Jeane Kirkpatrick, the first women to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, died at the age of 80 of congestive heart failure on Thursday, December 7th. Arguably the finest foreign policy thinker of the late 20th century and among the most accomplished political scientists of her generation, it is fitting that she is no hero to most feminists. She is certainly one to me, and I hope she will be to my daughters as well.

A ruthlessly independent thinker, Kirkpatrick started her intellectual life as a socialist, became a full professor at Georgetown University in the 1960s, became a political activist for Democrats, began vocally criticizing the foreign policy of the Carter administration, supported and worked for Ronald Reagan, returned to academia, and became a Republican — in that order.

Whether she was quoting Harry Truman to Republicans, emphasizing the importance of the Marshall plan in post-WWII Europe, incurring the unforgiving wrath of the British by favoring Galtieri during the Falkland Islands War, coining the term “Blame America First” to refer to the post-Vietnam foreign policy of Democrats, or petitioning Congress not to withhold UN dues, she spoke her mind and she commanded respect.

So much of what she said was controversial at the time, but in retrospect is painfully obvious. If we wish to learn from history, it is our duty to read her writing, to understand her thinking, so that we can learn from it and avoid repeating the mistakes that she fought so hard to reverse. I’ll end this with a quote from her speech to the 1984 Republican Convention. It is a fiery speech, heavier on rhetoric than she allowed herself to be in her serious writing. Nevertheless, it contains more than just a hint of applicability to the current approach that many politicians take when purporting identify the “underlying causes” of the world’s problems:

They said that saving Grenada from terror and totalitarianism was the wrong thing to do — they didn’t blame Cuba or the communists for threatening American students and murdering Grenadians — they blamed the United States instead.

But then, somehow, they always blame America first.

When our Marines, sent to Lebanon on a multinational peacekeeping mission with the consent of the United States Congress, were murdered in their sleep, the “blame America first crowd” didn’t blame the terrorists who murdered the Marines, they blamed the United States.

But then, they always blame America first.

When the Soviet Union walked out of arms control negotiations, and refused even to discuss the issues, the San Francisco Democrats didn’t blame Soviet intransigence. They blamed the United States.

But then, they always blame America first.

When Marxist dictators shoot their way to power in Central America, the San Francisco Democrats don’t blame the guerrillas and their Soviet allies, they blame United States policies of 100 years ago.

But then, they always blame America first.

Readers wishing to become more familiar with her thought may enjoy reading one of her essays. The collection of essays that she wrote for Commentary can be found here (“How the PLO Was Legitimized” is a must read. “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” the essay from which the book takes its name, has become a classic and is available there as well.)

I also recommend reading one of her many books, like Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism & Reason in Politics (my personal favorite) or The Withering Away of the Totalitarian State.

Her latest book, Making War to Keep Peace, is due to be released February of 2007.

Readers wishing to read other obituaries for Jeane Kirkpatrick can find them here (by her friend Norman Pohoretz, Editor-at-Large of Commentary) and here (by Georgetown University, providing a good summary of her career achievements) and here (AP’s informative, if boilerplate, obituary).