The Anti-Cold War Brigade
The virtual collapse of East European Communism and the apparently irreversible decay of Communism everywhere else would seem to offer powerful vindication to those who advocated anti-Communism as the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in the postwar era. This would especially seem to be the case given the timing of the momentous events of the past several years. During the crucial decade of the 1980’s, after all, the United States did not advance the favors, concessions, and reassurances which the proponents of détente advocated as the only realistic approach to relations with Moscow. Instead, under the Reagan presidency, America prosecuted the traditional policy of containment with a purposefulness not seen since the Truman years, even borrowing a page from the much-scorned rollback idea in its approach to Communist regimes in the Third World. Precisely how much influence these policies exerted over Communist world developments is a legitimate subject for debate; that they played some role, and probably a large one, would seem beyond doubt.
Nevertheless, a number of influential observers have argued that anti-Communism was irrelevant to the demise of the 20th century’s most durable totalitarian system. A few have gone even further, asserting that Western anti-Communists, by providing ideological ammunition to hardline elements within Communist-party leaderships, actually impeded the process of change. Far-fetched as such arguments may sound, it should be remembered that the timing of Communism’s great upheaval created a serious intellectual dilemma for critics of the cold war. Reagan’s policies, these critics had confidently predicted, would not merely fail, they would almost certainly trigger a foreign-policy catastrophe of frightening dimensions, with nuclear war a distinct possibility. As we know, the maligned 80’s concluded with more substantial prospects for real peace than at any time in the past 45 years. Small wonder, then, that a subtle tone of annoyance has crept into the commentaries of cold-war critics as they attempt to show how an approach guaranteed, in their eyes, to produce disaster had nothing to do in the end with what turned out to be a monumental triumph for democracy.
The answer of choice for most members of the anti-cold war brigade is to ascribe all positive change in the Communist world to Mikhail Gorbachev and to Mikhail Gorbachev alone. This, in any event, is Strobe Talbott’s explanation. In a recent essay accompanying Time magazine’s special “Man of the Decade” tribute to the Soviet leader, Talbott flatly denies that the Soviets were influenced by the military buildups, economic denials, or other measures applied by the U.S. in the post-détente era. Gorbachev, Talbott explains, was motivated almost entirely by his country’s internal predicament and not by Western strategies to contain Soviet expansion. Furthermore, Talbott, operating most definitely in hindsight, now detects an inherent weakness lurking behind the brutality of the Communist system and the posturing of its leaders, a “brittleness” which would eventually have given way before the collective pressure of its oppressed subjects. The clear implication is that special Western efforts to undermine or squeeze East European Communism were unnecessary and possibly counterproductive.
Indeed, Talbott finds fault with the anti-Communist idea throughout the entire postwar period. Western policy, he asserts, was based on “a grotesque exaggeration of what the Soviet Union could do. . . . It was believed to be possessed of immense and malignant strength, including the self-confidence, prowess, and resources for the conduct of all-out war.” Yet not everyone, he adds, succumbed to the fear-mongering of America’s hardline zealots. There were men of common sense and moderate views whose advice, Talbott implies, was too often overwhelmed by the scare tactics of the hawks. It is these critics of the cold war to whom Talbott pays homage, with the provocative claim that “The doves in the Great Debate of the past forty years were right all along.” (It should be noted that Talbott nevertheless invokes the possibility that Gorbachev might be replaced by a leadership that “will once again[l?] threaten the world with military intimidation if not conquest.”)
Now Talbott does not stipulate exactly how the view of the doves differed from that of the hawks, except to suggest that doves were pessimistic about the ability of Western policy to modify Soviet behavior, and held “realistic” opinions about Soviet power. And he is somewhat vague, perhaps by intent, in identifying the prescient critics whose cries went unheeded over four decades. Presumably he has in mind figures more mainstream than, for example, Henry Wallace, whose tolerance for Stalin’s moves led him to oppose the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine, and prevented him from criticizing the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. Yet Wallace, who ran for President under this banner on the Progressive party ticket in 1948, was the original dissenter from America’s cold-war course, and his influence over succeeding generations of scholars and politicians was not insignificant.
Take the case of former Senator J. William Fulbright, a man long associated with a revisionist analysis of U.S. foreign policy. Writing in 1972, Fulbright had unstinting praise for Wallace’s determined noninterventionist perspective, while dragging up the hoary charge that President Truman welcomed Stalin’s aggression in Eastern Europe as a convenient rationale for the cold war. Fulbright’s major concern in these early days of détente was what he saw as the immature unwillingness of America’s cold warriors to accept the Soviet Union’s domination over its European neighbors. “Insofar . . . as we raise false hopes with provocative propaganda, maintain high troop levels, and continue the arms race, we retard the natural process of European reunification, lingering morbidly and uselessly in the graveyard of cold-war relics.”
