In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • The Dawn of Universal History: Selected Essays from a Witness to the Twentieth Century
  • Donald Kagan
Raymond Aron , The Dawn of Universal History: Selected Essays from a Witness to the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 2002. 544 pp. $22.00.

Raymond Claude Ferdinand Aron was a unique figure in the intellectual firmament of twentieth-century France. A man of extraordinary learning in history, sociology, and politics with a doctorate from the École Normale Supérieure, he held professorships at the Sorbonne and Collège de France. Not merely an academic, he was a man of action and engagement in the world. At the outbreak of World War II he joined the French air force, and after the fall of France in 1940 he joined de Gaulle's Free French forces in London, where he edited their newspaper La France Libre. After the war he continued his journalistic work as a commentator on and analyst of the political scene, writing a column for Le Figaro for three decades. He was a beacon of sanity and moderation in the heavily Marxist intellectual world that dominated Paris in the decades that followed the war.

Most of the essays gathered in this volume, many translated into English for the first time, deal with the Cold War, although the section on the United States comes from a work published in 1973. They are arranged essentially in historical order: The first section is a long essay called "Nations and Empires" discussing the events that created the world of the Cold War. The second, "The Secular Religions," deals with the development of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism; "The Imperial Republic" is the United States, and "The End of Colonial Empires" deals with the French loss of Indochina and Algeria. The final essay, "The Dawn of Universal History," is Aron's "brief interpretation of the world since 1914" (p. 464).

Reading Raymond Aron's essays almost a half-century after they were written can have two opposite effects, each calling for careful consideration. His analysis of Bolshevism, Leninism, Stalinism, and Communism in general after the fall of the Soviet Union and the widespread discrediting of its system and ideas is easy to regard as obvious, so accustomed have we become to an understanding that he was one of a handful of his contemporary intellectuals to grasp. It is important, therefore, to remember that his elegant and learned writings stood almost alone in their wisdom and courage in the dominant European intellectual circles, where he was attacked, vilified, and condemned.

Aron had a keen sense of the cruelty and evil of the Soviet regime and the menace it posed to Europe and the rest of the world. Even after the U.S. failure in Vietnam and the faltering of confidence that led to the policy of détente, he also saw with remarkable clarity and foresight the significance of America's new role in the world: "For the first time in history . . . a republic has risen to the top without aspiring to rule. As the price of its victory it must take responsibility for half of the world. It must guarantee the safety of the Europeans, too weak to defend themselves on their own; it must interest itself in whole regions of the world that are on the brink of collapsing into chaos" (p. 245). At a time when intellectuals argued for "moral equivalence" or even the moral superiority of the Soviet Union, Aron understood the fundamental difference [End Page 152] between the competitors in the Cold War. "The Eastern Europeans," he wrote, "acclaim the president of the United States. They are sorry that they, too, do not live in the sphere of influence and responsibility of 'imperialism.' Where are the countries in which Leonid Brezhnev would be acclaimed?" (p. 403).

What is still more remarkable, however, is the new relevance of his essays about "The Secular Religions," as he shrewdly called fascism and Communism, to the current attacks on our liberal world today by people employing similar techniques in the secular realm in the name of religion.

Aron was among those pointing out that Marxism was "a Christian heresy . . . it places the kingdom of God on earth...