November 19th marks the 95th anniversary of the birth of Jeane Kirkpatrick in Duncan, Oklahoma. She was born Jeane Jordan into a family of Democrats in 1926, and she would remain a Democrat until 1985. But her political evolution away from the Democratic Party began in the 1960s with the rise of the anti-war movement that eventually captured the national Democratic Party. Her political odyssey shed light on the philosophical evolution of Democratic foreign policies and on the power of ideas to shape policy.
Jeane Kirkpatrick was educated in the 1940s at Stephens College (Missouri) and Barnard, then took post-graduate courses at Columbia University where she studied under German historian Franz Neumann, who lectured about Weimar Germany and the coming to power of the Nazis. At Columbia, Kirkpatrick also attended lectures on totalitarianism by Herbert Marcuse and Hannah Arendt, which convinced her to reject radical politics and to appreciate the dangers of communism.
Hired by the State Department in 1951, Jeane worked for Evron Kirkpatrick (whom she married four years later) at the Office of Intelligence Research. Through Evron Kirkpatrick, she met Hubert Humphrey, then a rising star in Democratic politics. After the Eisenhower administration took office, Evron Kirkpatrick became head of the American Political Science Association, and during the mid-to-late 1950s Jeane met and socialized with such anti-communist stalwarts as Willmoore Kendall, Sidney Hook, Max Kampelman, and James Burnham. This led to Jeane Kirkpatrick’s first major publication in 1963, The Strategy of Deception: A Study in World-Wide Communist Tactics.
In the Introduction to that book, Jeane Kirkpatrick foreshadowed the argument that she made in her famous Commentary article in 1979, namely that “Communist elites are more repressive that traditional dictatorships because they aim at revolutionizing society, culture, and personality.” Communist regimes, she wrote, “attempt to control by regulation a very wide range of activities normally governed by custom and personal preference,” and their reach extends coercion “into all spheres of society,” which requires them to employ “more police, more surveillance, more terror.” That, she wrote, “is the meaning of totalitarianism.”
Kirkpatrick’s views on foreign policy made it easy for her to support the anti-Soviet approaches of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968. But in 1972, Kirkpatrick voted for Richard Nixon because the Democratic Party had been taken over by the McGovernites. “I knew McGovern was going to lose,” she told her biographer Peter Collier, “and thought he should.”
Four years later, Kirkpatrick supported the failed presidential nomination bid of Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, perhaps the foremost critic of the policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Jackson lost the nomination to former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter who in his first foreign policy speech after entering the White House declared that America was free of its “inordinate fear of communism” and who placed “human rights” at the center of U.S. foreign policy.
Carter’s commitment to “human rights” led to the abandonment of the Shah in Iran and Somoza in Nicaragua, both longtime American allies and both of whom were replaced by regimes that were hostile to the United States and more repressive than their predecessors. In the wake of these foreign policy failures, Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote an article for Commentary entitled “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” in which she set forth the differences between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and explained that it was sometimes in America’s interest to support authoritarian regimes. And she pointed out that Carter’s foreign policy team was far more critical of the human rights violations of our allies than of our enemies. It was a devastating critique of the Carter administration’s foreign policies and soon caught the attention of Ronald Reagan.
After Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter, the new president appointed Kirkpatrick as America’s UN Ambassador with Cabinet rank, and she soon became a vocal advocate for America in the UN and a key foreign policy adviser to the president.
Kirkpatrick’s rise was not due to any personal connection she had with Reagan or his advisers, but instead to the power of her ideas. In that now famous Commentary article, she had brilliantly exposed the flaws in Carter’s approach to the world, and in her years as UN Ambassador and foreign policy adviser to President Reagan, she focused on ideas to confront the Soviet Union — ideas that soon became known as the Reagan Doctrine; ideas that helped bring about the dissolution of the Soviet empire.
At the 1984 Republican convention, Kirkpatrick, still nominally a Democrat, delivered a memorable keynote address accusing the “San Francisco Democrats” (the city that hosted their convention that year) of always blaming America first for the problems of the world. Kirkpatrick had witnessed her political party — the party of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Henry Jackson — become the party of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Walter Mondale. A year later, she left that party and also left the Reagan administration.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Kirkpatrick hoped that American could once again become a “normal country.” Though she supported the limited aims of the first Gulf War in 1991, she strongly opposed the subsequent U.S. military interventions in Somalia and Haiti, and opposed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and its subsequent mishandling of the occupation of that country.
Kirkpatrick did not live to see the full debacles that the Iraq and Afghan wars became (she died on December 7, 2006), but it is doubtful that she would have supported “nation-building” in those places or, for that matter, anywhere else. “Normal” countries don’t do nation-building.
She likely would have been appalled at President Obama’s apology tour and his extreme multilateral approach to international affairs. She probably would have applauded at least some of President Trump’s “America First” agenda — especially Trump’s aversion to nation-building and endless wars. And unlike the current administration, she surely would have recognized that China is an existential threat to the United States. If only we had a “Kirkpatrick Doctrine” to focus our efforts on winning this second Cold War.