Angelo Codevilla died in a car accident on September 20, 2021, at age 78. He had emigrated with his family to the United States from Italy in 1955 at age 12 and went on to serve as a U.S. Navy officer, a foreign service officer, a staff member on the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, and a professor of political philosophy and international relations at Georgetown University and Boston University. He was the author of 15 books, including War: Ends and Means (1989, with Paul Seabury); The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility (1997); and Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course in Statecraft (2009). A writer of exhilarating directness, he applied the term “the ruling class,” in an essay later expanded into a book of that title, to our bipartisan elite and popularized the term “the Cold Civil War” to describe our precarious political climate.
Angelo was also a senior fellow and faculty member of the Claremont Institute and a frequent contributor to the Claremont Review of Books from its inception. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, he wrote the cover essay “Victory: What It Will Take to Win,” returning to the theme regularly over the next decade, insisting that true peace meant not changing our way of life, but making the enemy change his. In all, he appeared in our pages nearly 50 times in 20 years, contributing, in addition to his penetrating essays on foreign and domestic policy, brilliant portraits of John Quincy Adams, Charles de Gaulle, Antonio Gramsci, Henry Kissinger, and Douglas MacArthur.
We feature here, in memory of our beloved colleague, some reflections from friends and students Hadley Arkes, Alfred Balitzer, David Corbin, David P. Goldman, Michael Ledeen, Carnes Lord, Robert R. Reilly, and Peter Thiel.
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In the late 1960s, the otherwise tranquil campuses of the Claremont Colleges were rocked by the turmoil of two protest movements: the demand for a black studies department, including a black studies center, and the anti-Vietnam war protest. In 1969 a bomb went off in the letter box of the Pomona College Government Department, severely injuring a secretary. Shortly thereafter a fire destroyed a building on the campus of Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College).
During this time, Angelo Codevilla joined a small band of graduate students at Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), studying with Professors Harry Jaffa, Martin Diamond, Bill Rood, and George Blair. When we first began our studies, we spent a good deal of time together.
Outside the classroom, he and I were brothers-in-arms, standing up against Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and later its remnant, the even more violent Weather Underground. At the graduate school, the SDS tried to defeat our small group of political philosophy students in a contest of wits and organization. An encounter I will never forget was Angelo confronting the SDS in the basement of CGS’s Harper Hall. Under the rubric of due process, the head of the local SDS demanded a share of student government funds for its activities, as if the SDS were a legitimate campus organization. Angelo, leaning halfway across a large conference table, pounded it vigorously and with a glowering look aimed at the SDS leader, retorted: “Yes, that’s right, we’ll give you all the process due ya!” Fellow grad students John Wettergreen and Mike Uhlmann and I broke out in a chorus of cheers and laughter. After that, whenever Angelo’s name was mentioned, John, Mike, and I took pleasure in telling this story.
When the SDS threatened to burn down the Claremont Colleges’ Honnold Library, John, Angelo, Larry Peterman, and I, with the help of some undergraduates, organized students for a 24-hour vigil, surrounding the library to protect it. They also threatened to burn down Benson Hall, an inviting target as George Benson was the founding president of CMC and had just left the college to become deputy assistant secretary of defense for ROTC.
With the SDS still demanding its share of student government funds, Angelo and I ran a campaign to defund student government. We asked a fellow grad student and friend, Mike Hertel, to stand for student body president. He was elected and the referendum to defund student government passed overwhelmingly. When we last heard, the former SDS leader was running a term paper mill in Venice Beach—a fitting tribute, we all agreed.
These incidents and many others flooded my mind after receiving the sad news of Angelo’s death. I prefer to dwell on the good, often exciting, times that we shared as newly minted graduate students. Of course, our work under the tutelage of our teachers is our greatest memory. In 1969 Leo Strauss arrived in Claremont, making it an even more special place to study. But as for our dear friend Angelo, I always shall recall his thumos: his willingness to stand as a guardian, protecting his city of philosophers—something he did so well and from which he drew great satisfaction.
