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Deadened Reckoning

Deadened Reckoning

Mini Teaser: A civilization determined to ignore or even repudiate its own past successes cannot count on achieving many future ones.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

The last several months have brought forth the first major histories of the Cold War based on new archival sources. While this may be good news for historians, the appearance of such books also marks the end of a disappointing period of what may be called popular historiography. A brief epoch of instantly gratifying factual revelation is fading fast into an era of ponderous tomes, and no matter how wise some of these books may turn out to be, it is inevitable that, given the present state of the American academy, the good will before long be shadowed, if not overwhelmed, by the intellectually bad and the morally ugly.

It may be only a standard taunt of the modern historians' trade to end up muddying with equivocation a slice of reality that was uncharacteristically clear-cut, but it is sad all the same. The end of the Cold War brought emotional and intellectual closure to too few Americans, and that is unfortunate, for the civic rituals of collective celebration, no less than of collective mourning, are a part of what knits political communities together. They give its members a common history to recite, to extol, and to bequeath, and the less of one any society has, the poorer it is liable to be in both virtue and verve.

One reason why relatively few Americans enjoyed the end of the Cold War is that the American media elite showed only cursory interest in its historical revelations. Between 1989 and 1992 several symbolically charged arguments that we once feared might never be settled due to the standard secrecy and stealth of communist regimes were in fact resolved. Five examples will make the point.

Did South Korea trick North Korea into invasion in June 1950, as many revisionist historians have argued, or did South Korea even attack first? We got the answer in 1990 directly from North Korean officials: Stalin knew about and encouraged North Korea's aggression, and so did Mao Tse-tung.

Did the Soviet Union abet international, and especially Middle Eastern, terrorism? The Soviet government always denied it, but five years ago the Russians revealed that the Soviet government gave aid and arms to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for use against Americans and Israelis. We have since learned from former Polish, East German, and Czechoslovak files that the flow of agents, money, and explosives to terrorist organizations worldwide was far more extensive than Western intelligence organizations had suspected.

What about the claim that the Warsaw Pact never had plans to seize and hold territory in Western Europe? Such claims were repeated until literally a few days before then current operational plans for occupying Western Europe were found by West German officials upon entering East Berlin.5 (Interestingly, Soviet plans called for Warsaw Pact first-use of nuclear weapons in the event of an attack toward the West. So much, then, for the theoretical finery of NATO strategic planning under flexible response.)

The Soviet Union denied ever having an offensive biological weapons program, and Soviet sympathizers in the West cited Moscow's accession to the 1972 Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention as proof. But a defector revealed in 1990 that the Soviets had a program that was more than twice the size of the highest U.S. intelligence estimates. Moscow also supplied mycotoxins to Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan in violation of the treaty.

Both American Communists and the Soviet government claimed repeatedly that the U.S. Communist Party, while pro-Soviet in foreign policy debates, was a purely American institution that never took funds from communist governments. This was also untrue. A January 27, 1987 letter from Gus Hall to Anatoly Dobrynin found in Mikhail Gorbachev's own files basically says "thanks" for the $2 million given over during the previous few years, and asked for $2 million or, better yet, $4 million more. And I.F. Stone a KGB agent? What calumny, the Left declared. Turns out he was. Armand Hammer a multifaceted Soviet accomplice? Yes. Alger Hiss and Julius Rosenberg guilty of spying? Beyond doubt.

Yet, as the reference notes to these examples illustrate, not one of these revelations turned up as a priority news item in any of the national print media. Even the more gossip-oriented tales of treason and espionage generally failed to make front page news.

Why did the American elite press take so little interest in these stories? It goes far beyond a sensible reluctance to gloat. Rather, there was a certain and sudden embarrassment in some quarters over the West's having won the Cold War. A cottage industry of moral equivalence, let us not forget, had taken root in the latter decades of that struggle, and for such industrialists there can be no "winners" because, in this view, the West possessed no superior values to ensure or deserve victory. Much of the elite press seems to share, glancingly at least, this embarrassment and this judgment.

