the words of Congregationalist leader Asahel Nettleton, “has a right to pursue his own measures within his own limits.” What was worse than that was the perceived unreasonableness and passion the preachers inspired, kindling “fires when there was not some spiritual watchman near, to guard and watch against wildness.” The great Congregationalist leader Lyman Beecher wrote with Nettleton in 1828 that revivalism “threatens to become one of the greatest evils which is likely to befall the cause of Christ”, and threatened the United States by throwing it “back in civilization, science, and religion, at least a whole century.” By treating all sinners as equals, to be treated alike by ministers, it was the forerunner of “anarchy and absolute destruction.”6



he division between Americans who were educated in elite colleges originally founded to train clerics and most ordinary Americans was evident, and it led to efforts to create universities that were devoted neither to clerical needs nor to agriculture and engineering, that would instead “correspond with the spirit and wants of our people and country, which shall be commensurate with our great and growing population.”7

This was the view expressed by a group of New York City-based clergy, merchants, lawyers and bankers who met to found the University of the City of New York. Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson’s Swiss-born Secretary of the Treasury, participated in the effort in the hope that the college education focused on learning Latin and Greek would be replaced by an education open to and appealing to “mechanics” not destined for the clergy, but still interested in broader cultural and civic affairs. The university opened in 1832, but Gallatin soon resigned, because, he wrote, “the clergy had obtained control”, and “the liberal principles” on which the university had been founded had been abandoned. A group of the original professors who adhered to its founding principles were fired. One of them, Henry Tappan, went on to build the modern University of Michigan. A subsequent effort in 1890, under President Seth Low, to re-found Columbia on the principles of expert knowledge that interacted with the larger culture, foundered.

Blocked by the leadership of established colleges, the impulse to create a national intellectual life that could speak to the broad concerns of modern America took a detour. An intellectual awakening sought to elevate America by an informed but practical effort to address culture and civic life as much as politics. Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life thus called for the exercise of creative intellect that was not beholden to business or wealth, that respected “disinterested achievement”, that “has a discipline, an interest, and a will of its own” that would be independent of wealth because it would be interesting enough to the public that its magazines would finance themselves by popular sales. This new relationship with the public would create conditions that sustained the national intellectual life the United States needed. Croly founded the New Republic in 1914 as part of that effort, and the magazine became the core of the Progressive movement. Croly argued that expert and sophisticated thought was compatible with popular democracy, specifically that the old debate between Jeffersonians, who mistrusted government, and Federalists, who mistrusted the people, could be transcended by an active state, guided by expert knowledge, that served the interests of all. 

The New Republic, the Masses and Seven Arts, journals all based in Greenwich Village, became the centers of the self-styled New Intellectuals. They rejected the values of the Victorian era by embracing feminism, and they rejected the traditional architectural, artistic and literary cultures supported by established wealth at the Century Association and by President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University. The New Intellectuals and their magazines were more interesting than American universities to young men and women interested in an intellectual life that spoke to contemporary concerns. Professor William James at Harvard himself advised young intellectuals to work with this new New York City-centered community rather than go into university life as graduate students and professors. Some of his most brilliant students, most notably Walter Lippmann, did just that. 

Ethnically, the men associated with the New Intellectuals fell into three categories. Some were sons of the New England elite who had fallen in status and who, perhaps not coincidentally, rejected New England society because Boston had become too narrow and snobbish. Randolph Bourne’s father was a failure and was on his mother’s side the descendant of first-generation New England settlers. Van Wyck Brooks attended Harvard but rejected it as “narrow, conceited, [and] provincial.” Puritanism, in his eyes, had devolved into a meaningless religion that “begs the whole question of life.” The only visible alternative to New England provincialism was a commercialism that seemed devoid of any aesthetic or moral values, and did not appeal to these men. The second group was composed of German Jews such as Paul Rosenfeld, James Oppenheim, Waldo Frank and Walter Lippmann. Wealthier and more assimilated than their more newly arrived brethren, they had advanced socially through Ivy League education but were excluded from teaching in universities in the humanities. The third group was composed of the more recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. 