That Moscow’s imperial grip over the satellites was unnatural and, therefore, a threat to peace seems not to have occurred to Fulbright, who insisted, inaccurately as we now know, that the simple process of détente would induce the Kremlin to relax (but not surrender) its grip over Eastern Europe. Fulbright, in fact, went so far as to praise Nikita Khrushchev for having “defused” the Berlin crisis, without mentioning that the Soviet leader’s solution was the Berlin Wall. In the meantime, to reassure the Soviets of our peaceful intentions, Fulbright proposed the withdrawal of American troops from Europe—in other words, the effective dismantling of NATO—and the liquidation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Fulbright was especially churlish concerning RFE/RL, of which he wrote: “Purporting to show [East Europeans] that there is a better ‘way of life’ outside the ‘Iron Curtain,’ we foster futile discontent, not for any discernible purpose of policy but for purposes of ideological mischief. In this way we detract from the broader purposes of our own policy and of world peace, which require us to live in the greatest attainable harmony with the Communist governments of the world. . . .” In general, Fulbright linked the U.S. and the Soviet Union as equally dangerous superpowers, with Soviet internal repressiveness balanced, and perhaps more than balanced, by America’s proclivity for involvement in faraway, unimportant places like Vietnam.
That Fulbright has been proved demonstrably wrong in his views on Soviet expansionism (he, like most others at the time, saw the USSR as a status-quo power), on the internal stability of the Soviet system, and on Eastern Europe has done little to tarnish his reputation as a “wise” and “prudent” authority on foreign affairs. Likewise, former Senator George McGovern, despite the debacle of his 1972 presidential campaign, remains an honored figure within the Democratic party, and is even often referred to as the party’s “conscience”—a clear sign that many continue to share his world view, if occasionally put off by the shrillness with which it is presented.
Like Fulbright (who, it was widely believed, would have been named Secretary of State had McGovern won the presidency), McGovern is a confirmed revisionist regarding relations with the Soviets and an unapologetic admirer of Henry Wallace. The satellization of Eastern Europe, he has written in his memoirs, “was a Soviet reaction, however regrettable, to two world wars,” as well as to “implacable Western hostility” to the Communist ideology, and he is convinced that the West, and particularly America, bears prime responsibility for the cold war through such ill-conceived moves as the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
McGovern’s reputation in the early 1970’s, of course, was not the result of his forbearing attitude toward Stalin’s postwar maneuvers but came, rather, from his outspoken opposition to American involvement in Vietnam. Yet neither did his antiwar opinions derive solely from revulsion against the bloodshed in Southeast Asia. McGovern, in fact, was something of an enthusiast for Third World Communism, identifying in the leaders of Vietnamese Communism and in Fidel Castro qualities akin to those found in America’s Founding Fathers. Thus it is not surprising that McGovern looked benignly on the prospect of Communist inroads in Africa; these he saw as the product of an intense and altogether understandable nationalism, having little or nothing to do with the Soviet Union’s plans to expand its power in the underdeveloped world.
If fulbright and McGovern fairly represent the views of critics of the cold war in Congress, Richard Barnet can be said to occupy a similar position on the intellectual Left. A founder of the radical Institute for Policy Studies, Barnet gained respectability as a commentator on foreign affairs through his books and essays, many of which have appeared in mainstream magazines like Harper’s and the New Yorker.
Barnet’s most important study of U.S.-Soviet relations, The Giants, was published in 1977, a time of growing superpower strain and mounting disillusion with détente; it was Barnet’s clear intent to revive support for that embattled concept. Barnet. however, cleverly attempted to redefine détente, or, more precisely, what Americans could and could not expect from the détente relationship. Unlike its champions in the political and business worlds, who were convinced that the détente process would produce sweeping changes in the Soviet system, Barnet was highly skeptical of the prospects for serious Soviet reform, no matter what policies were adopted in Washington. The Soviet people, he contended, supported the system, which they credited with steady improvements in the socioeconomic sphere. He also came close to dismissing human-rights concerns as irrelevant, asserting that the “vast majority of Soviet citizens would probably choose substantive freedoms over procedural freedoms if they were forced to opt for one or another.” And he raised the curious argument that a Soviet Union “more like us,” that is, more democratic, might well be less prone to peaceful coexistence with the rest of the world, a point which the current generation of Soviet reformers, and even Gorbachev himself, would certainly regard as strange.
