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  • Morgenthau’s dilemma:Rethinking the democratic leviathan in the atomic age
  • James T. Sparrow† (bio)

A conceptual problem presented itself with great urgency in the 1940s and early 1950s, as the United States embarked on a project of global reconstruction to defeat and eradicate fascism, contain communism, and destabilize if not supplant colonial empire. This was the problem of how to reconceive the nature of American sovereignty—a challenge just as pressing as the many practical tasks entailed by the building of an international order. The democratic leviathan had to be rethought for an atomic age in which total war and genocide were accomplished facts rather than mere possibilities.1

The United States’ vast extension of extraterritorial sovereignty from World War II onward was a new departure, even if it drew on long traditions of missionary work, empire, and hemispheric hegemony. Never before had Americans ruled over European peoples, much less those who still ran worldwide colonial empires from within their rubble-strewn metropolitan core. Nor had they attempted to rule other industrialized peoples, as they did in reconstructing Japan and Germany. By 1950 the U.S. had transformed the occupations of its recent enemies into thorough-going economic, political, and constitutional reconstructions. Its extraterritorial power also operated through international practices and institutions, including massive financial and military aid, leadership of the Bretton Woods institutions and United Nations Organization, and direction of the North Atlantic Treaty [End Page 93] Organization by decade’s end. Blending unilateral and multilateral techniques promiscuously, the US exercised an offshore rule whose extensivity, innovation, and intensive channeling of new energies, exceeded anything it had attempted before.

The resulting transformation in the exercise and composition of sovereignty was domestic as well as foreign. By 1950, the armed forces had been reorganized into a newly unified Department of Defense, itself the core of a brand new military establishment whose massive standing army was permanently stationed at over 300 bases around the world, while its war contracts generated unprecedented economic productivity, fostering entirely new sectors of the political economy (e.g., the aluminum, airframe, electronics, and atomic energy sectors).

The American Century was not “just” an idea. Sovereignty had to be built “on the ground” with troops, money, institutions, and political will. But for the boots to march and the dollars to flow in the right direction, the idea had to be thought out. The ramifications of that sovereign rethinking were profound.2 Ruling others changed the ways in which Americans ruled themselves, in the process altering their understandings of what it meant to build a democratic state, whether at home or abroad.

Some of the most consequential and durable aspects of the state’s power were articulated within the realm of ideation. A categorical distinction, a definitional refinement, even a grammatical shift (say, from the subjunctive to the declarative)—any such conceptual commitments might move mountains or obliterate populations, if political will and the institutions that summoned it were sufficiently capacious. Certainly this was the lesson of the 1940s, when the entire world had to respond to the gauntlet the fascists had thrown down before the Enlightenment. If God was dead, as Nietzsche had it, and metaphysics and certainty were nothing more than a security blanket clutched by intellectual children, as pragmatic philosophy claimed, then not only was there a crisis that threatened to implode democratic theory and the civil religion by which the U.S. imagined itself to be a nation, but there was a very practical crisis of political will or even cooperation that could dissolve the American experiment before Americans themselves knew it was over.3 The sheer existential terror instilled by total war could crowd out such profound concerns “for [End Page 94] the duration,” but eventually it would be necessary to stare into the void and come out of it with some real answers.

Hans Morgenthau was one of the rare souls capable of staring into that void without blinking or even shading his eyes. It was no accident that he, like so many other of the most important American thinkers of the postwar period, was a German Jewish émigré who had fled Nazi Germany. He had attained his clear-sightedness while...