The Poverty of Anti-Communism

The Poverty of Anti-Communism

Mini Teaser: American anti-Communists distorted and corrupted the domestic political scene with exaggerations of a threat that was never as strong--or worrisome--as they pretended it to be.

by Author(s): John Lukacs

The basic statement of American anti-Communism, as well as the basic
conception of the Cold War, is the one expressed by William Buckley,
Jr., who got it from James Burnham. I quote: "In 1917 history changed
gears." Apart from the weirdness of such a mechanical metaphor--as if
history were an automobile--the meaning of it is that the Russian
Communist revolution was the principal and decisive event of this
century, which thereafter was marked by the struggle between
International Communism and the Free World (whatever that is). There
are few statements about the history of the world of which one may
say that they are complete nonsense. This is one of them.

The principal event of the twentieth century--which was a short
century, lasting seventy-five years, from 1914 to 1989--was the
outbreak of the First World War in 1914. I need not expatiate what
this catastrophe meant for Western civilization. The First World War
led to the Second World War, and the Second World War to the Cold
War. The two world wars were the two enormous mountain ranges in the
shadows of which we lived until 1989.

The Russian Communist revolution in 1917 occurred during the First
World War. This alone ought to reduce its historical importance.
Unlike the French Revolution, which had spread across Western Europe,
and which then led to a quarter century of great wars, the Russian
Revolution was one consequence of a war then current, not the cause
of it. Again, unlike the French and American Revolutions, the Russian
one did not spread anywhere. Indeed, until 1945 the Soviet Union was
the only Communist state in the world. Also, Communism in Russia
could survive only at the price of the very retreat and diminution of
Russia itself. From 1917 to 1920 five new states--Finland, Estonia,
Latvia, Lithuania, Poland--broke off from Russia. They were
determinedly anti-Communist ones--again, the very opposite of what
had happened after the French Revolution.

Lenin thought and said that the location of the first Communist
revolution in Russia was an accident, that further revolutions would
very soon occur across Europe, and especially in Germany (he is
waiting still in his unquiet grave). Lenin was a revolutionary, and a
statesman not at all (Stalin turned out to be the opposite). Had the
first Communist regime been established in Germany, its influence
would have been immeasurably greater: because of German discipline,
German energy, German organization and German reputation. The fact
that Communism was incarnated in backward and semi-barbaric Russia
was fatal to its reputation--except for conventicles of intellectuals
and wannabe "revolutionaries" elsewhere in the world.

During the quarter century after 1920, there were three great forces
in the world. They were not only apparent on the political map but
repeated within almost every nation of the globe, even in Asia and in
the Americas, where each of the three ideologies had its partisans
and its opponents. There was Western parliamentary democracy,
incarnated by the English-speaking peoples and in Scandinavia and
Western Europe. There was Communism, incarnated, I repeat, solely in
Soviet Russia. And there was a new force, anti-Communist and
nationalist socialism, incarnated in many places in the world but
most forcefully in the Third Reich of Germany. Of these three forces,
Communism, in spite of its assertion of being international, was the
weakest, while National Socialism was the strongest. Eventually this
became evident in the Second World War. To defeat the German Third
Reich, the in many ways unnatural coalition of Communists and
Capitalists, of Russia and the English-speaking democracies, was
needed. Neither of them could do it without the other. The Russians
could not have conquered Germany without the Anglo-Americans, and the
Anglo-Americans--in spite of their tremendous superiority in manpower
and material resources--would not have been able to conquer Germany
by themselves. That alone should give us pause to think; but, then,
this is not the main argument of this essay.

I move on now to the history of the Cold War (the coming of which
Hitler had predicted but which came, fortunately, too late for him).
If there is a key document for the evolution of the Cold War it is
not Stalin's speech in February 1946, nor Churchill's Fulton speech
about the Iron Curtain a month later, nor Yalta or Potsdam or Tehran.
It is Churchill's statement to de Gaulle in November 1944 (recounted,
incidentally, not in the former's but in the latter's war memoirs).
After the liberation of Paris, Churchill had come to visit de Gaulle.
The Frenchman tried to wean him away from the special Anglo-American
alliance, but in vain. Among other things, de Gaulle said: Look at
the Americans. They are inexperienced. They are letting half of
Europe go to the Russians, without thinking much about it. Churchill
responded, "Yes, Russia is now a hungry wolf amidst a flock of sheep.
But after the meal comes the digestion period." As early as 1940
Churchill saw that in that war there were only two alternatives:
either Germany would dominate all of Europe or Russia would
dominate--temporarily--the eastern part of it; and one half of Europe
(especially the western half) was better than none. After the war
would come the digestion period; and the Russians would not be able
to digest their East European conquests.

