The Cold War, Bernie Sanders and me

The divided world of 1980. Click to enlarge. Source: Wikipedia

A lot of politics consists of argument about who was right about conflicts of the past.

The rights and wrongs of the Civil War were a dividing line in U.S. politics for more than a century after it ended.  U.S. intervention in World War One and the Vietnam conflict were issues for a generation or more after those conflicts ended.  So it is with the Cold War, which more than 30 years ago.

When the Cold War began, many people, myself included, saw it as a conflict between freedom and totalitarianism.   Over time, increasing numbers of people, evidently including Bernie Sanders, saw it as a conflict between capitalism and revolution.

Joseph Stalin’s USSR killed millions of its people through purges and through famines caused by government policy.  Mao Zedong’s China did the same.  Their goal seemed to be to seed the world with little junior replicas of themselves.  To me, the danger was clear.

As what was called a “cold war liberal,” I was in good company.  My fellow anti-Communists included many liberals and social democrats, including the great George Orwell, and disillusioned ex-Communists, who had come to realize that Soviet Union was the opposite of their ideal of a good society.

But the opposing view had support, too.  It had support from George F. Kennan, Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy and the other architects of Cold War policy, who in fact saw their mission as the defense of capitalism against revolution.

In their correspondence among each other, they did not express fear of the nightmare vision of Arthur Koester’s Darkness at Noon or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Their fear was that revolutionary movements would cut off American business from access to markets and raw materials.

Here’s how Kennan, who was head of the State Department’s policy planning staff, explained U.S. priorities in 1948:

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.

Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction….

We should cease to talk about vague and…, unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization.  The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.  The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Source: Noam Chomsky.

They didn’t think the U.S. public was willing to accept such harsh truths.  They agreed it was necessary to frighten the American people—to be, as Acheson put it, “clearer than the truth.”

So which side was right—the anti-Communists or their opponents?  Both had facts on their side.  Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China really were murderous dictatorships.  U.S. foreign policy really was more cynical than Americans were led to believe.  The question is: Which facts were more significant?

I was a boy during World War Two.  I was not touched by the mass killing and terrible suffering of those years.

It seemed to me as if I was living in an epic drama.  The German Nazis, the Italian Fascists and the Japanese warlords were evildoers.  They practiced torture, invaded nations that did not threaten them without a declaration of war, and justified it all by lying propaganda.  The French and British appeasers and American Isolationists were blind to the threat, or maybe sympathetic to the enemy.

But Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill aroused their nations to the peril and in a glorious struggle, aided by the French Resistance, the heroic, long-suffering Chinese and, oh, yes, the Russians, assured the triumph of democracy and freedom.

During my adolescence and youth, the Cold War seemed like another epic drama.   Another totalitarian dictator, Joseph Stalin, was on the march, soon to be aided by Mao Zedong.  But this time the democracies rose to the challenge.

The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the formation of NATO, the Berlin blockade and airlift, the worker uprisings in East Germany and Hungary and the U.S. triumph in the Cuban Missile crisis were all chapters of a heroic saga.

To be sure, there were things that didn’t fit the heroic narrative—U.S. support of Francisco Franco, Chiang Kaishek and other dictators and overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala.

But my rationalization was that (1) the faults of the USA were aberrations, while the crimes of Communism were intrinsic to the system, (2) conservatives should have realized that the best way to fight Communism was to promote democracy and social reform, but (3) when you get right down to it, almost any form of government is better than totalitarian Communism.

By the 1980s, when Bernie Sanders made his infamous visits to Cuba, Russia and Nicaragua, it was hard to continue to believe in a narrative of a United States making a heroic resistance to the Soviet goal of world domination.

It was clear the the Soviet Union was on its last legs, even before Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan held their famous Reykjavik summit meeting in 1985.

Soviet power in eastern Europe collapsed in 1989 and the Soviet Union itself came apart in 1991.  Reagan and George H.W. Bush made peace with Russia and also treated China as a normal nation.

