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After 30 years as KGB archivist, Major Vasili Mitrokhin (1922-2004) gave British intelligence services 25,000 pages of classified Soviet documents dating back to the 1930s. The Mitrokhin Archive proved to be a goldmine for historians and among its treasures is a memorandum to Stalin from Mikhail Suslov (1902-1982), head of the USSR’s Central Committee Department for Agitation and Propaganda.

The architect of many purges, show-trials and executions early in his career, Suslov is thought by historian Roy Medvedev to have been made Stalin’s “secret heir,” and his name was for decades a synonym for any apparatchik responsible for murderous policy and scurrilous propaganda. In Suslov’s 1946 memo, we see a chilling glimpse inside of a brutal totalitarian state that murdered 50 million of its own citizens: where raw power, unrestrained and abused, eclipsed every last shred of morality and rule of law.

With the state’s domestic and foreign enemies in disarray, Suslov told Stalin that he had “a vertitable blank check,” giving the USSR “newfound advantages.” He bragged that “we have killed thousands around the world (and) the world cares not a whit…everything is on the table now and there are no self-restraints (sic)” from the state deploying an “assassination team…wherever it wishes,” and on to torture and the gulags.

Okay, this is a little white lie, as you have seen if you clicked on the second link in the first paragraph. The quotes come not from the KGB files, but from National Review Online, written not by Suslov but by someone named Victor Davis Hanson, who works not in the dank cellars of Lubyanka Prison but who teaches at America’s Hillsdale College and who holds another part-time job at The Hoover Institution. Yet there the dissimilarities end while the quotations and the sentiments that they portray are real, as you can see for yourself.

He writes, in part, that because

“the domestic antiwar movement is dead, kaput… Everything is on the table now and there are no self-restraints, no snickers on The Daily Show, no quirky insider winks on Letterman, no Barbara Streisand crazy faxes… without worry about a New York Times op-ed barrage or an ACLU lawsuit. That gives the U.S. newfound advantages, a veritable blank check, from keeping Guantanamo open indefinitely to using a Cheney “assassination” team and valuable water-boarded intelligence wherever it wishes to.”

In other words, for Mr. Hanson, government should operate with absolutely no constraints apart from the strength of its political opponents.

There is no need for rule of law in his world, no human rights domestic or foreign, no need for any procedures or protocols other than that which is deemed convenient or effective by some faceless state apparatchik whose identity is protected by layers of security-classification – so long as there is no coherent political opposition to catch him at it. There is no morality in Mr. Hanson’s world and apparently he sees no need for morality whether it be based upon religion or philosophy, tradition or law. In Mr. Hanson’s view, which he apparently teaches to American young people, all that matters is power and what one can get away with. One wonders if the advisers to Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichmann tendered the same advice.

In his partial defence, this person may be gullible enough believe that his leaders are so noble and virtuous that they have no need for democratic oversight or legal constraint. Mr. Hanson may somehow have convinced himself that Americans overall (or only their elected President and his appointees and bureaucrats) are so free of sin and temptation that they – unique in history and alone among men and nations – can be trusted with absolute power. If so, he is no student of history, lacks an understanding of the subtlety and value in American rule of law, and is blind to the purpose behind its carefully-devised checks and balances which seem to be appreciated by even semi-educated people around the world. If he truly maintains this optimistic view of unfettered state power, then the best that one can say is that he treads the narrow line dividing naivety from the most bloodthirsty of tyrannies.

But I am too kind in assuming that Mr. Hanson would, out of naivety, relinquish all power to the state and rely solely upon the allegedly good intentions of its masters. Were that the case, then he would not advocate boundless state power chiefly as a license to torture, to assassinate and to condemn often-innocent people to concentration camps. Pointedly, he does not defend those activities on moral grounds: morality seems to be an alien concept in his universe.  I am not yet prepared to believe that Mr. Hanson supports unconstrained assassination, invasion and torture because they give him some perverted pleasure, and so the remaining likelihood is that he wants them because they are expedient. He seems to be an extreme version of Machiavelli, who believes that any ends are justified by all means whatsoever.

