AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, Pool

2020

When Pete Buttigieg Ripped America’s Missionary Zeal

In his college thesis, the future presidential candidate saw religious motives behind U.S. wars gone horribly wrong.

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It’s a sign of just how much President Donald Trump has moved the goalposts of American involvement abroad.

When Pete Buttigieg outlined his “foreign policy for 2054” in a speech Tuesday, it was his most ordinary lines that drew the most raucous applause (Russia is an adversary, climate change is an existential threat, America should be involved in the world). But the origins of his foreign policy, the young Democratic phenom said, trace back to his time at Harvard College, when controversial wars abroad, images of body bags being sent home and rising political opposition nearly tore the country asunder.

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It is against this backdrop that, in 2004, Buttigieg wrote his undergraduate thesis, charging the occupants of the office he’s now vying for with imbuing America’s foreign policy with a “pervasive theological character.” The once-obscure South Bend, Ind., mayor now barnstorms the country citing scripture to explain his political stances. But in this case, Buttigieg’s religious knowledge served a more secular end: to criticize what he saw as the worst of America’s military adventures, including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

“In the notorious statement of one officer that ‘we had to destroy the village in order to save it,’ one might hear a perverse echo of the Christian paradox that ‘whoever gains his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it,” Buttigieg wrote then.

For a candidate who speaks fluently and often about his faith, Tuesday’s speech was remarkably sapped of religious themes, focusing instead on more personal critiques of the current commander in chief and on how a President Buttigieg would act differently. At a time when 56 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s actions on the world stage, according to a February Gallup poll, Buttigieg’s line of attack was hardly risky. But his Harvard thesis offers a side of the candidate rarely seen during this campaign: one that unapologetically examines American foreign policy through the fraught lens of religious zeal.

The text, available through the Harvard library archives, draws on a 1950s novel that famously foreshadowed the end of the Vietnam War and spawned two film adaptations. Its author, the Englishman Graham Greene, was maligned at the time as a communist for writing a plot that portrays Americans as naïve, short-sighted and immature on the world stage. Buttigieg elevates him to the status of an “impressive” prophet.

“Greene is like an Old Testament author, recording events that would later take on greater significance because of the fulfillment of the types they represented,” he writes.

That the future Indiana mayor spent 68 pages combining English literature, Christianity and politics to earn an honors degree is peak Buttigieg, surpassed only by the title of his memoir, “Shortest Way Home,” an homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the memoir, an engaging if thinly veiled brochure for his future presidential run, Buttigieg casts his decision to serve as a Navy reservist and then an intelligence officer in Afghanistan as one of personal and patriotic obligation, flicking only dimly at the civilizing mission his thesis argues has animated America’s approach to the world since its inception. If he was motivated to change the Islamic world, as many Americans of his generation said they were after the 9/11 attacks, he doesn’t speak of it here.

“I did not believe the Afghanistan War was a mistake,” he writes. “But as I weighed my place in a war most people at home seemed to think was already ending, I couldn’t stop wondering, how do you ask a person to be the last to die for anything?”

His mind turned to men who died in the waning days of wars past: the Americans sent to their deaths in the six hours before the armistice ending World War I went into effect, the thousands of Japanese soldiers who kept fighting in the jungles of the remote Pacific islands years after World War II had long since ended.

Buttigieg is haunted, too, by the random nature of death in war—he spends several pages reflecting on how the death by IED of Mayor Mike Donahue, whom he had once accompanied on a trip to an orphanage, could just as easily have been him. On Tuesday, Buttigieg was more direct about his stance: “War itself represents a kind of failure, and true success lies in preventing conflict,” he said.

The thesis, dense and dry in tone, offers a view of American history more recognizable in leftist academia than in the elite circles of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. But his conclusions are hardly radical, and he seems more interested in applying arcane theological debates to Cold War literature than in pronouncing judgment on America’s actions abroad.

“Political actions in America usually require moral, not to say religious, legitimization in order to gain public approval,” Buttigieg wrote in the thesis. “It is clear that that first American mindset was not merely a first stage in American religion, but a founding doctrine of religion and history which influences political behavior and analysis to this day, particularly when it comes to international intervention.”

