Reclaiming Our Place in the World

REVIEW: 'Only the Strong: Reversing the Left's Plot to Sabotage American Power' by Tom Cotton

Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) / Getty Images
November 6, 2022

This is a remarkable book that "combines history and current events, including my own experiences in the Army and the Senate," Tom Cotton writes. "For the latter, I've drawn on my own recollections, research, notes, and writings for speeches, op-eds, and so forth. For recent events, I've also consulted news stories in traditional media sources."

Cotton is being modest. He's not a braggart or a make-believe expert. His reading and research have been breathtaking, as a soldier, congressman, and, since 2015, a senator and adviser to Mitch McConnell, the leader of Senate Republicans. And, by the way, Cotton is from rural Arkansas where his family clan has lived and farmed for six generations.

His academic career was impressive and unusual. He graduated from Harvard and then Harvard Law School, leading to his enlistment in the U.S. Army in 2005. His military career was brief but dazzling. He passed the Army Ranger Course and the Airborne School. Yes, he earned an Army Parachute Badge. He was discharged in 2009 after combat assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Next came national politics. He won two House terms and a Senate career in which he became a McConnell ally. His Army and legal careers paved a new way to defend America's sovereignty and freedom. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, he pushed for reform legislation to ease punishment of nonviolent prisoners. A tough-minded conservative, Cotton didn't go along. He voted no.

Soon enough, Cotton embraced a new issue, captured in his groundbreaking book Only the Strong: Reversing the Left's Plot to Sabotage Power. To aid readers, Cotton has provided a "list of the specific books, essays, articles, and other sources I consulted for each chapter." Here's an example: "For insights into nuclear strategy during the Kennedy and Johnson eras, I drew from Richard Pipes's bracing 1977 essay in Commentary, 'Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Can Fight and Win a Nuclear War.'"

Here's another: "For the Vietnam War I consulted Mike Moyar's Triumph Forsaken, H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty, and Michel Lind's Vietnam, The Necessary War." One more: "Mackubin Thomas Owens catalogued John Kerry's disgraceful anti-war activities in National Review." A final one: "In researching the invasion of Grenada, I relied on Ronald Reagan's autobiography, An American Life."

But Only the Strong is a spectacular book on its own. It covers a 100-year period during which Democrats and the political left, led initially by President Woodrow Wilson, commit themselves to reducing the United States as a world power. And that effort continues today with ugly success. "America's recent decline isn't an accident," Cotton writes. "It's decline by design. For more than a century, liberal Democrats have plotted to sabotage American power. These Democrats believe a strong and confident America brings war, arrogance, and oppression—not safety, freedom, and prosperity."

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led President Wilson to declare neutrality. A year later, a German submarine sank a British passenger ship, the Lusitania. Almost 1,200 passengers were killed, including 128 Americans. Wilson neither pushed for war nor sought negotiations. He was accused of being "Too Proud to Fight." He maintained there is "such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right."

A century later, rioters created anarchy in Portland, Oregon, and other cities. Violent protesters were tolerated, rarely arrested. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi dismissed rioters as "people [who] will do what they do." Tom Cotton didn't buy this:

There's a direct line from Progressives to the Blame America First Democrats. Now, no one would mistake a prim, bespectacled professor like Woodrow Wilson for a Weatherman or leftist radical.

Indeed, BLM would justifiably condemn the virulently racist Wilson. But the Progressives, the New Left, and today's liberals share common premises. … They believe America is sinful and therefore deny that American power should be used in pursuit of American interests, as the Founders and Reagan believed. They differ only on how we should atone for America's supposed sins. The progressive tradition aims to redeem America by using our power on behalf of other nations or abstract ideals.

The Blame America First Democrats believe our sins are irredeemable; nothing good can come from this country, so American power—and perhaps America itself—should be dismantled.

It's sad to say, but Woodrow Wilson didn't learn a thing from his Lusitania blunder. He blundered again when the war ended and the Versailles Treaty was in his lap in 1919. America had won World War I, but Wilson "squandered our victory" with the ill-conceived treaty, Cotton writes. "At times both punitive and utopian, the treaty humiliated Germany, infuriated our allies, and sparked national animosities that contributed to the outbreak of World War II."

Wilson insisted that "some of our sovereignty would be surrendered for the good of the world." Henry Cabot Lodge, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested the compromise of removing the league's power to order American troops into war.

Lodge would have none of Wilson's one-worldism. In a Senate debate, the Republican from Massachusetts declared:

You may call me selfish, if you will, conservative or reactionary, or use any other harsh adjective you see fit to apply, but an American I was born, an American I have remained all my life. I can never be anything but an American, and I must think of the United States first. And when I think of the United States first in an arrangement like this, I am thinking of what is best for the world. For if the United States fails, the best hopes of mankind fail with it. I have never had but one allegiance. … I cannot share that devotion and give affection to the mongrel banner invented for a league.

Lodge was not to be denied. He said Americans were being asked to "exchange the government of Abraham Lincoln, of the people, for the people, by the people, for a government of, for, and by 'other' people." As Cotton writes, the struggle between Lodge and Wilson continues.

Only the Strong: Reversing the Left's Plot to Sabotage American Power
by Tom Cotton
Twelve, 288 pp., $30

Fred Barnes is a retired journalist who covered politics for half a century. He lives with his wife Barbara in Alexandria, Va.