Barnet’s misreading of Soviet society in the late 1970’s was equaled by his errors in judging Soviet global aspirations. Despite Leonid Brezhnev’s repeated assertions that détente was never meant to signal a weakening of the ideological struggle, Barnet insisted that the Soviets had no plans to embark on expansionist adventures outside the established European confines of the empire. Dismissing the Soviet-Cuban enterprise in Angola, then well under way, as a “special case,” Barnet flatly concluded that “the Soviet model is not for export.” In the event, within two years the Soviet model, or some variant thereof, was to be embraced by radical regimes from Afghanistan to Ethiopia to Nicaragua, and implanted therein with generous Soviet-bloc aid in such crucial sectors as the military and the secret police.
Ultimately, however, Barnet counseled the détente course on the interesting grounds that America really had no other choice. Although not declaring so openly, Barnet seemed to agree with the Soviets that the correlation of forces had shifted in Moscow’s direction—not because of Soviet strength, but rather because of American weakness in the post-Vietnam period. As for the American future, Barnet struck a note of deep pessimism, qualified only by his smugness in delivering the verdict. The American economic system, he mused, seemed incapable of solving “the problems of advanced industrial civilization,” and he referred to the problem of “maintaining liberal capitalist democracy in one country in a world that is clearly not heading in that direction.” And in a pronouncement which strikes one as laughable in the light of what we knew even then about the irrationality of socialist economics, Barnet ascribed support for détente to the “growing realization among capitalists and state socialists that neither system can survive in an economically divided world.”
It is only fair to note that, in the troubled late 1970’s, Barnet was far from alone in miscalculating the durability of capitalist democracy. Nor was he the only observer to view the human-rights issue as potentially subversive of détente. Yet in retrospect, it would appear that on this issue, if no other, Barnet was partially right. As public attention became increasingly focused on the plight of opposition figures, the repression of religious believers, the absence of basic worker rights, the abuse of psychiatry, and the seemingly endless list of prohibitions and restrictions built into the Communist system, it became practically impossible to argue for the legitimacy of the Soviet system—or so it would seem.
But where Barnet’s misgivings were motivated by fear that an intense scrutiny of Soviet internal practices might alienate Americans from détente, David Riesman, another prominent dove, worried that Carter’s policies might destabilize a system he saw as beleaguered and unsuccessful. The human-rights emphasis, Riesman contended, even when advanced by a liberal Democratic President, carried with it the potential to revitalize “the never wholly-defeated cold-war mentality of ethnocentric and patrioteering Americans.” More to the point, an American-inspired human-rights drive might trigger unmanageable forces within the Soviet Union, a dangerous prospect in light of that country’s nuclear capability. Thus Riesman argued straightforwardly for a human-rights double standard: however much we might admire Andrei Sakharov and his fellow dissidents (and Riesman clearly did admire them), prudence dictated that we downplay or ignore the violations of humane standards committed by the Soviets and, presumably, the East European “fraternal” regimes as well.
To the doves’ disquiet over the human-rights controversy was added, as the 70’s drew to a close, alarm over evidence that American tolerance for Soviet adventurism in the Third World was reaching the breaking point. Pro-Soviet regimes were gaining throughout the underdeveloped world, and while Soviet assistance was not always crucial to the seizure of power, the prompt dispatch of weapons, ammunition, and advisers (including Cuban proxies) was essential in preventing the overthrow of unpopular regimes.
Furthermore, the public perception of Third World revolution had altered significantly as evidence of the sinister nature of the new radical regimes mounted. The neat parallels between right-wing and left-wing dictatorships lost all credibility at a time when Latin American military juntas were giving way to democratically elected governments, while, from the Communist world, the news told of atrocity piled on atrocity: killing fields, boat people, freedom flotillas, politically engineered famines, peasants uprooted and shunted about by the millions. It became difficult to argue, as Richard Barnet had done a few years earlier, that the reasons for Soviet involvement in the Third World were “traditional, not revolutionary,” or that Moscow was “much less interested in how these societies will organize themselves than in reducing U.S. influence over them and encouraging them to support the Soviet line on specific international issues.”
And then, of course, there was the invasion of Afghanistan, an action which laid to rest once and for all the idea of the USSR as a status-quo power while giving rise to the suspicion that the Brezhnev Doctrine, which posited the irreversibility of Communist rule, had been extended beyond the Soviets’ traditional European imperium.
