book cover imagePolitical Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick

by Peter Collier.
New York: Encounter Books, 2012.
241 pp. $26.

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was the intellectual giant of the first four years of the Reagan administration. After Reagan swept to a forty-nine-state reelection victory in November 1984, columnist George Will publicly urged the President to make Kirkpatrick, then serving as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, his National Security Advisor or Secretary of State. Kirkpatrick, Will wrote, “is indispensable to American policymaking” and is at least the intellectual equal of Dean Acheson and Henry Kissinger. Peter Collier, in his scintillating new biography of Kirkpatrick, Political Woman, explores the personal life and political career of a woman who “was unexpectedly invited onto the center stage of history [where] she was able to play her part with brilliance and lasting effect.”

That unexpected invitation came after Kirkpatrick in 1979 authored a brilliant and provocative article in Commentary magazine entitled “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which harshly criticized the Carter administration’s approach to “human rights” and foreign policy that undermined friendly authoritarian regimes (Somoza in Nicaragua and the Shah in Iran) and resulted in their replacement by hostile totalitarian regimes (the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the mullahs in Iran) that were even worse violators of human rights. In both countries, she wrote, “the American effort to impose liberalization and democratization on a government confronted with violent internal opposition not only failed, but actually assisted the coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms . . . thanunder the previous autocracy” and whose policies were “hostile to American interests.” Candidate Reagan’s top foreign policy advisor, Richard Allen, sent a copy of the article to Reagan, who wrote a letter to Kirkpatrick praising the article and proposing a meeting. After they met, Allen joked, it was “love at first sight.” Kirkpatrick, a lifelong Democrat, endorsed Reagan for President. When Reagan took office, he appointed Kirkpatrick U.N.Ambassador and gave her a seat in the Cabinet and, most importantly, membership on the National Security Council.

What followed for Kirkpatrick was four years of combative and often lonely advocacy of American interests at the U.N., internal friction and squabbling among her colleagues within the Reagan administration, and participation in the formulation and implementation of policies that helped bring down the Soviet empire.

Collier, who has written well-received biographies of the Kennedys, Fords, and Roosevelts, benefited from interviews with Kirkpatrick and some of her family members and access to an unpublished autobiographical manuscript that Kirkpatrick never completed. He is careful, however, to avoid presenting her version of events as the last word. The result is a balanced yet favorable account of the life and professional career of a remarkable woman who brilliantly served her country during crucial years of the Cold War.

Jeane Jordan was born in Duncan, Oklahoma in 1926 into a family of Democrats. Her father was an oil driller and her mother did bookkeeping for the business. Jeane had a fairly normal childhood, though it was apparent at an early age that she would be something special. When Jeane was twelve the family moved to Illinois. Jeane attended Mount Vernon High School where she excelled at her studies, participated in Democratic politics, and began a serious engagement with ideas. Collier relates that while in high school Jeane broke up with one boyfriend because “he was not interested in ideas.”

She attended college at Stephens (in Missouri) and Barnard, then did post-graduate work in political science at Columbia University where she took courses taught by German historian Franz Neumann about Weimar Germany and the subsequent Nazi takeover, sat in on lectures given by Herbert Marcuse and Hannah Arendt, and learned about totalitarianism. This led her to reject radical politics. She recalled to Collier that she was one of the few students at Columbia to support Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election (many supported Henry Wallace), and to believe that Alger Hiss was guilty.

In 1951, Jeane was hired at the State Department by Evron Kirkpatrick, who headed up the Office of Intelligence Research. Evron had worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, maintained connections with the CIA thereafter, had a close friendship with future U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, and would become Jeane’s mentor and husband (they married in 1955). Collier notes that Jeane’s first assignment at the State Department was to edit documents detailing life in the pre-war Soviet Union, which she said “revealed a hell purposefully created by government.” This experience, Collier writes, “left her with two questions about totalitarianism that she would spend the rest of her life wondering about: ‘How could people do this? How could other people let them?’”

