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Bevin’s Legacy

The estimable online journal Democratiya is featuring some recently unearthed cabinet memos by the British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin from early 1948, “setting out the case for the Atlantic alliance and for a muscular social democratic antitotalitarianism,” as Democratiya’s editor, Alan Johnson, puts it. (The memos can be read here; Johnson’s gloss is here.)

Bevin was a self-educated worker, who had been forced to drop out of school at the age of ten in order to support himself. His native wit propelled him to the top of Britain’s trade union movement and then to a leading position in the Labor Party. His clear-eyed recognition of the threat and the evil represented by Soviet Communism led him to become the mastermind behind the North Atlantic treaty (although these memos don’t bear directly on the treaty). In contrast, America’s brainchild for keeping the postwar peace was the UN. The biggest fear of that generation of statesmen was that a third world war centered in Europe might soon follow the first and second.

The idea was scarcely farfetched. Milovan Djilas recounts in Conversations with Stalin that the Soviet dictator enthused at one of the all night eat-drink-talk fests at which he entertained and intimidated his Yugoslav comrades that “the war shall soon be over. We shall recover in fifteen or twenty years, and then we’ll have another go at it.” What prevented that was NATO, the organization that grew out of Bevin’s treaty. In contrast, the UN’s contribution to averting another big war was about as large as that of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Instead of scolding us for not showing more deference to the UN, why don’t Europeans realize that the stark comparison between the achievements of Bevin’s NATO and those of FDR’s UN furnish evidence, of which there is otherwise precious little, that Europeans really are wiser than Americans?

Not that Bevin’s wisdom was flawless. These memos dwell on the importance of social democracy as a “third force” alternative to capitalism and Communism. It was of course nothing of the sort. Rather, it was a modification of capitalism. But more important, there was something morally blind in such categories, suffused as they were with the backwash of Marxian hocus pocus. What was at stake was much larger than economics: it was a conflict between civilization and barbarism. Today, again, we find ourselves in the grips of struggle with barbarism, albeit of a different species. And today, too, there are voices—most of them less admirable than Bevin’s—that would distract us with petty quibbles.


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