The Iron Curtain came down in 1989. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself was no more, and neither was the cold war—a conflict that, for well over four decades, had divided the world into two hostile camps.
In the course of those decades, wherever Marxism-Leninism had been planted by force of arms, millions of people were deliberately murdered or spent their best years in prison camps. Those not imprisoned lived constricted, fear-filled lives. In hot wars involving the superpowers in remote corners of the world, from Angola to Afghanistan to Nicaragua, the human toll was great on both sides. More than 54,000 Americans died in the Korean war; another 58,000 died defending South Vietnam.
Not surprisingly, for a conflict of such duration and magnitude, the causes of the dispute have themselves been a subject of controversy—not only between the two adversaries, but within the world of elite American opinion. For the first half of the cold war, the dominant view in this country, including among most liberals and intellectuals, held the USSR to be the clear aggressor. The Kremlin’s brutal behavior, especially in Europe, posed an immense challenge to freedom; hence the policy of “firm containment,” enunciated in 1947 by George F. Kennan and designed “to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.”
But by the mid-1960’s, as containment drew the United States deeper and deeper into Vietnam, both the policy itself and the view of the USSR it presupposed came under sharp attack. Self-proclaimed “revisionists” insisted that the cold war was nothing more than a cruelly absurd battle between two empires, equally reprehensible, equally thirsty for markets, power, and territory. Some went further, casting the United States alone as the prime offender; Moscow, argued such scholars as Gabriel Kolko and Richard J. Barnet, wanted nothing more than to preserve the status quo, while Washington, in the grip of an irrational anti-Communism, was pursuing an expansionist agenda in the name of a spurious “freedom.” As the Vietnam war dragged on, politicizing American intellectual life to an unprecedented degree, the revisionist view became deeply entrenched among academic and mass-media elites.
Since the dissolution of the Communist world, however, at least a partial reversal of opinion has been under way. The historical revelations flowing in a torrent from the East, all confirming the older understanding of the origins of the cold war and the nature of the Soviet regime, have had the effect of putting revisionism on the defensive. A landmark in the process was the publication in 1997 of We Now Know, a comprehensive reexamination of cold-war history by the dean of American diplomatic historians, John Lewis Gaddis.1 Drawing on material from once top-secret archives in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the memoirs of ranking Communist officials, and the research of other Western scholars, Gaddis refuted the revisionist case point by point.
Given this accomplishment, it came as welcome news that Gaddis would be serving as a principal adviser to a comprehensive series on the Soviet-American confrontation to be produced by the television network CNN. For that network, under the direction of its founder and chief executive Ted Turner, has over the years acquired a well-deserved reputation for standing to the Left of even “mainstream” media. In fact, this past June, just three months before Cold War was scheduled to start, CNN aired a “news-magazine” program, Valley of Death, falsely charging that the U.S. military had used poison gas to kill American defectors during the Vietnam war.2 Though CNN (under a hail of criticism and the threat of lawsuits) repudiated the show and fired its producers, the episode raised questions about the internal journalistic culture that would allow a highly improbable, highly anti-American story on the air unchecked.
In scope and ambition Cold War is certainly a far cry from Valley of Death. The program that Ted Turner envisioned as “the most important production in [CNN’s] eighteen-year history” was conceived not as a twenty-minute news magazine but as an immense 40-part series (later scaled back to 24) in which the viewer would be propelled through the frightening shoals and straits of the cold war in chronological sequence. Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the man behind the outstanding British World War II series of 25 years ago, The World at War, was brought in as executive producer and given a generous $12-million budget to do the job.
Under Isaacs’s direction, a small army of production associates and assistants was assembled in London and then dispatched to more than 30 countries to secure interviews with eyewitnesses to pivotal events. Over the course of three years, more than 500 key historical figures were recorded talking about what they had seen and heard. Included were ranking government officials like Anatoly Dobrynin and Robert S. McNamara; observer-participants like Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita, and the historian and former diplomat Robert C. Tucker; and “ordinary” people ranging from Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan to rank-and-file Communist-party members in France.
Combing archives around the world, the producers also compiled 8,500 film clips of varying degrees of significance. In all, more than a million feet of film were brought to London to be weighed for possible use. In line with Ted Turner’s desire for an “international perspective,” by which he meant that Cold War should strive to show the conflict from the viewpoint of its major protagonists, a team of scholars, including Gaddis as well as prominent historians from the University of London, the Institute of Universal History in Moscow, and other major research institutions in Europe, was recruited to offer a diversity of views and to “check every frame [of the film] and read every syllable” of the scripts for accuracy.
