09/24/2010 03:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

American Caesars

The much-vaunted "Pledge to America" is long on platitudes and faux-patriotism -- the notion that your political opponents are not patriots. It sickens me.

Worst of all, in my view as an historian who has studied the last seventy years of American empire, is the utter indifference the "Pledge" shows to America's place in the wider world. What I hear are not so much the frightening racist drumbeats of 1930s fascists who produced 'leaders' like Hitler, Mussolini and their ilk, but echoes of my own growing-up in Britain, after World War II.

You see, the Second World War not only bankrupted Britain economically, as the centerpiece of the British Empire, but it exhausted the island nation. The centuries of military campaigns, of civil administrations in occupied or colonized countries, and then the six years of "total war," including the Blitz, the food shortages, and the mounting casualties, left Britain prostrate even in eventual victory -- retreating as fast as possible from imperial obligations (India, Palestine, Africa) that it could neither afford to fulfill, nor felt morally confident enough to undertake once again.

The United States, as I narrate in my new book American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush, stepped into the vacuum. The United States, not Britain, became, for better of for worse, the guardian of peace and capitalist prosperity in the post-war world. Instead of retreating into isolationism, as the U.S. had done after World War I, America's presidents led the nation through the many global crises and challenges that ensued, with some disasters but on the whole, many successes -- from the Berlin Airlift to peace in Bosnia. Even when America's presidents sent, as Commanders-in-Chief, American soldiers into the wrong wars -- in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq -- American sons never failed to do their duty, far from home: confident in their belief that, in the larger perspective, America was doing its best to "do the right thing", as the world's most powerful and productive democratic nation.

Those young soldiers are still doing their best. But are we? Where are the politicians -- either in the Republican or the Democratic party -- willing to show courage in combating the inanities of Tea Party extremists, or to remind fellow-Americans of America's noble leadership in a challenging world?

I'd like to quote, if I may, from my chapter on President Eisenhower in my new book. Now, I have to confess I am a centrist and a Democrat -- but I honor President Eisenhower's performance as the third of America's great Caesars, once FDR established the American empire in World War II. Not only did President Eisenhower bring the war in Korea to an end, but he invented the means to destroy the egregious antics and excesses of Senator Joe McCarthy at home -- the apotheosis of 1950s Tea Party-style extremism. Using "executive privilege" for the first time, the Republican president turned the tables on Senator McCarthy in his hearings on the U.S. Army -- and after watching the televised hearing in which Joseph Welch, the Army's chief counsel, finally felled McCarthy, the President invited Welch to the White House to congratulate him in person. "You handled a tough job like a champion," Eisenhower beamed.

Eisenhower's close encounter with McCarthy's evil altered the President's whole view of his own role as Caesar. Senator McCarthy was declared persona non grata at the White House, indeed all government receptions, on the express orders of the President. In retaliation McCarthy announced he was "breaking" with the Republican leader and accused the President publicly of "weakness and supineness" in ferreting out Communists, indeed claimed he himself had made a terrible mistake -- namely to have voted for Eisenhower in 1952! As I write on page 103:

The President was undaunted. He seemed, in fact, energized by the fight with McCarthy, telling his press secretary, Jim Hagerty, he was "glad the break has come." "I have just one purpose, outside of keeping this world at peace," Eisenhower explained, "and that is to build up a strong progressive Republican Party in this country. If the right wing wants a fight, they're going to get it. If they want to leave the Republican Party and form a third party, that's their business, but before I end up, either this Republican Party will reflect progressivism or I won't be with them anymore." And if the fanatics thought they could nominate a right-wing ideologue like McCarthy for the Presidency, he declared, "they've got another thought coming. I'll go up and down this country, campaigning against them. I'll fight them right down the line." (American Caesars, Yale, 2010)

Where are our Eisenhowers today? Where are our Kennedys? Our Trumans? Where is American courage?

The coming midterm election will decide the composition of our next legislative session in Congress. It may already be too late to halt the same right-wing poison from spreading in our body politic that overwhelmed us in 1994, under that crazed political messiah, Newt Gingrich, who shut down the U.S. Government, and made the U.S. a laughing stock among civilized -- even uncivilized -- nations. But in the next two years we will have to choose who we wish as President to lead -- or continue to lead -- our great nation in its noble endeavor, on behalf of the free world. And the lessons embedded in my account of our last twelve Caesars will become more and more important... If you can't afford American Caesars, borrow it from a friend, or your local library -- and let me know what you think!