Arthur Herman: After COVID, the Afghanistan debacle, the wisdom of the Vikings can help an America in crisis

The answer to both questions is yes. 

Twenty years after 9/11, Americans find are wondering what’s ahead after COVID and our debacle in Afghanistan.  


In September 2001 I published a book called “How The Scots Invented The Modern World.” It showed how a small ethnic group – the Scots of Scotland – became the carriers of the seeds of modernization.   

The book revealed how the key thinkers of Scotland’s 18th century, including Adam Smith, laid down the basic assumptions about capitalism, self-government  and the power of individual enterprise that spread around the world, including to America, with transformative results – one of which was the U.S. Constitution. 


Published in the shadow of 9/11, my publisher and I thought the book would be all but forgotten in the tumultuous and chaotic weeks afterward.  America had real enemies, and real issues to face. Who was going to care about what Adam Smith said or did 200 years ago, or how Scots like James Wilson and David Hume influenced the U.S. Constitution? 

It turned out, lots of people did. The book became a New York Times  bestseller, and a bestseller in the U.K. and Canada.   

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The Scottish experience in shaping the modern world and America suddenly had tremendous resonance with post-9/11 readers. Right or left, liberal or conservative, they recognized in the themes of the book a message about the importance of civilized values and freedom, and the self-confidence we were going to need in the face of barbarism and terror.  

My new book, “The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World,” is about much more than the fearsome Norsemen who ranged around the world 1,200 years ago and laid the foundations for globalization– or their Scandinavian descendants who settled in America and became part of the American Dream.  

It’s also about the links between freedom and community, and how a polarized nation can become one again.  

The answer lies in the cultural skill set the Vikings forged in a harsh and unforgiving homeland and passed on to their descendants – and then to the immigrants coming to America.   

(Mariner Books)

The first component of that set was a robust commitment to family and community. The Danes have a word for it: Samfundssind or social mindedness (samfund meaning ‘society’ and sind ‘mind’). For the Vikings at peace or war, there was no survival without communal survival.   

The Vikings’ willingness to venture into the unknown for the sake of community and family has universal value.

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