These three groups came together in New York City in a confluence that was neither exactly planned nor accidental. Anglo-Saxon intellectuals like Lewis Mumford, impatient with established culture, confronted the academically talented East European Jews at Stuyvesant High School, or, increasingly, at Columbia. Floyd Dell wrote about the impact of German Jews who had settled in Davenport, Iowa. The young Edmund Wilson wrote of being inspired by the “cosmopolitanism” of Rosenfeld, who had introduced Wilson to “a whole fascinating world, united though international, of personality, poetics, texture, and mood.”8

The Anglo-Saxon intellectuals were recruited by the more well-to-do German Jews for the new magazines, at least in part so that the magazines would not be seen only as Jewish. What they shared was a rejection of provincialism and an opposition to an American nationalism that they saw as an extension of Anglo-Saxon provincialism. Bourne, in his 1916 essay “Trans-National America”, based largely on his own university experience, captured the appeal of an immigrant America that was distinctly not a melting pot in which immigrants adopted either the urban Anglo-Saxon social hierarchy and deference to England or the American Southern and Western rural culture. Instead, it was what we would call a multicultural community that could be the basis for a cosmopolitan society in which each group kept the best of its own culture:


[I]t is not uncommon for the eager Anglo-Saxon who goes to a vivid American university today to find his true friends not among his own race but among the acclimatized German or Austrian, the acclimatized Jew, the acclimatized Scandinavian or Italian. In them, he finds the cosmopolitan note. . . . These friends are oblivious to the repressions of the tight little society in which he so provincially grew up. . . . A college where such a spirit is possible even to the smallest degree has within itself already the seeds of this international world of the future.9


It is tempting to speculate that the New England New Intellectuals were rejecting the existing social order that had rejected them, and were trying to prevent the emergence of a national culture that would continue to exclude them. As for the Jews, they were escaping their own parochialism, which limited their role and impact on American life. They may also well have feared the emergence of an American nationalism that was hostile to them in the way that European nationalisms had been (though somewhat differently in the case of German as opposed to East European Jewry). Whatever the motives, the three groups succeeded in creating a small but influential group of intellectuals outside of the universities. 

Having accomplished that, the New Intellectuals then suggested that the universities they once rejected and that had rejected them should now become their home. They would be a new kind of professoriate, not experts but the successor to the clergy in secular form as the moral and political leaders of America. Morris R. Cohen, a product of the Lower East Side and the first Jew to be made a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, wrote an article for the second issue of the New Republic in which he argued both against the American clergy and the legal profession which had lost their claim to intellectual leadership, and for the “growing influence of the university professor.” But professors, in order to play this role, had to be more than “hired help” in a university “factory”; said Cohen, they had to be truly independent.10



hat is the link between the social history of American educated elites and attitudes toward war and peace? The missing piece of the puzzle is supplied by observing that the tension between the New Intellectuals and the majority of Americans was fueled by an older division of Americans into two cultures, both immigrant fragments of Great Britain, one more warlike than the other.

The educated New Intellectuals were stepping into the shoes of the New England elite. They faced a majority of Americans who, with less schooling and lower social status, inclined to treat matters of morality in terms of passion and conviction. These were the people who first settled on the western frontier, the Scots-Irish settlers described by David Hackett Fischer as committed to the use of personal violence if challenged. They were the cultural kin of Andrew Jackson, who learned from his mother not to take matters of honor to the courts, but to deal with them himself. They were the people to whom the itinerant preachers had appealed, and who resented those with higher educations and pretensions to being better than the rest. They were the people who by the end of the 19th century supported the Populist reform movement, based in the Southeast and Southwest, against the Northeast-based Progressives.

These Scots-Irish were “born fighting”, to use the term employed by James Webb, because of the heritage of constant irregular warfare they brought with them from the border areas of north Britain, and because in America they settled in the frontier areas in which the pressures of endemic warfare against Native Americans reinforced the social values they had brought with them. They moved first to the Appalachians in the western parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Kentucky. In the 19th century they moved further west into Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. By Fischer’s estimate, 90 percent of the settlers in the backcountry, an area the size of western Europe, were north English, Irish or Scots. 

They had more children than other English settlers, too, such that the earlier demographic dominance of New England (35 percent of the total population in 1700) and Virginia declined as the populations of Georgia and the Carolinas grew more rapidly. In the areas they settled they were culturally, as well as demographically dominant: 


Numbers alone, however, were not the full measure of their dominion. Those emigrants from North Britain established in the southern highlands a cultural hegemony that was even greater than their proportion in the population. An explanation of this fact may be found in the character of the American environment, which proved to be exceptionally well matched to the culture of the British borderlands.11


Indeed, Fischer concluded: “So well adapted was the border culture to this environment that other ethnic groups tended to copy it.”

The result was that America had at the end of the 19th century a Scots-Irish majority culture, less educated and with a greater willingness to use violence, and an educated elite, the product of New England cultural values that had become increasingly less relevant to American public moral discourse. The New Intellectuals rose into this moment in American history seeking cultural influence by two means: a transformation of clerical colleges into secular universities by creating new intellectual centers of activity outside the universities; and a political-intellectual alliance between New England and European Jewish immigrants to the United States. These in turn became the basis of the morally oppositional, cosmopolitan antiwar movement in American universities in World War I.