Lest I seem hasty or unfair, in another part of his very, very long online oeuvre, Mr. Hanson instructs us in the foundations of American order:

“…it seems okay to assassinate a terrorist kingpin either by air attack or commando raid. But legal and moral problems arise if he is captured, detained, waterboarded, or tried in a military tribunal. A quick death seems to end almost all legal discussions and controversies (and) targeted assassinations are better done under liberal presidents, who are more likely to be seen as humanitarians who only reluctantly order such killings.”

Here and elsewhere, the author expresses no values that I could find apart from expediency. He neither says that rule of law is essential but that Osama’s summary execution was a necessary exception (a point that I am prepared to consider), nor that opposing Islamist terrorism in its entirety is a unique case requiring America to mothball its principles and procedures at least temporarily. Admitting a limit to how much of this stuff an educated or even a merely thoughtful person can stand, Mr. Hanson appears to share the amoral or immoral expediency associated with Bill Clinton but without the sense to prevaricate. His only rule seems to be “don’t get caught.”

Having lived and worked for decades in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I share Mr. Hanson’s relief at the death of Osama bin Laden, even by the “rough justice” that is never better than the proper kind. I concur that radical Islamism is everywhere on the run, often because of the intrepid Arab youth who in the hope of liberal democracy have rejected Osama and all that he stands for. I agree with him that Osama’s recently-discovered location points to Pakistani lies and their continued protection of Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists, and how this may give American leaders the clarity and resolve needed to end the Afghan war swiftly and honourably. I need neither to question his remedies for Libya nor anywhere else, nor to debate what valuable information may have been obtained in the Guantanamo gulag and whether it justifies the torture of so many innocents, because what matters most of all is his belief in unbridled power driven only by expediency. On that he is most clear.

Unable to peer into Mr. Hanson’s heart and mind, one may wonder whether he is a shallow person who can think no further than immediate results, blind to the risks and consequences of abandoning a complex, nuanced system that has long served Americans so well. Nor can one discern whether he is foolish, or evil, or the kind of fool who writes and teaches, encourages and enables evil on its grandest and most devastating scale. This we cannot know, but we can wonder what parents must be thinking when they spend almost $30,000 a year to send a child to Hillsdale College, when a rap-album about “slappin’ hos” and summarily “offing” one’s enemies would provide the same moral content that Mr. Hanson teaches, but at a lower cost.

Meanwhile, until that unlikely day when we are ruled by gods, unlimited power driven only by expedience puts us firmly on the road to serfdom and worse, a path leading almost inevitably under those old, iron gates labelled “Arbeit Macht Frei.” When we get there, someone as expedient as Mr. Hanson may be holding the door.

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Published: May 5, 2011
Stephen Masty
Stephen Masty (1954-2015) was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He was a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he was a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
24 replies to this post
  1. Steve,

    Great post. I've been reading some Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, to be precise, and Mr. Hanson seems to prove Dawson's point. Dawson argues that the study of our civilization, including especially the study of Christian culture, the spiritual tradition on which our civilization is founded, is essential for the preservation of society. He says, for instance that without a understanding of the spiritual and intellectual foundations of our civilization:

    "…[t]he higher intellectual and spiritual activities become increasingly alienated from society and become a potential danger to its stability. For modern society, like all societies, needs some higher spiritual principle of co-ordination to overcome the conflicts between power and morality, between reason and appetite, between technology and humanity and between self-interest and the common good."

    Mr. Hanson's position provides a good example of what could become (or is already becoming) of us without the countervailing spiritual principles that help keep us from acting from technological expediency within a moral vacuum.

