Donald Kagan, great neo-conservative historian, died at 89

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NEW YORK (AP) – Prominent classical scholar, controversial advocate of mainstream education and architect of neo-conservative foreign policy, Donald Kagan has died aged 89.

Kagan, professor emeritus at Yale University and father of historians Robert and Frederick Kagan, died on August 6 in a retirement home in Washington, DC. His death was announced by Yale and confirmed by his sons on Wednesday.

Donald Kagan was a native of Lithuania, raised in New York, who studied Ancient Greece at university and was inspired by “the remarkable assumption that humans are not trivial.” Seeing himself as Greek in his very soul, he wrote several books on the rise and fall of the Golden Age of Athens, including an acclaimed and popular four-volume series on the devastating Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies. .

“A study of the Peloponnesian War is a source of wisdom on the behavior of human beings under the enormous pressures imposed by the hot plague and civil unrest,” he wrote in 2003, “and the limits within which it must inevitably operate. . “

Kagan developed his belief that the Peloponnesian conflict contained vital contemporary lessons in “On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace,” which came out in 1995. With a narrative spanning from ancient Greece and Rome to both World Wars of the 20th century and the Cold War that followed, he determined that some of the most horrific carnage could have been avoided had political leaders confronted the aggressors early on. He noted the reluctance of the Allies to confront Germany before WWI and WWII. He blamed the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in part on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s perception that President John F. Kennedy was afraid to use military force.

“The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated that it is not enough for a state that wishes to maintain peace and the status quo to have superior power,” Kagan wrote. “The crisis because the most powerful state also had a leader who failed to convince his opponent of his willingness to use his power for this purpose.”

Through his books, speeches, and media commentary, Kagan has become a leading conservative voice in the otherwise liberal realm of history, supporting military action abroad and membership in the Western canon. his home. He supported the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and questioned the patriotism of the protesters. He disdained multicultural programs and urged in vain to establish a special course in Western civilization at Yale. He enraged his colleagues when, as dean of Yale College, he told new freshmen in 1990 that the inability to focus on the West was “at the risk of our students, our country, and our people. hopes of a democratic and liberal society emerging around the world today. ”

“Don should remain a Tory MP,” Peter Brooks, chairman of Yale’s comparative literature department, later told the Washington Post. “He’s better as a gadfly, not as a dean.”

In 1997, Kagan joined Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other future officials of the George W. Bush administration in endorsing the neo-conservative project for a new American century and its mission statement calling for “politics. Reaganite of military strength and moral clarity ”. Donald and his son Frederick Kagan collaborated in 2000 on “While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today”, which received increased attention after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

President Bush awarded Donald Kagan a National Humanities Medal in 2002 for his “eminent discipline on the glories of ancient Greece” and for teaching generations “the vital legacy of classical civilization”.

Born in Kurenai, Lithuania, Kagan was just 2 years old when he and his newly widowed mother immigrated to the United States and settled in New York’s Brooklyn neighborhood, where, as a child, his suspicious view of the humanity was shaped by the anti-Semitic gangs that threatened it. He was a student at Brooklyn College, earned a master’s degree in classical studies from Brown University, and a doctorate in history from Ohio State University.

Like neo-conservative brethren like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, he was a Democrat in his youth who turned right in response to the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s. While teaching at Cornell University, he was furious the school’s agreement in 1969 to launch a black studies program after armed protesters occupied a campus building. He likened the decision to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s and quickly left for Yale.

Thucydides was his model historian and Kagan shared the dark views of the ancient Greek scholar on human nature, how power among the nations triumphed over morality. Kagan liked to invoke Thucydides’ conclusion that wars were fought by a combination of fear, self-interest, and honor.

“I believed that peace was the normal situation for mankind, but the more I looked the more I saw that peace was very rare,” Kagan told Yale Alumni Magazine in 2002. “Wars happen all the time, so I had to ask, ‘Why is there never peace?’ “

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