Among the A-list of self-declared enemies of the American state, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn are the gold standard. But the historian Gabriel Kolko, though less popular than either, has been almost as influential. In the 1960s, Kolko introduced a strident and ideological form of history into the academic world. Writing from a Marxist perspective, he helped construct the intellectual edifice of modern academic anti-Americanism, reflexively exculpating America’s adversaries while portraying America’s past and present in such dark tones as to make the nation repellent and - absent a socialist revolution - beyond redeeming. In Kolko’s nuanced prose, America is a nation “intellectually and culturally undeveloped,” “blind to itself - its past, its present, and its future” - an “evil society.”
A graduate of Harvard University, Kolko spent most of his career on the faculty of York University in Toronto, where he has authored over ten books on American history, including two books on the origins of the Cold War, a synthesis of American history after 1865, and an overview of the Vietnam War. These books have influenced a school of radical historians, including Thomas McCormick, Lloyd Gardner, Walter LaFeber, Robert Buzzanco, and Bruce Cumings. In keeping with the leftward shift of university culture, Kolko’s fellow academics have lavished his radical texts with intemperate praise. In the New York Review of Books, Hans Morgenthau wrote that The Politics of War “is a book of major importance” because it represents “the first revisionist book concerned with the origins of the Cold War which is also a work of first-rate scholarship.” The idea that a book blaming the United States for the Cold War using an analytic framework almost identical to that employed by the Kremlin’s propagandists – and by a distinguished Harvard political scientist -- would have been inconceivable in the pre-Sixties university culture. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Professor Gaddis Smith called the same book “the most important and stimulating discussion of American policy during World War II to appear in more than a decade.” Fellow radical and anti-American extremist Noam Chomsky is also thrilled with Kolko’s work. According to Chomsky, The Limits of Power is “the most important analytic study of evolving U.S. policy in this period….” Kolko reciprocates the adulation. In a blurb for Chomsky’s extended diatribe, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Kolko called The Limits of Power a “brilliant, shattering, and convincing account of United States-backed suppression of political and human rights in the Third World.” According to Kolko, Chomsky should be “obligatory reading for any American seeking to comprehend the role of the United States in the world since 1946.”
Like other radical academics, Kolko prides himself on being a political activist, not to say revolutionary. Throughout the Vietnam War, he traveled numerous times to France and to North and South Vietnam, meeting with Communist officials and advising them on how best they could defeat the United States. He also organized aid shipments to the Communists, called upon fellow leftists to wage war against American imperialism, and backed the Communist cause around the world. In May, 1971, he pleaded with Americans to send money to a group called “Canadian Aid for Vietnam Civilians.” Kolko noted that the organization “allocates 45 percent of its income each to the NLF and North Vietnam” and will help alleviate “the suffering the war has inflicted on all the people of Vietnam.” How it would help to alleviate the suffering of all the people of Vietnam with 90% of its money earmarked for the Communist aggressors and oppressors, Kolko failed to explain.
The starting point for Kolko’s work is the preposterous idea that America is a totalitarian nation, where the rich rule and the poor obey. The “ruling class,” according to Kolko “defines the essential preconditions and functions of the larger American social order, with its security and continuity as an institution being the political order’s central goal in the post-Civil War historical experience.” The ruling class dominates both the Republican and Democratic parties, which have no significant differences between them that Kolko is able to detect. Obviously, this theoretical framework lacks any originality and is merely a crib of Marx’s discredited attack on “bourgeois democracy,” in which the state is just “the executive committee of the ruling class.” Republicans and Democrats, Kolko explains (as though this is in fact an explanation) are “inalterably wedded to the desirability of capitalism as a general economic framework.” (And why not if one compares capitalism to the totalitarian states that Kolko appears to endorse?) In Kolko’s presentation reform movements like Progressivism and New Deal liberalism for example amount to nothing more than efforts to promote “efficiency” in preserving America’s totalitarian system. Stalinist apparatchiks would not disagree.
America’s unjust political order produces vast riches for a few and poverty and inequality for the majority, while ensuring that the ruling class controls foreign policy. The ruling class, Kolko summarizes, is “the final arbiter and beneficiary of the existing structure of American society and politics at home and of United States power in the world.”
From this untenable ideological premise, Kolko concludes that the Cold War was not about Soviet expansionism but an American attempt to promote free trade and corporate profits. In Kolko’s writing’s the Kremlin’s actions play no role in determining American policy. In fact the opposite is the case. The Truman Doctrine and other American policies were not about defending relatively free societies from the fate of the Kremlin’s East European satellites but were the expression of America’s own bid for world economic hegemony. Or, as Kolko puts it – following in a long line of Soviet apologists -- the United States set out (during and after World War II) to “restructure the world so that American business could trade, operate, and profit without restrictions everywhere.” Fears that American leaders expressed over Communist expansion in Eastern Europe were merely a cover for this agenda. Concern over the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and other Kremlin aggressions were so much Western fantasy and Cold War paranoia. For America’s ruling class, the central foreign policy concern “was not the containment of Communism, but rather more directly the extension and expansion of American capitalism according to its new economic power and needs.” Not surprisingly, Cold War Soviet leaders said exactly the same thing.