Alfred Balitzer is professor emeritus of government at Claremont McKenna College and a member of the Board of Trustees of Claremont Graduate University.
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“The most dangerous man in America.” One thinks of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, but these words were pronounced about none other than Angelo Codevilla by a senior American intelligence official, at a time when Angelo was serving as a member of the intelligence transition team for the incoming Reagan Administration. This was a time, it should be recalled, when Congress was newly empowered to exercise real oversight over the intelligence agencies in the wake of the Watergate scandals and the Church Committee (named for its chairman, Idaho senator Frank Church) investigations of real and imagined malfeasance by the Central Intelligence Agency. As he explains in the preface to his magisterial Informing Statecraft: Intelligence for a New Century (1992), Angelo had a ready access, because of the nature of his position, to intelligence products and activities at all levels and compartments that was matched by few of those actually working in the intelligence business. And he had more time to reflect on this output than the harried operators and their superiors.
In the normal course of things, it might have been thought that a staffer for a conservative Republican senator would have been fully supportive of the intelligence agencies in their (losing) fight to maintain bureaucratic control of “the family jewels” in the teeth of the liberal congressional onslaught. Far from it. Working with a handful of like-minded outsiders such as Georgetown University’s Roy Godson, Angelo spearheaded a movement to demystify the intelligence world and to develop a constructive critique of American intelligence from the right. Part of this endeavor involved a searching analysis of the culture of American intelligence and its roots in the gentlemanly amateurism of the wartime Office of Strategic Services and the conventional (if now totally old-fashioned) liberalism that shaped the political outlook of the Cold War CIA. In addition, he sought to expose the self-serving mythologies deployed over the years to promote the agency’s bureaucratic interests. He pointed out that the original rationale for a civilian intelligence agency—the need for an “objective” appraisal of national security threats not tainted by military bias and answering directly to the president—obscured the extent to which the agency itself would develop a culture (including a certain “anti-military” bias) and set of bureaucratic interests of its own, to be defended at all costs.
In his actions and, later, extensive writings relating to the history of intelligence, Angelo brought to bear a unique skill set. Because of his thorough grounding in political philosophy, he was well-positioned to apply classical “regime” analysis to the American national security bureaucracy and its intelligence agencies, and one should add, in deference to his cherished Italian origins, to do so with a certain Machiavellian flair. Furthermore, his familiarity with the wider domain of war and diplomacy honed in him a relentless strategic logic, which he applied with exquisite—which is to say, frequently uncomfortable—effectiveness to what he regarded as a fundamentally a-strategic American intelligence community.
Carnes Lord is professor of strategic leadership at the U.S. Naval War College.
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After American forces prevailed in the first Gulf War in 1991, our Air Force claimed to have located Saddam Hussein. President George H.W. Bush was offered the chance to “take him out,” but refused. As Angelo put it, “He would kill the draftees, not the drafter.”
That line touched the core of what Angelo would teach about foreign policy, the purpose of military power, and the nature of the political order. And it was the sort of thing that I would savor when I could call Angelo and hear him unfold his account of the crisis of the day, and just what the government was doing wrong. To call Angelo was to get some precise, bracing view of the state of things, always deeply informed, always wise. The news of his death was jarring, for I had the sense, as many of us had, that he was torn away from us just when we needed even more his angle on our military adventures abroad. But also his sharpening sense of the nature of our political class, with its inflated sense of itself, and its detachment not only from our institutions, but from the mass of ordinary folk who make up the political community.
Angelo and I became fast friends when we met at dinner in 1976 and discovered we were the only ones present who had staked out a strong opposition to abortion. Angelo went on to make the case for the pro-life cause in the speeches he would write as an aide to Senator Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming. He never failed to see how this defense of the human person wove in with the premises at work in our foreign policy and in the defense of those human persons making up the American people.
