At one point during World War II, when Norman Podhoretz was about 12, an uncle had just been drafted. Podhoretz's grandmother heard on their big Zenith radio the slogan, "Uncle Sam Needs You."
Afraid her son would be killed, she turned to Norman and asked in Yiddish, "Ver ist er, der Uncle Sam? Im hob ikh extra in dr'erd!" (Who is he, that Uncle Sam? Him I would especially like to send six feet under.")
Esther did not speak English, read very little, and did not know the war was about a tyrant who was trying to murder all of Europe's Jews. Podhoretz explained simply (he had learned not to argue with her) that Uncle Sam was "a stand-in for America."
The story is evocative for Podhoretz because later, he recalls, as the editor of Commentary magazine, "I ... [was driven,] almost against my will, to defend the country with all my might against its ideological enemies on the left from the late 1960s on."
This ideological battle caused him to plumb the depths of his unabashed love for America. What makes his story even more dramatic, for nearly 10 years, starting in 1960 when he became editor of Commentary at the age of 30, he had helped lay the ideological groundwork of the radical left.
What caused his change of heart and mind? He could not bear, he says, the hatred for America that the left spewed out. And he owned up to having himself indulged in a utopian vision for America. His discussion of utopianism in this book, charged with his own experience, is a classic dissertation on repentance for ideological sins.
He suggests that the range of leftists he chose to oppose had perhaps one thing in common: Rather than honoring the rights of every individual, they fought for their concept of abstract systems - Marxism and Stalinism, among others.