Yet even Afghanistan failed to shake the conviction of the advocates of détente that “normal” relations with Moscow still rested on a “mature” American tolerance for Soviet world conduct. America’s foremost socialist intellectual, the late Michael Harrington, coined the phrase “defensive aggression” to distinguish the occupation of Afghanistan from presumably more dangerous forms of conquest. And while few echoed Harrington’s prescription for meeting the Soviet challenge—he urged U.S. aid to the Sandinistas and the radical Salvadoran FMLNI—the notion that Moscow was acting in a fundamentally defensive manner met widespread acceptance, most notably from George F. Kennan. Indeed, Kennan speculated that neither Brezhnev nor Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had approved of the invasion—a noteworthy point in light of recent revelations by Soviet sources that Brezhnev and Gromyko were two of just four Soviet leaders who were responsible for the invasion decision, which has now been described by no less an authority than the present Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, as immoral.
Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard went a bit further. Writing in 1981, when the outlines of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy were taking form, Hoffmann scoffed at the idea that an approach based on a military buildup and anti-Communist rhetoric could advance the interests of the democracies. According to Hoffmann, “the key issue for the rest of the century is revolution,” and the sooner the U.S. accepted this difficult reality, the better. Hoffmann advised against trying to destabilize revolutionary regimes; an aggressive posture, he warned, would only stiffen the resolve of Third World radicals and make them less open to change. America would “have to take advantage of complexity,” and this meant, among other things, withholding aid to the Afghan mujahedeen unless accompanied by a diplomatic solution-a course which at the time entailed continued Soviet domination of Afghanistan. Ever the pessimist, Hoffmann declared that a strategy which tried to prevent the Soviets from changing the correlation of forces or from driving a wedge among the NATO allies was doomed to failure, and thus not worth the effort.
Hoffmann was not alone in overestimating the staying power of Third World Communism. Many hardliners, too, believed that reversing the pro-Soviet drift would require a long and arduous struggle. Others, however, felt that America’s early experience with the containment policy was altogether relevant to the problems facing the U.S. at the beginning of the 80’s. While not inattentive to the indigenous roots of revolution, these observers were convinced that the survival of the new Communist regimes was tied to their positions within a pro-Soviet international movement of Communist and radical states. If containment were to be applied in the Third World as it had been applied in Europe, they believed, the Soviet momentum might well be checked, and even turned around. This thesis proved correct: what came to be known as the Reagan Doctrine emerged as one of the great successes of American foreign policy, stemming Soviet gains in the Third World and ultimately rolling back Communist influence everywhere save in such hidebound regimes as Cuba and North Korea.
Yet if the 80’s are to be remembered as the time when Communism met its final reckoning, they will also be recalled for the loud and angry attacks against the policies which hastened Communism’s demise and the assumptions on which these policies were based.
The imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, for example, evoked a new doctrine from the Western Left. Dubbed “shared responsibility,” it rested on the thesis that the West, through its decision to deploy Euromissiles as a counter to Soviet SS-20s, bore a measure of responsibility for Soviet acts of oppression by stimulating an atmosphere of general European tension. Among more mainstream political commentators, Ronald Steel advanced a widely shared proposition when he wrote that since Poland served as “an integral part of the Soviet bloc and Soviet security system,” the West must adopt a realistic stance and “resist giving [the Poles] any false hopes of armed support that we have not the slightest intention of honoring.” Steel left the unmistakable impression that no option lay between passivity and war.
Some considerable consternation was also expressed over the Reagan administration’s arms program. The veteran diplomat Averell Harriman claimed that the “grim reality of Reagan administration diplomacy” was that the world might face “not the risk but the reality of nuclear war.” Harriman also foresaw the day when Soviet and American troops would square off against each other in the Middle East. Strobe Talbott, while avoiding Harriman’s overheated language, at the same time expressed the conviction that America’s hostile stance toward the Soviets was counterproductive. He thus favorably quoted a Soviet expert on the United States as saying that American policies were negatively affecting the correlation of forces “within the Kremlin” by strengthening the hands of the militarists while weakening the détente faction.
Others besides Talbott accepted the line—insinuated with a new shrewdness and sophistication by Soviet “Americanologists”—that Reagan’s anti-Soviet rhetoric and arms buildup were reinforcing the position of Kremlin hardliners. Not coincidentally, this propaganda campaign reached its hysterical height when it became clear that NATO intended to proceed with the deployment in Western Europe of Pershing and cruise missiles, despite Soviet saber-rattling and despite the massive anti-nuclear activities of the Western peace movement.
