North America // Analysis

22 october 2012

The Birth of Neocons: Peace Through Strength

Foreign opinion

Reagan’s “peace through strength” phrase strongly resonated with the American people during the 1980’s. Little were they aware then that a very powerful neoconservative ideology underlay this outlook. The neocons came to the forefront in late 1970-s and since then have attempted to influence American foreign policy, reaching unprecedented influence during the George W. Bush Administration. In order to understand the neocons’ viewpoint of the world (and in particular that of Russia), we need to go back in time and trace how their views were shaped and how they came together as a group.

This is the first part of an exclusive interview for the Russian International Affairs Council with Len Colodny co-author of the book about neocons - “The Forty Years War: the Rise and Fall of the Neocons from Nixon to Obama”. In this first part, Len Colodny reveals who the father of the neocon movement was; what their ideology and principles are; and tells how they started influencing U.S. foreign policy.

Interviewee: Len Colodny, American journalist, author of the “The Forty Years War: the Rise and Fall of the Neocons from Nixon to Obama”.

Interviewer: Maria Prosviryakova, Russian International Affairs Council.

Photo: Len Colodny, American journalist,
author of the “The Forty Years War:
the Rise and Fall of the Neocons
from Nixon to Obama”

The Nixon Administration created the setting in which the neocon’s story began. And this setting is strongly connected to a man who played a very significant role in the neocon movement. He was referred to as the keeper of the neocon’s flame. He promoted and recommended people like Henry Kissinger and General Alexander Haig to influential positions in the government. Who was this mysterious man?

This story is made up of coincidences and conspiracies. And it starts with coincidences. The man is Fritz G.A. Kraemer. He is the man who mentored both: Henry Kissinger (from the time Henry was going to be an accountant) and a little bit later - General Alexander Haig. And through a series of events they would all come together in the Nixon Administration.

So, back in the 1968 campaign for president, Richard Nixon said that he had a secret plan for war in Vietnam, but he couldn’t tell what the secret plan was. And some jokes were made up about that, such as that he didn’t even have a secret plan. In fact, he did have a secret plan; and it went way beyond ending the war.

Richard Nixon had a view of the world. He said he wanted to bring peace to the world and open the relationships with the Soviet Union and China. And to that end he set up what turned out to be a secret government. On January 20, 1969 he signed a National Security Decision Memorandum 2, which reorganized the National Security Council inside the white House and turned it into a government, but to itself – an extra constitutional government, if you will.

In that setting - just before he took office - he reached out and appointed as his National Security Director Henry Kissinger, not knowing that Henry Kissinger had been mentored by and was very close to Fritz G.A. Kraemer.

That was not a part of the equation in Nixon’s thinking. In the same vein Henry Kissinger went to Kraemer and asked him to recommend a deputy to Kissinger. Fritz Kraemer recommended General Alexander Haig. That is how these three people came together in what would be a secret government run around the United States government.

As Nixon put the elements of the secret government into place, he would then began to reach out, create channels to both - to the Soviet Union and to China. In the case of the Soviet Union when a president assumed the office he would very shortly meet with the Soviet ambassador. Back then it would have been Anatoly Dobrynin.

They did meet, but they didn’t meet until February, 17 – nearly a month after Nixon was sworn in. It was a very pro forma meeting. But four days later there was a secret meeting between Kissinger and Dobrynin. That would be very significant and important to what was going to happen in the future.

President Nixon meets Fritz Kraemer,
October, 1972

Kissinger informed Dobrynin on February, 21 1969 that America wasn’t going to win a war in Vietnam; America had no intention of doing that and America needed some breathing room from the Soviet Union. That was a major step taken in secret and no American had any idea it had taken place, much less American military.

At the same time he was setting up a separate back channel that he had attained through the Pentagon. He wanted to go around the United States government and begin to open dialogues with the Chinese.

So, that is the groundwork under which all this begins. I say it is a coincidence, because there is no conspiracy here. It is just the President trying to get his policies implemented. Unfortunately, he tried to do this in secret.

When I would ask people like John Mitchell, the Attorney General of the Nixon Administration, why did it have to be such a secret? He answered that if they didn’t do it this way, they would never get it done.

This was the beginning of the forming of the secret government, where Nixon blocked the State department, the Defense Department, the CIA and the FBI out. In creating this secret government, he began to implement policies that were the antithesis to the bureaucracies that he was blocking out.

