Posts Tagged ‘Cold War Liberal’

Could the Cold War have been averted?

February 2, 2015

The Cold War was a real war.  I have read that by some estimates 30 million people died in wars and conflicts between 1945 and 1991, and most of these were linked to the global duel between the USA and the USSR.

The casualties included those in the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam Conflict, the anti-Communist uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, the Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot, the U.S.-backed death squads in Latin America, the Indonesians massacred in the overthrow of Sukarno, the wars in Africa between US-backed and Soviet-backed proxies, the Afghan war between a Soviet-backed regime and US-backed rebels, and countless other struggles now forgotten by the world.

UntoldHistoryStoneKuznick00379519Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, in their book and TV documentary, The Untold History of the United States, said this tragedy for have been avoided but for one thing.

It was that the President of the United States in the years following World War Two happened to be Harry Truman, a warmonger, rather than Henry Wallace, a lover of peace.

This is not how it appeared to me at the time.   I came of age in the early 1950s, and I thought the United States and its allies were in peril, the same kind of peril as in the 1930s.

The Soviet Union was as much a totalitarian dictatorship as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.   By “totalitarian,” I mean that the government sought to subordinate all human activity, including science, art, literature, sport, education and civic life, to the control of the ruling party, and to demand not only passive acquiescence, but enthusiastic support.

Hitler and Stalin also were alike in that they killed millions of people, not for anything they had done, but for what they were.  While historians now think that Stalin murdered fewer people as Hitler, this is not how things seemed at the time, and, in any case, Stalin’s body count was large enough.

But the most terrifying thing about totalitarianism was the idea that the ruling party could somehow get into the minds of its subjects, and experience slavery as a kind of freedom.  George Orwell’s 1984 was an all-too-plausible vision of a future in which there was no individual liberty, no concept of objective truth aside from a party line and a Winston Smith could be brainwashed into loving Big Brother.  These things seemed all too plausible.

Stalin not only ruled one-sixth of the earth’s surface, but commanded the loyalty of Communists worldwide.  Millions of people, many of them idealistic, intelligent and courageous, believed it was their duty to subordinate their personal convictions and code of morality to a Communist Party line that put the interests of the Soviet Union above all else.

A revolutionary Communist movement is one thing.  A worldwide Communist movement that subordinated all other goals to being an instrument of Soviet power was a very different thing.


Looking back on the Cold War

March 8, 2013


The roots of our present malaise are in the half-century of Cold War.  That’s how long the United States was on a quasi-war footing, and we Americans accepted the necessity of a global military establishment, military intervention and covert warfare as a requirement in our global duel with the Soviet Union.

Revisionist historians say that the Cold War was simply a huge mistake, like World War One, or something more sinister.  But I’m old enough to remember the origins of the Cold War, and I think there was good reason in the late 1940s to regard the Soviet Union as an enemy.

At the end of World War Two, the Soviet Union was ruled by Joseph Stalin, a dictator who had carried out mass killings on the same scale as Adolph Hitler, and whose totalitarian control was even more thorough.   In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, you could be executed or sent to a forced labor camp for having parents who belonged to a proscribed social class, or for expressing a forbidden thought in a private conversation, or even (in at least once case) being the first to stop applauding a government spokesman’s speech.

Stalin insisted on re-creating the same totalitarian system in all the countries through which the Red Army passed during World War Two.   Military bases and friendly governments were not enough.  The countries of eastern Europe had to become little replicas of the USSR.

Cold War Berlin

Cold War Berlin

The Red Army was the world’s most powerful military force and, but for the United States possession of the atomic bomb, could have marched from the middle of Germany to the English channel, if its generals so chose.

Stalin evidently did not have a master plan for world conquest, but, as a rational imperialist, he sought to expand Soviet power where he could.  He blockaded Berlin and ordered the North Korean puppet government to attack South Korea.

Communist parties in the Stalin era were like one of today’s religious cults.  The Communist parties attracted millions of goodhearted people all over the world, who thought the Communists were in the forefront of the struggle for a better world.  In this they were unlike the Nazis, who had the virtue of not being hypocritical about their objectives.  But in fact the Communists were servants of Stalin and the Soviet Union.   The day after Stalin announced his pact with Hitler, Communists all over the world went from advocating a “popular front” against fascism to a struggle against an “imperialist war” in which all sides were equally bad.  The day after Hitler’s troops invaded the Soviet Union, they switched back again.  This terrifying blind obedience to Stalin made his power more threatening, and was a foretaste of what would be expected under his rule.

In 1949, the Chinese Communists came to power in China, and immediately started to transform China into another clone of the Soviet Union.   Mao Zedong later broke with the Soviet Union, and China has evolved into something very different from what it was then, but during the lifetime of Stalin, Mao was a completely loyal follower of Stalin.  Also in 1949, the Soviet Union tested its atomic bomb, ending the U.S. monopoly.   You didn’t have to be paranoid to see this constellation of forces as a real threat.

Based on the situation at the time, President Truman was completely justified in the policy of containment of Communist expansion, including formation of NATO and other anti-Communist alliances, and (I say with a little more hesitation) authorizing CIA covert warfare to match the Soviet covert warfare.   Truman also was right in what he did not do—to launch a preventive war against the USSR when the United States had enough of a lead in nuclear weapons to make that seem feasible.

Over the decades the situation changed.  Communist China’s government broke with the Soviet Union.  Communist parties around the world, while still mistakenly pro-Soviet, ceased to be slavishly devoted to the Moscow party line.   The Soviet Union and other Communist countries, while still undemocratic, ceased to be as relentlessly totalitarian as in Stalin’s day.   The potential threat did not go away, but it ceased to be monolithic.

At the same time it became apparent (or rather should have become apparent, because I didn’t see it) that U.S. foreign policy served other objectives besides containment of Soviet imperialism.   Cold War liberals such as myself were anti-Communist because we believed Communism was a lie.  We believed it was an ideology that promised liberation, but delivered tyranny.  But American foreign policy was being conducted largely by people who were anti-Communist not because of the Communist lies, but because of the Communist promise.  These were the people who engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected governments of Iran and Guatemala.

I was aware that the U.S. government did bad things, but I thought they were aberrations.  I didn’t think there was anything systemically wrong with American foreign policy or with the United States itself.   I thought U.S. intervention in Vietnam was justified as part of the global struggle with the Soviet Union.   I soon came to think that the intervention was being bungled, and then I came to think that the intervention was a huge mistake, but it took me a long time before I came to think of it as a crime.

Memorial plaque in Lexington, Ky.

Memorial plaque in Lexington, Ky.

I started to see things differently after 1991.   After the fall of Communism, I expected the United States to get back to what I regarded as normal.   I though the huge military establishment and secret intelligence establishment would fade away, now that they were no longer needed to check the Soviet Union and its allies.  Instead the U.S. government found other excuses for military intervention and covert warfare.  The definition of “normal” was no longer what I thought it was.

After the 9/11 attacks, I was shocked by how easily Americans accepted basic Constitutional rights being wiped off the blackboard, and how easily we accepted a state of perpetual warfare as normal.  But I put the blame on individuals, specifically Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

I once again looked forward to a return to normal with the election of Barack Obama.   This didn’t happen, either.

My loyalty is still to the ideals of American freedom and democracy, as I was taught to believe in them.  I still believe it is my duty as a citizen to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  If the Cold War taught us Americans to forget our ideals and ignore our Constitution, then Stalin, in a sense, really won.