  2. Seems to me your post misses the context of Hanson's post, which aims to parse the effects of the bin Laden raid "in terms of the War on Terror," i.e., in reference to a conflict between the United States and jihadist networks and individuals committed to harming the American government and people and their interests. Jean Bethke Elshtain's _Just War Against Terror_ supplies some of the relevant ethical coordinates. I'm not sure Hanson would agree with everything Elsthain says, but his reflections concern how the US is now politically positioned to prosecute a conflict against a non-state enemy, or network of enemies (some of them allied with states, as evidently bin Laden was with Pakistan). It's unjust to suggest (as I understand you to do) that Hanson proposes the US is justified in making war on whomever it pleases.

  3. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk makes an interesting point in The Independent newspaper (UK): "The real problem, however, is that the West, which has constantly preached to the Arab world that legality and non-violence was the way forward in the Middle East, has taught a different lesson to the people of the region: that executing your opponents is perfectly acceptable."

  4. Mr. Jeff,
    George Will, in a fit of rage, once said to me by mail (in the days when we had mail), in response to my defense of Mel Bradford, that "context," not patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. While I still do not agree with him about the great M.E. Bradford, I do understand what he was getting at about context. One really must live by what one says.

    Mr. Masty has put a laser-bolt into the heart of sloppy thinking and sloppy morality, the kind of stuff the Nationalist Review and the Weakley Standard and FoxNews! have been getting away with for years.

    While I think that Mr. Masty has perhaps taken Hillsdale College too much to task for the confidence that Mr. Hanson has in the "USA we're #1" approach to the world, I completely agree that if Mr. Hanson wants to nuance his reckless language with something other than might makes right, then he should do it, and not expect the rest of us to accept such a simplistic and amoral view of the world.

    I hope that Hillsdale College both tolerates and disassociates itself from the nonsense spouted by Mr. Hanson, and for that matter, sometimes by me.

  5. Hi John,

    As much as I appreciate George Will, I expect anything can in fact be the last refuge of a scoundrel, since scoundrels will stop at nothing; as I'm not a scoundrel, I can't pronounce definitively. In this case, the point is that Hanson wasn't discussing (e.g.) how the US should conduct its relations with France but rather how we should prosecute our conflict with a declared albeit non-state enemy; he's not proposing targeting innocents. And he's observing that the left's support under Bush for severe constraints on prosecution of the war against this enemy has evaporated under Obama.

  6. Jeff, please make this clear to me. Are you suggesting that torture and assassination are proper tools of American policy, and can be defended under some concept of morality? Victor seems to be saying just that, and I don't buy it, context or no context. Having said that, I knew a man whose hands shook and who was drunk most of every day and chain-smoked five or six packs of straight Camels every day, and was also a very good carpenter. He was 101st Airborne, jumped into France the night before D-Day, was on the front lines of fighting Germans for over 200 days, was sent back to Calais and without a chance even to take a shower was sent by truck just in time to get trapped in the Battle of the Bulge. Long story short, he killed 22 German prisoners rather than leave his platoon in the hands of a rookie officer who would have gotten them all slaughtered. But you know what? He never tried to justify it. He just had bad dreams and drank and smoked. We, on the other hand, enjoy what the Seals had to do. Sorry, it's crap.

  7. Were I President Obama I might have made the same decision on the extra-judicial killing of bin Laden because (a) there might have been a screw-up and he got away; (b) Lord knows whom he would have inspired making three years of speeches while on trial in the Hague, and most importantly, (c) many hostages may have been taken by terrorists who wanted him freed. And then I may have called for the six packs of Camels and the liquor. The assassination demeans the state that commits it but maybe for a uniquely necessary cause as it was for John's acquaintance. While I did not waste a week on it, I trudged through Mr Hanson's prose to no avail, searching for the slightest hint that he thought this was a necessary exception, or Heaven help him, that the whole mis-labeled 'War on Terror' is an exception. I found nothing.

  8. This post and its comments greatly underestimate Dr. Hanson. Because he can do narrow analysis, and does, the analysis should not be taken to mean that he does not understand a great many issues beyond the the moment's task. Read his books.