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Buttigieg’s commentary on Puritanism was heavily influenced by Sacvan Bercovitch, a scholar of that religious movement under whom the future mayor studied, according to his memoir, and served as a research assistant for editing The Cambridge History of American Literature.

Bercovitch, whom The Harvard Gazette calls a scholar of “the cultural echoes that puritanism bequeathed to modernity,” argues that much of the nation’s sense of self—as well as the very idea of American exceptionalism—is derived from the Puritans who displaced indigenous communities and settled in the northern part of the continent in the 17th century, preaching strict views on self-indulgence and human sinfulness. The more politically palatable flavor of exceptionalism figured prominently in Buttigieg’s foreign policy speech, as he warned that “we’re losing it fast” while appealing to the usual campaign-trail themes of freedom, security and democracy.

In his thesis, Bercovich’s influence is clear as Buttigieg casts Puritanism as a kind of grand strategy: “The very founding of America was an act of international intervention, not just an emigration but a proactive enlightenment of foreign territory, which would recur in later years with America’s exportation of its democratic creed.” Buttigieg then cites other scholars to argue that the war in Vietnam was an operation akin to the Puritan settlements: a foray into “a lost frontier” where “‘the Asian villagers are the American Indians or the Chinese, living in a terra profana, to be converted to the Forces of Light.’”

In his memoir, Buttigieg says his thesis was about a 1670 sermon by Samuel Danforth, a Puritan preacher who chided the English settlers for forgetting that their purpose in coming across the Atlantic was to make the land look like heaven—in a word, its character was strictly missionary.

Much of his thesis, however, focuses on Greene’s 1955 novel, titled “The Quiet American,” which unfolds in Vietnam and centers on a series of terrorist bombings in which a military general backed by the United States was implicated. The novel’s narrator is a British journalist, Thomas Fowler, who falls in love with a Vietnamese woman. Fowler meets a young American intelligence officer, Alden Pyle, who also becomes enamored with the protagonist’s love interest. The author portrays Pyle as wholly uninitiated in foreign affairs, with Fowler often blasting him for supporting a “Third Force”—an alternative to Western and Soviet control.

Pyle—whose name Greene revealed to have been inspired by a pile of excrement—becomes a collaborator in the spate of terrorist bombings that kill dozens of innocent civilians, including women and children. “You can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity,” Fowler says of Pyle, understood to be a stand-in for American foreign policy.

Greene’s novel mixed real-life journalistic reportage with fiction: While Fowler and Pyle are fictional, the bombings and the Vietnamese military leader implicated in them, Trinh Minh Thé, were not. In real life, Thé later collaborated with Edward Lansdale, an Air Force officer and former intelligence operative whose mission consisted in part of sowing dissent in North Vietnam.

“The Quiet American” was remarkable due to its prescience: The bombings are used in the press to blame the communists because of the West’s ability to control information coming out of Vietnam. And in the aftermath, Pyle is murdered, signaling that America’s maelstrom in Vietnam was the result of a self-inflicted wound. “Innocent intentions gone abroad to change the world are not only destructive but self-destructive to their owner; the implications for the war are obvious and tragic,” Buttigieg writes. (He uses a slightly softer touch in his memoir, writing: “Greene’s world-weary, English, Catholic outlook could not have been more different from the Puritan-inflected American understanding of its Cold War mission.”)

Greene, said to be under consideration for a Nobel Prize for Literature, was besmirched as “sufficiently anti-American that the FBI compiled a file on him,” Buttigieg writes in his thesis. The first movie adaptation, in 1958, turned the plot on its head to redeem the Americans, and the second one, while faithful to the text, came right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and thus its release had to be delayed. (Michael Caine, who portrayed Fowler, is quoted in Buttigieg’s work as saying, “September 11 changed all of our futures forever, but it never changed one single comma from anyone’s history.”)