Her education about totalitarianism continued in France when she was awarded a fellowship to study at the Institut de Science Politique at the University of Paris in 1952. Collier notes that the Paris intellectual community was then in the midst of an intellectual battle between Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre over which side to support in the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Jeane unambiguously sided with Camus’s anti-communism. She also fell in love with France, learned to speak French fluently, and later purchaseda home in Provence.

Jeane returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1953 and worked at the Economic Cooperation Administration, where she assisted in writing a book about the Marshall Plan, then at the Human Resources Research Organization at George Washington University, where she analyzed interviews of Chinese communist soldiers captured in Korea. “What she found in these files,” Collier notes, “parlayed what she had learned from the other papers about Nazi and Soviet brutality.” This student of totalitarian regimes had come to the conclusion that “‘a diabolical vision of the public good is the greatest horror and the source of the greatest evil in modern times.’”

After marrying Kirkpatrick in 1955, Jeane had three children—all boys. Jeane explained to Collier that despite her professional and scholarly interests, she was “deeply involved” with her children. Collier mentions an interview she gave in the mid 1980s in which she said, “Having and raising babies is more interesting than giving speeches at the United Nations.” During these years her social world revolved around Evron, who had become head of the American Political Science Association, and his friends, including Willmore Kendall, Max Kampelman, Sidney Hook, James Burnham, Sol Levitas, and Hubert Humphrey. What these men had in common was a fierce, intellectually based anti-communism, and their ideas reinforced Jeane’s views about communism and totalitarianism and led to her first major publication as editor of The Strategy of Deception: A Study in World-Wide Communist Tactics.

Published in 1963, The Strategy of Deception collected sixteen essays including Kirkpatrick’s introduction, “The Politics of Deception.” Here, although Collier fails to mention it, she set forth the fundamental analysis of the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that informed her later and more famous Commentary article. “In practice,” she wrote, “Communist elites are more repressive than traditional dictatorships because they aim at revolutionizing society, culture, and personality.” Communist leaders, unlike traditional rulers, “attempt to control by regulation a very wide range of activities normally governed by custom and personal preference.” “Extension of regulation and coercion into all spheres of society,” she continued, “. . . requires more police, more surveillance, more terror” and “is the meaning of totalitarianism.” This book, writes Collier, put Jeane Kirkpatrick’s name “in circulation” among anti-communist intellectuals.

Like many centrist Democrats who would later be called “neoconservatives,” Jeane disdained the counterculture of the 1960s and its subsequent embrace by the Democratic Party. She was disgusted by campus riots and the New Left’s support for the nation’s enemies in Vietnam. “[A]s the antiwar movement intensified and began to flow osmotically in and out of the counterculture to produce a wholesale disaffection from everything America represented,” Collier explains, “Jeane believed that the divisions it created were deeper and affected more domains of our national life . . .” The most dangerous long-term effect of the counterculture, she believed, was the dismantling of the post-World War II consensus that supported the policy of containment.

Kirkpatrick continued to work on her doctoral thesis in the 1960s, taught part-time at Trinity College, and became only the second woman to serve on the political science faculty of Georgetown University. She was also heavily involved in Hubert Humphrey’s campaign for the presidency in 1968. Kirkpatrick recalled that after Humphrey narrowly lost to Richard Nixon, her husband told her that “this might be the beginning of the end” of their intellectual affiliation with the Democratic Party.

Four years later, Jeane Kirkpatrick voted for Nixon—the first time in her life that she had voted for a Republican. The counterculture had captured the soul and machinery of the national Democratic Party and nominated George McGovern for President. “I knew McGovern was going to lose,” she told Collier, “and thought he should.” But unwilling to give up hope that Democratic centrists could re-capture the party, she enlisted in that effort as part of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM). In 1976, the anti-communist Democratsof the CDM rallied around Senator Henry M. (“Scoop”) Jackson, a key member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the nation’s most forceful and intelligent critic of the Nixon-Kissinger policy of detente with the Soviet Union. Jackson, however, was one of a number of Democrats that were defeated for the party’s presidential nomination by former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter who, with the CDM’s tepid support, went on to win the White House.

