A review of COLD WAR TRIUMPHALISM: THE MISUSE OF HISTORY AFTER THE FALL OF COMMUNISM. Edited by Ellen Schrecker. The New Press, 304 pages.
A significant cadre of historians cannot abide the idea that the United States won the Cold War. More than 70 years after Russia became a communist state and proclaimed that its goal and destiny was to vanquish all forms of capitalism, after nearly 50 years of conflict — often covert, occasionally via proxies and always ideological — during which the USSR proclaimed that its social system was the model for the rest of the world, the communist system imploded in its heartland.
To any rational observer, this looks like a pretty clear-cut result. More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire, however, Ellen Schrecker, a well-known scholar at Yeshiva University, gathered a group of like-minded academics to denounce Cold War triumphalism and lament "the misuse of history after the fall of communism."
The introduction and 10 essays included in this volume agree that the Cold War was morally ambiguous, unnecessary, and destructive, and that its outcome is no cause for celebration or even satisfaction.
As with any collection of articles, there are differences and nuances among the contributors. Ms. Schrecker is upset that the collapse of the USSR was hailed as "a great victory for the United States." Leo Ribuffo of George Washington University takes on the claim that America was morally superior to the USSR, suggesting that the question of whether Nikita Khrushchev was morally inferior to LBJ or Richard Nixon is not an easy one to answer.
Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago doesn't think it was much of a battle; the United States did not defeat " a worthy adversary" but "a defensive and brittle movement that aspired to essentially the same things as 'the last man' of contemporary couch-potatoism."
Michael Bernstein of the University of California, San Diego, is sure that the defeat of the USSR heralded a "stunning defeat" for the American economy, while Nelson Lichtenstein of the University of California, Santa Barbara, sees the growth of "free-market triumphalism" as the most important legacy of the end of the Cold War.
Regardless of the details, all of the contributors concur that America's victory was a hollow one — if it was a victory at all. They are in general agreement that the American claim to have been defending freedom and democracy against totalitarianism was a sham.
American foreign policy, the editor argues, was based on militarism, foreign adventurism and capitalism (which is decidedly not a virtue). The Cold War stunted economic growth, starved domestic projects, transferred political power from civilized parts of the country like the East and Midwest to the "gunbelt" — the South and California — and led to the decline of American manufacturing.
These disasters are not simply attributable to the Cold War; "racism, sexism and corporate greed shaped American institutions just as effectively."
Once again, there are nuances. Chalmers Johnson of the Japan Policy Research Institute sensibly differentiates the results of the Cold War in Europe from Asia, although his condemnation of the United States for collaborating with "corrupt, brutal and incompetent" Asian dictators in preference to being on the right side of history with such paragons of honesty, kindness and efficiency as Kim Il Sung or Mao Tse-tung might give a few readers pause.
Several writers muse about missed opportunities to avoid the Cold War. Carolyn Eisenberg of Hofstra University insists that the Soviets never imposed a complete blockade on Berlin, and that the airlift to feed the city was not about freedom but the Western desire to create a West German government in violation of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements.
She argues that the United States missed a chance to strike a deal with Joseph Stalin, who never "intended to transform all these places [Eastern European states] into mini-Soviet states or . . . expected to dominate them for very long." It was American policy that forced him into it.
Jessica Wang of the University of California, Los Angeles, laments that the United States blocked efforts aimed at "fundamentally reworking the structures of the international system, surpassing the political limitations of the nation-state system and putting an end to military conflict" by first dominating and then ignoring the United Nations, all the while pursuing "an aggressively U.S.-centered foreign policy."
Although it is a minor point, animus towards Israel makes its obligatory appearance. Ms. Wang pauses from her praise of the Bandung Non-Aligned Nations Conference of 1955 and the calls of Indonesia's Sukarno and Egypt's Gamal Abdal Nasser for respect for human rights to note that the Arab states present there especially emphasized the United Nations' "failing to uphold human rights in Palestine."
Since there was no Israeli occupation of "Palestine" at the time, and since Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East, and not one Arab state recognized its right to exist, she unintentionally demonstrates the ideological posturing that underlies this effort.
Mr. Johnson attributes the current intifada to Israel's decision to abandon "all efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians and instead attack them with tanks and helicopter gunships," as if Yasser Arafat's determination to destroy the Oslo Accords and walk away from the peace process never happened.
And that, ultimately, is what makes reading the essays in this book so uninteresting and useless. That American foreign policy during the Cold War was sometimes mistaken or deluded is not something that any responsible "triumphalist" would deny. That aspects of Cold War culture and ideology were simplistic or mistaken or exaggerated is no doubt true.
But to ignore or minimize the fundamental moral and ideological divide between communism and democracy, or to spin fantasies about the benign intentions of mass murderers, is not to correct the misuses of history but to add to them.
In an earlier book on McCarthyism, Ellen Schrecker denounced all forms of anti-communism as species of that disease. Here, she takes to task historians who adopt a "Manichean" view of the world and denounces "misleading analogies" that distort our views of the past.
Only in the academy could the triumph of Western democracies over Soviet communism be the cause of hand-wringing and regrets, or could simplistic slogans and claims be promoted as complex and sophisticated.