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That Buttigieg was willing to examine American involvement abroad through a critical lens is perhaps a testament to how much he was influenced by the left throughout his formative years. Joseph Buttigieg, his father, was a scholar of Italy’s preeminent communist scholar, Antonio Gramsci. Both of Bercovich’s parents, according to The Harvard Gazette, were Marxists. He mentioned in his memoir that he participated in antiwar rallies while in Cambridge.

Those early, more radical influences seem to have dissipated from the fledgling Buttigieg Doctrine, as the first openly gay presidential contender has surrounded himself with a brain trust of more than 100 experts that includes former Obama officials to help shape his views on foreign policy. Where a self-described socialist like Bernie Sanders would advocate non-intervention while invoking a long history of U.S. imperialism and neocolonialism, Buttigieg—like Greene—doesn’t fundamentally question America’s good intentions, and says the U.S. should go to war only “when left with no alternative.”

The thesis also shows a student fascinated with theological debates, even if he shies away from introspecting about his own faith. A baptized Catholic who now identifies as Episcopalian, Buttigieg traces the Puritan strain through U.S. history, for instance citing Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” as an allegory about “a Puritan ritual of purgation to explain the American response to Communism.” He is almost ready to liken Greene to a Puritan preacher, but stops himself short because the British author was Catholic.

Former Rep. Dan Glickman, who was director of the Harvard Institute of Politics while Buttigieg served as president of its student activities committee, remembers him less as a firebrand activist than as a thoughtful, “whip-smart” debater. The Kansas Democrat remembered him as an intellectual—a characterization often used by fawning media profiles and evidenced by his use of phrases like “typological exegesis” in his thesis writing—who was not afraid to challenge authority. Glickman recalled the future McKinsey consultant and Afghanistan officer grilling 2004 Democratic contender Dick Gephardt on whether he cared about youth voters given that he was not planning on attending a youth forum. (The clip was replayed to a seemingly dumbfounded Buttigieg during a recent town hall on “Hardball.”)

“I don’t recall him, you know, carrying the flag and walking around the Kennedy School leading others,” Glickman told Politico Magazine in a phone interview. “I just recall [his] being involved in what I call kind of classical debates.”

It’s those Harvard bull sessions where many of his foreign policy views were forged. “When I arrived in college in 2000, scholars were debating whether the end of the Cold War amounted to the end of history,” Buttigieg said on Tuesday, alluding to the influential 1989 essay by Francis Fukuyama. “I was a sophomore when the towers fell and war came to my generation. I stayed up late debating things like the march toward the Iraq conflict in a student committee room at Harvard’s Kennedy School, unaware that in a dorm across the street a few students were in the early stages of coding a website that would become the engine of the social media revolution.”

While Buttigieg’s thesis tells us much about his ability to interpret texts and dazzle with academic jargon, it is largely useless in predicting how he would conduct foreign policy as commander in chief. In Tuesday’s speech, he explained his dissatisfaction with a president he sees as brazen and self-interested, promising that the United States would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and focus on nurturing long-standing alliances. He endorsed a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, cautioned against military action in Venezuela and warned of rising authoritarianism worldwide.

Any link between those views, which could have been articulated by almost any of the 2020 Democratic candidates vying to replace Donald Trump, and those of an ambitious Harvard senior are left for us to imagine. The Buttigieg camp did not return a request for comment elaborating on the millennial mayor’s inspiration for his thesis and to what extent its insights shaped his views today. But it’s easy to identify the skepticism of foreign interventionism running through that precocious college dissertation and Tuesday’s more pedestrian speech—one that has its place in American history alongside the missionary impulse Buttigieg criticizes in his thesis.

As he wrote back then, amid the widening gyre of the Iraq War, George W. Bush’s premature attempt at declaring “Mission Accomplished” in 2003 was nothing more than “a succinct, modern formulation of America’s Puritan errand.”

His kicker is a Bush quotation from that speech, itself a reference to the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, which speaks volumes about how America saw the Islamic world to which Buttigieg would later be sent: “‘To the captives, “come out,”—and to those in darkness, “be free”’ … All can know, friend and foe alike, that our nation has a mission.”

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