Angelo and I discovered that we had both arrived, from different angles, at the point that would become the central guide of our teaching and writing. For me it came with my book Bureaucracy, the Marshall Plan, and the National Interest (1973), a kind of good-bye letter to my professor Hans Morgenthau and his version of realism. Morgenthau famously argued that foreign and military policy must take, as their defining end, the defense of the national interest. And yet, that national interest was not marked mainly by the defense of territory. What needed to be defended was not merely the territory, but the “regime” or way of life of a country, or the terms on which a people deserved to live. Seen through this prism, the allied armies that penetrated Nazi Germany from the West did indeed serve the “national interest,” by delivering the German people from a murderous tyranny. Angelo and I came to this recognition even before we encountered Leo Strauss, I in Chicago and Angelo in Claremont.
Strauss thought that the regime, or the politeia ran deeper than the Constitution, for it touched the deeper principles on which the lawgivers would draw in forming a constitution. The regime, conceived more broadly, would cover many ordinary parts of life that may not be mentioned in a constitution, as for example, the freedom to make a living at an ordinary calling without needing to purchase that freedom from the government. In his book The Character of Nations, Angelo expounded this understanding of the regime’s central importance. He would show how the character of the regime would penetrate to the most familiar, personal levels, in shaping how people may marry and beget and make a living.
And so he would point out that when Robert Mugabe became prime minister of Zimbabwe in 1980, the bureaucracy employed 62,036 people; but by 1990 it employed 181,401; and by 2008 over 250,000. About 81% of non-agricultural employment was in the bureaucracy. In other words, it was a government that fed itself even as it blocked many other ways for people to make a living and rise in the world. In dramatic contrast, as Angelo pointed out, the military regime that took hold in Chile, after outing Salvador Allende and his Socialists in 1973, chose to diminish the reach of the government. By 1990 the military regime had cut public employment down to one quarter of its former size, with 150,872 people working for the central government. And the cost of the government was brought down to 8.1% of the GDP. What the military regime brought about was not repression, but the receding of controls and the restoration of freedom across the range of domestic life. With those moves the military laid the ground for a return to the rule of law and democratic elections.
But, of course, the most serious test of the political regime came as we sought to gauge just which regimes in the world posed the gravest dangers to us, and which ones we ought to be promoting abroad as compatible with our way of life. What has to be explained in our own time is how that understanding of the central importance of the political regime managed to recede from our senior figures, in the military and in politics. At the beginning of the Gulf War, the military’s focus was on the Iraqi army. “First, we’re going to cut it off,” explained General Colin Powell, “then we’re going to kill it.” Angelo found here the state of mind that unloosed a war “without regard to specific postwar conditions.” It was war conducted without any sense of the central purposes to be achieved. “The point is,” Angelo knew,
that Bush and his people should have seen that the problem lay in the very existence of Saddam’s regime. As such, it presented the U.S. with only two real alternatives: either to overthrow and replace that regime with an acceptable one (or at least to overthrow it and retain the capacity to crush any unacceptable successor), or to do whatever necessary to appease it.
But President Bush was willing to leave Saddam and his regime in place; he would simply deprive them of the fruits of their aggression in Kuwait. Angelo found it another telling mark that Bush was taking his soundings from leaders in other countries, including the Arab states. They were content to go no further and to leave Saddam in place. As Angelo remarked, “The great importance that Bush placed on acting in concert with [Mikhail] Gorbachev is one of the principal reasons the U.S. never made changing the Iraqi regime part of its policy.”
The result was that Saddam, in surviving, became celebrated in the Arab world as though he had actually won the war. Arab States continued to make overtures to him, and, as Angelo said, the Bush Administration lost any leverage to coax the Arab States to move away from their war with Israel.
Angelo found here a vice that would become ever more destructive: we had somehow shaped, over the years, a political class that preferred to keep decisions in the hands of people like themselves, here and abroad. They would prefer to gain the approval of elites abroad rather than consulting the opinion of those ordinary folk who form the people of their own country. But a willingness to seek the consent of Congress is a willingness to open oneself to the native sense of Americans in all their varieties. The American people have been quite supportive of presidents taking decisive actions abroad, and yet the need to present a case to the Congress and the public induces a salutary discipline of its own. As Angelo said, the task of “declaring commitments forces people to face the implications of what they are doing.” It induces them, in other words, to come to a judgment on the ends for which they are asking people to risk their lives.