The cosmopolitanism and anti-provincialism of the New Intellectuals quickly became anti-nationalist, if it was not already so. The alternative to a domestic pluralism of cooperating cultures was a homogenous national culture dominated by the founding Anglo-Saxon culture. The latter was viewed with horror by Bourne in December 1916:


Who can doubt that, if we ever obtained this homogenous Americanism that our Rooseveltian prophets desire, the latent imperialism of our ruling class would flame forth and America would follow the other States in their plunge to perdition. . . . I believe that anything that keeps us from being welded together into a terrible national engine which powerful political or financial interests may wield at will, flinging the entire nation’s strength in a moment to any cause or movement that seems to advance their will. . . . I say that anything that keeps us from being used thus is a salvation.12


Bourne and the Progressives thus set themselves in opposition to Theodore Roosevelt (who was three-quarters north British), whose nationalism and martial values stood in 1915 in sharp contrast to Bourne’s views. Two quotations from TR inscribed on the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, serve as well to illustrate the contrast between his views and the cosmopolitan worldview:


All daring and courage, all iron endurance of misfortune make for a finer and nobler type of manhood.

If I must choose between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness.


Woodrow Wilson shared the New Intellectuals’ fear of an America strong and roused by war. In Wilson we see the birth in America of the idea that American nationalism must be constrained by international forces. Wilson met in 1916 with a delegation of American pacifists and declared his belief that U.S. power must be constrained by international law because otherwise it would be aggressive: “I quite see your point. [The United States] might very easily . . . [engage in aggression] unless some check was placed upon it by some international agreement which we hope for.” America’s aggressive impulses should be limited by an allegiance to a community larger than the United States. Wilson said in the fall of 1916 that, “nation shall agree with nation that the rights of humanity are greater than the rights of sovereignty.”13

It was not just or even mainly the use of violence abroad that Bourne and his fellow intellectuals opposed. They opposed war because the passions of a popular war, fueled by the belligerence of American Scots-Irish culture, would inhibit or eliminate the role of the independent intellectual they had chosen for themselves. 

That fear was not imaginary. The first and perhaps greatest clash of American intellectuals and American wartime patriotism came in 1917 and 1918 in New York City. In February 1917, President Butler distributed a document, The Organization of Columbia University for National Service, in which he proposed to replace the existing structure of schools with military corps. The president’s office would be the Staff Corps, the faculties would be organized into Medical, Technical, Economics and Social Service Corps, and so on. This crystallized opposition to American participation in the war among the faculty, one of whom, James Cattell, wrote to his Congressman to oppose the dispatch of American conscripts to Europe against their will. On June 6, 1917, Butler responded that, “what had been tolerated before became intolerable now. . . . What had been folly was now treason.” He would dismiss anyone who disagreed. The result was the resignation of Columbia’s most famous professor of history, Charles A. Beard, and a number of other political scientists, who joined Beard, John Dewey, Harold Laski and Thorstein Veblen to found the New School for Social Research. The Masses was shut down by the government, and Seven Arts lost its funding and closed. 

The war, Bourne wrote, was a nightmare not because of its violence or its impact on foreign affairs, but because it turned intellectuals into either suppressed cowards or henchmen of the state.

The editors of the New Republic, however, following the paradigm laid down by Croly, decided that their role was to be pragmatic, to supply expert advice and assistance to the war effort. Walter Lippmann joined Woodrow Wilson’s delegation at the Paris peace conference. This was consistent with the central idea of The Promise of American Life, which was that expert knowledge could guide a strong state in the service of the people. But in the eyes of Bourne and his allies, this made intellectuals part of the war effort, which in turn meant that their intellectual autonomy was forfeit. No doubt Bourne’s passion was strengthened by the fact that his own mentor, John Dewey, was pro-war, agreeing with Lippmann that enlightened expertise could keep the war from being seized by the fanaticism of a nationalist mob.

The longer-term intellectual products of these events were significant, and include the birth of the idea of value-free policy science and the moral equivalence of states at war with each other. The New School antiwar professors wanted to make their scholarship relevant to public issues, but they did not want to advocate government polices and thus lose the intellectual independence they left the university in order to retain. Hence, they consciously developed and adopted the stance of “value-free” social science. The National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, was created at this time with the goal of providing objective data but not to make value or policy judgments. This stance persists today, along with the opposing position that no social science can be value-free, since the questions that are posed are themselves determined by values. 

