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The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest Hardcover – November 22, 2016
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McDougall emphasizes religion as motivating foreign policy throughout American history, terming it American Civil Religion (ACR).
Starting with the first Great Awakening, McDougall covers episodes around the eras of Washington, Wilson, FDR, Kennedy, and Obama.
He invents Classical ACR, Neo-classical ACR, Progressive ACR, and finally Millenial ACR.
The book is an unconvincing stretch of an idea. There is some interesting history, but the theme is overstated. Most presidents placed nationalism or more lately human rights first, with foreign policy only incidentally a function of religion. Perhaps the naive altruism of President Obama, as motivated by the Rev. Wright, is religion based, but hopefully the syndrome will soon disappear from American politics.
I realized I had found what offered the promise of being a great, Realpolitik-driven (NOT in the Kissinger sense) overview of American foreign policy in the light of American civil religion, and twists and turns in the interpretation of that civil religion, with specific, chunkable "eras."
I nodded in agreement near the start of the book when he described American civil religion as "divine-rights Republicanism."
Having read the likes of Walter Karp, I nodded when McDougall talked about one major such change happening with McKinley. (He goes lighter on McKinley than does Karp, but by no means gives him a pass.) I nodded with his illustration of how Wilson really wasn't neutral, especially on the issue of submarine warfare vs. blockade by extension. I very much agree with his assessment of FDR, including that not only was there no "Yalta sellout" abetted by a brain-dead Roosevelt, but that years earlier, he fully believed he could "control" Uncle Joe. I largely agreed with his assessments of Truman and Ike. Very much so with his take on JFK. Generally on LBJ. Very much so with his take on the American New Left vs. that of Europe.
Then, we get to Nixon and he TOTALLY goes off the rails, including into conspiracy theory. No, seriously.
I quote, page 306:
"Nixon's triumphs were too personal, his motives too suspect and his means too devious for an establishment already nervous about the imperial presidency. So, the elites purged the nation of Nixon through the convenient Watergate scandal."
And, this is an academic historian, a professor at a major university, claiming this.
I immediately knew I would have to knock the book down a star from a planned five-star rating, but with further cogitation, knew I had to take it down two stars.
The quote above is only the surface of Nixon whitewashing.
First, McDougall implies that the Nixon of the enemies list, etc., only arose because of his overwhelming 1972 victory. Wrong and he knows that.
Second, he claims that Nixon supported desegregation. Totally wrong. He enforced court orders on busing but worked to reach out to Wallace Democrats, etc., by making "busing" a four-letter word.
Third, he pretends that Congress passed the War Powers Act out of nowhere, rather than as an explicit reaction to his secret bombing of Cambodia. (McDougall never mentions the word "Cambodia," period.)
Fourth, he ignores Nixon's illegal interventions in Latin America, including but not limited to the Allende coup and "proddings" of Fidel Castro.
Fifth, he insinuates that Nixon felt he had to keep an American presence in Vietnam as long as he did to fully work up detente with both Mao/Zhou and Brezhnev. Debatable at best.
I still would be interested in reading his "Promised Land, Crusader State," but would do so with VERY skeptical eyes.
After getting halfway through I know very little more than when I started.
Also the writing style of this author is so dull and lifeless. How a historian can make exciting events such as our foreign policy uninteresting is beyond me. But I doubt I will have the patience to finish this.