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The Bankruptcy of Cold War "Revisionism" By: K. C. Johnson
NAS Online Forum | Friday, December 31, 2004


"There was no way to view Korea," writes Ellen Schrecker in her newly published edited volume, "as an American success" (p. 9). I suspect that most citizens of South Korea would disagree with this assertion, one of a host of curious claims in Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History after the Fall of Communism. This book is a pretty good example, I'd say, of misuse of history after the fall of communism, but not by the Cold War triumphalists.

Schrecker and her co-authors explicitly cite their political motive in writing: they oppose the Bush administration's foreign policy, and want to deny "Cold War triumphalists" (Anne Coulter and Condoleeza Rice seem particular targets) an opportunity to justify Bush's foreign policy by portraying the Cold War as an American "victory." Indeed, Schrecker laments, "Outside of the left and a handful of academics, few even question the notion that America 'won' the Cold War" (p. 2). The guilty parties include such "centrist" historians (this is a rare book in which "centrist" is used as an epithet) as John Lewis Gaddis and David Kennedy.

The apparent goal -- proving the perfidy of early U.S. Cold War foreign policy -- will justify the authors' disapproval of the Bush administration's approach to world affairs. This, of course, is exactly how not to write history. As a strategy, it suggests that the authors approach their subject with a closed mind, needing to portray post-World War II America as imperialistic in order to have the book serve their contemporary political needs.

The book opens with several rambling essays critiquing American diplomatic historians, intellectuals, and liberals for not resisting more forcefully the main currents of "triumphalist" thought (i.e., that the United States "won" the Cold War). The volume's heart, however, comes in a "new" look at the Cold War's origins and effects by Schrecker, Maurice Isserman,
Carolyn Eisenberg, and Jessica Wang.

In a confused essay, Schrecker and Isserman alternatively rationalize or dismiss the significance of CPUSA spying for the Soviet Union. A "tiny minority" of the CPUSA membership, they note, was involved in spying (p. 160). (Of course, that number included much of the party's leadership.) Most U.S. spies, they reason, "were internationalists whose political allegiances transcended national borders," whose Soviet spymasters "often had to go to elaborate lengths to draw even the most committed Communists into cooperation" (p. 166).

What espionage occurred didn't really matter anyway, since Schrecker and Immerman doubt that "the history of the world [would] really have been all that different between the 1930s and 1950s" if the CPUSA had behaved differently. Why, then, does a book on US foreign policy contain a chapter on figures whose authors claim had no impact? . . . To counter the work of "Cold War triumphalists," who use evidence of CPUSA spying to defend the anti-communist nature of U.S. foreign policy during the 1940s. Moreover, Schrecker and Isserman note conspiratorially, U.S. archives for this period "remain largely off-limits but are selectively opened to provide materials that celebrate its Cold War triumphs" (p. 169). What materials from US foreign policy between the 1930s and 1950s remain off limits 50 years after the fact the authors do not reveal.

The Eisenberg and Wang essays offer, if anything, even less convincing attempts to mold the past to serve the needs of the authors' contemporary policy views. Eisenberg, disturbed that Condoleeza Rice has repeatedly praised Harry Truman's success in resisting the Soviet blockade of Berlin, contends that (a) the blockade never really occurred, at least in a technical sense; or (b) if it did occur, it was the fault of the United States, for moving forward with plans for an independent West Germany. (Her essay never really decides which of these two arguments she ultimately wants to forward.) In Eisenberg's retelling of events, Stalin was eager for a diplomatic settlement, as was the UN, but they were undermined by Truman's "antipathy to compromise" (p. 177).

Wang's essay also celebrates the UN. She contends that it symbolizes the high point of a half-century of American internationalism, which Cold War "unilateralism" then abandoned. Wang is a practitioner of the "new political history" at UCLA -- a department about which I've written
previously; her essay suggests that the new political historians should stay with strictly social history topics. Her sources on internationalism reflect the state of historiographical debate circa 1970; the essay remarkably defines the period from 1935 to 1941 as part of an "internationalist" era, necessary to prove that the Cold War represented a "unilateralist" reaction against a previous policy of promoting peace.

The book finishes up with an essay by political scientist
Corey Robin, who notes that in the days after the 9/11 attacks, "intellectuals, politicians, and pundits -- not of the radical left [of course], but mainstream conservatives and liberals -- breathed an almost audible sigh of relief, almost as if they welcomed the strikes as a deliverance" from the post-1980s crisis of confidence "that the United States could no longer define its mission in terms of the Soviet menace" (p. 277).

Robin's evidence for this astonishing assertion? A handful of quotes from commentators in the immediate aftermath of the attack chastising politicians, the media, and the American public for spending the late 1990s, 2000, and 2001 ignoring the terrorist threat and focusing on less significant questions. As the recently released 9/11 Commission report makes clear, this line of criticism was exactly correct: had we all devoted more attention to the terrorist threat before 9/11, perhaps the attacks would not have occurred, since the warning signs definitely were present.

That Robin could interpret this line of criticism as "an almost audible sigh of relief, almost as if they welcomed the strikes as a deliverance" by mainstream liberals and conservatives suggests that he and the book's editors inhabit an alternative intellectual universe.

This problem seems to apply for some of the authors' other comments as well.
Schrecker, for instance, has been outspoken in her claims that contemporary social sciences and humanities departments discourage leftist professors from speaking out. "Because of the job crunch, junior faculty are so insecure that they cannot now openly take political positions as they did in the 1960s. Junior faculty -- and this, of course, would apply to adjuncts as well -- are deprived of the opportunity to act in their capacity as citizens. If, for instance, America was to enter another Vietnam War, would faculty members express themselves as freely as we did in the 1960s?" There is a "free speech" problem in the contemporary academy -- but it would be hard to maintain that leftists are the figures whose political opinions threaten their careers. Schrecker, of course, provides no evidence to sustain her claims.

In the end, the Schrecker book is less an example of history distorted by authors' political agendas [though it certainly is that: "9/11," Robin observes with frustration, "has confirmed what conservatives have been saying for years: The world is a dangerous place" (p. 285)], but of the unoriginality inherent in much of what remains of the "revisionist" critique of the Cold War. Essays regularly cite William Appleman Williams' insights -- fresh, certainly, when the Wisconsin School was at its high point in the 1960s, but a bit dated now. Schrecker contends that even without the Cold War, the United States "would have promoted capitalism" -- as if the argument that a capitalist country would promote capitalism is revelatory (p. 8). And in a view dismissed by nearly all recent work on Lenin but also common among 1960s revisionists, Schrecker suggests that while "ultimately they must be judged by their record and not their intentions, the early Bolsheviks themselves did not foresee the circumstances that would lead them to become architects of a new totalitarian order in the Soviet Union" (p. 161).

In her essay, Eisenberg complains about the "unwillingness of the mass media to incorporate diverse perspectives," like the ones this book presents, in their portrayal of U.S. foreign policy (p. 175). I don't defend the media much, but in this case, I'm in their corner.



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