The resulting show, which began to air in September 1998, and will conclude in April, has received both praise and criticism. I shall turn to the reactions in due course, but perhaps the first thing to say about Cold War is that some aspects of it are unquestionably excellent. Kenneth Branagh, the Irish actor and director, provides what is essential in the narrator of a documentary of this type: a voice that pronounces every word with unwavering authority. The score, by the British composer Carl Davis, is suitably ominous and dramatic. And, more centrally, quite a number of the interviews with notable cold-war personages leave indelible impressions. Listening, for example, to Aldrich Ames, the American who served as a Soviet “mole” inside the CIA, explain his betrayal of the United States while a ghastly video shows his most significant Soviet victim being arrested and interrogated in Moscow, distinctly raises one’s consciousness of human evil.
In what it enables us to see, in the Ames case and in the thousands upon thousands of other images that scroll across the 24 segments of the show, Cold War truly is a magnificent achievement; if it is not “jaw-dropping,” as CNN’s publicity machine claims, at more than a few moments it comes close. The assistants who labored in tropical and frigid climes around the world succeeded in assembling a collection of images—both still and moving—that capture many crucial junctures of the momentous conflict, some of them long forgotten, many of them hitherto unseen.
The cold war, Cold War serves to remind us, had terrifying moments of heat. There is, for example, riveting footage of East Germans making their way over the primitive barriers that the Communists first erected to divide Berlin in 1961, some of them pausing momentarily to extricate clothing and flesh that had become snagged on the barbed wire. And there are even more arresting stills of a young man, Peter Fechter, who attempted to escape to the West, was fired upon by East German guards, and, stranded atop the Berlin Wall, bled to death over a period of hours within yards of West Berliners too fearful to help.
There is also, to take still another example, a formerly top-secret clip of the great Soviet rocket disaster of 1960. Nikita Khrushchev, in a hurry to test-fire the SS-7 intercontinental ballistic missile, pushed his military to the corner-cutting point and beyond. With Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, commander of the USSR’s strategic rocket forces, and other top brass assembled on the launch pad, something went catastrophically awry; the liquid fuel in the rocket engine ignited prematurely. The camera shows scientists and military officers running from the blast, but not fast enough, and then being incinerated on the spot. All that was ever found of Marshal Nedelin were his medals.
In its march through contemporary history, Cold War also offers feeds from such disparate eruptions as the Korean war (bombs pounding innocent civilians), Romania in Communism’s death throes (President Nicolae Ceauçescu and his wife struggling with their executioners as they are prepared for the firing squad), and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan (guerrillas stalking and then blowing up a Soviet armored-personnel carrier, with soldiers dying horribly on the ground). In the brutality depicted in these pictures, we are reminded of the staggering costs in human life that the cold war imposed. And again and again we are also reminded that many more could have perished, that life itself could have been erased from the face of the earth: Cold War contains numerous shots of A- and H-bombs exploding terrifyingly, complete with flashes brighter than a thousand suns and enormous plumes of radioactive dust billowing into the atmosphere.
The pictures contained in Cold War are immensely compelling. In the end, however, we demand more from a historical documentary than awe-inspiring images. How does Cold War stack up as a work of history?
The question is of no ordinary consequence. Apart from being screened before a worldwide television audience, the series is designed to introduce the topic of the cold war into the high-school curriculum of the United States. Already endorsed by the National Council for the Social Studies, the 24 one-hour segments are now being distributed to schools on video-cassette tapes for a nominal fee. CNN has also produced an extensive study guide and an interactive CD-ROM to help educators steer students through the East-West struggle. In addition, it is offering a lavishly illustrated companion volume, suitable for use as a textbook in schools, in which it is noted that John Lewis Gaddis had a leading hand.3
The critical reception of Cold War, as I have already noted, has been mixed. Time, weighing in in favor, called it “documentary television at its best”—“serious, thorough, and absorbing.” The New York Times reviewer praised it as “gripping straightforward history . . . more intense than a John le Carré thriller.” From some quarters, however, the words have been less kind, raising an echo of earlier ideological disputes. The New Republic lambasted the series for presenting the cold war as a “morally unintelligible contest between two equally dangerous superpowers.” The historian Ronald Radosh, writing in the New York Times, similarly blasted the program for suggesting “a moral equivalence between the Soviet bloc and the democratic Western allies.” The columnist Charles Krauthammer has charged that it “often goes beyond mere moral equivalence to cheap anti-Americanism.”
For his part, John Lewis Gaddis, also writing in the Times, has mounted a vigorous defense. Of the several hundred Yale students for whom he has played the tapes, he asserts, “I see few if any come away convinced that the two sides in this struggle were morally equivalent.” The series, Gaddis points out, shows such Soviet atrocities as “the Red Army rapes in Germany in 1945, the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the persecution of dissidents in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe throughout the cold war.” After watching these horrors, most students, says Gaddis, would not only reject the accusation of moral equivalence but find it “laughable.”