For American specialists predisposed toward skepticism over Reagan’s course, the Soviet response was Exhibit A in the evolving case against administration policies. Raymond L. Garthoff, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, returned from a 1983 visit to the Soviet Union with the prediction that “we must soon expect to see off our coasts Soviet submarines and perhaps surface ships armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles—pilotless drones that can strike our territory.” He also foresaw the deployment of Soviet ballistic missiles capable of reaching American soil in a few minutes, along with entirely new missile systems in Europe—all, presumably, in response to the impending emplacement of the Euromissiles. According to Garthoff’s alarming report, the Soviets had all but abandoned hope of improved relations with Washington. His Soviet acquaintances expressed outrage over the Reagan administration’s “exploitation” of the recent catastrophic downing of a Korean airliner, our call for greater independence for Eastern Europe, our questioning whether the Soviets were a legitimate part of Europe, and our refusal to acknowledge that the world correlation of forces had shifted and that the Soviets now enjoyed the “status of a great power with global interests.” All this, said Garthoff, had put Soviet proponents of détente “on the defensive”; where once the Soviets rewarded journalists who made favorable references to the United States, now the Soviet media were replete with “vitriolic” commentary on American policy. Garthoff, in fact, was among several Americans to report having been told by Soviet sources that women had actually broken down and wept for fear of the imminence of war after an especially bellicose speech by then-party chief Yuri Andropov.
Other Americans were concerned less with Soviet war-scare campaigns than with dispelling the notion that the Soviet system was confronted with a burgeoning internal crisis, and was thus less successful than Western capitalism. This, at least, seemed to be the intent of two of liberalism’s elder statesmen, John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who reached remarkably similar conclusions after separate Soviet tours.
Galbraith, it should be kept in mind, was, if not the originator of the theory that American and Soviet societies would one day “converge,” then certainly the doctrine’s most dogged popularizer. During his 1984 visit, he found fresh evidence for the relevance of the convergence theory. Galbraith noted that the Soviet economy had made “great material progress,” something he discerned from both official statistics and the “general urban scene.” The statistics were the very same ones which have now been revealed by Soviet authorities themselves as false. As for the “general urban scene,” Soviet émigrés returning from visits to Leningrad and Moscow today express astonished dismay at the abysmally deteriorated condition of buildings, streets, sidewalks, and the overall atmosphere of filth and disarray. Yet Galbraith was also impressed by “the incredible exfoliation of apartment houses” (Gorbachev himself, by contrast, has described housing as the number-one domestic problem), as well as by “the general aspect of restaurants, theaters, and shops.” “The Russian system succeeds,” Galbraith concluded in a declaration of stunning inaccuracy, “because, in contrast to the Western industrial economies, it makes full use of its manpower.”
So too Arthur Schlesinger after a 1982 visit. Life was “more agreeable . . . than I expected. There have been improvements in amenities. I found more goods in the shops, more food in the markets, more cars on the streets—more of almost everything, except, for some reason, caviar.” For Schlesinger, these surface signs of well-being led to the observation that “those in the U.S. who think the Soviet Union is on the verge of economic and social collapse, ready with one small push to go over the brink, are . . . only kidding themselves.” In typical mirror-image style, Schlesinger also noted that our “wishful thinkers” had their counterparts in the Soviet Union among those who believed that “capitalism was approaching its final crisis.” There were, he mused, “wishful thinkers” on both sides, who “always see other societies as more fragile than they are. Each superpower has economic troubles; neither is on the ropes.”
Schlesinger also detected positive signs of political change. He described the admission of Scandinavian peace marchers as a “significant departure,” and saw progress in the fact that five-day-old copies of leading Western newspapers could be purchased in the major hotels—by foreigners, of course, not ordinary Russians.
Schlesinger’s principal message, however, was a restatement of the cliché about the danger to mankind posed by the respective superpower hardliners:
. . . just as Soviet hardliners supply ammunition to American hardliners by invading Afghanistan, deploying SS-20s in Europe, and distorting the political evolution of Poland, so American hardliners give Soviet hardliners a hand by trying to block the European pipeline, threatening technology embargoes, and getting for themselves the largest military budget in American peacetime history. The hardliners in each country reinforce each other, strengthen each other’s case, increase each other’s budget, enlarge each other’s influence. Their common interest in crisis puts them in tacit and effective alliance against the rest of us. . . . Surely it is not too late to stop the international conspiracy of hardliners who, in weird lockstep, are marching the rest of us down the road to extinction.