And so it was to be. And how soon these digestion problems appeared!
In 1948 Tito's Yugoslavia broke off from Stalin's empire. In 1949
Stalin thought it best to put an end to his--partial--blockade of
West Berlin. In 1950 his prudence and caution dictated that he give
no support to the North Koreans, requesting the Chinese do that
instead. The result was this: before 1950 North Korea had been
largely a Russian satellite; by 1952 it had become a Chinese one. In
1952 Stalin (and his successors through 1953) was seriously
considering the ditching of the East German Communist state, in
exchange for an establishment of a "neutral"--that is, not
American-allied--united German state. In 1954 the Russians agreed to
retreat from Austria, and they gave up their privileges and ports and
bases in eastern China. In 1955 they abandoned their naval base in
Finland. In 1956 came the Hungarian and Polish revolutions. In 1958
their quarrel with China became public. In 1959 Khrushchev came to
the United States, hoping among other things to get American support
in his developing conflict with Communist China--in vain. In 1961 the
drain of people fleeing from Communist East Germany had become so
dangerous that its regime was forced to close up East from West
Berlin by a wall.

In 1962 came the Cuban Missile Crisis, from the beginning to the end
of which it was (or, rather, should have been) evident that the
Russians would not risk anything like a war for the sake of Cuba
(just as in 1956, all anti-Communist rhetoric notwithstanding, the
United States did not for a moment consider a war for the sake of
Hungary). Indeed, the foreign policy of the United States was not
only content with the existing division of Europe and of Germany and
of Berlin, but would do nothing to risk upsetting it. As for the
Vietnam War, Russian policy was similar to their Korean one: do
little or nothing, don't risk anything.

Now the interesting--and, at least in some ways, lamentable--thing to
notice is that the highest tide of American anti-Communism (which
many people at the time equated with American patriotism), the
highest peaks of American military and nuclear preparations, the
greatest burgeoning of an American military-industrial state,
occurred precisely in those periods when the Soviet Union was in
retreat: in the 1950s in the Eisenhower years, and again in the 1980s
during the Reagan era, propelled by the ideology of anti-Communism.
In the latter period the Russians gave up Communism and their East
European empire and their presence in Germany and Berlin; and not
because Reagan forced the Soviet Union into bankruptcy but because no
one believed in Communism any longer--something that, with all of its
fabulous intelligence apparatus, even the CIA was unable to foresee,
as indeed was admitted when it came to the demolition of the Berlin

But then this article is not meant to be a one-sided or potted
summary of the Cold War. Its purpose is to argue the yawning failures
of the ideology of anti-Communism. So let me close this portion of it
with what I think is a trenchant observation. In 1945 many thousands
of Germans committed suicide. Many of those who killed themselves
were not National Socialist party leaders, some of them not even
party members, but all of them believers. But I know not of a single
instance, in or around 1989, when a believing Communist committed
suicide because of the collapse of Communism, in Russia or elsewhere.
Dogmatic believers in Communism had ceased to exist long before, even
as dogmatic anti-Communists continued to flourish.

One argument that may be raised against the historical overview I
have sketched is that, in the United States at least, Communists were
more influential in the interwar period than were American
pro-Fascists or pro-Nazis. This, too, may be arguable: for it can be
said that in the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt's most dangerous popular
challengers came from the Right, not from the Left: from Huey Long
and Father Coughlin, for example. Still, the influence and the
intellectual appeal of Communism in America was considerable, an
influence that spread well beyond the limited number of American
Communists. Again there is one statement that sums up the matter
succinctly and precisely--a sentence in the first volume of George
Kennan's Memoirs:

Essay Types: Essay