One problem in sorting out the differences in these opinions is that, as Jeremy Isaacs has observed, “television history is short, by comparison with academic history, on analysis; long on anecdote.” Another is that the series, to quote Gaddis, deliberately “did not try to settle old arguments about responsibility for the cold war”; instead, “we tried to allow all kinds of people to tell their stories.” It is from these stories, and from the narrator’s brief interjections and commentary, that both critics and defenders have fashioned their respective cases.
How to settle the dispute? One avenue might be to supplement a viewing of the film with an examination of the companion volume, which at least makes a stab at what Jeremy Isaacs calls “academic history.” Are the moral and intellectual lapses pointed to by critics of the series repaired by the less anecdotal and more systematic approach of the book? Unfortunately, the answer is not at all. To the contrary, the problematic aspects of the film—and there are many such—are only magnified there, becoming infused with an extreme brand of revisionism. Though one could usefully examine the defects in every one of Cold War‘s 24 segments, a glimpse of how it and its companion volume handle four crucial junctures is enough to provide a flavor of the whole.
Let us begin with the prehistory of the conflict. In the film, we are not told very much about Bolshevism in its early years, but what little there is is almost comic in what it chooses to include, and tragicomic in what it chooses to omit.
The cold war, we learn in “Comrades,” the first episode of the series, had its origins after World War I “in a clash of ideologies, Communist and capitalist.” The Allies, determined to snuff out the Marxist experiment, sent troops into Russia, thereby convincing Lenin and Stalin “that the West would seize any chance, embrace any ally, in order to destroy Communism.” Winston Churchill, then the British secretary of state for war, is presented as a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Communist, spouting the slogan, “Kill the Bolshie! Kiss the Hun!”
Do we get a more nuanced picture from the book? Hardly. We find instead still more anti-Communist raving. “[C]ivilization is being completely extinguished over gigantic areas,” runs the single quotation, again from Churchill, explaining the British decision to send forces to Russian soil: “Bolsheviks hop and caper like troops of ferocious baboons.” All this, the authors protest, about a government that, although “as authoritarian as that of the czars,” was making an effort not to wipe out civilization but to renew it. Lenin’s “socialist principles were meant to ensure decent education, free health care, common ownership of land, and fairness for all.”
Where, in documentary or book, is the mass shooting of innocent civilians taken as hostages during the Red Terror and Russia’s civil war? Where are the millions who died in the famine deliberately engineered by Lenin during the period known as War Communism? Where are all the other acts of savagery that, in their totality, made the Russian Revolution such a fitting preface to this century of barbarism? Not a hint of a critical thought about Lenin appears anywhere, only prattling tributes to his “deep commitment to bettering the lives of ordinary Russians.”
Nor do matters improve when CNN turns, in the second of the four junctures, to the cold war’s more immediate causes in the years following World War II. Here, in a pattern that will recur, the USSR is consistently depicted as weak, inward-looking, and consumed by its own internal stresses, while the United States is cast as warlike, expansionist, and consumed by a senseless fear of Communism, Communists, and the USSR.
Thus we learn that Stalin, presiding over a country that lay in ruin, “feared encirclement by the capitalist powers.” He grew especially “nervous” when, after 1945, America began “extending its influence and power all over the world” out of an evident determination to create “a free-enterprise Western bloc.” This left the USSR with no choice; it “was forced to build its own rival bloc” (emphasis added).
Although President Harry Truman “suspected that Stalin was aiming at world domination,” in fact, CNN assures us, Soviet aims were not aggressive at all: the USSR was merely seeking a buffer zone. A somewhat more real prospect was that left-wing forces in prostrate Western Europe might triumph via the ballot box. Responding to this menace with an extensive aid program, Truman wrapped his proposal in feverish anti-Communism, stating in his historic 1947 address to Congress that “the United States would contain the advance of Communism anywhere on the globe.” “This,” CNN’s narrator pronounces with solemnity, “was the official declaration of the cold war.”
If the film suggests that Truman’s “declaration of war” was a foolish political ploy that brought horrendous consequences, the book emphasizes America’s lack of discernment and its overweening need for an external enemy: “it suited Western interests for public opinion to perceive the Russian position in negative terms.” The United States was thus fully primed to react with hysteria to the innocuous but harsh-sounding tics that punctuated Stalin’s political rhetoric. On top of everything else, this knee-jerk response was traceable in part to the abysmally low quality of American leadership. Truman, we are told, had a distressing tendency “to see things in clearly defined black and white terms”; he “lacked the patience to weigh up subtleties of argument”; and he was “largely ignorant of foreign affairs.” Worst of all, he surrounded himself with men of similarly low capacities, among them General George C. Marshall, who became Secretary of State in 1947 and was neither “well informed on foreign affairs” nor eager to learn.
