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Op-Ed: A Cold War Retrospective

Apr 20, 2012 Written by  Bruce L. Brager, Contributor

4820119524 d3ebb39370 z"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent." - Winston Churchill, March 5, 1946.

"Due to the situation which has evolved as a result of the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." - Mikhail Gorbachev, December 26, 1991.

For much of the period between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and 1989, each of the global superpowers had the power to obliterate civilization, if not life itself, on the planet. However dangerous though, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union ended up as the only instance in world history where two such deadly rivals did not directly fight a hot war. We should not miss the "good old days" of the "evil empire." But, we can learn from this period.

When trying to figure out "why we won," historical debate still tends to parallel the policy debates at the time – much light and noise, little heat. Showing the charm so much a part of modern American political discourse, conservatives declare that those liberals who opposed a constant hard line against the Soviets were not only wrong, but were traitors out to destroy the American way of life. Many seem to forget that dissent – however tastelessly it might be manifest, however poorly it might be timed – is a fundamental American value. Dissent is the American way, one of the reasons we were fighting the Cold War. Ranting, alas, is also freedom of speech and the American way. Things in Washington have not changed much.

So much current conservative policy discourse fails to offer new ideas. It fails to make liberals think. But this pales in comparison to the behavior of Senator Joe McCarthy, and many others, in the early 1950s. McCarthy and his supporters were a menace to the idea of dissent in this country, especially when they could cost dissenters their jobs. They seemed to think that winning the struggle with our deadly enemy required using the enemy's methods. McCarthy ruined lives, seemingly just for his own pleasure.

Political atmosphere changes almost as much as the Earth's atmosphere. McCarthy's extreme actions helped push the country back to more tolerance for dissent. What is interesting, however, is the unintended damage McCarthy caused. With very strong self-promotional elements, McCarthy seemed to be seeking to discredit communism. There actually were communists in the State Department; the Soviet Union was making an effort to infiltrate the American government, though not to the degree it had done so before World War Two. But any real communists McCarthy might have exposed, or persuaded to resign, were sheer coincidence. McCarthy's methods were so extreme he did far more damage to the idea of vigilant anti-communism and national security then to his intended target.

One might be forgiven for wondering if McCarthy was actually a Soviet agent, an expert at psy-war, tasked with discrediting anti-communist vigilance. Of course, this may be crediting malevolence to what was more likely just reckless stupidity.

The liberals, and the left, (two terms not totally synonymous) also apply ideological illogic to what should be logical policy analysis. The left declares the right to have been a mob of deadly warmongers barely prevented from blowing up the planet. They wonder if the right has changed all that much, even with the Soviet Union long on the ash-heap of history. And the right sometimes seems to oblige the left, with their words and with their actions.

The left also plays into the rhetorical hands of the right. They don't bother with such subtle issues as whether we should have fully trusted Joseph Stalin, or Mao Zedung, or Saddam Hussein. Our questionable and badly planned 2003 war – and no weapons of mass destruction – did not make Saddam Hussein a good guy. Our policy mistakes also did not make Saddam a smart guy. Was it really a good idea to pretend to have weapons he did not have; the very weapons likely to provoke, or provide the justification, for an attack? We were not the only ones with intelligence failures.

Revisionist Cold War historians in the United States – those who define their mission as changing interpretations, usually putting the United States and other Western cultures in as bad a light as possible, not just reexamining traditional interpretations and conventional wisdoms – blame the Cold War on the United States. (Interestingly, post-Glasnost Russian historians tend to blame it on the Soviet Union.)

Liberals have long called for an understanding of all cultures and societies. Excellent idea – understanding one's friends to keep them as friends, understanding one's enemies to deter or defeat them, and understanding those one seeks to influence to find ways to influence them. However, this idea frequently morphs to the idea that one should never make value judgments.

The left continues to seem quite happy to judge American society. Arguably, America should be held to higher standards, as it sets higher standards for itself. Constructive criticism of a society can be as valuable as constructive criticism of a person. This criticism would have been more constructive had it looked at ways the United States was failing to live up to its principles, and avoided declaring our society to fundamentally rotten to the core. This was not the way to win friends and influence people, the first step, without exception, in implementing any policy.

The right wing was awarded the undeserved high ground on moral issues, with major and continuing political damage to the liberals, without the right having to work to earn the high ground. If one does not respect a person's soul, one will have problems respecting the person's mind, or seeing any value to changing the mind. One will fail to perform a basic function of leadership – changing the mainstream.

We stumbled through the Cold War. Despite the varied history of American policy towards the Soviets, the basic outline of the correct way to handle them was discovered quite early – containment. George Kennan, then a mid-level American diplomat in Moscow, perhaps in spite of himself formulated this policy in his "Long Telegram" in 1946 and in his famous "X" article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," in 1947. Kennan later disavowed some of the applications of the policy, but his original ideas worked. Oversimplified, this policy focused on the ruthlessly opportunistic aspects of Soviet motivation and policy: Don't give them opportunities. Create such things as the Marshall Plan to strengthen "at risk" nations and decrease the popular appeal of communism. Counter Soviet measures, but do not pose, or seem to pose, an active threat to Soviet national security. Avoid showing weakness that might tempt the Soviets to a first strike. Do not scare them into thinking a first strike is necessary for their own survival. Denied opportunity to expand, the inherent contradictions in the Soviet system will destroy the system. Kennan was correct.

The interesting lesson here in the idea of balance. American political realities made it almost a given that American policy would bounce back and forth, shifting to almost all extremes of the spectrum – fortunately stopping short of surrendering major national interests or starting nuclear war – averaging out to the correct policy. These shifts sometimes confused the Soviets, with their lack of full understanding of our system. Similarly, Soviet policy shifts, frequently motivated by their domestic politics, confused us. Basic understanding of an adversary is as necessary as sophisticated intelligence gathering and analysis. This provides context to the mass of available information, a way of finding patterns and meaning to "mere" facts.

Fortunately, both sides' bouncing sometimes stopped at correct policies – primarily over control of nuclear weapons and "confidence building" measures, ways of avoiding panicking one's opponent into drastic or dangerous actions. In the major area of nuclear weapons, both sides acted with strong doses of realism. We always had the power to deter the Soviet Union, if the power was properly applied. And, with the perspective of up to half a century, most American policy and operational errors seem to have been obvious, avoiding them equally obvious. But they were not obvious at the time.

Understanding, knowing what is going on, and its real meaning and implications, may be the basic lesson of the Cold War. The United States no longer plays for anywhere near as high the stakes as we did. However, the Soviets never killed Americans by direct attacks on American soil. Intelligence, in the sense of gathering and properly interpreting information, is more important than ever. Intelligence, in the sense of thinking, has always been vital.

Photo: A portion of an propaganda poster, circa 1955. Courtesy of James Vaughan.

Last modified on Thursday, 12 July 2012 16:36


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