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Surprise, Security, and the American Experience

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ISBN 9780674018365

Publication Date: 10/31/2005

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Gaddis…points out that three salient elements of the Bush security strategy—pre-emption, unilateralism and hegemony—have deep roots in the country’s history. When threatened, Americans have typically taken the offensive rather than hide behind a static defense… Throughout his essays, Gaddis employs a judicious tone and avoids categorical or simplistic answers. He recognizes that the United States faces a different sort of threat from those of the cold war and earlier. Traditional deterrence and balance-of-power policies are inadequate to confront the devil’s brew of failed states, rogue regimes, suicidal terrorists and proliferating weapons of mass destruction.—Jack F. Matlock, Jr., The New York Times Book Review

In Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, [Gaddis] offers a judicious mix of analysis and history to argue that, although the Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks was indeed bold, it was hardly unprecedented.—Christian D. Brose, The Wall Street Journal

For a master-class in how to use history to clarify your thinking the man to turn to is John Lewis Gaddis, a distinguished cold-war historian at Yale. In Surprise, Security, and the American Experience he manages to cast brilliant light on how September 11th and its aftermath should be seen in the context of the country’s history, and on how the Bush administration’s very grand strategy should be understood, but also criticised.The Economist

John Lewis Gaddis’s excellent Surprise, Security, and the American Experience is a short book with a long view. Gaddis compares foreign policy reactions to three attacks on America—the British burning of Washington in 1814, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. This is no humdrum recounting of familiar events. In addition to giving a brilliant short course in American diplomatic history, Gaddis offers a big surprise: George W. Bush’s foreign policy post–Sept. 11, which Gaddis calls pre-emptive, unilateral and hegemonic, is as American as apple pie.—John Lehman, The Washington Post

This book is a persuasive account of the Bush administration’s grand strategy and demonstrates the power of strategic analysis drawn from the American national experience… Gaddis’ focus on U.S. foreign policy and history gives him powerful tools that he exploits to the fullest, elucidating the similarities between the strategies of John Quincy Adams and Franklin Roosevelt, which have shaped the evolution of U.S. power, and contrasting both with the emerging grand strategy of the Bush administration… A strategy, Gaddis notes, may be grand without being successful, and he asks some tough questions about the validity of the assumptions on which the Bush strategy rests… Surprise, Security, and the American Experience is a substantive accomplishment and a valuable contribution to the most important debates of our time.—Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs

As John Lewis Gaddis points out in his splendid essay on the relationship between surprise attacks, American national character, and foreign policy, the principles of Bush’s foreign policy—unilateralism and the rest—are not at all aberrant for America. They have a foundation in our history. They are also not working, Gaddis claims, in an argument that is all the more devastating for being scrupulously fair to, and perceptive about, the current administration… Gaddis is convincing in arguing that the Bush administration has paid a heavy price for sustaining momentum in the war on terrorism rather than consolidating its battlefield successes through a more focused, more Rooseveltian multilateralism.—Jim Hoagland, The New Republic

In his very short book, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, John Lewis Gaddis takes a very long perspective on the part which the pursuit of hegemony has played in America’s quest for security, first as an observer, then as a newcomer to the Great Power game.—James M. Murphy, The Times Literary Supplement

Original, stimulating…concise and lucid… Gaddis[’] book is in a class by itself and, despite its brevity—a mere 118 pages of text—is likely to be of lasting value.—Robert J. Lieber, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Gaddis, a Yale professor, is one of our most distinguished students of American democracy. He concludes that the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq draws on past traditions but also deviates from them in troubling ways. The result might be a grand strategic blunder that weakens American security.—John Maxwell Hamilton, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Surprise, Security, and the American Experience [is] a sober attempt to analyze Bush’s foreign policy in historical context and without partisan rancor… Gaddis is a graceful writer, and he has sprinkled provocative insights throughout… Gaddis’s major contribution is to treat the Bush Doctrine as a set of ideas worthy of scholarly examination rather than as a subject for ritualistic denunciation.—Max Boot, Commentary

The clarity of Mr. Gaddis’s writing matches the clarity of his arguments. Each chapter of Surprise, Security and the American Experience is itself a well-rounded essay, perhaps reflecting the fact that they were public lectures, and their simplicity underscores their depth. Though this is a small book, it is a book of big ideas; in these times, those are of surpassing values.—Thomas Donnelly, The New York Sun

Surprise, Security, and the American Experience seems destined to become the academic touchstone for hawks seeking to buttress political argument with scholarly authority. Luckily for them, this book is engaging, lucidly written and possesses a historical footing as firm as any short, politically provocative work of the last several years.—Brendan Conway, The Washington Times

Surprise, Security, and the American Experience has the virtue of being genuinely original, rather than merely clever, and is at once dispassionate and public spirited. Anyone wanting to understand the deepest intellectual and historical sources behind Bush’s foreign policy, as opposed to all the blather about ‘neocon cabals,’ should pick up Gaddis’s book.—Adam Wolfson, The Weekly Standard

Gaddis argues that George W. Bush in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq attempted FDR’s exploitation of multilateralism but ultimately elected preemption (‘shock and awe’) in the service of global hegemony. Even Bush’s staunchest opponents stand to be edified by Gaddis’ impressive presentation.—Ray Olson, Booklist

The post–September 11 strategy of the Bush administration is often described as a radical departure from U.S. policy. Gaddis, one of America’s leading scholars of foreign policy and international relations, provocatively demonstrates that, to the contrary, the principles of preemption, unilateralism and hegemony go back to the earliest days of the republic… The events of September 11 extended the concept of preemptive action even at the expense of sovereignty when terrorism is involved. Gaddis describes this latest expansion of American power in response to surprise attack as a volatile mixture of prudence and arrogance. But instead of the usual caveats, he recommends the U.S. continue on an interventionist course… This compact, provocative history of an idea-in-action has the potential to alter the U.S.’s collective self-image.Publishers Weekly

John Gaddis brings light to issues now generating heat. He scores the historic ignorance of those who claim that the Bush Administration’s ‘grand strategy’ is without precedent in our past. He links current national security with long-standing themes. At the same time, he demonstrates just how unprecedented is the current moment. Surprise, Security, and the American Experience is a small gem of clarity and coherence.—Jean Bethke Elshtain, author of Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World

Many academics disgraced themselves in the 1980s, predicting that Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy would lead to nuclear confrontation, when in fact it led to the destruction of world communism. Academics may be committing the same blunder regarding President Bush. Prof. Gaddis is too smart to fall into that trap. He judges the current president from the standpoint of America’s own foreign policy history, and the results are surprising, indeed. Whatever the fates hold in store for President Bush, this little nugget of a book is destined for a long shelf life.—Robert D. Kaplan, author of Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos

Gaddis presents an important discussion on America’s response to September 11 in this extraordinarily thoughtful and challenging new book.—Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State, 1973–1977

Awards & Accolades

  • John Lewis Gaddis Is a 2005 National Humanities Medal Winner
  • An Economist Best Book of 2004
  • A 2004 New York Times Book Review Notable Book
  • A Washington Post Best Book of 2004

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