So it is that with only a few notable exceptions, anti-American critics of Cold War vintage have felt no need to explain their reign of analytical error, nor have the better known among them lacked continued prime time media exposure as policy experts. Intent on saving a creed--if not communism or socialism, then one of the several forms of politicized humanism--from the verdict of history, they have been busy explaining away reality instead. Alan Kors has suggested that the surging academic popularity of postmodernism since the fall of the Berlin Wall may owe much to a similar impulse. After all, if there is no truth or historical objectivity, then it was never possible for anyone to win the Cold War except by achieving a "hegemonic narrative" about it. That means, one must suppose, that if enough postmodernists write often enough that the West did not win the Cold War, then it will not have done so.

This may be "funny", in the sense of strange, but it is no joke. The victors do write history, including those who deny that the way the Cold War ended has served the cause of peace and justice, not just for ourselves but for the world as a whole. Such a belief is simply out of the question for a large percentage of the American academic elite. For many, it remains definitionally impossible that an America as venal, corrupt, degenerate, and avaricious as their self-alienated imaginations have conjured it to be could "win" anything with morally significant implications.

It is therefore not surprising to find that many of those analysts of Soviet politics who long argued that Western, and particularly American, policies had a deep and at times decisively negative impact on Soviet behavior now claim that American policy had no effect at all on the Soviet collapse. At each crucial moment of Soviet history, they insisted, bellicose Western behavior helped drive Soviet decision making in a hawkish direction. As Stephen F. Cohen put it in 1985, American Cold War policy was based on "ultimatums designed to 'punish' . . . Soviet leaders", which goaded them to "always resort to an uncompromising line, regardless of the hardships involved. . . . Above all, every American campaign to impose liberalizing change on the Soviet system actually sabotages that cause by undermining advocates of reform inside the establishment."

But after the Cold War, the mission of these same analysts has changed: it has been to deny the United States--and particularly the Reagan administration--any credit for the way it ended. They insist, in defiance of historical experience and common sense alike, that the Soviet Union collapsed solipsistically. Some have spent hundreds of pages tracing Soviet "new thinking" and the subsequent Soviet demise without more than the thinnest hint that the example of Western ideals, containment policy, or Reagan administration tactics might have had anything to do with it.

The self-interested contradiction in this reasoning is obvious: When the "good" Soviets did something "bad", American influence was declared decisively responsible for it, but when the "good" Soviets collapsed--which was "good" for the "bad" Americans--then American policy was deemed irrelevant. This is the same generic revisionist logic that earlier sustained assertions that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because a confrontational American diplomacy forced them to do so.

Cohen, meanwhile, has been busy extending the same logic to the post-Soviet era. "A reforming, stable Russia at peace with its neighbors . . . can find its way only within the limits of its own traditions and possibilities, not ours", writes Cohen. But American thinking, unfortunately, is "based on a missionary premise that the United States can and should help convert that historically very different society into a replica of America." Cohen warns that "unless we change our mythical and missionary ways of thinking about post-Communist Russia, the problems and dangers we face will only grow worse." Indeed, if we fail to do the right thing, "perhaps we will be remembered mainly for having supported measures that destroyed yet another nascent Russian experiment with parliamentary democracy and again plunged the country back into its despotic traditions." In short, if Russia makes it, it's despite us, but if things go deeply wrong, it's because of us.

Of course, to reject such mental contortions is not to claim that Western containment policy alone was responsible for the Soviet demise, or that the standard Cold War cast of Western Kremlinologists never erred, or that there is not some truth in Cohen's portrayal of American attitudes toward post-Soviet Russia. But the point is clear: Doling out presumptions of U.S. influence according to the ideological needs of the moment is a more than slightly disingenuous historical methodology. It is intellectually lurid.

Does any of this really matter? Yes, it does. We owe an honest retrospective evaluation to our heirs, particularly in those cases where the balance of nobility has favored our own side. After all, a true citizenry does not just happen, but grows from emotionally embedded and shared experiences that are passed from one generation to the next. A civilization determined to ignore or even repudiate its own past successes cannot count on achieving many future ones. Alas, the time of the tomes will not rescue our lost opportunity; there is only a deadened reckoning ahead.

Essay Types: Essay