The Committee on the Present Danger and Neoconservatism in Ngrams

In a blog post from 2010, Dan Cohen referred to the then brand-new Google Books Ngram Viewer as a ‘gateway drug’ into the digital humanities ( I’ve been playing around with it recently and I’m hooked.

I really like the graph above as it is a great visualisation of a portion of the argument in my dissertation literature review. In it, I argue that the Committee on the Present Danger is too often seen by historians exclusively in the context of the neoconservative movement. The CPD did play an important role in the development of the neocon movement, but this is a narrow interpretation of the CPD’s significance.

Instead, I suggest that the Committee on the Present Danger needs to be better understood for what it was; an organisation that opposed detente and successfully influenced the Carter Administration’s policymaking through re-popularising the ‘Soviet Threat’ in mainstream political discourse. By focusing so heavily on its neoconservative legacy the actual successes of the CPD have been largely ignored since the mid-1980s, when a number of political scientists assessed the influence of the group on the SALT II ratification debate and President Reagan’s initial defense policies.

The Ngram viewer screenshot seems to corroborate this view. Neoconservatism as a topic of interest to scholars has grown steadily from its emergence in the mid-1970s, especially after 2000 when many neocons joined the Bush Administration. Instances of the Committee on the Present Danger in Google Books data, however, peaked in the mid-1980s before a slow decline.

This is not a surprising find. The ongoing importance of the Neoconservative movement would generate more interest from scholars than the CPD. But now that the Committee on the Present Danger Papers are open for research there is an opportunity to more critically assess the centrality of the CPD to the development of neoconservatism.

The CPD was much more than a ‘holding pen’ for neoconservatives, and the purpose of my own research is to better understand the actual achievements of the CPD. Only part of its significance was as a means for neoconservatives to enter debates on foreign policy. Just as important, yet currently under appreciated, was the Committee on the Present Danger’s success in reintroducing the concept of the ‘Soviet Threat’ into mainstream political discourse thus helping end detente, prevent the ratification of the SALT II treaty, and generate support for the higher defense spending of the Reagan Era.