March 31, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 14

Boston College faculty authors Alan Wolfe and Seth Jacobs (below) will discuss their latest works as part of the "Writers Among Us" series in April.

Of Greatness, and Vietnam

April 'Writers Among Us' events spotlight new books by Wolfe, Jacobs

By Mark Sullivan and Reid Oslin
Staff Writers

America's capacity for greatness, and the legacy of one of its most controversial and divisive foreign policy episodes, will be explored in the next two installments of the "Writers Among Us" series spotlighting Boston College authors and their works.

On April 5, Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life Director Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science) will discuss his latest book, Return to Greatness: How America Lost its Sense of Purpose and What it Needs to Do to Recover It.

The following week, on April 12, Asst. Prof. Seth Jacobs (History) will present an overview of his recently published America's Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race and US Intervention in Southeast Asia.

Both lectures, which are free and open to the public, will be held in Gasson 305 starting at 7:30 p.m.

Wolfe, who has directed the Boisi Center since 1999, is the author or editor of 16 books, a contributing editor of The New Republic, and a writer for the New York Times, Harper's, and the Atlantic Monthly.

In Return to Greatness, Wolfe castigates both conservatives and liberals for opting for small-mindedness over greatness, and offers solutions to build national strength and unity in the examples of Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, Abraham Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts.

Wolfe begins Return to Greatness by pointing to September 11 as a point of demarcation for 21st-century America and its view of itself. He notes the comparison often drawn between the post-September 11 performance of George W. Bush with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who, in the words of neoconservatives William Kristol and Robert Kagan, "implored Americans to look beyond the immediate needs of their daily lives" and, in so doing, "aspired to greatness for America."

While the Bush-TR parallel is dubious for several reasons, Wolfe says, neoconservatives like Kristol and Kagan were correct to insist on a Rooseveltian call to "take the ideas of American greatness seriously" in the wake of 9/11. The terrorist attacks "stimulated a wide-ranging inquiry into the question of whether America's traditional ways of carrying out its public affairs are sufficient for dealing with the new realities imposed upon it."

The question, Wolfe says, is defining just what "greatness" is and how best to achieve it. "Because of September 11, we now know that we are larger than life to nearly everyone in the world. We have not put the question of American greatness back on the table; it has been put there for us. It is up to us whether we take our country and its potential as seriously as everyone else in the world does."

Wolfe said last week that for his April 5 talk he plans to address the "question of whether George W. Bush is likely to emerge as a symbol of American greatness. I will use the conflict between the pursuit of the good and the pursuit of the great to shed light on what's happening in American politics."

Jacobs' book takes a hard look at the so-called "Diem experiment" in Vietnam. American policy makers strongly advocated and supported the nine-year presidency (1954-63) of Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, in the largely Buddhist Southeast Asia nation. During his tenure in office, US involvement escalated in to a full-scale military conflict that eventually cost 57,000 American lives.

"I would say that this was the most disastrous and ruinous foreign policy initiative of the Cold War era," said Jacobs in a recent interview.

For his research on the Diem presidency, Jacobs combed through the public and private papers of leading American politicians, policy-makers and influential figures of the era, and was struck by the number of documents that contained religious language and religious imagery.

"I realized that the United States of America underwent what I argue was a major awakening in the 1950s. If statistics mean anything, then the 1950s were far and away the most religious decade of the 20th century," he said. "It became blindingly apparent to me that this is a major role in terms of how we cast our foreign policy during this period."

American church membership increased at twice the rate of the general population in the '50s, says Jacobs, and he believes this surge of religious enthusiasm carried into government spheres.

"[Secretary of State] John Foster Dulles was the most unapologetically religious man to superintend American foreign policy since William Jennings Bryant," said Jacobs. "This man's religiosity, his sense of God-created man, really can't be separated. That's who he is, and of course it plays a role in how he crafts policy. It has to."

In South Vietnam, Diem's presidency faced major challenges from the start in a nation that had previously been ruled by France. "I think that French Catholicism had a major negative effect on Vietnam," said Jacobs. "The fact that Diem was a Catholic meant that his religion was identified with that of the hated colonial oppressor. That in itself was enough to turn off a lot of Vietnamese and make him seem to be a French 'stooge' or French collaborator, even though he was nothing of the kind.

"He [Diem] continued the French colonial practice of legally defining Catholicism as a religion, while Buddhists were members of an 'association' - even though the country was 90 percent Buddhist. In 1959, Diem dedicated his country to the Virgin Mary. How is that supposed to be received by the vast majority of the South Vietnamese?"

In his April 12 talk, Jacobs also will examine the religious dimension in America's current foreign policy initiatives. "I do notice some parallels between the 1950s and what is going on nowadays. For example, when George W. Bush meets [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and later says that their conversation was about God, or when he talks about how he and [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair took Scripture together - at least for me after years of researching this book - I see some very disturbing echoes."

The "Writers Among Us" series is sponsored by Boston College Magazine and the BC Bookstore. For more information, call ext.2-4820.

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