  9. MLU, Life's too short! I read enough of his online material to get as good an idea as I ought, and had he any reservations it would hardly have given him repetitive stress injury to type qualifiers into even a few of his ghastly pronouncements. I'm sure you are right that he has other abilities somewhere, otherwise he'd earn his living by raking leaves or talking on Fox Television.

  10. John,

    The context of Hanson's remarks (especially his paragraph 1, which contains the statements that that give you pause) is the domestic political debate for the last half-dozen years over how the US will prosecute the war on terror (which I would rather call the war on jihadism, or jihadists if one thinks wars are fought against people rather than abstractions). Hanson's point is that opposition from the left to the measures that the Bush administration proposed for fighting this declared enemy has evaporated under Obama, as evidenced by the reaction to the bin Laden raid. His comment observes that these constraints on the measures Bush proposed for prosecuting the war have been withdrawn; he's not proposing repeal of the just-war tradition, which he duly notes in Carnage and Culture. But a just war is still a war, and involves killing; Elshtain's book discusses the application of _ius in bello_ to conflict with non-state actors who operate on a geographically unlimited battlefield.

    On the question of assassination in the course of a war effort, I don't see why enemy soldiers are legitimate targets but the commander who orders them into battle should be off limits (all the more so in the case of a commander who dispatches his troops without benefit of uniform to attack civilians). Nor do I regard all rough or coercive treatment of enemy combatants as constituting torture, and I don't believe terrorists should be granted Geneva privileges, as that would reduce the incentive to enemy states to refrain from employing terrorist agents, targeting civilians, etc.

  11. John, can you believe someone would comment "anonymously" on the internet? Sigh–the loss of manliness. But, even places that proclaim themselves counter cultural (and, even market themselves as such) seem not to like open dissent within the ranks. Speak the truth–be prepared to be told it violates the principles of the culture of the place. Better, I've found, (at least to the minds of some) to gossip and talk in quiet. This doesn't upset the order of things. The virtues be damned! Arbitrary rules and lies uber alles! Sigh, sigh, sigh. We need to write a post about the habit of falsehoods as conveniences in our western society of the post-modern era. Even good people have bought into this.

  12. "The moment someone began to speak up frankly, everyone stepped back and shunned him: ‘A provocation!’ And therefore anyone who burst out with a sincere protest was predestined to loneliness and alienation.”–Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag.

  13. For readers interested in learning about the distinguished academic and scholarly accomplishments of Victor Davis Hanson, I am providing a link to a brief biography on the Hoover Institute's web-site:

    As an opponent of most American interventions overseas (Libya being a good example)I have found Mr. Hanson to be critic of American policy making.In a recent column, Rules for Killing Rogues, Mr. Hanson asks: "But what, exactly, are the moral, legal or practical rules in going after terrorist leaders or savage dictators of rogue regimes?"

    He concludes this column with a call for a moral and legal decision making process.

    He writes: "In recent years, the United States has been in a number of undeclared wars against terrorists, insurgents and authoritarian dictators — Mohamed Farrah Aidid, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Slobodan Milosevic, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Manuel Noriega, Mullah Omar, Muammar Gadhafi, the Taliban, al-Qaida and others — whom we sought to kill, capture or put on trial. It is about time that we clarified the rules that determine their fates."

    Read more:

  14. And which one of these undeclared wars has Dr. Hanson opposed? Please, no theory, and no distinction between war on "terror" and war on "jihad," both of which are abstractions.

  15. John,

    You begin to try my patience. Jihadists are not abstractions, as you'd no doubt realize if you had friends or relatives in the towers or the wrong sections of the Pentagon or on United flight 93 9 1/2 years ago. On Sept. 14, 2011, the Congress of the United States authorized "the President . . . to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons" (

    Do you hold that the word "declaration" has talismanic properties not possessed by the word "authorization"? If so, I'd say further conversation is pointless.

