It has become commonplace in the last year or so to refer to “the end of the Cold War” and the “collapse of Communism.” Sometimes it is even noted—by people concerned more with accuracy than etiquette—that America and the West won the Cold War. But the end of the Cold War, our victory in the Cold War, did not occur merely by chance, or by virtue of the general rightness of our cause, or by the inherent weaknesses of Communism. What has been largely ignored in our public discourse of recent months is the extraordinary achievement of statesmanship and national will that made this success possible: i.e., four decades of resistance to the expansion of an implacable tyranny—all the while preserving democratic institutions within our own country and alliance, and avoiding the catastrophe of nuclear war.
The theory underlying our practice was called “containment,” and it was outlined in its initial form by George F. Kennan in his famous “Mr. X” article inForeign Affairs (“The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” July 1947) and then incorporated into the Truman Doctrine and the American policies and actions that followed. The basic idea was to frustrate the Soviet Union in its drive to expand, to deprive it of material resources and psychological momentum so that in time the economic contradictions and ideological falsity of Communism would become manifest, causing the Soviet empire to collapse of its own weight, or at least to tire of aggression. For more than forty years we pursued this containment doctrine (more or less), employing both defensive actions and careful applications of pressure at Soviet weak points, until at length the aggressor state did collapse—just as predicted.
What precedent should we cite to take the full measure of this achievement in defense of civilization? The Greeks’ improbable victory over Persia in the fifth century B.C? The repulsion of the Arab armies in the Middle Ages and the Turks at Vienna in 1683? The Allies near-defeat and subsequent reversal against Hitler in World War II?
Self-congratulation is unbecoming and unwarranted: the U.S. decision to fight the Cold War resulted not from pure altruism but rather from a happy confluence of America’s self-interest with the larger good. And celebration is clearly premature: new problems and responsibilities already press upon us in the post-Cold War era (including, it should be noted, significant points of contention between America and the Soviet Union). Nevertheless, it does seem fitting to acknowledge publicly the great achievement of the age just past. The happy outcome of the Cold War was by no means inevitable. Things might have turned out very differently.
It is not unpatriotic, but merely truthful, to say that our national character and temperament, as formed by the peculiar experience of our history, made us particularly ill-suited to the task at hand: “a long twilight struggle,” as John F. Kennedy put it, “year in and year out,” with no end in sight and no guarantee of ultimate victory. As a fiercely democratic country, with a foreign policy susceptible to erratic swings in public mood and opinion, we had to overcome many natural inclinations and resist many temptations. We had to reject the parochial and self-absorbed isolation of years past, to bear the burden of high taxes and military conscription, and to accept an unaccustomed measure of insecurity and uncertainty. As a nation that had surmounted so many internal obstacles with relative ease, and had won its wars through technical and productive prowess, we had to learn that quick solutions are the exception rather than the rule, that military power and alliances must be joined with patient and skilled diplomacy. Our role as the hegemonic state within an alliance of free nations required us to exercise power in ways that sometimes seemed incompatible with American notions of democracy and fairness. Yet its responsible exercise was necessary, even though it produced discontents at home and abroad. Foreign resentment issued in part from sheer envy, and in part from justifiable anger at our occasional follies and abuses.
Reasonable observers in the early years of the Cold War had legitimate cause to think that America would be unable to stay a consistent course, or walk the razor’s edge implied by the containment doctrine; but somehow, in spite of ourselves, we did it. American policy was not always effective, of course, as evidenced by the debacle of Vietnam, the near-catastrophe over the Cuban missiles, and the conflict with our allies in the Suez crisis. To be sure, there were many lapses, excesses, and errors. In the necessary search for security, external and internal, we were at times tempted by demagogues, inquisitors, and jingoists. There were abuses by the FBI and CIA, and there was the criminal exposure of human subjects to nuclear radiation, the full story of which we are only now beginning to learn. At the same time, America exhibited periodic derelictions of duty in maintaining national strength, caused by either frivolous indifference and complacency or by morbid, paralyzing guilt.
Yet, despite these and other ignoble episodes, the remarkable thing—given the gravity of the situation and the complexity and subtlety of the nation’s task— was the degree of wisdom and dedication that Americans were able to marshal and apply in a relatively consistent way: from the reconstruction of Europe and Japan, to the formation of NATO, to the Korean intervention, to the slow-but-steady strengthening of our alliance. The arms buildup and ideological counteroffensive of the Reagan years appeared to some as a new and dangerous bellicosity; but American assertiveness in the 1980s was really no more than a revival of our commitment to containment and deterrence, which had fallen into a bad state by the mid-1970s. Though a more conclusive historical verdict will require further study, it does seem that America’s second wind in the 1980s was what finally broke the Soviets’ bank and their will to aggression.
Great historical achievements often fail to receive full recognition in their own time. For many years after the Civil War, for example, Americans tried to put their great national ordeal behind them, and they took little account of the political and military achievement that saved the Union and freed the slaves. Later on, sometime in the 1880s or 1890s, popular interest developed in the story of the war and in its larger significance as a world-historical event. Perhaps a similar process is operating in the wake of the Cold War, so that a full appreciation of its meaning will be postponed until after our exhaustion is past and our perspective clarified by time.
