Salvo 11.24.2021 9 minutes

In Memory of Angelo Maria Codevilla (1943–2021)

Statue of Liberty sunset. NYC harbor, Manhattan.

Remembering the life of a great man.

Editors’ Note

We continue to give thanks for the teaching, public service, and memory of our friend, the great patriot Angelo Codevilla. These remarks were given at a memorial for friends and family at Andis Wines in Plymouth, CA, on October 20, 2021. Professor Codevilla touched the lives of innumerable friends, colleagues, and students; we present these reflections to supplement those already published in the Claremont Review of Books.

Thomas Codevilla

Welcome friends, family, community members, and policy nerds. I’m Thomas Codevilla, Angelo’s youngest son. Thank you all for coming. 

We’re here today because, after years of gently suggesting that Dad get more rest, the good Lord took matters into his own hands. 

Dad was many things to many people; it is natural to ask at a memorial, Who was he really? I will not speak on his intellectual legacy. People with actual doctorates are here to do that. To the extent it may help though, here’s how I understood him. 

Imagine if you will, being born poor into World War II Italy with a predeceased father. You steal fruit from orchards to keep your belly full; your scalp bears a hatchet scar from a fight with a pre-teen Communist gang. You bathe in a cauldron. You are first in your class every year because you have to be. Standing at your father’s grave, your mother lectures you on duty and family.

After your unscrupulous Argentinian tango violinist relatives steal the money your mother sent ahead, you only have enough money for the boat ride to America. You experience running hot water for the first time on that boat and the gratitude never leaves you. Every August 8 for the rest of your life, you celebrate the anniversary of your disembarkment. 

You learn English from John Wayne movies and perfect your accent by repeating Winston cigarette ads. You deliver newspapers to mobsters; you learn to knife fight to protect yourself at school; you build amateur rockets and gleefully shoot them over the Hudson River into New York. You meet your future wife by walking straight into a Valentine’s Day mixer to which you were not invited, asking her, “Good evening miss, would you like to twist?” then taking her out for her first beer at age 18.

Now ask yourself, given that early life, what room is there in you for fear or self-doubt? When you have realized your wildest dreams through will and self-reliance, why stop dancing with the one that brought you?

His mindset created some obstacles and demolished others. When Dad was in the navy, one of his officer tests consisted of managing a simulated crisis on a ship; after three frenzied minutes of trying to complete every task himself, his commanding officer stopped him and told him that the point of the exercise was delegation. Dad liked the story more than the moral.

His informal motto was, make them stop you. If there wasn’t a fence or a federal injunction, or even if there was and he didn’t think it was “serious,” he’d go ahead with what he thought was right and make the powers that be pipe up if they had any grief. 

On the flip side, I once found myself with him on horseback, stuck on the top of a hill at midnight, a freshly-killed elk in our panniers and wolves howling in the trees, scared out of my mind. I saw no way off the hill. Dad calmly dismounted, used a rock to demolish a fence panel, and leaned back in the saddle, as one would in a La-Z-Boy, as our horses picked their way down the hill. 

On one horse pack trip deep in the backcountry, a kid in our group got the flu and we started the three-day ride out to the cabin. On top of a mountain pass in a sideways hailstorm, a cinch on the sick kid’s horse came loose and she toppled off, then commenced to get sick. I swear, on my life, I saw Dad smile and hum some cheery little tune to himself as he calmed the horse and reattached the saddle. 

When a bear ate almost all our food in the middle of another pack trip, that, to Dad, was a blessed opportunity to fish more for our dinner. 

Old news, but he suffered no fools. I bet his former students will hear his refrain “Get serious” in their dreams. While I was in law school, I finally asked him to define his terms: what does “Get serious” mean? Out came the old saw that those who are serious about the ends should be serious about the means. I replied that he was begging the question. He replied instantly that to be serious was to prepare and believe so thoroughly that one could stand in front of the whole world, maybe even God, and speak the Truth, with a capital T. How are you going to argue with a guy who imagines haranguing the Almighty every time he talks?

He walked that walk; I have yet to hear of anyone else going through two heart transplants with total continuity of attitude. 

My favorite story was when Dad apparently dressed down a two-star general in a meeting, ruining any chance of the general supporting his pet project. Roy Godson took Dad aside afterwards and asked, in as many words, what the hell he thought he was doing. “The guy is a schmuck,” Dad said. Roy replied, “And who are you, the unschmucker?”

Everyone who knew him should be nodding right now. Dad unschmucked all day and twice on Sundays. Dad would, and frequently did, unschmuck for free.

He put Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in my hands at age 12, then asked me for a book report on it. He showed me a passage of Solzhenitsyn’s that made him do that crazy-eyed half-smile half-snarl thing he only did when he was really fired up.

