Ethics & Public Policy Center

Third Thoughts


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


This past October, twenty years after the 1967 “March on the Pentagon” that marked a watershed in the Vietnam-era protest against U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, over a hundred veterans of the radicalisms of the 1960s met in Washington, D.C., under the auspices of the National Forum Foundation’s “Second Thoughts Project” to … well, to air their “second thoughts” about the old days.

The “Second Thoughts Project” is led by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, who once edited Ramparts, the flagship journal of the New Left, and are now better known as the authors of best-selling biographies of the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, and the Fords. The manifesto of the Collier/Horowitz enterprise may be considered their essay in the Washington Post magazine some three years ago, in which the authors said goodbye to all that: to “the self-aggrandizing romance with corrupt Third Worldism; to the casual indulgence of Soviet totalitarianism; to the hypocritical and self-dramatizing anti-Americanism that is the New Left’s bequest to mainstream politics.” Discerning readers may note that, whatever else has changed with Messrs. Collier and Horowitz, a fondness for punchy prose remains firmly in place.

The passage from the New Left to various points a droit has been a significant factor in American intellectual and political life for some time now. In terms of historical scholarship one remembers, for example, Alien Weinstein’s beginning his research into the Hiss Case on the presumption of Hiss’s innocence and then being forced by the evidence and his own intellectual integrity to the opposite conclusion, which he recorded in the award-winning volume Perjury. Dr. Weinstein is now an activist on behalf of democracy throughout the world. Ronald Radosh made a similar pilgrimage in his research on the Rosenberg case (The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth) and has gone on to become a prominent and courageous critic of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Among the memoirs of the sixties (and its antecedents), perhaps the most thoughtful exploration of this process of the examination of political conscience remains Norman Podhoretz’s 1979 volume, Breaking Ranks.

If, as Richard Weaver taught, “ideas have consequences,” then the second thoughts of Vietnam-era New Left activists are of more than biographical interest. Sooner or later, for better or for worse, these second thoughts will make their impact on the definition of American purpose in the world (as indeed, in some cases, they already have). One can, from the perspective that guides us in AMERICAN PURPOSE, be grateful that many of those who attended the “Second Thoughts Conference” have had the honesty to confront the fact that their commitments to human rights were being gravely traduced by their flirtation with Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, and others of that ilk. One can welcome the new enthusiasm about the democratic revolution in the world, the fresh recognition of the moral worthiness of the American experiment (even in the face of its incompleteness and flaws), the rejection of neo-isolationism. All of this is to the good. These are important second thoughts to have had, to have published, and to have acted upon.

But what next? Are there not third thoughts to be thought?

Specifically, what do those with second thoughts have to say about the pursuit of peace in a persistently conflicted and hostile world? No small part of the power of the Vietnam-era New Left derived from its cooptation of the term, work for peace. That the concept of peace was severely wounded by the New Left goes, or should go, without saying: which is why, parenthetically, one should be chary about referring to Vietnam-era activism as a peace movement, since in fact it was not about peace at all, but about the withdrawal of U.S. influence from the violent struggle for power in Southeast Asia. Yet the pursuit of peace remains a powerful motivating force in American public life, and he who wins the definitional struggle over what that pursuit means, in principle and in practice, is going to have considerable influence on the course of U.S. foreign policy.

There are third thoughts to be explored and debated, then, and they have to do with bringing the new sobriety of the 1980s into a critical confrontation with the best instincts of the 1960s. We know now what those with second thoughts are against. And they are right to be in opposition to those forces in world politics that are least likely to lead toward a world that is peaceful, secure, and free. The next step requires a move beyond polemicizing against those who have yet to consider second thoughts about the sixties, and a forthright exploration of these (doubtless, among many other) questions:

What is the peace that is to be sought in this world? What is the relationship of that peace to human rights, to democracy, to the quest for a minimum of civil order in international public life?

What lies beyond anticommunism? What third thoughts are needed to enable those who now recognize the evil of totalitarianism to position themselves in active support of the independent people of the Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe, Vietnam, the People’s Republic of China, and Cuba?

Can the neoisolationism of the New Left be effectively challenged without a definition and practice of intervention that includes more than U.S. material and logistical support for anticommunist rebels in the Third World? Those with second thoughts clearly recognize the centrality of the war of ideas in international affairs. By what instruments is that war of liberation to be fought?

Nonviolence was one string, however muted, in the chorus of the New Left. What role does nonviolent resistance play in opposing both totalitarian and authoritarian regimes today?

Finally, what do the second thoughters have to say to an American culture in which moral argument has become virtually impossible and moral categories and concepts are used indiscriminately to bludgeon political opponents? Second thought moralism may be aimed at more desirable political objectives than the moralism of the New Left. But neither is very satisfactory as a mode of conducting civil argument in a democracy. What third thoughts are required so that the United States becomes a political community capable of prudence—which is chief among the political virtues, because it teaches us to apply moral norms to complex human situations with wisdom and care?

These are the kinds of questions raised at the “Second Thoughts Conference” by such speakers as our friends Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Here are two intellectuals who recognize that politics is a function of culture and that the fundamental questions about American purpose and purposes in the world will be settled in the culture before they register in American politics. Their deeper understanding of the meaning of the sixties and their refusal to reduce public life to a matter of politics alone are lessons to be learned by all second thoughters (and by everyone else, for that matter).

The Washington Post‘s in-house neoconservative-basher, Sidney Blumenthal, was duly assigned to cover the “Second Thoughts Conference” for the Style section of the paper. Not surprisingly he pronounced the meeting a “festival of disillusionment.” That was a mean-spirited and inaccurate epithet, but it contains, unwittingly, the grain of an important truth: namely, that the times require more than second thoughts about past political and ideological errors. Second thoughts may be the condition for the possibility of a new definition of American purpose in our third century. But second thoughts do not, in and of themselves, define that purpose. That is the debate toward which those with second thoughts now need to turn their attention and considerable skills.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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