U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Gabriel Kolko’s Contribution

kolkoWe lost not one but two great historians on May 19, 2014. In addition to Vincent Harding, whom Robert elegantly memorialized, that day also saw the death of Gabriel Kolko, whose 1963 book The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 stands as a classic of American historiography (as Andy made clear).

The Triumph of Conservatism is one of the best historical accounts of what Martin Sklar and others called “corporate liberalism,” but what Kolko preferred to call, following Max Weber, “political capitalism.” Kolko showed that conventional understandings of the Progressive Era were exactly wrong. Business and the state were not antagonistic, but rather, business captured the state to do its bidding. Business was not tamed by the state, but rather, business used the state to subjugate an unpredictable market.

Kolko’s analysis of “political capitalism” ran counter to standard liberal accounts that situated an activist federal government on the side of “the people” and against corporate or “special interests.” This made his scholarship attractive to libertarians like Murray Rothbard: since Kolko showed that business-state cooperation empowered monopolies against individuals, such collaboration violated the economic liberties ensured by a supposedly democratic market. But for Kolko, who sought to distance himself from libertarianism, which in a 1973 letter to Reason magazine he called an “exotic political position,” business-state interpenetration represented a class collusion that made a mockery of American democracy. Thus, Kolko’s historical analysis signifies a left-wing revision: he showed how progressive reforms made the rich richer while rendering most Americans powerless. But his was an eclectic leftism to be sure, of a piece with the progressive political strain isolated in (the good) David Horowitz’s underrated book Beyond Left and Right: Insurgency and the Establishment. Those interwar progressives who argued against foreign intervention on the grounds that war was the health of the state and big business certainly informed Kolko’s many books on U.S. foreign policy, to which we now turn.

Although The Triumph of Conservatism might stand as Kolko’s most influential contribution to American historiography, I find his scholarship on U.S. foreign policy even more profound. Following William Appleman Williams, Kolko might be the most significant Cold War revisionist historian. Whenever I teach about Vietnam, or really any aspect of U.S. foreign policy since World War II, I feel like I’m channeling Gabriel Kolko.

In his 1968 book, The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943–1945, Kolko argued, in what must have seemed familiar to readers of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, that the central American aim during the war was to create a world economy more amenable to American capitalism. Such priorities dug out a context for the Cold War, since they ineluctably alienated the Soviet Union.

His next book—The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954, which Kolko co-authored with his wife, the esteemed political economist Joyce Kolko—furthered this line of argument. The Kolkos contended that the Cold War was the wrong lens by which to view the postwar years, since anticommunism was but a convenient prop for the larger U.S. aim: to find a grand strategy that would foster a world economy beneficial to American capitalism. But in addition to this central thesis, the Kolkos also extended the claim, made explicit by the book’s title, that the United States could not, no matter how powerful, shape the world in its own image. It was limited in its ability to dictate the terms of history. This theme, above all others, shaped the ten or so books Kolko wrote about the history of U.S. foreign policy after Limits, including what stands as perhaps his most substantial piece of historical scholarship: his big 1985 book on the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience.

Anatomy of a War is truly a tour de force. I can hardly do it justice here. In the first place, Kolko takes the Vietnamese perspective seriously. As such, that the vast majority of Vietnamese peasants embraced Ho Chi Minh or the National Liberation Front seems entirely rational. The communists offered land reform to people who had for decades suffered at the hands of a rapacious landed elite—an elite propped up first by the French and then by the US and its puppet regimes.

What was not rational, in contrast, was the American policy of destroying the Vietnamese countryside. Beyond its genocidal tendencies, and beyond it not winning “the hearts and minds” of the people, which was never a serious goal, this created dire problems for the Americans. The destruction of the Vietnamese countryside drove millions of Vietnamese peasants into cities like Saigon, which created an urban crisis and all that it entailed: poverty, unemployment, homelessness, disease, crime, etc. In this, Koko unearthed one of the many unintended consequences of American war making. There was no military solution to the American-made problem of urban disorder. Such an argument was consistent with his larger thesis about the limits of American power, and about the general failures of American grand strategizing. The United States had vastly superior military power in comparison to most rival nations, especially in comparison to poor peasant nations like Vietnam. But there was no military solution to the problems sweeping the world up in revolution, especially the problem of landlessness.