That brings us to the start of the story, when Fritz G.A. Kraemer comes into the picture. What was his ideology that was so ardently adopted by his numerous followers?

Fritz Kraemer was a hawk of the strongest kind. He believed in something called the “provocative weakness” theory, that if you showed any weakness you draw people coming to you to attack you or to take advantage of you, because they perceive you as being weak.

Up until joining the Nixon administration Kissinger was writing Kraemer’s style books - very strong on the subject. General Alexander Haig - who was a Coronel at the time - was very loyal to Fritz Kraemer.

Kraemer’s power was in his personality. The things that Fritz Kraemer was saying in the late 1960-s and early 70-s were resonating in the Pentagon, where he worked as a lower level individual who was involved with the U.S. army as an advisor on Germany.

His arguments were persuasive: “You never negotiate with your adversary except at the barrel of a gun. You carry a big stick. You don’t show weakness of any sort, because they will come and get you.” So, he developed this provocative weakness theory. His ideas spread; and more and more people started to believe in his theories.

That was an antithesis of Nixon. Nixon was the pragmatist. He reached out to the Soviets, he wanted to cut deals on arms, and SALT agreement, and ABM Treaty. He wanted to have the opening to China. This was the antithesis of what the folks on the right believed.

Nixon doesn’t understand the power of Kraemer till the day he leaves office. He doesn’t understand the power that this man wielded to persuasion, not because he had the ability to appoint somebody or to tell somebody what to do - he preached. One time Donald Rumsfeld referred to him as to the keeper of the flame. That is how his followers saw him.

Why did Fritz Kramer prefer to stay in the shadows? Why did he try to orchestrate U.S. foreign policy behind the scenes, while not getting involved in it?

Because he saw himself more as a mentor, more as a teacher. He was sort of a geopolitical Jesus Christ. He spread his beliefs in very strong ways, making people loyal to these beliefs. And that is carried on for the last 40 years.

For the past forty years one can see how the two camps – the “pragmatists” and the “ideologues” – alternately gained control over U.S. foreign policy. What were the main differences in their approaches to dealing with Russia and the rest of the world?

For all this actions that Nixon was taking in secret there were reactions inside the bureaucracy. They formed spy rings. The military had huge spy ring operating against the President: both within the White House and without the White House. They were spying on him constantly trying to find out what he was doing. This created great tensions in that Administration and it started to break down along political lines – the “ideologues” versus the “pragmatists”.

One of the biggest differences between the camps is in reaching out and trying to reach deals as opposed to trying to impose your deals on the other side. The “pragmatists” say: “Look, this is who they are. We have to learn to deal with them”. The “ideologues” say: “This is who we are and they got to deal with us”.

How did the neocons become a group, a force that would influence U.S. foreign policy?

Video: C-SPAN
Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman talk about
the impact of the neoconservative movement
on presidential foreign policy decisions

You have to remember that there were no neocons in 1969 and 1970. They wouldn’t be formed for another 7 years. In 1976 after Nixon was gone. The democrats had a primary, where Henry Jackson – he was the leader of the conservative ideologues - lost to Jimmy Carter. The Republican candidate Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter as well.

This caused a merger between the Goldwater's right-wing Republican ideologues and the Jackson’s ideologically-driven democrats. They all believed in Kraemer’s theories. That is how they came together to be the neocons.

They helped to elect Ronald Reagan and had a great influence on his presidency. Reagan was the first one to take the theory of provocative weakness and call it “peace through strength”.

And we now hear that echoed through this current campaign: “Peace through strength”. And these words have little meaning to most people, but those are powerful words; and they would lead to the very sad ending of the meaning of these words during the George W. Bush Administration.

From Reagan to George W. Bush the neocons incrementally started to gain their influence in power. At the very beginning it is sort of shared power between the “pragmatists” and the “ideologues”, and when you get to Clinton it is about 50x50. But it will take a radical turn when it gets to George W. Bush. It becomes the purest form of Kraemer’s theories. They negotiated over nothing. You either did it their way or the highway. Everything was seen through ideological grounds.

The second part of an interview with Len Colodny:

What if Neocons are Back to Power?

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“The Birth of Neocons: Peace Through Strength,” Russian International Affairs Council, 22 October 2012,

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