For the Sovietologist Stephen F. Cohen of Princeton, the crucial issue of the 80’s was the necessity of America’s accepting the Soviets’ rightful place in world politics. Cohen earned something of a reputation by attacking the Sovietology profession for systematically excluding the views of those who, like himself, dared to contradict the cold-war view of the totalitarian nature of Soviet society. The absurdity of this charge is amply demonstrated by Cohen’s own career. His writings are regularly published by the most prestigious newspapers and journals, and he serves as adviser on matters Soviet for both a television network and a major publishing house.
Cohen was especially vocal in dismissing the idea that the only realm in which the Soviets had actually gained “parity” was the military. Thus in 1983 he wrote with contempt of the growing perception that the Soviet Union faced a looming socioeconomic crisis. While conceding certain shortcomings, Cohen claimed that the post-Stalin leadership enjoyed a high level of popular support for having made good on five basic promises: national security, law-and-order, the identification of Russian nationalism as a basic element in Soviet ideology, comprehensive welfare protection, and improved living standards for each succeeding generation.
Cohen denied that the Soviet Union was a “closed” society, and had no hesitation about using official statistics—whose fraudulence, as already noted, has subsequently been admitted by Soviet economists—as the basis for his thoroughly wrong analyses. Moreover, he simply ignored the careful research conducted by Western demographers and economists which suggested serious deficiencies in the economy and welfare system. Nor, obviously, did Cohen have the faintest understanding of the nationalities issue, having given no thought to how the non-Russians reacted to the growing Russification of Soviet ideology.
In any event, Cohen’s confidence in the relatively smooth functioning of the Soviet economy provided one of many inevitable opportunities to attack “our own cold warriors” whose thinking
serves only to undermine the reformist cause in the Soviet Union. It results in an inadvertent but perilous axis between their hardliners and ours, an axis whose first victims are the advocates of Soviet reform. Thus, the struggle between the friends and foes of Soviet reform is also a struggle between the friends and foes of détente—in the Soviet Union and in the West.
One requirement for real détente, according to Cohen, was the adoption of value-neutral language in characterizing the two systems. No longer should we refer to our “government” as opposed to the Soviet “regime.” Similarly, we should correct the habit of describing NATO as comprised of allies while describing the Warsaw Pact as made up of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and we should discard the practice of referring to American “information” as opposed to Soviet “propaganda” and “disinformation.”
Cohen also differed sharply from his fellow Sovietologists who believed that terror and coercion provided the glue which held the Soviet system together. He advocated a wholesale rethinking of the “relationship between the party-state and the society in the Soviet Union, including the political system’s remarkable stability.” Those who fail to “perceive anything organic in that relationship,” he said, “still overemphasize the coercive aspects of official Soviet policies and politics while underemphasizing consensual ones.”
To Cohen’s disdain for Americans of an anti-Soviet disposition was added an air of condescension toward Soviet dissidents, the only exception being those, like Roy Medvedev, who had remained loyal to the socialist system. The dissidents, he wrote, had “no program, or even guiding ideas, for changing the Soviet system,” and he favorably quoted a “socialist dissident” who asserted that local party secretaries had a firmer grip on everyday reality than Andrei Sakharov and the other members of the democratic opposition. Yet in recent months, under democratic conditions, many of these ex-dissidents have overwhelmingly defeated local party functionaries in elections throughout the Soviet Union.
Nor did Cohen anticipate the coming generational change in Kremlin leadership as necessarily ushering in a period of improved superpower ties. The reason, predictably, was the obduracy of America’s cold warriors. “The bridge-building Brezhnev was on the defensive,” Cohen wrote in 1982, besieged by an “Iron Curtain Russophilism” with its retrograde ideology reinforced by American grain embargoes, military buildups, the Sino-American axis, and similar provocations. One year before Gorbachev was named party leader, Cohen was predicting that “there is the prospect of a Soviet leadership devoted to cold war and no longer believing in détente,” again due to America’s foolish hardline course.
If it would be difficult to find a Soviet authority who has been more consistently inaccurate than Cohen, it would be equally hard to find an expert who, at various stages of his career, has been more astute in analyzing the Soviet system than George F. Kennan. Even today, Kennan’s reputation derives to a great extent from his writings on U.S.-Soviet relations in the early cold-war years, most notably his famous “X” article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1947. These early writings bear careful rereading today, for what Kennan wrote four decades ago remains highly pertinent to the momentous developments of the past few years.