Angelo himself was living, as we long knew, on “borrowed time.” We almost lost him 20 years ago. He would have, remarkably, two heart transplants, for which he was deeply grateful. Looking back, I think we have to be grateful that we had Angelo with us as long as we did. Already I miss his voice—and his gift of friendship. But he wasted not a moment of that borrowed time, in writing and husbanding and tutoring us all.
Almost 25 years ago he did his own, rather different, translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince. I would teach from that book, and there was always one line that stood out to me to describe Angelo himself. It was the line about Hiero II of Syracuse (306-215 B.C.): “quod nihil illi deerat at regnandum praeter regnum.” For Angelo, I’d render it this way: he had every attribute of a king, save that of a kingdom.
Hadley Arkes is the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions emeritus at Amherst College and the founder and director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding in Washington, D.C.
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I first met Angelo Codevilla in the spring of 1996. The previous fall, Boston University’s famously provocative president, John Silber, had named Codevilla professor of international relations as part of his effort to fill B.U.’s faculty rolls with distinguished academics and practitioners. Had you judged Codevilla by the buzz created by his first-semester teaching assistants, you would have thought Silber had hired Hannibal Lecter.
After some serious negotiation that involved trading teaching assignments for a month’s worth of bar tabs, I agreed to serve as Codevilla’s next T.A. I knew this was a different sort of professor from his first lecture, in which he responded to one young lady who complained about his syllabus: “Do you want to learn about international politics this semester or nonsense? My goal is to teach you how the world works and why, not to confirm for you how you would like it to work.”
After the class, he introduced himself to me and invited me to his office. He asked me what I was interested in studying, and I replied that I wanted to study Shakespeare and Machiavelli on political greatness, as I was thinking about running for elective office. He was interested. He inquired more. When I shared that I had studied with two of Harry Jaffa’s former students as an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, he stood up and shouted, “A fellow member of the tribe! You’re kidding me! Well, well, Corbin, let’s get to work!”
But before I was able to leave his office, his expression shifted from one of delight to earnestness, as he asked me where I attended church. I told him that my church attendance had been spotty since entering college. He then asked a set of questions: Do you believe in God? Did he create the world? Is he all-powerful? Is he good? Is he all-knowing? Does he know you? I answered yes to every question. To which he replied, “You seem like a fairly smart guy, Corbin. You say you believe in a creator God who is all wise, powerful, and good. Yet you can’t find an hour a week to worship Him.” I replied that I didn’t know where to go to church and without pause he said, “There are churches where men are worshiped and churches where God is worshiped. Go to the latter. You’ll know the difference.”
Most of the conversations I had with him followed the same progression: Get to the point. Ask what is required of us given what we know. Figure out what we’re up against and whether we have the means to do the right thing. And most importantly, realize that if our words and deeds along the way do not correspond to reality, we will not be able to accomplish the right thing. This instruction was hard, and he delivered it with a bluntness that was equally demanding.
But for all the prescriptions about the best means to make our way through this world (best encapsulated, I would argue, in his Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course in Statecraft), Dr. Codevilla was a man primarily defined by what he loved. For all the advice on war, he believed and taught that the only true and lasting peace is found in God’s eternal kingdom. For all the talk on faction and revolution in contemporary American politics, he believed that a political renewal grounded in a love for republican self-government would be the only means to secure the country. And for all his work in the public square, his greatest love and joy was in the company of his family, friends, and students.
As we grieve the loss of a great, good, and forcefully honest man, Angelo would be the first to instruct us, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, that it is up to us, the living, to have a clear and rightly ordered sense of what is true and good, and to dedicate our lives to defending and advancing a peace that enables this way of life in whatever time God gives us in this world. His many writings leave us a road map for how we might achieve this purpose. May we be willing to do the hard work of studying and courageously applying his insights to whatever may befall us.