According to Kolko, the threat that most troubled American leaders was not the Soviet Union; it was a skeptical Congress, a public that wanted peace, and leftwing movements that supported the Communists’ millenarian schemes. But through the use of scare tactics, bribes, and violence, America’s rulers managed to get their way. In Kolko’s telling, “it was only the fear of Russia and Communism, a weak and irrelevant argument that the [Truman] administration did not believe…that finally swung” Congress and the American people to support a Cold War crusade in the form of the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and NATO. (Fellow apologists for the Communist side in the Cold War, Chomsky and Zinn, make the same point (and indeed the same points) in their own tracts on this conflict.) “The fear of Communism,” Kolko wrote in 1976, “was…a well-worn technique of political mobilization at home - one that was to last with diminishing efficiency after 1963, until our own day.”
Kolko’s analysis of the economic motivations of U.S. foreign policy planners makes no more sense than others’ similar reductive schemas. By characterizing the anticommunism of American leaders as window dressing intended to disguise economic pursuits, he subsumes all human behavior in a dollar calculus. This flattens his perspective and turns its product into a historical cartoon. Kolko dismisses entirely the influence of domestic political pressures and public opinion on American statesmen to the point that he has nothing to say on this subject. As a result, in his writing on the early Cold War, Kolko there is nothing about such policy shaping phenomena as “McCarthyism” and the conspiratorial the activities of the Communist Party, U.S.A. or its espionage for the Kremlin. This dogmatic methodology renders Kolko’s work not just bad history, but worthless as well.
As a champion of the oppressed, Kolko detests U.S. Cold War foreign policy planners as mere servants of the ruling class and portrays their motives and judgments in the harshest light possible. When he turns his attention to the Kremlin and its Cold War leaders – representing the progressive future (however misshaped by capitalist pressures) he naturally does an about face. In Kolko’s hands, Stalin and his blood-thirsty henchmen are, by turns, defensive, diplomatic, and generous. According to him, the Red Army outperformed the American army during World War II and Stalin even refused to press his military gains on the British or Americans for political advantage. Kolko argues that the Nazis crushed Anglo-American forces with their December 1944 Ardennes offensive despite the Allies “overwhelming…superiority in arms and men” and that what saved the U.S. and British was the Red Army. By the time of the Yalta conference in February 1945, “the military prestige of the Russians was never greater…” and “the Americans and British there listened with deference and awe as Stalin described the fire power and speed of the Red Army….”
The reality of the war in Europe was quite different. In The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War (1973), Robert Maddox points out how Kolko failed to mention that Anglo-American forces actually stopped Hitler’s December offensive before the Russian forces – alleged by Kolko to have save them -- began theirs from the east. It is also clear that Allied armies in the west did not share an “overwhelming” superiority of arms and men, and clearly not in the Ardennes. Nazis outnumbered American soldiers three to one in the Ardennes and, according to Victor Davis Hanson, “over six to one at the initial point of collision.” Further, Nazi troops benefited by having four times as many tanks as the Americans, and of better quality as well (the German Panther and Tiger tanks were both superior to the Sherman M4). Despite these odds, and due in no small measure to General Patton’s remarkable leadership, the Americans beat back the German offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) and inflicted far more casualties on the Germans than they themselves suffered.
Kolko’s analysis of World War II in Europe is ludicrous but he is not a man to let facts get in the way of writing polemical history. Kolko is enamored of the Red Army and never bothers to mention to his readers the hell that took place in its wake as it occupied the nations of millions of East Europeans. This is in keeping with Kolko’s basic view that blame for the Cold War lies squarely on America’s expanding commercial empire and not on the Soviets who actually conquered and then ruled previously sovereign states. In Kolko’s history Stalin himself is only secondarily a Communist. He is primarily a pragmatist and, even more endearingly (and unlike American leaders), a man with a “tolerant sense of humor” who appreciated “flexibility and subtlety” on policy matters. Kolko writes of the period in which the Kremlin absorbed the East European states behind an Iron Curtain as a time in which “the dominant theme in Soviet proclamations on international affairs…was the possibility and likelihood of coexistence and peace between Russia and the West….”
