By John P. McCarthy
On May 6th I received an email that historian John Lukacs had died at the age of ninety-five. Looking up, I was startled to notice twelve of his books on the bookshelf immediately behind my computer. Such was the measure of the man that I wanted to have ready access to his work.
I had first met him in 1964 when holding my first full time teaching position at Rider College in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. He had written A History of the Cold War (1961), of which American conservative commentators were critical for being “revisionist.” I wrote a more sympathetic review for a publication of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. It was probably that review which prompted him to invite me to dinner in Philadelphia—the beginning of a friendship that lasted for more than half a century.
Lukacs’s revisionism was quite different from the radical revisionism of the 1960s that blamed the West for the Cold War and interpreted the growth of Soviet power and the expansion of Communism as benevolent. He was scarcely pro or even soft on Communism, having been a young refugee from his native Hungary in 1946 when the Russian Army had imposed a Communist regime. While he had to hide in a cellar for months when the Nazis sought to put him in a labor camp because his mother was a Jew, Lukacs did not regard the Russians as his liberators.
He was not in the United States very long when he secured a post at Chestnut Hill College, a Catholic women’s college in Philadelphia. The Fordham historian and Burke scholar, Ross J. S. Hoffman, put him in touch with Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, who was leaving the position to return home to Austria after his exile from the Nazis. Lukacs taught there for the rest of his academic career, while also working at La Salle College in Philadelphia and having visiting professorships in various institutions in the United States and abroad.
Lukacs’s first major work, The Great Powers and Eastern Europe (1953), examined the failure of the West, especially the United States, to inhibit the Russian takeover of Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War. Lukacs was aware, unlike most Americans, even strongly anti-communist Americans, of Russia’s longstanding ambitions in Eastern Europe. These ambitions predated Communism, as Russia had controlled significant parts of the area prior to the First World War. In other words, it was not just, or primarily, Communism that prompted the Russian domination of Eastern Europe.
His realism contrasted with an American tendency to reassert Woodrow Wilson’s aspiration at the time of the First World War to reconstruct the world by self-determination and democratization, rather than by traditional balance-of-power considerations. In addition to this Wilsonian perspective, the Roosevelt administration included elements ideologically sympathetic to Communism. Lukacs found in a number of media and academic fellow travelers an intellectual climate “frozen in the categories of the American Twenties and Thirties.” To them, even though Stalin was a dictator, “Communism was still a progressive ideology” and the alternative of anti-Communism “was simply dreadful, represented by backward, unrefined, crude people: moneybags, rednecks, Catholics.”
Fortunately, the prosaic Missouri politician, Harry Truman, who replaced Henry Wallace as Roosevelt’s running-mate in the 1944 election, became President upon Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. While not known for acumen in international affairs, Truman quickly learned that the Russians were not of a mind to be part of any Wilsonian peace settlement. In a few years he accepted the containment strategy suggested by diplomat George Kennan to inhibit further Russian expansion in Europe: a prospect not unlikely in view of greater sympathy for Communism in some Western European nations like France and Italy than in most of the Eastern European nations the Russian military had subjected.
Nonetheless, as late as 1948, Lukacs noted, many in American literary and artistic circles were “cynical and contemptuous of Harry Truman” and of the “great unwashed”—the Americans—and “full of grim respect and nervous praise for anything that was revolutionary, godless, and modern, including Communism.” He found this attitude not only in the avant-garde or Bohemian class, but also in the professoriate of the better universities, which “was predominantly Liberal and Leftist, many of them Henry Wallace voters” [Wallace was running for President on a third-party ticket], and “anti-conservative, anti-Catholic, and anti-anti-Communist.”
With the emergence of the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Western determination to resist the Soviet effort to assume control of the multinational-occupied Berlin, things ultimately settled into what most feared would be a permanent partition of Europe. The United States had repulsed the invasion of South Korea by the Russian satellite regime in North Korea, but even before then China had succumbed to a Communist takeover, something approved by the Soviet Union, but scarcely the result of their involvement.
Lukacs saw an extraordinary opportunity to ease the division of Europe in the death of the monstrous Joseph Stalin and his replacement by Nikita Khrushchev, whose amenability to change was evidenced by his demotion of the official reverence for Stalin. The prospect continued even after, and possibly because of, the failed and brutally repressed, but popular anti-communist uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary and Poland in 1956. A proposal advanced by the author of containment, George Kennan, for disengagement—that is, mutual military withdraw from Germany, Western forces in the West and Russian in the East—Lukacs believed, could have led to a neutralization, if not eventual reunification, of Germany, and probably a mitigation of Russian dominance in the satellite regimes in Eastern Europe.