Insofar as a provisional assessment is possible, some of the best contemporary journalists have, we believe, correctly interpreted the signs of the times. For the most part, however, the organs of mass media and establishment opinion have made only vague and passing reference to the victory and vindication of containment.
More unfortunate and ominous than oversight are the frequent Cold War post-mortems that not only ignore the historical achievement of American policy but actually seek to deny that achievement, even to interpret our policies and conduct as cause for lament and reproach. In influential journals of opinion and on newspaper op-ed pages we find persistent attempts to misrepresent the meaning of events and to exaggerate the costs of the Cold War. The Cold War, it is alleged, ruined the American economy, militarized our culture, led to a bloated National Security State, and tarnished our image abroad. Now that the Soviet Union is seen to have been far poorer than we earlier imagined, we are told that it never really threatened us after all, particularly in recent years; hence, it is smugly asserted, America’s military posture was unnecessary, wasteful, arrogant, and dangerously irresponsible.
These claims are insupportable. The current economic malaise in the U.S. has many causes, some of them far more serious than the onerous costs of national defense. In any case, there was no real choice in the matter. Avoiding these costs would have meant either subjugation or surrender on the installment plan. As for our international image, the Cold War critics—the “anti-Cold War brigade” as Arch Puddington has called them—seem strangely out of touch with reality. The formerly captive peoples of Eastern Europe express profound gratitude toward America, and appreciation for its having preserved a light of freedom while they languished in totalitarian darkness. Their heroes are people like Ronald Reagan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, not the liberal press and intelligentsia, which, out of moral and intellectual delinquency, or loss of nerve, often denied or minimized Communism’s oppressive character in Eastern Europe and its threat to freedom everywhere.
This situation must be deeply embarrassing and grating for “the anti-Cold War brigade,” many of whose members consider themselves witnesses for the poor and oppressed of the world, and the prophetic voice of public conscience. Having sought accommodation rather than resistance to tyrants, they must feel vulnerable to the sort of chiding that Henry IV of France reportedly gave to an absent general when he said: “Hang yourself, brave Crillon; we fought at Arques and you were not there.”
The true victors and heroes of the age just past will, we trust, ultimately win historical vindication, even if media and intellectual elites are able to deprive them of it for a time. But the post-Cold War debate is not solely about vindication or historical accuracy for its own sake. The contest to define the meaning of the past (and its alleged lessons) is also a struggle to define and control the debate about present and future policy. If a strong American military was unnecessary, wasteful, and dangerous in the Cold War period—as critics maintain—then a fortiori it is a menace to prosperity and justice in the post-Cold War era. Thus, discrediting Cold War hardliners is invariably the basis for calls to dismantle America’s defense system. It is time, by this reckoning, to enjoy a whopping “peace dividend” by making deep cuts in military spending. The people who were consistently wrong are acting as though they had been right all along, and they are trying to steer policy on the assumption that American power is untrustworthy or unnecessary or both.
The whole lesson of the Cold War period, however, is that, all things considered, American power is trustworthy and safe—that, more often than not, it has been and continues to be a source of both order and justice in an international arena ever tending to chaos and injustice. The world remains a dangerous place even as the Cold War comes to a close. A new de-Communized Russian state will still possess a fearsome arsenal that could menace American and Western interests; and no one can say what direction a new regime there might take. Even if it is friendly to our interests and ideals, the collapse of Soviet power has left much instability and uncertainty in its wake. The Middle East crisis precipitated by the tyrant of Iraq is proof enough that we are not at “the end of history.” Difficult as it is for some people to accept, we live in a permanently unpeaceful and unsafe world.
On both the individual and the collective level, the temptation to aggression remains a permanent condition of life in history, as ineradicable as the desire for justice and peace. If our Judeo-Christian religious tradition teaches us anything about the life of nations and empires, it is the persistence of sin until “the end of days,” when God (it is hoped and believed) will transfigure human existence. The psalmist was describing the truth of every age, and not just his own, when he said, “Why do the nations rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?” The current Middle East crisis is merely the first of our post-Cold War reminders that there will, alas, always be “wars and rumors of war.”
In point of fact, there are reasons to be hopeful that the immediate future might be, if not the end of history, at least a protracted period of relative peace and prosperity. Perhaps this generation is being called not to grand, heroic martial action but to the unglamorous, though vital, task of securing and building a peace won by the Cold War generation. In either case, it seems to us irresponsible for America to demobilize half its forces and scuttle plans for advanced military aircraft and defense against nuclear attack—as many in Congress and the public arena are now proposing. Current debates regarding defense cutbacks need to take more seriously the possibility that we are lowering our guard too soon, and creating a dangerous atmosphere in which our military strength will be allowed to atrophy. Even as we strive for the best possible, most equitable peace that fallible human beings can erect, we must remember that, short of a transfiguring act of God, there is no true security or permanent peace in this world. If we are to derive a general lesson from the specific experience of the Cold War, it might be that history itself is “a long twilight struggle.”