John P. Diggins ... An historian brave enough to ignore the rules of political correctness





[Ronald Steel is a professor of international relations and history at the University of Southern California.]

... Whereas other historians often plowed the same familiar fields, Diggins's restless mind led him into continually new bypasses of the American political experience. It drew him to an inquiry, in his first book, into the response by Americans to Mussolini's experiment in Italian fascism, and then on to studies of the American left--both New and Old, of the embrace of right-wing conservatism by prominent former leftists, of the influence of the sociologists Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen, of the perennial tension in the American experience between the expansive principles of the Declaration of Independence and the restrictive ones of the Constitution, and to the presidencies of both John Adams and Ronald Reagan.

A contrarian at heart, one as suspicious of the enthusiasms of the left as of the shibboleths of the right, Diggins was inevitably drawn to reexamine the curious presidency of Ronald Reagan. In this complex figure--one as maligned by the left as idolized by the right--Diggins found a true American original, one embodying the values not of Barry Goldwater but of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was this Reagan who ultimately shook himself loose from Cold War dogma, met Mikhail Gorbachev half way, and together with this dedicated communist ended the Cold War.

It took a historian like Diggins, one brave and self-confident enough to ignore the rules of political correctness, to probe for the truth wherever he might find it--even though this meant pugnaciously declaring Reagan to be "one of the two or three greatest presidents in history"--and offering evidence to demonstrate this provocative assertion.

If John Diggins was an Emersonian at heart, so was he also a man who embodied the fierce passions and warring idealisms of the subject of his final book: Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire Under Democracy. There he examines the O'Neill who, like Diggins himself, sought to reconcile the great conflicting themes of the American political experience itself: democracy, authority, tradition, and the burden of freedom.

It is appropriate, and our common loss, that at the time of his death, John Diggins had not quite completed his study of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a fellow moralist who probed what he called the "irony of American history."



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