Photo by Arthur bon Moltke on Wikimedia Commons

How Cold War Intellectuals Destroyed Liberalism to Save It

Samuel Moyn—

The Cold War ended decades ago. It seems like, well, ancient history. The same must seem true of the form of liberalism that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century.

Yet even before it returned with rumors of a new Cold War against China and Russia, there is a strange way in which Cold War liberalism never left. No journalist has emphasized this point more prominently than New York Magazine’s columnist Jonathan Chait.

A couple of years ago, Chait entitled one of his columns “Leftists and Liberals Are Still Fighting over the Cold War.”  Only last month, in an otherwise picayune Twitter spat over whether it was important to acknowledge the excesses of the left in order to gain credibility for criticism of the right, Chait agreed with his interlocutor that “anticommunist intellectuals” are “a model for our times.”[1]

I think Chait’s right that, for many voices in the United States and elsewhere, Cold War liberalism never ended. But my take on the usefulness of the Cold War frame for liberalism is pretty much the opposite of Chait’s. It’s time to abandon itif we care about liberalism itself.

Chait comes by his posture honestly. Like me, he came of ideological age in the 1990s, when Cold War liberals ran a victory lap for bringing about “the end of history” in liberal democracy. Indeed, Chait cut his teeth as a journalist and writer at The New Republic, which was for a long time the central organ of Cold War liberalismand which doubled down on it after 1989, even though the Cold War had ended. In his best-known book, Chait defended Barack Obama’s presidency essentially in Cold War liberal terms, rebutting criticisms of the president’s centrist agenda from the left.

Then, as Donald Trump’s presidency gave old Cold War liberal fears of the threat of tyranny massive new credibility, Chait interpreted the Trump years through Cold War liberal frameworks. (Even after initially calling for liberals to support Trump as a more beatable candidate in 2016.) Trump, likely a Russian asset, was a despot on the make. The survival of freedom itself was at stake, much as when communists threatened it.

That freedom had to be the priority, compared to a hard look at how Cold War liberalism itself was to blame for creating the constant emergency of looming enemies and threats. But what if this strategy is self-defeating, not to mention requires the redefinition of the very liberalism the strategy sets out to save?

 “The left is making a profound accusation,” Chait rightly noted in 2021, “that liberalism remains deformed,” and needs to become “worthy of progressive ideals.”[2]  In the name of saving itself, liberalism set itself back.

But I don’t pursue that accusation only in the terms Chait says mattered in the Cold War and matter today. In his column, he suggests that critics like me only worry that liberals in the recent decades have too often backed “existing political and economic institutions in general and the security state in particular,” while also helping to create the very enemies and threats they mobilize against abroad and at home.[3]

Chait’s correct that progressives do worry about those things. Since the Cold War, liberalism has been too much a status quo force, legitimating security in the name of freedom, while also constructing a kind of perpetual motion machine that helps bring about the very terrors that always require another dose of Cold War liberalism to manage.

But the failures of Cold War liberal intellectuals run deeper, because it’s crucial to understand why liberals have been too conservative a force on balance, to the point that they sometimes betray the values and disfigure the tradition they hope to promote. Saying they have enemies isn’t enough, if the threat is always overstated. More important, liberals in the middle of the twentieth century—from Isaiah Berlin and Lionel Trilling—were not just “anticommunist.” They mainly set their sights on the alleged failures of other liberals and especially prior forms of liberalism. Defending liberalism in Cold War terms involved redefining it, indeed, reinventing it.

This claim hardly settles whether Cold War liberalism past was a good thing, or whether its persistence is now. But it does mean that the controversy over its relevance is not so much or only about liberalism versus the left. It is about what liberalism was before the Cold War transformed it, and what how it could change to be a more credible force in the contemporary world.

[1] Greg Sargent, Twitter,

[2] Jonathan Chait, “Leftists and Liberals Are Still Fighting Over the Cold War,” New York Magazine, July 21, 2021.

[3] Ibid.

Samuel Moyn is Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and History at Yale University and author of many books on the history of ideas and politics in the twentieth century. He lives in New Haven, CT.

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