Commentary Magazine


The Rise of Neoconservatism, by John Ehrman; Cold War Illusions, by Dana H. Allin

Revisionism Revised

The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1994.
by John Ehrman.
Yale. 241 pp. $27.50.

Cold War Illusions: America, Europe, and Soviet Power, 1969-1989.
by Dana H. Allin.
St. Martin’s. 267 pp. $39.95.

Not so long ago, revisionist historians of the cold war were busy building a case for holding the United States principally responsible for igniting that conflict. The thesis never had any firm facts to undergird it, and it has now collapsed under the accumulating weight of revelations emanating from the archives of the Communist world. Cold-war revisionism, however, is not yet dead and buried—it is merely being revised.

With the origins of the Soviet-American confrontation no longer in serious dispute, revisionists have turned their focus to its end game. In brief, they accuse the Reagan administration of having needlessly fanned the embers of the conflict just as it was about to die out on its own. According to today’s revisionists, the main culprits behind the allegedly anachronistic anti-Communism of the Reagan years were the neoconservatives.

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Of these two books, John Ehrman’s The Rise of Neoconservatism is a judiciously argued and decidedly wow-revisionist account. I begin with it because, among his other virtues, Ehrman lays out most clearly the early history of the neoconservative movement.

As Ehrman reminds us, the term “neoconservative,” at least as originally employed, was a pejorative, applied to those liberal anti-Communists who, by the early 1970′s, found themselves outnumbered and alone, fighting within the Democratic party against its isolationist tilt in foreign affairs. While the members of this group—prominently including Jeane Kirkpatrick, Daniel P. Moynihan, and Norman Podhoretz—utterly failed in their struggle to halt the leftward slide of the Democratic party, they were nevertheless quite successful in suggesting to the American voter that there was an attractive alternative to McGovernite isolationism on the one hand, as well as to Nixonian realpolitik and détente on the other.

Neoconservatism’s message emphasized the dangers posed to the United States and the West by an expansionist and militarized USSR; but neoconservatism was never limited to this point. At a time of elite disaffection in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam, it stressed as well the soundness and superiority of America’s democratic political system. The allure of this message was vividly demonstrated by Moynihan when, during his brief stint as ambassador to the United Nations in 1975-76, he launched an outspoken counterattack against the anti-American, anti-democratic attitudes which dominated UN proceedings. Moynihan gained a wide public following and in short order was elected to the United States Senate precisely because he spoke unapologetically for America and its principles at a time when Western values were under relentless assault both from abroad and by many Left-leaning intellectuals at home.

Although Moynihan remained within the fold of the Democratic party, his forthright defense of the United States and its allies reverberated, as Ehrman shows, across party lines. The vigor with which Ronald Reagan trumpeted America’s democratic virtues in the early 1980′s and the often brutally frank rhetoric that he directed at the Kremlin were a direct echo of Moynihan’s bluntness at the UN.

This echo was not created by accident; a fair number of Moynihan’s former UN and Senate staff aides were recruited to formulate foreign policy in the Reagan administration. While intellectuals have often proved notoriously inept at wielding power, once in office neoconservatives like Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, and Carl Gershman proved to be talented bureaucratic infighters, contributing more than their share to the boldness and élan, and ultimately the success, of Reagan’s foreign policy.

Though Ehrman’s assessment of neoconservatism is by and large warm, he does offer one major qualification to his positive appraisal. In the mid-1980′s, he contends, some neoconservatives grossly misread the nature and pace of developments in the USSR, and downplayed the significance of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms.

Ehrman may have a point here, but it is only a partially persuasive one. Neoconservatives were hardly alone in failing to foresee the unforeseeable: that Gorbachev’s reforms would end by shaking the foundations of the Communist system to the ground. Nor were neoconservatives wholly wrong when they expressed skepticism over whether the Soviet Union could be reformed. For one thing, it should be kept in mind that Gorbachev began his tenure in office by reintroducing such old-line Communist techniques as labor-discipline and anti-alcohol campaigns. Then, when he pushed ahead with genuine liberalization, the USSR did in fact prove recalcitrant to reform: it collapsed.

