The announced field of candidates for the 2012 Republican nomination for president is, to understate the matter, less than inspiring. Conservatives should be disappointed about the possibility of missing a good opportunity to defeat the vigorous statist currently occupying the White House. Not only will the absence of a solid candidate of conservative principle impoverish the debate in the campaign, but a Republican loss will deprive conservatives of the chance to revive and advance their traditional commitment to limited government and a prudently restrained foreign policy.

A classic work of this form of conservatism is Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties. Published in 1983 and subsequently updated in 1991, Johnson’s book was immediately recognized as a major revisionist work of history from an intelligent and shrewd conservative perspective. Even though we are no longer threatened by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, Modern Times has lessons that should continue to resonate with conservatives as they confront the issues of our time. From this work we can gain insight into the enduring problem of limiting omnivorous state power and the difficulty of restraining what Charles de Gaulle once identified as “America’s itch to intervene” in problems throughout the world.

Johnson is a prolific British journalist and historian who, prior to this volume, had published, among many other books, the well-received A History of Christianity (1976). Modern Times surveys the blood-drenched history of the last century within the context of an arresting thesis:

Among the advanced races, the decline and ultimately the collapse of the religious impulse would leave a huge vacuum. The history of modern times is in great part the history of how that vacuum had been filled. Nietzsche rightly perceived that the most likely candidate would be what he called the “Will to Power”, which offered a far more comprehensive and in the end more plausible explanation of human behaviour than either Marx or Freud. In place of religious belief, there would be secular ideology. Those who had once filled the ranks of the totalitarian clergy would become totalitarian politicians. And, above all, the Will to Power would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. The end of the old order, with an unguided world adrift in a relativistic universe, was a summons to such gangster-statesmen to emerge. They were not slow to make their appearance.

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Johnson’s panorama of the rise and misrule of Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and a host of murderous imitators is a tour de force of factual compression, narrated with muscular, riveting prose. Johnson identifies the totalitarians with a new morality that abandoned the concept of individual responsibility derived from Judaism and Christianity. Thus, one genocidal frenzy followed another:

Once Lenin had abolished the idea of personal guilt, and had started to “exterminate” (a word he frequently employed) whole classes, merely on account of occupation or parentage, there was no limit to which this deadly principle might be carried. Might not entire categories of people be classified as “enemies” and condemned to imprisonment or slaughter merely on account of the colour of their skin, or their racial origins or, indeed, their nationality? There is no essential moral difference between class-warfare and race-warfare, between destroying a class and destroying a race. Thus the modern practice of genocide was born.

An especially attractive feature of Modern Times is the fact that Johnson is intensely—and often amusingly—opinionated. For example, of the early twentieth-century French, he observes: “If Paris was the world capital of Cartesian reason, it was also the capital of astrology, fringe-medicine and pseudo-scientific religiosity. There was (indeed still is) a strong anti-rationalist culture in France.” Moreover, he is devastating about the vastly overrated political darlings of the third world: “Gandhi’s eccentricities appealed to a nation which venerates sacral oddity…. About the Gandhi phenomenon there was always a strong aroma of twentieth-century humbug.”

But Johnson’s robust, countercultural opinions are most welcome on American matters. In a century marked by murderous tyranny and political lunacy, two temperamentally moderate and politically conservative men exercised power in the presidential office in a way that is directly relevant to Republican aspirations today.

Johnson first rescues Calvin Coolidge from liberal scorn or indifference. In the chapter titled “The Last Arcadia,” Johnson shows that Coolidge was a master of political restraint, who presided over an ever-increasing growth and spread of economic prosperity. Johnson is unequivocal in his admiration: “Yet if Coolidge was sparing of words, what he did say was always pithy and clear, showing that he had reflected deeply on history and developed a considered, if sombre, public philosophy. No one in the twentieth century . . . defined more elegantly the limitations of government and the need for individual endeavour, which necessarily involved inequalities, to advance human happiness.”

Coolidge was an exemplar of the limited state. Without intrusive state intervention, the American economy boomed with entrepreneurial energy, and automobiles, radios (and other electrical products), and housing were produced at unprecedented levels. In his last public message to Congress, Coolidge accurately summarized what he had presided over: “The great wealth created by our enterprise and industry, and saved by our economy, has had the widest distribution among our own people, and has gone out in a steady stream to serve the charity and business of the world.” The success of the Coolidge years is highlighted by the statist and economically stagnant period that followed. These lessons on the importance of wealth creation rather than redistribution were absorbed by Ronald Reagan (a Coolidge admirer) and would serve any contemporary Republican very well.

The presidency of Dwight Eisenhower is Johnson’s second act of rehabilitation. His verdict is succinctly stated: “Eisenhower was the most successful of America’s twentieth-century presidents, and the decade when he ruled (1953-61) the most prosperous in American, and indeed world, history.” America under Eisenhower was also a superpower that used its power wisely—that is, with an understanding, as Johnson says, that “the security of freedom throughout the world rested ultimately on the health of the American economy.” Or as Eisenhower said with characteristic good sense, “There is no defense for any country that busts its own economy.”

Johnson admires Eisenhower’s restraint in foreign affairs, and contrasts that approach with the vastly more ambitious view of American power in the world propounded by John F. Kennedy (“pay any price, bear any burden”). In what Johnson correctly calls a statement of the “classical American attitude,” Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1821 observed, “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America’s heart, her benedictions and her prayers.” But “she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” This is precisely the approach taken by Eisenhower.

And an approach to which we must return. We have searched for too many monsters to destroy in recent years, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which were and remain Wilsonian experiments, fueled by unrealistic expectations about the capacity of American military power to establish stable governments in notoriously chaotic countries. (It is impossible to imagine either war being pursued by Eisenhower.) The next Republican presidential nominee ought to embrace Eisenhower’s discriminating exercise of American military force within the context of a healthy economy.

Predictably, such an approach will be loudly stigmatized as isolationism, but that accusation will be wide of the mark. The situation in Afghanistan illustrates how this restrained foreign policy should work. There is no doubt that the use of American military power in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was warranted. However, a massive American military presence in that country a decade later is supported by no convincing argument of national interest. Building nations is emphatically not a conservative use of military power.

Johnson has published a great deal of work since Modern Times. For example, A History of the American People (1997) is an ambitious and satisfying volume. Art: A New History (2003) is a discerning and highly readable account of this complex topic. In an era of scholarly specialization and fragmentation, Johnson’s comprehensive approach to big subjects is impressive. None of those works, however, equals the dazzling erudition of Modern Times. It is a book that has influenced conservative thinkers for decades now—and should continue to do so with its identification of a clear American tradition, as necessary today as ever, of limited government and a foreign policy that protects national interests and eschews expensive messianic crusades.