Speeches That Have Made a Difference: Donald Kagan’s "A Necessary Patriotism"

by Derrick G. Jeter

Donald Kagan is an enigma among professors at elite universities—he is a patriot. The Hillhouse Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, Kagan is the author of numerous books and articles, included While America Sleeps, Pericles of Athens, and the four volume history, The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.

On November 4, 2001, less than two months after the September 11 attacks on New York, Washington D.C., and the highjacked plane crash in rural Pennsylvania, Dr. Kagan delivered an impassioned lecture in a jammed packed Battel Chapel on the university’s campus. The occasion was Yale’s “Democracy, Security and Justice” symposium. Kagan’s lecture erupted in a tumultuous and continuous ovation . . . from the students. But many of the faculty—the intellectuals identified in his remarks—sat on their hands. (Read his speech here.)

In a blistering criticism, Dr. Kagan took umbrage with the intellectuals at Yale—and by implication elsewhere—who saw the rise of patriotism after 9/11 as dangerous and jingoistic. Kagan scorns the enlightened notion that we must understand the “underlying causes” of terrorism, which, according to the intelligentsia is the victimization of Muslims by America’s crass culture. Though much of our culture is caustic, Kagan charges that the ability to peer into the souls of terrorists and discern their motives is the height of arrogance, and is more telling of the critics of America than it is of the terrorists who attacked us.

Even if the academic elites could fully understand terrorists’ motives what good would it do? They mean to kill Americans, not because we are “Western chauvinist[s]” polluting their youth with our culture and ideas, but because we simply exist. “We are at war,” Kagan reminds his colleagues, and a cowardly withdraw from the struggle, he argues, is to snuff “liberty’s brightest light . . . out, and [allow] a terrible darkness [to] descend on the whole world.” Or, in the words of David Halberstam, whom he quotes, the world without American leadership would look “‘a bit like hell.’”

For those of the chattering class, who worry about the patriotism of average Americans, the historian in Kagan compels him to take his intelligent audience back to one of America’s first elites—Thomas Jefferson. It was Jefferson who believed that education and educators should produce in students, what Kagan calls, “a necessary patriotism.” But our schools have abandoned their responsibilities to reinforce traditional morals and teach a simple love of country. This is worrisome because patriotism is vital to the survival of a nation. Without it, we are reduced to factious self-interest.

What is despicable in the criticism of American patriotism among the intellectual elite is their hypocrisy. They enjoy the benefits of freedom only to disparage the country which grants them such freedoms, leading Kagan to comment: “they lack the basic decency to pay [America] the allegiance and respect that honor demands.” This is not a problem with America, but a malformation of their character.

Kagan concludes: “Up to now, I fear, too many American intellectuals and too many members of the faculties of our greatest universities have been a part of our country’s problem. If we are to overcome the dangers that face us we will need them to become part of the solution. . . . I hope that the natural, admirable, vitally necessary patriotism that is now gaining strength and expression among the ordinary people of our land will help to educate those among us who feel superior to them.”

Would that it was true so many years later, but sadly no.

Kagan quotes: Donald Kagan, speech at Battel Chapel, November 4, 2001, Yale University, http://www.yale.edu/dsj/lectures/lecturePDF/kaganLecture.pdf. Accessed 18 September 2007.