Holding the Bridge

December 1, 2000 Topics: Society Regions: Americas Tags: Bosnian WarContainmentCold WarNSC-68Yugoslavia

Holding the Bridge

Mini Teaser: A portrait of a dedicated senator and steadfast cold warrior.

by Author(s): Andrew W. Marshall

Robert G. Kaufman, Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000).

It was Reagan National Security Adviser Richard Allen who characterized Scoop Jackson by evoking the legend of Horatius, the Roman soldier who single-handedly held off an advancing army at the bridge to Rome. In his new biography of Jackson, Robert G. Kaufman goes a long way toward explaining why Allen would evoke such a figure. There are two related stories here: Jackson the successful politician, and Jackson the forceful proponent of containing the Soviet Union at a time when many, and especially his fellow Democrats, had given up the fight.

Kaufman has produced a fascinating and informative recounting, one that lauds Jackson as an outstanding hero of the Cold War. It is sympathetic yet even-handed in its portrayal of the political context within which Jackson lived.

As Kaufman rightly demonstrates, Scoop Jackson was exceptionally effective as a politician. The close attention he paid to the interests of his constituents enabled him to win elections by very large margins. When he reached the Senate, the relations he developed with his colleagues and his mentoring to more junior senators created natural allies for his causes. Jackson's character, sobriety, strong work ethic and willingness to cooperate with others proved to be key assets in forming legislative coalitions. He was successful in recruiting and retaining a staff of loyal, dedicated people. Thanks both to his own hard work and to that of his staff, Jackson was often the senator who had best thought through his positions, and who had the most searching questions to ask at hearings. As a result, others turned to him with confidence.

Because of his failed bids to capture his party's nomination for president in 1972 and 1976, Jackson felt that he was something of a failure politically. But by any standards he was among the most respected, effective and influential members of the Senate. Kaufman notes, "An apt analogy can be drawn comparing Jackson with John Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Robert La Follette, and Robert Taft -- all dominant and controversial senators who were at once revered and reviled, never attained the presidency, but nonetheless had a decisive impact on history." The term "reviled" does not fit, however, as Scoop was an extraordinarily agreeable man.

Jackson's position and influence on foreign policy in the Senate, specifically his membership on the Armed Services Committee, make up the second part of the story: Jackson's role as a stalwart proponent of early Cold War strategy. He was convinced of the logic and rightness of the strategy laid out in NSC-68, which was put before President Truman in 1950 and reaffirmed and expanded in the first year of the Eisenhower administration. The goals, as stated in NSC-68, were to thwart the Soviet Union's grand political design of achieving dominance of the Eurasian land mass, and, ultimately, to "foster fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet system." As Kaufman says,
"Jackson agreed completely with NSC-68's conceptual framework of a long-term struggle between American freedom and Soviet totalitarianism, and with the expensive means that it called for to combat the Soviet threat: a vast military buildup in conventional and nuclear arms, the alternative to which was the enslavement of the free world."

Jackson's unwavering support for this basic strategy made him a major proponent of a robust containment policy, especially in the 1970s. As others backed away from its goals, he kept the faith.

Jackson's support for the strategy of containment is the most interesting story of all. Kaufman's recounting shows that we are in some danger, as Paul Wolfowitz wrote recently in these pages, of forgetting just how divided and contentious informed opinion was on how to deal with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, we do not yet have an adequate analytical history of the period from 1945 to 1991 that describes the alternative views of containment, the balancing of risks and ambitious goals, and the uncertainties with regard to the nature, strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. Such a history is needed to straighten out the facts and depict clearly the opposing viewpoints, especially as they emerged after the early 1960s. It would provide an overview of the changes in emphasis and direction of U.S. policy that took place during the whole of the Cold War.

While there may have been a general consensus on the continuation of the strategy of NSC-68 from the 1950s to the mid-1960s, at the end of this period there was a significant shift toward controlling the risks of active military competition with the Soviets, and a consequent emphasis on arms control. In the 1970s, some government officials had increasing doubts about America's ability to sustain competition in the longer term, and therefore advocated an emphasis on political accommodation. The Reagan administration favored something close to the initial containment strategy, a focus on vigorous competition with the Soviet Union -- indeed, an emphasis on driving up the cost for the Soviets to stay in the game. All of this took place against a background of serious misassessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet Union. These include overstating the size of Soviet GNP, understating the percentage of it devoted to the military and other means of extending Soviet power, and underestimating the corruption and increasingly evident weaknesses within the Soviet Union.

Indeed, most observers largely missed the growing pessimism of the Soviet elite from the mid-1970s onward. There were some people who had more accurate insight into the situation in the Soviet Union, but these were very few and on the whole were not listened to. It is not clear from Kaufman's book that Jackson himself knew how bad the Soviet situation was. Kaufman should have discussed this in greater detail, as Jackson probably did believe the Soviet Union was in real trouble. The Soviet émigrés who left during the 1970s, with whom Jackson likely spoke, were a key source of this insight, though what view he formed from them is not clear. Further, his staff tells of his concerns that the Soviets might overreact in desperation at some point. This led him to caution more than one president not "to prick the bear" with trivial anti-Soviet rhetoric or bravado.

What comes through most clearly in the book is Jackson's steadfastness, his feeling that there was no reason to change the basic containment strategy, that we were morally and strategically obligated to compete with Soviet totalitarianism. He was optimistic about American society and its ability to overcome any obstacle.

It is not that more accommodationist positions had no merit. Indeed, a more comprehensive history of the period would show that one of the consequences of détente was that a much wider group of Soviet elites visited the West, enabling them to see what it was really like -- how rich it was, how effectively Western societies functioned, what the careers and status of their counterparts were, and, in particular, the personal and economic security they had. Through such contact with and discussion of the material conditions of the West, dŽtente served to undermine the confidence and morale of the Soviet elite. Peter Reddaway described to me in the early 1980s several interviews with the son of a high-level Soviet official, who spoke of the conversations around his father's dinner table in Moscow. The content and tone showed great pessimism about the USSR's ability to compete with the West. Complaints were voiced that it did not have the material resources to compete effectively, and that the Russians were incapable of turning themselves into Germans or Swiss -- effective, orderly workers. The officials complained about the unrealistic goals set by their superiors, and of the insecurity of their lives. They had very little personal wealth; if they were discharged from their positions, they and their families would be in very poor straits.

The point is that there is a more complex story to be told about the context of the period from the mid-1960s through 1980 and beyond. This fuller story would, I think, show Scoop Jackson in an even better light than that in which he emerges in the pages of Kaufman's biography. Through all the uncertainties about the Soviet situation, he held fast to his positions. Moreover, he sought information on what was really happening in the Soviet Union when others did not. Kaufman ends, rightly, with praise of the man:

"Jackson's liabilities do not diminish his evident greatness. Although he was not right about everything, he was right about what the United States needed to do to defeat the unprecedented threat that totalitarianism posed to freedom in the twentieth century. He was politically courageous, willing to take unpopular positions. He was a paragon of rectitude and integrity both in his professional and in his private life. He personified, in short, what the Founding Fathers hoped a senator could be." Indeed, Scoop Jackson was the best this nation had to offer.

Essay Types: Book Review