Kennan saw the Soviet Union at the conclusion of World War II as a highly ideological, heavily militarized, expansionist, and dangerous totalitarian state. Yet Kennan also detected important weaknesses, which if exploited by a firm and patient Western response, held the seeds of profound difficulties for the Soviet future. In an eerily perceptive passage, Kennan noted:
. . . if disunity were ever to seize and paralyze the party, the chaos and weakness of Russian society would be revealed in forms beyond description. For we have seen that Soviet power is only a crust containing an amorphous mass of human beings among whom no independent organizational structure is tolerated. The present generation of Russians has never known spontaneity of collective action. If, consequently, anything were ever to occur to disrupt the unity and efficacy of the party as a political instrument, Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies.
Here it must be stressed that Kennan believed that Western policy had a crucial role to play in stimulating this process of Soviet decline. In the passage for which he is best remembered, Kennan prescribed “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with firm counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.”
Kennan also gave serious thought to what specific changes in conduct might reasonably be expected of the Soviets in order to gain them acceptance as a normal participant in world affairs. And while cautioning, in a 1951 Foreign Affairs article, against the American tendency to demand nothing less than a constitutional democracy mirroring our own, Kennan set forth an agenda far-reaching not only for its own time but for the entire cold-war period until the onset of glasnost. Two of Kennan’s stipulations were particularly noteworthy. First, the Kremlin should lift the Iron Curtain and be “tolerant, communicative, and forthright in its relations with other states and peoples.” Second, the empire should be dismantled, entailing freedom not only for the nations of Eastern Europe but for the Baltic states as well.
Although Kennan revised his recommendations for U.S. foreign policy rather considerably over the years, his analysis of Soviet reality remained on the whole impressive. He warned that détente would not elicit enhanced internal democracy, a letup in the Soviet military buildup, or abandonment of support for “wars of liberation.” And he continued to detect serious internal weaknesses behind the triumphalist bluster of the aging Soviet leadership. These included problems in maintaining control over Eastern Europe, festering resentments among the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union proper, economic malaise, a loss of popular faith in Communist ideology, and an alarming rise in alcoholism and other manifestations of anti-social behavior.
Kennan, in other words, saw the Soviet Union as suffering from the internal contradictions and imperial overstretch which would, one might reasonably imagine, make it vulnerable to a renewed, assiduously applied, policy of containment. Yet by the 1970’s the Kennan who once sounded the alarm over Soviet internal repression and global expansionism had adopted a stance of considerable forbearance toward Moscow’s conduct-in large measure, it seems, out of an obsession with the possibility of nuclear war. Kennan now went so far as to argue that the principal threat to peace rested with the very existence of atomic weapons, rather than with the closed, highly suspicious, and globally aggressive nature of the totalitarian world’s leading power. He was thus unfazed by the export of Communism to the Third World, which he rationalized as the normal conduct of a Great Power and, somewhat contradictorily, as a defensive gesture—defensive in the sense that a Soviet failure to respond to the needs of Third World radicals would jeopardize the USSR’s position as the leading world Communist power. As for the plight of the dissidents, Kennan spoke with n air of resentment over Western criticism of Soviet human-rights shortcomings, preferring to emphasize the tolerance exhibited toward oppositionists by the post-Stalin leadership.
But perhaps the most disturbing reflection of Kennan’s intellectual journey was his attitude toward the suppression of the Polish Solidarity movement in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. He blamed the 1981 imposition of martial law not on the Soviets, who had ordered the action as the only alternative to invasion, but on Solidarity’s overzealous rhetoric. Kennan urged that General Jaruzelski “be given a chance to see what he can do,” while unequivocally discouraging expectations of Solidarity’s return to legal existence: “Such a reversion would wholly demoralize the army and the governmental apparatus, such as it is. It is questionable how effective it would be in assuring regular and vigorous economic activity. . . .”
It is one of the ultimate ironies of the cold war that Kennan, some thirty years after having written so eloquently of Eastern Europe’s plight under Moscow’s “oppressive yoke,” after having looked forward to the “breakup” of Soviet power, now found the Soviet empire’s instability a source of concern rather than hope. Kennan’s reasoning, moreover, reflected the general drift of dovish thought on Eastern Europe. Indeed, while the doves demanded that America cast off its cold-war mentality, they themselves were advancing a set of ideas for dealing with the Soviets which, by accepting an unreformed Soviet system, were guaranteed to maintain the cold-war status quo. As policy proposals, the code phrases of the early 80’s—building bridges, managing superpower relations, establishing a dialogue, finding areas of common agreement, détente without illusions—amounted to an admission of the impossibility of fundamental change. Similarly with the greatest myth of all, that peace could be forged through the arms-control process. Totally missing in all the sophisticated analyses was any recognition that the cold war was inextricably linked to the nature of Soviet Communism, and that proceeding beyond the cold war required a radical transformation of the Soviet system.