The argument about the “moral equivalency” of belligerents also emerged from this episode. The reaction of Harvard’s president in 1919 reflects this emerging perspective. In a public debate with Henry Cabot Lodge, A. Lawrence Lowell argued that war inflamed Americans and removed any sense that there were limits they must respect: 


Some Americans, while professing a faith in the right of all peoples to independence and self-government, are really imperialist at heart. They appeal to a spirit of patriotism that sees no object, holds no ideals, and acknowledges no rights or duties, but the national welfare and aggrandizement. In the name of that principle, Germany sinned and fell. The ideas of these American imperialists are less grandiose, but at bottom they differ little from hers. It would be a calamity if we should have helped to overcome Germany only to be conquered by her theories and her errors.14


To this Lodge responded that America was the champion of freedom, sought no empire, and sought peace, but should not denature herself: “We must try to keep America as she is . . . as she is in her ideals and her principles.”



he Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, combined with the German bombing of Great Britain and invasion of France and the Soviet Union, had the effect of mobilizing almost all aspects of American society in favor of war. The Scotch-Irish impulse to react violently to challenge was activated by a direct attack on the United States. Hitler was clearly intent on destroying the cosmopolitan ideal, and the Soviet revolution was under siege. Even so, the heart of the position of the New Intellectuals, that war threatened their intellectual independence, still survived, again in the New York journals of opinion. 

Dwight Macdonald was the son of a struggling lawyer and rich mother and went to Philips Exeter Academy and then Yale, where his opposition to American life was more aesthetic and anti-provincial (he was an admirer of Wilde and Mencken) than political. After school, he went to work at Partisan Review. That journal was the inheritor of the New England-Jewish cultural alliance as embodied in its two editors, William Phillips and Philip Rahv. Macdonald, in this context, was described as an “‘emissary’ from an older tradition of Puritan Yankee moral dissidence, transformed and revitalized by contact with ‘the wave of radicalism from Europe and second-generation American Jews.’”15

The Partisan Review intellectuals had read and were conscious of their links with the New Intellectuals. Alfred Kazin wrote, “When I read Randolph Bourne and the young Van Wyck Brooks . . . I could not feel that 1938 was so far from 1912. . . . I thought I could see . . . our real literary brethren in the utopians and Socialist bohemians of 1912.” Like their predecessors, they reflexively dismissed beliefs “that struck them as religious, mythic, rural, narrowly national, popular, simplistic, or restrictive.” Mary McCarthy, another editor at Partisan Review, was “cut from the same privileged cloth” as Macdonald.16

Macdonald went on to start his own journal, politics, which reflected the growing intellectual disenchantment with Stalin’s Soviet Union. This disenchantment contributed much to the idea of the moral equivalency of all warring states. Macdonald and his associates Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills and George Woodcock opposed American participation in World War II on the grounds not only that war killed people but also that it led to the domestic subjugation of ordinary people to impersonal bureaucracies. These bureaucracies existed on both sides and turned people in America, as well as in the Soviet Union and Germany, into objects to be controlled. It led to the ultimate form of objectification, which was the mass killing of civilians. 

Woodcock, in particular, took issue with George Orwell’s call to socialists to embrace bourgeois morality (or plain decency) and patriotism. Woodcock argued that Orwell “failed to understand the fundamentally evil nature of patriotism as a producer of war and a bulwark of authority.”17 Macdonald built a network of like-minded Europeans who called for “decentralized communities of human proportions” that rejected the idea of progress, technological or otherwise. This group, which included Nicola Chiaromonte and Hannah Arendt, was part of Macdonald’s effort to establish a cosmopolitan community to which he could give his loyalty. 

When the first nuclear weapons were used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Macdonald literally stopped the presses of politics to run his editorial that stated, “WAR AND PROGRESS ARE NOW OBSOLETE.” Technology was of questionable value, as was the “desirability in itself of man’s learning to control his environment.” The Enlightenment faith in progress through reason and mastery must be rejected. The imperative now was “WE MUST ‘GET’ THE MODERN NATIONAL SECURITY STATE BEFORE IT ‘GETS’ US.”18

While it was of limited immediate influence, what was occurring was the birth of the First New Left from the central ideas of the New Intellectuals. 