For those readers who want an introduction to Kolko’s history of U.S. foreign policy, but who don’t have time or patience for his almost 700-page, intricately-researched book on Vietnam, I recommend beginning with his 200-page synthesis of his revision of U.S. foreign policy from World War II to the so-called War on Terror: The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World, published in 2006. I’ve assigned this little book to undergraduates on several occasions—usually to good effect. It almost always engenders cognitive dissonance and gives the class something to debate. It’s a little more polemical than Kolko’s other books, but in fact all of Kolko’s scholarship has a polemical strain to it. To be honest, this is what attracted me to him. As his friend Norman Pollack put it, this was part of the “Kolko specialty: the short, tight analysis covering a huge accumulation of evidence, words if not chiseled in stone then at least the pounding that came from the early days on the soapbox.” RIP Gabriel Kolko.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this stimulating post and great lead into the eventual discussion of Kloppenberg’s work. I haven’t read Kolko but reading your post and Andy’s excellent contribution I’m sensing that Kolko forgoes any nuanced shadings of a social democratic or progressive via media approach to social/economic reform and takes a more Manichean perspective on those that support capitalism and those who wish to see it destroyed. IOW there is no middle ground, is this a fair albeit superficial reading of Kolko?

  2. Paul: I’m not sure Manichean is the right word to describe Kolko. I see him as a left-wing realist of sorts, as, for example in his historical analyses of foreign policy he was very critical of various communist regimes, and was always interested in what the US and other nations could and could not do, soaring rhetoric aside. That said, his early work on the progressive era was definitely strident, and he had plenty of critics. The post-revisionist account of the Progressive Era cut the middle ground between Kolko’s “capture” thesis and the earlier celebration of trust-busters and such. Historians since “Triumph” have pointed out that there were plenty of reformers not in league with big business. Of course, many such reformers–or in the case of Kloppenberg’s via media intellectuals–had little power relative to the government officials who Kolko saw as big business collaborators.

    But I will save my analysis of Kloppenberg’s “Uncertain Victory” for the first entry of my “Great Books” series. It seems that you are reading along, Paul? For those reading along, and awaiting this first entry, I apologize for the delay. I got hung up making revisions to my culture wars book. But that’s now behind me, so hopefully I will be able to turn my attention to Kloppenberg and the “Great Books” soon. Thanks for waiting!

  3. Thanks for this introduction to Kolko’s work. I confess unfamiliarity before today. Seems like I should read that 200-page overview. – TL

  4. As a graduate student during the mid-1960s the so-called Kolko thesis — a revisionist take on the Progressive Era — represented a much-discussed topic.

    I read Kolko avidly for many years thereafter, including his books on US foreign policy.

    So it is quite plausible that much more youthful historians are encountering Kolko for the first time.

    Notably, Gabriel Kolko remained an enigmatic figure in the pantheon of prolific historians. He was highly visible vis-à-vis his scholarship, but he eventually faded from the ongoing discourse. The appreciation republished by HNN provides him with his due.

  5. Wonderful tribute to and synthesis of Kolko and his work. Not having read Kolko’s Vietnam book thoroughly, I am wondering whether the description you have above on the “irrational” nature of US policy — destroying the countryside — is your perspective or Kolko’s. Vietnam, as I understand it, and as US policymakers understood it at the time, was not so much about Vietnam itself as about the US “reputation,” the ability “to maintain our effectiveness in the rest of the world” (Defense Department analyst, Robert McNaughton, Pentagon Papers, 1965 memo to Robert McNamara). If the United States could convey to the rest of the world the high cost of revolution, the savage punishment a revolutionary people would suffer, this would deter other Third World peoples from following Vietnam’s example. Besides, given the nature of guerrilla warfare, the close connection between the people and the guerrillas, the only way the US could wage the war on the ground was by destroying the countryside and forcing Vietnam’s people to flee to the cities where they could not produce rice to sustain the revolution nor provide intelligence and shelter to the NLF.

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