  16. I've been "trying the patience" of ideologues and abstractionists for about a half century now. Do you really think that such language you quote is concrete, or meaningful? Are you serious about the nonsense of my having friends or relatives in the towers on 9/11? Really. How about having 12 generations of family fighting and dying for this country? Give me a definition of "talismanic properties," which seems to me as abstract as "jihad," which I regard as a mantra. Further conversation is indeed pointless if all you can come up with is the kind of idiotic statements passed by a Congress willing to grant the President any power to do anything he wants to do for any purpose. That, sir, is pure ideology.

  17. Dear John, The War on Poverty, The War on Drugs, The War on Obesity, The War on Terror, The War on Want, The War on Jihadism: lawmakers need a thesaurus and granting such sweeping powers to any president, as they did post-9/11, is surely a dereliction of duty. So ended the Roman Republic, I was told.

    A decade ago in Moscow I was shown a list of what business activities were regulated by government for reasons of national security. Jeepers! Hairdressers, travel agents, et. al. A nice chap from the (now defunct, alas) Yabloko/Apple Party explained. the Duma members got drunk and kept drinking in session, listing all that came to mind. American lawmakers lack that excuse.

  18. Since its inception The Imaginative Conservative has been an oasis of intellectual discourse in a desert of internet chatter. Sadly, this oasis has been invaded by mean spirited, bullying comments (questioning people's courage?)challenging those who wish to engage in a respectful conversation. Mr. Wilson, I think the quotes I cite by Mr. Hanson raise questions about the criticism that he supports the use of unrestrained power by the government. I am not trying to defend Mr. Hanson's body of writing on American interventionism.

  19. Bravo, John! While I had no relatives in NYC's Twin Towers, I had plenty of close friends murdered by the Taliban, one tortured, lynched with wire and then machine-gunned, and others merely machine-gunned (one an Afghan Vice President). Every one of them fought and died for rule of law not rule of men. Every one told me, many times, how they longed for a system of checks and balances such as America has. Having lived under a nationalist autocrat, 12 years of communism, 9 years of warlords and Taliban they would be so disappointed that so many Americans permit their systems to be so dishonoured and desecrated. I miss them, but maybe it is better that they are not here to see it.

  20. Mr. Roth, I can't speak for John or Steve, and I'm sorry if you're seeing bullying. You're absolutely right–we need discourse. My frustration, at least, is with those who remain anonymous and comment with nasty jabs, assertions, etc. We speak openly about difficult things, and we do so with our names attached. We just want those who join us in conversation here at TIC to give us the same courtesy. Yours, respectfully, Brad

  21. Mr. Roth,

    A second to Brad's comment above.

    Mr. Hanson is a very smart man, a good writer, and in person respectful and easy to talk with. His public lectures are often compelling. However, he is almost always predictable in his support for the war party, and for this we need to call him out.

    It has intrigued me, and puzzled me for years that a segment of people who insist on calling themselves conservatives can out of one side of their mouths call for limited government and out of the other side insist on a giant foreign enterprise that necessarily requires unlimited government. Can we have it both ways?

    When people resort to anonymity (I still think the secret ballot was the death of what remained of democracy) and say, in your words, "mean spirited" things, yes, I question their courage, and would do so to their faces.

    And without wishing to sound mean spirited again, please write to me with the correct spelling of my name. Most Wilsons, somewhere along the way, got the "ell" knocked out of them, but not my family.

  22. Thanks for setting me right John Willson and accept my apologies for the misspelling. Albert J. Nock once commented that Tolstoy was such a poor speller he rarely spelled his name the same way.

    Perhaps, small government advocates who support a giant foreign policy will argue that security is one of the primary functions of government and being engaged overseas is part of carrying out that function. But the culturally arrogant notion that this should include remaking foreign societies undermines any possible plausible reasons for these far from home adventures.

  23. Steve, you know how much I love your writing. But, knowing Victor somewhat, i can state 2 things with surety. First, he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Second, he’s scary brilliant, especially in conversation. Respectfully, Brad

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