David Corbin taught politics at the University of New Hampshire, The King’s College, and Providence Christian College between 1996 and 2021. He currently serves as Head of School at the Geneva School of Boerne in Boerne, Texas.
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I last saw Angelo in the fall of 2019 at his vineyard in the Sierra Foothills—in the Republican part of California. It was a fitting setting for a modern Machiavelli: an observational perch from which the consummate insider-outsider could conduct his research in the science of politics.
As one of the last of the generation to have studied directly with Leo Strauss, he transmitted to his students a keen awareness of the deeply political nature of human life, an awareness that was at odds with the more idealistic and naïve libertarianism I had brought with me to Stanford as an undergraduate in the 1980s—and therefore highly instructive. He was an inspirational mentor to me and to the Stanford Review at its founding.
One of the last people to be “elite” in the sense of uniting excellence with responsibility; one of the most prescient in diagnosing the diseases of “the ruling class” in America that has become merely entitled rather than truly elite; a well-connected Catholic in a Protestant country—Angelo Codevilla was a man both complex and uncommonly wise. He will be much missed, for his inimitable personality and for the model he presented—difficult but not impossible to imitate—of a gentleman and a scholar.
Peter Thiel is an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and co-founder of PayPal, Palantir Technologies, and Founders Fund.
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David P. Goldman
Encountering Angelo Codevilla was like being hit in the face with a bucket of ice water. I can’t say that of any of his contemporaries, edifying and informative as so many of them are. I had never met him before the CRB asked me to discuss his 2014 masterwork, To Make and Keep Peace: Among Ourselves and with All Nations. Subsequently we became good friends. In company Angelo was the soul of fellowship, convivial and considerate. His writing, however, was ruthless. Not since Abraham Lincoln, and before him John Quincy Adams, Angelo averred, has America conducted its foreign policy in keeping with its core national interests. Not even Ronald Reagan escaped his scorn: Reagan achieved only a “rhetorical restoration of the concepts of victory and peace,” but “hardly affected real U.S. policy.”
Something had gone terribly wrong with America’s conception of the world since Lincoln, and the stench of long-buried errors pervaded all the major “schools” of foreign policy—liberal internationalist, realist, and neoconservative. Angelo brought to the great debates of his time the sweeping judgments of a Jeremiah, with the intellectual audacity to specify failings that had plagued the United States for over a century.
His 2010 manifesto, The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It, in which he called for the “country party” to overthrow the elites, made him a major figure in the conservative movement. He was the prophet who foretold the rise of Donald Trump. But the true grandeur of his thinking, I believe, was found in an exceptional kind of courage. He saw through the sedimentary layers of self-deception that had accumulated in our foreign policy thinking over a century and a half, and showed us our shortcomings without fear.
Hypocrisy and mendacity disgusted him. His field as a practitioner was foreign intelligence, and he brilliantly guided the Senate Intelligence Committee between 1977 and 1985. He rejected offers of a high position in the intelligence community because he knew that the entire process was corrupt, because secrecy provides a pretext to cover up blunders. His withering criticism of the world of intelligence, though, was only a special case in his overall analysis of the way America engaged with the world.
Angelo could view the contemporary world from Machiavelli’s vantage point—and cajole, berate, and inspire the rest of us to discard our illusions and face bitter truths. He was a Renaissance scholar who had begun his career as a physicist, and was equally at home in the politics of 15th-century Florence and the technical requirements of space-based missile defense. He was a Thomist who eschewed the facile interpretation of natural law as a justification for nation-building. Philosopher, scientist, historian, and intelligence official: I do not believe that the United States could educate such a man today.
It was bracing to meet Angelo, a pleasure to know him, and painful to mourn him. I do not know what we shall do without him.
David P. Goldman is deputy editor of the Asia Times and a Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life.
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Angelo Codevilla was a hell of a man. He ruled over his kids’ homework, over their sports schedules, and over their diets. He stayed up half the night to make sure they had done their schoolwork correctly and thoroughly, and unhesitatingly corrected any blunders he could identify. Like many immigrants, Angelo mastered the English language, and it was a pleasure to read his writing. Like those who excel in a foreign language, Angelo took pride in his usage of obscure English terminology and delighted in trotting out rare words and phrases.