Violence has nothing to cover itself with but lies, and lies can only persist through violence. And it is not every day and not on every shoulder that violence brings down its heavy hand: It demands of us only a submission to lies, a daily participation in deceit—and this suffices as our fealty.

And therein we find, neglected by us, the simplest, the most accessible key to our liberation: a personal nonparticipation in lies! Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule, let us resist in the smallest way: Let their rule hold not through me!

Leaving aside parallels to current events, that is how I understood my dad. 

I still wish he had slowed down more to enjoy what he had built, but that was not Dad. So please, before you get back to your lives and your work, pause and consider how many walks of life this crowd represents, how one man could live enough lives to assemble all of you. 

If you want to honor him, I have two suggestions. First, drink this wine made from the grapes he grew and share stories with someone from another life of his; the intelligence officer in him would appreciate a final thorough debrief. Thank God for whatever experience brought you here today. 

Then wake up tomorrow and work a little harder—because Dad’s got the day off.

Thomas Codevilla is a former Claremont Institute Publius fellow.

Brian T. Kennedy

Thank you everyone for joining us to honor and remember Angelo Codevilla.

For his family, let me say that there was never a conversation I had with him where it was not clear that whatever Angelo was doing, it was in the service of his family and his country. He was extremely proud of his family and the life he had built and lived so passionately here in America. 

I, like many of you, knew Angelo through his writings before I ever met the man. Knowing what I do about Angelo, one might say that his writings form a kind of love letter to his adopted country. I hope for this tribute to be a kind of love letter to him and to his family. 

I was talking to one of the Claremont Institute founders and one of Angelo’s friends, in the days after Angelo passed. Chris Flannery had just done a podcast on the greatness of America and the Statue of Liberty. Afterwards Angelo emailed Chris Flannery the following: 

On the foggy morning of August 8, 1955, it was my privilege to stand on the port rail of the American Export Lines SS Constitution, along with every other emigrant on board, as the ship slipped past the Statue and into NY harbor, Pier 40. Nobody made a sound. All were overwhelmed. The only sounds I heard that morning were quiet sobs. Enormous satisfaction and anticipation. None of us really knew what awaited. But everybody was awed and delighted that, finally, we were here! Countless prayers fulfilled. 

One got the impression from Angelo that not long after arriving in New York, he thought, “what a beautiful place. I must defend it. These people don’t seem to know how to do this. I need to teach them.” Angelo Codevilla was a professor of international relations. That is a profession that is known for theories of international relations that range from what is called realpolitik to isolationism and a variety of political variations on the theme, from neoconservativism to globalism to what is called, today, America Firstism. 

Angelo Codevilla was none of these. He was a philosopher. One did not need a theory of international relations if he were guided by common sense and intelligence; not the kind that is produced in Langley, Virginia, but the kind that is between your ears. If you didn’t have that you needed more of it. If that were not possible, you were in deep trouble. For nearly all his professional career, Angelo believed we Americans were in deep trouble. He was an early advocate of national missile defense based on the rather simple premise that if another nation has nuclear weapons that could and are intended to destroy you, it is only common sense that you would have a defensive system to make sure that did not happen. 

One of his finest books was While Others Build, which describes the debate in the ’80s over missile defense. He saw then just how unserious the nation was about matters critical to our national survival. He meant to change that. After September 11, all of Angelo’s training and scholarship would come into sharp focus as he emerged as the most serious and insightful analyst of why we were attacked and what must be done to ensure that it would never happen again. Here his common sense was melded with an unparalleled understanding of international affairs in a book called No Victory, No Peace. For Angelo the question was rather basic: Who did it, why did they do it, and what should our response be? Rather straightforward and uncomplicated. The Who of September 11 was not, in Angelo’s estimation, the people of Afghanistan. Yes, the Afghans were harboring bin Laden, but their strategic thanking did not really extend much further than whether they were going to get paid to harbor the leader of Al-Qaeda. For Angelo, the common-sense analysis was that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals and could not have pulled off the attack without the assistance and tacit support of the Saudi intelligence services and therefore the Saudi government and by extension the Saudi royal family. 

The Why was that they were sympathetic to a sect of Islamic teaching that believed in waging war on the infidel, namely us. When it came to What to do about it, for Angelo, the commonsense assessment was that there are 5,000 members of the Saudi royal family. Some of them should hang or face murder charges for what they allowed to happen. That would send a signal to the Saudi royal family, and to tyrants throughout world, that if you harbor al-Qaeda you will pay a heavy price. Indeed, you will pay with your life. Despots throughout the Middle East would have an immediate interest in making sure that any member of al-Qaeda would be turned over to the United States for justice to be served. 