Having such a view, it was not surprising that Lukacs wrote a number of articles critical of the concern of many Americans with the threat of domestic communism. He saw McCarthyism, and emphasis on the Communist threat domestically and internationally, replacing the isolationist views, typical of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. A similar change affected millions of Irish-Americans and German Americans, who were suspicion of the Anglophile instinct of the predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Ivy League foreign policy establishment.
Later editions of A History of the Cold War dealt with the Kennedy Administration and the first few years of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Despite summit conferences in 1955 and 1960, the Cold War persisted into the opening years of the Kennedy Administration. Central crises were the Soviet demands on altering the status of Berlin, which ultimately led to the construction of the infamous wall separating the Russian-occupied east from the western sectors of the city. The wall remained until 1989, as did the cruel restrictions on the East Germans. However, tension between the two great powers on the issue did ease.
Berlin was replaced by the Cuban crisis of October 1962. Soviet ships bringing missiles to be staged in Cuba turned back rather than confront the American navy. An ultimate agreement saw the dismantlement of the missile sites and American acceptance of the Castro regime. In the following year an agreement was even reached between the United States and the Soviet Union regarding the development of nuclear weapons. Lukacs saw all this as an optimistic prospect for a modification of the Cold War between the less-refined but inherently moderate Khrushchev and the maturing young Kennedy. But Kennedy was assassinated and the following year Khrushchev was ousted and replaced by the dogmatic Brezhnev and Kosygin.
The center of Cold War confrontation was moved from Europe by the emergence of revolution and disorder in the Third World, the increasingly politically independent former Western colonies in Africa and Asia. The U.S. intervened to oppose the North Vietnamese effort to control the non-Communist South Vietnam. The Kennedy Administration deposed Ngo Dinh Diem, the Catholic leader of the Southern government, in hopes of installing a more efficient regime directed by the United States. The actual result was increased American involvement that ultimately saw more than 50,000 Americans dying in a war that ended with Communist unification of Vietnam a decade later.
Lukacs opposed American involvement in Vietnam, not out of sympathy with the Vietcong but because “it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But he found as “execrable” the “disastrous, destructive and customarily imbecile character” of the 1960s radicalism that had been stimulated by opposition to the Vietnamese War. In some circles that opposition developed into a revisionist explanation of the origins of the Cold War as being attributable to the West.
Lukacs’s dismay at what was happening drew him closer to American conservatives. He wrote articles for conservative journals like National Review and Triumph, voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, and was a guest of William F. Buckley at the twenty-fifth anniversary dinner for National Review. While he did not long remain in the conservative camp, he did not regret the friendships he made, and retained some of them.
Lukacs must also be understood as a Catholic. His religion had made him prefer a small Catholic women’s college, Chestnut Hill, to larger and more celebrated universities. His distaste of the credential and prestige preoccupations of so many of the faculty in those places, as well as the atmosphere in most academic associations and conferences, meant he would not seek positions or membership. He confined his professional association membership to the American Catholic Historical Association, of which he even served as president in 1977. He found it much more genial, with “honest friendship” and “a serious kind of camaraderie.” The other associations full of academic climbers confirmed to him the validity of Peter Viereck’s aphorism “that anti-Catholicism was the anti-Semitism of America.”
However, he could not accept Christopher Dawson’s optimistic view of the prospective role of American Catholicism as “a sleeping giant” that would make America the country in which “the fate of Christendom will be decided.” In Lukacs’s eyes American Catholicism was too anxious to conform to popular Americanism in every way. While he accepted that the rigidities of earlier Catholicism had to undergo change, he could not buy the suggestion made to him that the reforms of Vatican II were comparable to “the rearranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic.” He replied there was no iceberg threatening the Church, but the ship was endangered because “the crew had become itchy.” By crew, I presume, he meant the hierarchy. Significant too was the notation in his diary that “the self-satisfaction that many American Catholics felt and expressed at the time” of the presidency of John F. Kennedy “strengthened not but contributed to the weakening of their faith.”
Naturally I have only touched on a fraction of Lukacs’s work. He has thoughtfully examined many aspects of the Second World War, especially the rivalry of Hitler and Winston Churchill, as well as more general and philosophical efforts at understanding the ending of the modern age.
Hopefully, however, my presentation of some of his thoughts will show why his books occupy such a prime position on my shelves. Lukacs is in the company of a diverse but powerful, group: Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Ross J. S. Hoffman, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, John Courtney Murray, and Murray Rothbard. All are well worth reading by new generations of reactionaries and conservatives who could benefit from their historical and philosophical insights.
May John Lukacs rest in peace after such a creative and insightful career as teacher and writer.
John P. McCarthy is professor emeritus of history at Fordham University.