To the rest of us, Angelo left wisdom, foremost among which was the insight that our ruling class was in it for power. He understood that our top leaders were motivated less by ideology than by the quest for power, and that they were in search of the means to govern the maximum amount of territory possible. He saw this search as the basic mission of many American leaders, and, likewise, of Chinese efforts to expand their outreach. That is why the ruling classes in both Washington and Beijing worked so hard to bring the masses under control, to break the power of the entrepreneurial elites in both capitals, and to relocate decision-making firmly into the hands of state leaders. In that manner, the merely wealthy would be deprived of real power, and the truly powerful could enforce their will on the rest of the people.
Angelo was a devoted outdoorsman, and there are innumerable tales of his mountain-climbing abilities, with and without guides. He took friends into the hills and led them through some of the most difficult swimming routes. He unhesitatingly tackled steep hills and crossings. The more difficult the challenge, the greater was Angelo’s enthusiasm. A hell of a man indeed.
Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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Robert R. Reilly
Angelo Codevilla was my friend since 1973 and his friendship was one of the great blessings in my life. Let me share a few reminiscences of his personal side. He was a warrior, and would fight to defend his friends, including me, when I got into political trouble in Washington—so long as we were on the right side. I particularly valued his intellectual companionship. He was clearly the senior partner in our exchanges, often helping me work through various conundrums that had me stumped. Our conversations would sometimes last hours. Not only that, he would take inchoate chapters of mine, snap them into shape, and rewrite key sentences; expressing them with a clarity that often eluded me. No one got me through writer’s block as frequently as he. Thanks to his guidance, all of a sudden, the path forward became clear.
On the Sunday afternoon before the accident that took his life, we spent an hour on the telephone. Part of the time was dedicated, as always, to talking about wine—specifically, Angelo’s wine. Angelo seemed capable of mastering just about any art and had turned himself into a very fine vintner at his beautiful vineyard in the Sierra Foothills. The wines, like the man, are bold and very flavorful. It being late September, he was in the middle of the grape harvest, a smaller bounty than usual but one for which he still had hopes. Angelo had had to uproot half of his zinfandel vines, and he spoke with enthusiasm about his recent plantings of the Nebbiolo varietal native to the Piedmont region of Italy. Once again, we shared our mutual detestation of high alcohol content in many wines, particularly California ones. Angelo was firmly of the school that alcohol content should never exceed 13½%. One should be able to enjoy several glasses of wine with a good meal without getting crocked.
Which raises the subject of cuisine. Angelo was a very good cook and always provided his guests with copious, almost inordinate, amounts of food. As a young boy in northern Italy, he had grown up in straitened circumstances and I think the experience left him with the determination that there would be profuse amounts of food on the table. In one of our early meals together, he introduced me to rabbit. It was delicious. Our last dinner was two years ago at his vineyard with more steak than I could eat and more wine than I could drink. I should also mention that Angelo sometimes hunted for his food, especially when he was at his ranch in Wyoming. (Did you know he was also an accomplished horseman?) When he bagged a deer, he would field dress it on the spot. How had he learned to do that? What did he not know how to do?
I end with a comment on Angelo, the husband. He told me that in graduate school at Notre Dame, he would disappear for long weekends to court his future wife, Ann. This necessitated his driving to the East Coast and back again. Consequently, he missed classes. This greatly displeased the great Gerhart Niemeyer with whom he was studying. Anyone who has ever met Ann knows that Angelo chose the better part.
In conversation with Angelo early this summer, I learned how exhausted he was becoming from the care he was giving Ann due to her increasingly grave infirmity. I told him he would do her no favors by killing himself from overwork. His reply was simple: “I took a vow.” Angelo kept his vows to his wife and to his adopted country. Fidelity defined the man. It was an honor to know a person of such honor and to have him as a dear friend.
Robert R. Reilly is the author, most recently, of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).