Fortunately, U.S. leaders had a better sense of reality. They also had plenty of reason to fear Communism and to declare, as Truman did in 1947 when he asked Congress to support the Greeks defending themselves against Soviet-backed Communist guerillas, that the world had to confront a choice between two ways of life, one “based upon the will of the majority” and the other based “upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority” - a minority that relies on “terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.” Truman did not invent the threat of Soviet totalitarianism. By establishing a rapacious police state that killed as many as 20 million of its own people Lenin and Stalin had demonstrated the profound threat Communism posed not only to America but to civilization itself. Stalin’s economic policies killed millions an artificially induced famine. “The dead and dying,” Robert Service has written, “were piled on to carts by the urban detachments and pitched into common graves without further ceremony. Pits were dug on the outskirts of villages for the purpose. Child survivors, their stomachs swollen through hunger, gnawed grass and tree-bark and begged for crusts.” Stalin and his colleagues also sent millions of men, women, and children to slave-labor camps. From 1945-1948, the period during which Kolko believes the U.S. invented the threat of Soviet tyranny, the number of prisoners in the Gulag he had created actually doubled.
In The Politics of War and The Limits of Power, which covers this period, these historically unprecedented crimes are completely absent from Kolko’s propagandistic texts. They have nothing to say about Stalin’s purges, the horrific cost of collectivization, the Gulag, Stalin’s control over the press, and the constant jailing and killing of dissidents or the influences of these developments on historical events. In a 1990 epilogue to The Politics of War, Kolko admits what he had previously denied - that Soviet troops “were indeed responsible for the Katyn Forest liquidations of Polish officers….” But he refuses to change his basic benevolent interpretation of Stalin or alter his assessment that the West’s fears of the Soviet Union were manufactured out of thin air. Recent scholarship, Kolko preposterously claims, only serves to reinforce his original conclusions.
Kolko’s apologist history extends to Communist expansion and rule in Eastern Europe, China, and Korea. According to Kolko, Eastern Europeans, welcomed their Communist conquerors and the satellite regimes they installed. The Eastern European satellites managed to avoid “the crises of war, stagnation, and unemployment that inflicted misery on the working class of the capitalist economies of the West.” This, of course, is an Alice-in-Wonderland concoction. The political and economic misery that Soviet rule inflicted on the working classes of Eastern Europe produced revolts in Poland and Hungary and eventually led to the demise of the Soviet system. The West Germans had to tax themselves $100 billion after the Berlin Wall came down to bring their Eastern bretheren who had been economically raped by the Soviet system to reasonable levels.
Kolko’s Asian stories adhere to a similar party line. According to Kolko, Mao and his Communist colleagues created a “people’s democracy” and led their followers with “honesty, efficiency, and moderation….” Chinese Communist assemblies were “organized everywhere” as “open forums of criticism….” and Communists “easily forgave opposition if cooperation was forthcoming later.” The Chinese Communist army, moreover, “did not loot, but grew its own food and worked with the peasants. Its morale was high, its commitment great.” Kolko also believes that Korea’s little Stalin, Kim Il-sung, led his people as a “Communist and national hero.” In Kolko’s version, he was not a Kremlin lackey and instituted much-needed land reform, “introduced a massive education program…,” and “passed extensive worker welfare decrees in 1946 regulating working hours, vacations, and social insurance.”
Kolko’s analysis of Communism in Soviet satellite states, China, and Korea is just as Potemkin-like as his interpretation of Stalin and the origins of the Cold War. Contrary to Kolko’s fairy tales, Mao instituted a totalitarian state in China and killed an estimated 50 million Chinese. He did not welcome democracy and fight for the good of the Chinese people, but brutalized the population and blamed the U.S. for China’s problems. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a momentous episode in the history of the Chinese Revolution, Kolko bothers to write about. Perhaps because its attempt to produce a Marxist utopia wiped out 30 million people and was an economic catastrophe. In Korea, Kim Il-sung established a dictatorial regime and instituted economic policies that, like Stalin’s, resulted in widespread starvation. During the Cold War, North Korea was also heavily dependent on the Soviet Union for economic and military aid. In addition, the Korean War was not a war of Yankee imperialism but an act of Soviet supported aggression by the North Korean regime against Koreans who wanted freedom. As John Lewis Gaddis summarizes, “the evidence now confirms that Kim got a green light from Stalin in 1950, while all [Syngman] Rhee received from Washington were yellow lights shading over into red.” It was the West not Stalin that was defensive in foreign policy. Stalin was optimistic about the chances for world revolution and pleased that he had such a devoted lackey in Kim. In fact, when Kim visited Stalin to request his assistance before starting the Korean War, he proudly proclaimed that he was “a disciplined person [for whom]…the order of Comrade Stalin is law.” Kolko simply ignores this evidence and the crushing verdict it delivers on his scholarship.
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