At the same time, both Reagan and Bush administrations stopped at nothing to suppress revolutions in Latin America.  They supported the Contras in Nicaragua, guerrilla fighters against the left-wing Sandinista government.  Their main tactic was to attack “so raised money by selling cocaine.

In Guatemala, the U.S. government backed the dictatorship of General Rios Montt, whose forces suppressed a peasant rebellion by wiping out whole villages as well as murdering anyone suspected of sympathizing with the rebels.  It’s estimated that 200,000 people were killed or “disappeared” during the conflict.

It also backed the equally murderous military junta in El Salvador, which was noted for death squads who murdered, among other victims, Archbishop Romero and three American missionary nuns.

Not that this began with Reagan and Bush.  They inherited and continued Operation Condor, including the “Dirty War” in Argentina, which consisted of kidnappings, killings and torture on a huge scale—all the things that I, in my naivety, had thought were defining characteristics of Soviet and fascist totalitarianism.

None of this justifies political repression in Cuba, Russia, Nicaragua or anywhere else.  But if Bernie Sanders deserves criticism for not being strong enough in his condemnation of Fidel Castro’s authoritarianism, what about the people who were actually accomplices to murder, and yet hold respected positions in American society?  Shouldn’t we criticize them?

Sanders in the 80s

What Sanders did that got him into trouble was that he treated Cuba, Russia and Nicaragua as ordinary countries, good in some ways and bad in others, because this was taboo.

The Cold War narrative required him to say that the United States was always a force for good, that the governments of Cuba, Russia and Nicaragua were forces for evil and there could be no common ground.

I myself was a newspaper reporter during the 1980s and, according to the prevailing idea of journalistic professionalism, did not involve myself in political controversies.  I wrote letters for Amnesty International on behalf of prisoners of conscience in the USSR, Argentina and Syria.

I made a donation to an AFL-CIO group that supported the Solidarity movement in Poland, and another group that provided medical aid to the rebels fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan.  Probably both groups were affiliated with the CIA.

The mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan gave way to the Taliban, who hosted Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.  My donation was a worse political miscalculation than anything Bernie Sanders ever said or did.

I was still anti-Communist in the 1980s.  I still am, although with fewer illusions, or so I hope.  I understand that there are few if any dictators that do not abuse their power.  I understand that centrally planned economies do not work well.  A country with a dictator and a centrally planned economy is bad news.

At the same time, the record shows that the Latin American dictatorships that called themselves anti-Communist were more bloody and more murderous than the Communist ones.  It also shows that the U.S. government cut no slack for left-wing governments such as Salvador Allende’s that won power in democratic elections and respected civil liberties.

A whole generation has meanwhile grown up for whom the Cold War is past history—as distant from the present as World War One were when Sanders and I were growing up.  How many of them care what Sanders said about Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega in the 1980s?  I don’t know, but I suspect: Not many.


Bernie Sanders Was Right About Cuba by Ben Burgis for Jacobin.

The Truth About Sanders’ Comments Is Too Complicated for Cable News by David Corn for Mother Jones.

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3 Responses to “The Cold War, Bernie Sanders and me”

  1. whungerford Says:

    There are many more concerns than what Sander’s said about Cuba then or now. The voters shouldn’t care. Few cared when President Obama acted to improve relations with Cuba or when President Trump reversed that policy. Few cared when President Bush started a war in Afghanistan or when President Trump agreed to abandon that cause. Still, repeated attacks on Sanders may be effective in convincing voters that he must have done something wrong. It worked against Hillary Clinton and it is working against Joe Biden right now.


  2. paintedjaguar Says:

    ” I understand that centrally planned economies do not work well.”
    Maybe that’s true. I don’t think I know enough to have any definite opinion. I do think it’s worth noting that both China and the USSR managed to jump from third-world agrarian countries to at least second-world industrial status in a short historical span. Also that the centrally directed economy of WW2 America finally managed to pull us out of the Depression and into prosperity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • whungerford Says:

      I agree–a certain amount of planning is common and necessary. That’s why we have the Fed and vote for stimulus in time of need.


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