Whatever Ehrman’s reservations on this score, in ably chronicling the instances in which neoconservatives helped to shape the course of American foreign policy, The Rise of Neoconservatism exemplifies intellectual history at its best. As the United States now grapples with the uncertainties of a chaotic world, it is useful to be so energetically reminded that the decisive final battle of the cold war was waged not with tanks and missiles but with typewriters and ideas.

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Like Ehrman, Dana H. Allin, the author of Cold War Illusions, appreciates the immense influence of neoconservatives on American foreign policy—appreciates and deplores it. For unlike Ehrman, Allin can be numbered among the new revisionists, and he treats the targets of his analysis with a skepticism that shades into outright disdain.

As Allin tells the story, far from winning the cold war, the Reagan administration actually prolonged it, greatly augmenting its costs and risks by means of confrontational rhetoric and a relentless military build-up. These hard-line policies were the work of the neoconservatives, whose aggressive polemics against détente had blinded them to the fact that by the time Ronald Reagan came into office in 1980, victory in the cold war was all but assured.

Indeed, Allin asserts, the Soviet Union had evolved into a declining status-quo power long before then. By the early 1970′s, he writes, Europe, though still a divided continent, had settled into a stalemate that was highly advantageous to the West, with capitalist Western Europe wealthy and free and Communist Eastern Europe poor and oppressed. The Reagan administration inherited this exceptionally favorable situation but failed to recognize it, embarking instead on its reckless course of directly challenging Moscow in the economic, military, and ideological spheres.

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Allin’s argument in Cold War Illusions is constructed on one of the shakiest of intellectual foundations: hindsight. Yet even with this aid to historical vision, his gaze is surprisingly blurred. Thus, he claims that in the 1970′s and early 80′s it was perfectly obvious that the Soviet Union was an economically prostrate and politically divided power presiding over a tottering empire. But no respectable foreign-policy observer at that time—Left, Right, or Center—believed anything of the kind.

Advocates of détente in particular were certainly not arguing then that their preferred strategy of good will and patience would be rewarded by a Soviet collapse. Quite to the contrary, they predicated the need for such a policy on the great dangers that would arise if the United States dared to challenge the Soviet Union, a country so politically secure (in their view) that it simply could not be influenced by arms build-ups, economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, human-rights campaigns, and the like. “There is no other choice” was a refrain endlessly repeated by the partisans of détente in those years; Richard Barnet, one of the “experts” on whom Allin relies, was busy explaining in the late 1970′s that détente was necessary because of the “growing realization among capitalists and state socialists that neither system can survive in an economically divided world.”

Allin is particularly critical of neoconservative warnings about the ease with which Western Europe might be intimidated by Soviet pressure, i.e., “Finlandized.” Here again he attempts to enlist hindsight on his side—after all, he points out, the cold war did draw to a close in Europe with the Atlantic alliance intact. Yet fears over the coherence of NATO were not as ungrounded as Allin now blithely suggests. By the early 1980′s, two of Europe’s most influential opposition parties—West Germany’s Social Democrats and Britain’s Labor party—had embraced policies which extended beyond neutralism to verge on pacifism. If these parties had achieved political power, it is an open question whether their countries would have remained effective members of NATO.

Worries about developments in Western Europe were, in any case, a minor theme for the neoconservatives, who were mainly concerned about lack of will in the American foreign-policy elite. But this is a subject to which Allin devotes little attention. He mentions only in passing, for example, how close the Senate came to passing the Mansfield amendment, which would have forced a massive reduction in American troop strength in Europe, conceivably wrecking NATO and spelling an end to anything beyond hollow rhetorical support for containment.

Neoconservative fears for the future of the United States and the West were not woven out of whole cloth, nor was victory in the cold war automatically assured or preordained. This simple truth, which John Ehrman carefully and perceptively documents, cannot be undone by the rewritings of history now being undertaken by Dana Allin and his fellow revisionists.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.




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