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Ronald Steel: A Great Historian Who Punctured the Pious

In magisterial books and sharp essays—many of them for The New Republic—Steel, who died recently at 92, became one of the most vital foreign policy voices of his age.

Ronald Steel, who passed away recently at 92, was a giant in a small but significant field: that of the independent foreign policy intellectual. Without serving in government or working as an adviser to any politicians, he helped, in his writings and speeches, shape the way the issues were understood by those charged with making policy. For nearly 50 years, Steel wrote books and essays—many of them for The New Republic—that punctured the pious pretensions of presidents, senators, secretaries of state, and sometimes journalists, in a career that spanned the early Johnson administration through Barack Obama’s. 

Following stints in graduate school, the Army, and the Foreign Service, Steel published his first book in early 1964. The End of the Alliance: America and the Future of Europe took to task those politicians who basked in the hubris of America’s leadership of the NATO alliance, foolishly believing they could shape the future of other nations according to their own ignorant prejudices. Its New York Times reviewer called the book a “very remarkable polemical exercise” before admitting: “It is hard to summarize Mr. Steel’s argument because he is so concise a writer.” Henry Steele Commager called Steel’s second book, Pax Americana, published three years later, “the most ardent and, to my mind, the most persuasive critique of American foreign policy over the last twenty years that has yet appeared.” A third book, 1971’s Imperialists and Other Heroes: A Chronicle of the American Empire, consisted of 400 pages of collected essays originally published in The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and the like.

Taken together, they challenged both their readers and America’s leaders with carefully argued, realist-minded, and therefore iconoclastic arguments, in a period when virtually all sides in the U.S. foreign policy debate had flown off different deep ends, thanks to the hopeless nihilism embodied in both the Johnson and the Nixon-Kissinger inability to end the War in Vietnam. Steel was what we would call an anti-interventionist today. Strongly opposed to the Vietnam War and most other Cold War–inspired military engagements, he did not necessarily doubt the justice of the battle against Soviet totalitarianism so much as he was skeptical of America’s ability to wage it without creating worse problems for all concerned in the process. Moreover, he was unwilling to buy into the specious arguments on the necessity of supporting authoritarian dictators of the right as somehow preferable to totalitarian ones of the left, which made a mockery of our ideals and further immiserated the people unlucky enough to be their victims.

The people whom Steel admired during these arguments were small-c conservatives: the ones who believed in matching means to ends and focusing on what actually mattered to the safety, security, and prosperity of America’s citizens, rather than its bloated sense of its own ideals and imaginary obligations. (Journalists should keep this observation of Steel’s engraved on the walls of their offices: “It is virtuous to defend principle, but useful to remember that it is most frequently invoked in the service of interest.”) Of these conservative critics who, given the structure of Cold War discourse, almost always ended up arguing on behalf of the “liberal” side of the debate, three stood out: George F. Kennan, J. William Fulbright, and Walter Lippmann. Steel described these men as “drawn to tradition and moderation, with a greater faith in a responsible, privileged elite than in an unruly popular majority.”

It was the latter who inspired Steel’s masterwork, the 669-page Walter Lippmann and the American Century, which he published in 1980 after 10 years of researching and writing. His New York Times obituary writer felt the need to devote three paragraphs to an ideologically driven hit job by the conservative writer and editor Joseph Epstein, but most of the rest of the world recognized that Steel had written one of the great political biographies of all time, as well as a brilliant study of the way that high-profile journalists and pundits interact with the powerful people whom they cover.

It won the National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize when published, but its influence has only grown over time. In addition to his sensitive portrayal of a deeply conflicted individual, Steel assessed the various compromises that Lippmann would—and wouldn’t—make in pursuit of his twin goals of influencing decision-makers in positions of political power and educating the people whose votes ultimately put them there. Lippmann was undoubtedly the most influential journalist of what Henry Luce named the “American Century” (and a founding editor of this magazine). His journey took him from being the ultimate insider to among the president’s most influential critics on Vietnam—Lippmann symbolically hosted I.F. Stone to his annual party as a signal to “this town” that he was ready to leave Washington for good and return to New York.

Ron and I became friends in 1983, when he was enjoying a fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and I was an intern there. His essays and the Lippmann book, along with Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, published that same year, had shown for me a future I could imagine for myself and gave me the courage not to go to law school. Ron had gone through a similar process when he was my age and recognized a simpatico soul in the making and took me under his wing, going so far as to propose to his publisher that we rewrite Pax Americana together, shortly after my six months were up. They declined, but Ron’s direct influence can be found in my first book, Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy, originally published in 1992, whose first three chapters are titled, “The Road to Lippmanndom,” “Lippmanndom,” and “Post-Lippmanndom.”   

Ron and I shared a love of vintage photography and occasionally went to gallery receptions together. In the early 1990s, I was caretaker to my then girlfriend’s big red 1960 Chrysler convertible, and Ron called me one day to ask a surprising favor: Could I drive him to Maryland and back to pick up something large he had bought at Sotheby’s in New York and had had shipped? It turned out to be an actual mummy. I think it cost around $10,000. While we were driving home, it started to snow, but we had to leave the top down because the mummy was so large it spanned the length of the car. We then carried it up to the living room of Ron’s apartment and drank its health.

Ron never married. When we met for meals or drinks, I confess I did most of the “sharing.” Ron sometimes spoke of his inability to settle down, but virtually all of our mutual acquaintances assumed that Ron was gay and deeply closeted. None of us “knew” this to be true, then or now, but it saddened us that, if true, he felt it necessary to hide it. I understood it at the time. In the days when Ron was making his name, being an out gay person would have defined a writer and interfered with the arguments he sought to make—which, in Ron’s case, were sufficiently iconoclastic on their own.

When I met Ron, he was already a remarkably well-preserved 50 years old. He continued to write perspicacious essays in high-profile publications and published other books, including in 2000 the much-anticipated (but deeply disappointing) In Love With Night: The American Romance With Robert Kennedy. However, he never came close to achieving the mastery he had with Lippmann’s life and work. He settled down, sort of, shuttling between teaching jobs at USC and George Washington University, but his interventions in the debate over U.S. foreign policy remained as sharp as ever. I will leave you with just one example, drawn from his short 1995 book, Temptations of a Superpower: “We must return to foreign policy not as an escape or a salvation, but merely as a means of making our way, without illusions but also without cynicism, in a world of usually competing, sometimes cooperating, states.” Neither Lippmann, nor Kennan nor Fulbright for that matter, could have said it any better.