To Angelo’s way of thinking, the fact that the U.S. government did not hold Saudi Arabia to account, indeed covered for them at nearly every turn, also sent a signal—that the United States, because of its long ties to the Saudi royal family, could be bought off, financially, politically, and diplomatically. For all the tough talk about holding the perpetrators to account, we sent a signal to the world that we were not going to hold Saudi Arabia to account and, indeed, we were going to let them get away with it. We were going to let corners of Saudi intelligence go on operating as they had before. Yes, Saudi Arabia may become an ally in the War on Terror, but the basic lie had been told, which everyone understood to be a lie, that we were not going to hold the perpetrators to account. We were going to hold someone else to account and see whether or not the American people could be mollified by such action. 

This did not mean of course that there weren’t people worthy of retribution for their part in Afghanistan or Iraq or Iran or elsewhere. But that war was not going to be waged against the main perpetrator, Saudi Arabia. Military actions were going to be had in Afghanistan and Iraq to massage domestic political concerns and achieve some unknown objective. This lie was so transparent, Angelo believed, it would implicate everyone within the American national security establishment regarding the falsehood. That not only sent the wrong signal to the Islamic world, but it would also alter fundamentally the relationship of the U.S. government and the national security apparatus to the American people. This was itself the most damning thing, for the purpose of war was always to make your country better off. 

For Angelo this was something so commonsensical that it should not even need to be articulated. It was a favorite phrase of Angelo’s to say that this was not a serious country, or that this politician or another was not a serious man. Of course, he meant that it was deadly serious that we as a nation had to have leaders who were going to defend America from all enemies foreign and domestic. 

As an aside, it was not long after Angelo had written these articles on September 11 for the Claremont Review of Books that he was teaching in one of our fellowship programs in Newport Beach. As it happened, we were staying at the Island Hotel, which had become a favorite place for the Saudi royal family to summer. For about five years straight, 75% of the hotel was occupied by the Saudis during the summer. On this occasion Angelo had arrived at his appointed time but had been given the wrong room number for the hospitality suite where we were meeting. He had been sent to the Presidential Suite, where senior members of the Saudi royal family were having a cocktail party of their own. It did not take long for Angelo to realize he was in the wrong place, and thankfully and even more importantly these Saudis didn’t know what Angelo Codevilla looked like. Later it was reported to me that Angelo had to be restrained from making good on his policy of punishing the Saudi royal family for September 11. That was the Angelo we knew and loved. 

Angelo saw things that others did not see. He diagnosed early that a populist rebellion was going on in American society between the people—what he called the country class—and those in Washington who thought themselves their betters, whom Angelo termed the ruling class. The main evangelist of his thesis was Rush Limbaugh, a populist himself, who found in Angelo’s writing an intellectual expression of populism that could be understood in conservative political terms. At the heart of Angelo’s criticism of the ruling class was the very American sensibility, “Who in the hell do they think they are?” That was always on his mind. Who in the hell were these people in Washington, D.C. to govern us this way? He would document near the end of his life how America had become an oligarchy, and that there was much work to be done to recover American freedom. All of us believed Angelo would be with us to show us the way. 

In reading his official obituary people will find it said that he was on his third heart. I knew him when he was on his first heart. I had visited him at Stanford University where doctors had assessed that he had an enlarged heart that was going to fail him. It would be nothing short of a miracle to find a heart that would be compatible, as all heart transplants are. Angelo had asked me to come to him in part to see if I would serve as his literary executor. I agreed immediately, not fully even knowing the scope of the work, but assuming it meant making sure that any outstanding manuscripts get produced and that older books in print remain in print. It was easy to agree of course, not merely because such a thing would be good to do, but because the force of nature that was Angelo Codevilla could certainly not die. There were too many essays to produce, too many books to be written, to many lectures to be given. 

A few weeks later I was in New York and Angelo called me. A young man in Utah had taken his own life and a heart therefore had been found. He asked if I could say a prayer for him that everything would go well with the transplant. So, from the tragedy of one man’s life ending, Angelo’s would continue. There was not a single interaction I had with Angelo that was not both humbling and exhilarating. Whether it was an essay, lecture, or phone call, you realized how much more there was to learn and how great a man Angelo was. And indeed, Angelo will be known always as a teacher. Not just what he did in the classroom, not just from his books and essays, but for how he lived his life. He was a moral man who expressed a loving devotion for his wife Anne and love and affection, and pride in his children. He was an example of a life well led. 

Angelo Codevilla knew how the world worked. He believed it his mission to teach his countrymen all that he knew. He wanted them to live as free men and women. In these dark times of ours I have been reading a lot about angels and demons and God’s intercessions. In so many ways, the aptly named Angelo Maria Codevilla has been one of America’s guardian angels. I pray that all the lives he has touched will take to heart and mind the many lessons he was trying to teach us. And I pray that he rest in peace knowing all the good he has done for so many of his countrymen.

Brian T. Kennedy is a senior fellow and the former president of the Claremont Institute, and current president of the American Strategy Group.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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