Another great irony is that while the doves couched their arguments in moral terms, and denounced their hardline antagonists as dangerous and immoral militarists, they themselves failed to recognize, or to acknowledge, the fundamental immorality of the Communist system. When they did admit that internal Soviet repression was a problem, they almost invariably went on to point out that under Stalin things had been worse. The criminal nature of Communist Third World regimes was brushed aside with snide references to Chile or South Korea. The massive Soviet arms buildup, which thoroughly frightened friendly governments in Europe and Asia, was seen as no worse than our own. The forty-year Soviet domination of Eastern Europe—the root cause, after all, of the cold war—was simply ignored wherever possible, or, as in the cases of Senators Fulbright and McGovern, explained away as a “regrettable” but “understandable” reaction on the part of the Soviets to a hostile outside world.
These fatal flaws in the doves’ world-view help explain their attitude of coolness toward Soviet dissent. For while the personal courage and intellectual integrity of the dissidents were treated with respect, their critique of Soviet political reality evoked muted disapproval. As the doves saw it, the dissidents represented an educated elite whose demands for sweeping democratization betrayed an alienation from the Russian masses, for whom, it was implied, and occasionally stated outright, political pluralism and the rule of law really did not count for much.
Yet the truth is that it was the Soviet dissidents, along with the East European democratic opposition, who exhibited the clearest understanding of the corrupt and dangerous qualities which were inherent in Communism, and who recognized that the goals of peace and East-West amity were unattainable so long as Communism ruled over half of Europe.
As far back as 1975, Andrei Sakharov wrote prophetically of the gathering crisis in Soviet society, of the system’s “complete failure to live up to the promises” of the official ideology, of widespread venality, poverty (this, at a time when most Western observers denied the existence of poverty in the Soviet Union), and “an ostentatious and inefficient class structure.” These problems, Sakharov believed, were compounded by the militarization of Soviet society. He rejected out of hand any parallels between the role of the military in America and the USSR, warning that it was the “supermilitarization of the Soviet Union that necessitates high military spending throughout the world.” Nor could this pervasive militarism be diminished through superpower arms negotiations. For Sakharov, the essential point was the need for “general political changes” in the direction of democratic rule, a necessary step since it was Soviet totalitarianism which “facilitates the nation’s expansionist capabilities and simultaneously secures its antidemocratic stability.”
Sakharov also had a direct message for those in the West who entertained the illusion that détente could proceed without major Soviet reform. He warned against “détente without democratization,” and cautioned against the tendency to equate peace with arms control, asserting: “Security cannot be limited to the purely military aspects of détente.”
Sakharov’s views were echoed by another prominent dissident, Andrei Amalrik. “The democratization of the Soviet Union is the only guarantee of security for the West,” he wrote, adding commonsensically: “So long as questions of war and peace are decided by ten men who are not accountable to anyone, no accords, no matter how favorable on paper, will allow the Americans and Europeans a good night’s sleep.” Amalrik challenged a principal dovish commonplace, that foreign isolation invariably brought forth the Soviet Union’s worst instincts. To the contrary, Amalrik argued, political isolation tended eventually to stimulate reform: “. . . it was only after having experienced all the negative aspects of isolation taken to extremes that the USSR [in the post-Stalin period] embarked on a course of domestic transformations and cultivation of foreign relations.” As for détente, Amalrik objected to the Western tendency to equate it with peace. Peace, he observed, rested on the balance of nuclear power, and could as easily be maintained under cold-war conditions as under détente. The latter, he proposed, could only be justified if it led to the “betterment of the world,” a concept with much broader implications than arms treaties or trade agreements.
The west may not always have acted with the necessary consistency or resoluteness in its dealing with the Soviet Union. But neither, in the end, did the free world permit the anti-cold war brigade’s prescriptions to take root. If those prescriptions had prevailed, the cold war would almost certainly still be on, and the collapse of Communist totalitarianism would have been delayed instead of being hastened, as in fact it was by the policy of containment pursued under Reagan, to the immense benefit of everyone in the world.