The First New Left had little impact for the first 15 years after World War II. The evil of Hitler made arguments about moral equivalence seem obviously fatuous, and national wartime service and sacrifice made patriotism paramount over cosmopolitanism. The New Left also had little impact because the educated elite benefited from, as well as sacrificed for, World War II and the Cold War. The graduates of elite colleges accepted the deal offered by Herbert Croly: They entered government service and were empowered by their positions. Those at the top were the so-called Wise Men, and those around them, the corporate internationalists: Dean Acheson (Yale), David K. Bruce (University of Virginia), William Clayton (the exception: he left school at 13), James Forrestal (Dartmouth/Princeton), Roswell Gilpatrick (Amherst), W. Averell Harrimann (Yale), McGeorge and William Bundy (Yale), Robert Lovett (Yale), John J. McCloy (Amherst), Robert McNamara (UC Berkeley) John McNaughton (DePauw, but assistant professor at Harvard), and Paul Nitze (Harvard). This was the American foreign policy establishment. Many more served in the Office of Strategic Services and then the Central Intelligence Agency, or in the Departments of State and Defense. Consistent with Croly, but in opposition to Bourne, they accepted national service, and enjoyed power through it.

This compact broke down in the 1960s. The educated elite turned away more from the personas of Lyndon Johnson, the quintessential Scots-Irish American, and the anti-intellectual Richard Nixon than they did from the Vietnam War itself. The “best and the brightest”, after all, were the initial architects and executors of the war in Vietnam, as well as the architects of the Cold War itself. And both Presidents were famous for the low regard in which they held “the Harvards.” The point, again, is that the 25-year period from 1940 to 1965, during which the intellectuals made common cause with the American government, was the exception, and the falling away of American intellectuals into opposition to war this time partly in the form of the Second New Left represented a return to their original position.


n argument that looks at the self-regarding motives of the actors to explain the content of their arguments is not always pretty or satisfying. We must not discount entirely the power of ideas in and of themselves. Yet the argument that attitudes toward politics are driven by class interests is one that antiwar intellectuals made themselves. In an essay that prefigures modern discourse, Bourne argued, for example, that Puritans preached against sex only to have power over those who sexually sinned.19 The famous essay in which he wrote that “war is the health of the state” argued that the men who advocated war did so in order to increase their power. Still, a full argument would try to do justice to the two competing claims of patriotism, that men owe their highest allegiance to their own country, and of cosmopolitanism, the idea that men should be loyal to an abstract ideal not associated with any particular time and place. The possibility that loyalty to the United States might constitute the best hope in practice for uniting those two competing claims deserves full discussion.

There is a related closing point to be made. The period during which the American educated elite devoted itself to national service was an anomaly that reflected the unambiguous threat posed first by the Nazis and then by Stalin’s USSR. But it also reflected the New Republic strand of the New Intellectuals movement that drove the commitment of intellectuals to the New Deal. The bargain in which intellectuals are given positions of power in return for a commitment to public service is not impossibly naive or corrupting, as the experiences of World War II and the early Cold War would suggest to all but communist critics of American foreign policy. Nor is it entirely clear what prevents it from being revived today. Whether and how this might be done should be the subject of further inquiry. 

1Lynn Eden, “Capitalist Conflict and the State: The Making of United States Military Policy in 1948”, in Charles Bright and Susan Harding, eds., Statemaking and Social Movements: Essays in History and Theory (University of Michigan Press, 1984), p. 236.

2See Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 270.

3Sources for all data cited in this essay may be found at

4Finke and Stark, The Churching of America, 1776–2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (Rutgers University Press, 2005), p. 79.

5Finke and Stark, The Churching of America, pp. 77, 86–7, 93.

6Finke and Stark, The Churching of America, p. 107.

7Thomas Bender, New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp. 92, 102, 108–111.

8See David A. Hollinger, “Ethnic Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and the Emergence of the American Liberal Intelligentsia”, in Hollinger, In the American Province: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), pp. 59–60.

9Bourne, “Trans-National America”, in Randolph Bourne, War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays 1915–1919 (Hackett, 1999), Carl Resek, ed., pp. 118–9.

10Bender, New York Intellect, pp. 294–5.

11David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 633–5.

12“Jews and Trans-National America”, in War and the Intellectuals, p. 125.

13Thomas J. Knock, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 67, 97.

14Henry Cabot Lodge, A. Lawrence Lowell, The Lodge-Lowell Debate on the Proposed League of Nations (Old Colony Trust Company, 1919), p. 39.

15Gregory D. Sumner, Dwight Macdonald and the Politics Circle (Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 10.

16Sumner, Dwight Macdonald, pp. 10–11, 16.

17Sumner, Dwight Macdonald, pp. 18–19, 24.

18Sumner, Dwight Macdonald, p. 2. Capitals in the original.

19“The Puritan’s Will to Power”, and “The State”, in Bourne, War and the Intellectuals, pp. 156–61, 65–104.

Stephen Peter Rosen is the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard and senior counselor at the Long Term Strategy Group.