Cliff May

Jeane Kirkpatrick spent her life studying — and fighting — totalitarianism. Reading Peter Collier’s illuminating new biography, Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick, I was struck by how closely the war against Communism in the 20th century mirrors the war against Islamism in the 21st — and by how little we’ve learned.

To take just one example: As ambassador to the U.N. and a member of President Reagan’s cabinet in the 1980s, Kirkpatrick was concerned about the spread of Communism in Central America. A high-level State Department official claimed not to see the problem. The coming to power of Marxist governments, he said, “wouldn’t be perceived as a defeat if the U.S. didn’t try to prevent it.” President Carter actually congratulated Americans for getting over their “inordinate fear” of Communism.

Today, of course, there are those at Foggy Bottom — and on the campuses and in the media — who view Islamism similarly, arguing that Americans should accept and even assist “legitimate Islamism.” That ignores what ought to be obvious: Islamism is an ideology based on the notion that one religion and members of one religious group are superior and must rise to dominance. Islamism is hostile to and incompatible with any reasonable conception of freedom and human rights.

Kirkpatrick’s story is quintessentially American: Born in rural Oklahoma, raised by a dollar-a-day roughneck during the Great Depression, she became — by dint of brains and hard work — an “action intellectual,” a woman pioneering the corridors of political power, a maker of global policy and history.

She was raised a Democrat, and she retained that affiliation throughout her tenure in the Reagan administration. But she was a Democrat in the mold of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson — a withering wing of the party even then. She was appalled by Carter’s acceptance — if not embrace — of American decline. She opposed the “isolationist narcissism” of the New Left and its disdain for American values and interests. Such views anchored her right of center. “It is true that I am a convert to what are known today as conservative associations,” she said in a speech in 1985. “Like many converts, I do not find the experience easy. I would rather be a liberal.”


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.