Kirkpatrick and the CDM soon became disillusioned with Carter. She and her centrist Democratic colleagues joined with several Republicans, including former California Governor Reagan, and formed the Committee on the Present Danger which criticized Carter for canceling defense projects, abandoning longtime U.S. allies, conceding nuclear superiority to the Soviets, and all but abandoning containment in the face of a Soviet geopolitical offensive in the Third World.

In 1977, Kirkpatrick began her association with the American Enterprise Institute, which lasted until 2006, and became a frequent contributor to Commentary, a monthly journal edited by Norman Podhoretz that opened its pages to many “neoconservative” writers. Her rendezvous with history began in the pages of that journal with the famous article that caught Reagan’s attention.

As the United States U.N. Ambassador from 1981 to April 1985, Kirkpatrick consistently, forcefully, and eloquently promoted U.S. interests and defended U.S. values. Reading her speeches to the U.N. and other groups, which were collected in two volumes entitled Legitimacy and Force, illustrates the depth of her knowledge and understanding of totalitarianism. As a member of the Cabinet and National Security Council, she used that knowledge and understanding to help formulate policies designed to win the geopolitical struggle with the Soviet Union. One such policy—which came to be known as the “Reagan Doctrine”—supported U.S. allies that were under attack by Soviet proxies and encouraged and aided anti-communist forces within the Soviet empire. In a sense, the Reagan Doctrine combined containment as envisioned by George Kennan with “liberation” as envisioned by James Burnham. Like Kennan, Kirkpatrick advocated containing Soviet efforts to expand into strategically important regions of the world. Like Burnham, she advocated supporting internal opposition forces within the broader Soviet empire.

Within the Reagan administration, Kirkpatrick clashed with Secretaries of State Alexander Haig and George Shultz and State Department bureaucrats whom Collier claims resented her personal access to the president and her independent voice at the U.N. After Reagan’s reelection, she was essentially maneuvered out of any key policymaking position by Shultz and James Baker, according to Collier. Reagan offered her an innocuous position as Counselor to the President for International Affairs which she politely declined. She blamed not Reagan, but her enemies within the administration for excluding her from an important policymaking role in Reagan’s second term.

At the 1984 Republican convention, Kirkpatrick delivered a memorable speech in which she characterized the Democrats at that year’s San Francisco convention as the “blame America first crowd.” She eventually registered as a Republican, the final destination in her intellectual odyssey.

Kirkpatrick spent the next several years writing a syndicated column on foreign policy and giving speeches for an estimated $20,000 a speech, then a significant sum. She was frequently mentioned as a possible GOP candidate for President or Vice-President. But, Collier notes, neither power nor wealth could shield her from the vicissitudes of life, including dealing with one son who suffered from alcoholism, another who had broken marriages and financial difficulties, and painfully watching as her beloved husband “died by degrees.”

When the Soviet empire collapsed, Kirkpatrick broke with her neoconservative allies by distancing herself from calls for the United States to take advantage of its “unipolar moment” by transforming the world in its own democratic image. She wanted nothing more than for the United States to become a “normal” country again, unburdened by serious global challenges. She reluctantly supported the first Gulf War in 1991, opposed military interventions in Somalia and Haiti, supported limited air strikes in Bosnia, supported our war in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, and opposed our subsequent invasion of Iraq and the so-called Bush Doctrine. The U.S. military, she believed, should only be used to further concrete U.S. national security interests, not to create democracies in other parts of the world. There was “no compelling reason” to invade Iraq, she wrote, and the Bush administration failed “to do due diligence required for reasoned policy making because it failed to address the aftermath of the invasion” before it was launched.

Jeane Kirkpatrick died on December 7, 2006, “the date,” Collier notes, “that had always lived in infamy for her generation and marked the beginning of the long war against two totalitarianisms that became their life’s work.” She was arguably the most influential female foreign policy advisor to any President until Condoleezza Rice, also a Soviet-Russian expert, became George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Her life was a testament to the power of ideas to shape individuals, nations, and the world.  

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany, America’s Global Role, and Geopolitics. He has written extensively on historical and foreign policy topics for such journals as Joint Force Quarterly, Presidential Studies Quarterly, American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, and the Washington Times. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.