Among Truman’s advisers, only Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace is presented as free of intellectual or character flaws. This advocate of “a more conciliatory line” understood, according to the book, “that the Russians were only trying to stand up for what they had won at Yalta and Potsdam.” And yet, in becoming a “dissenting voice,” Wallace was compelled by Truman to resign, an act for which the entire world paid a price since Wallace was the only member of Truman’s cabinet to grasp that “[f]or America to take a tougher line would be to force Stalin to take a tougher line in response.”
One hardly knows where to begin with this farrago of inventions. Perhaps the most forceful rebuttal is the one penned by John Lewis Gaddis himself in We Now Know. There, Gaddis truthfully explains the conflict’s origins in terms diametrically opposed to those offered on the program to which he served as adviser. The U.S.-Soviet confrontation, he writes, had its roots not in anything America did or failed to do in the diplomatic, economic, or military realm, but almost entirely in the peculiar characteristics of the Soviet tyrant and his regime. “It was Stalin’s disposition to wage cold wars,” notes Gaddis in We Now Know; “[h]e had done so in one form or another throughout his life.” And “as long as Stalin was running the Soviet Union a cold war was unavoidable” (emphasis in the original).
In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, Gaddis goes on to state, what the historical record suggests about Stalin’s behavior “is not that Stalin had limited objectives, only that he had no timetable” for realizing whatever objectives he had. In the words of his right-hand man, Vyacheslav Molotov, “Our ideology stands for offensive operations when possible, and if not, we wait.” It was mainly thanks to Truman’s resolve, and to the decisive steps he and Marshall took to demonstrate that resolve—steps that CNN twists into provocative acts of aggression—that Stalin chose to forgo “offensive operations” and spend his energy instead on digesting the European territories the Red Army had already managed to swallow and subjugating their populations through coercion and naked terror.
As for the halo that appears over the head of Henry Wallace, CNN’s book somehow neglects to inform its readers that when Truman forced him from office, the Commerce Secretary had already moved well down the path toward an openly pro-Soviet stance. By 1948, when he himself ran for the presidency on the Communist-backed Progressive party ticket, Wallace was defending Stalin’s foreign policy in all its manifestations, claiming, for example, without any evidence but in perfect synchrony with Moscow’s line, that the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948 had been necessary to forestall an American-sponsored coup.
As Cold War moves forward, it only rolls downhill. In a segment entitled “Reds,” devoted to the 1950’s, the narrator tells us in the sternest of tones that “both sides turned their fear inward against their own people. They hunted the enemy within.” On the Soviet side, there was the “Gulag—the secret universe of labor camps.” On the American side, there was McCarthyism, a phenomenon that saw people “imprisoned” and “their livelihoods taken away.”
Charles Krauthammer has written scathingly about this episode as a blatant example of “moral equivalence,” in which the murder of tens of millions is absurdly compared with the incarceration of a number of Hollywood personalities who lost their jobs or were jailed for refusing to answer questions before congressional committees. But “Reds” is also an example of the other phenomenon noted by Krauthammer, the tendency of Cold War to move beyond moral equivalence to “cheap anti-Americanism.” In fact, the episode fosters a lie, portraying the U.S. in a grotesque caricature while going a considerable distance to excuse Stalin for his monstrous crimes.
In the 1950’s, Kenneth Branagh tells us, “anti-Communism became the language for a new, more defiant vision of America.” In no time at all, a wave of terror descended on the United States. As “persecution spread,” labor organizations were “banned, radical groups indicted, [and] demonstrations broken up.” Talk of the national interest was used “to justify any method of locating subversives.”
At the same time that civil liberties were being extinguished in the United States, they were also being trod upon in the USSR. But in Moscow’s case, according to CNN, the authorities were not engaging in a “witchhunt”; they really did have legitimate reasons for alarm. The cold war, after all, had “heightened tensions and reinforced fears, not just of internal subversion but of another war.” And “obsessive” and “paranoid” as Stalin may have been, he did have real enemies. Among them was the CIA, which was carrying out a radio “propaganda” campaign directed against Eastern Europe and sending “armed exiles back into the Soviet empire.” In other words, the Soviet secret police had good reason to exercise “vigilance against spies and saboteurs.”
The book adds important qualifications to this ludicrous whitewashing of reality—McCarthyism, it concedes, “paled in comparison to the paranoia that permeated the Soviet system”; “what in the United States was an aberration was in the Soviet world the system itself”; and many thousands perished. It then proceeds to vitiate these perfectly valid points by portraying the U.S. as a society in the throes of a totalitarianism every bit as benighted as that prevailing in the USSR. Thus, if the Soviet Union suffered a “Great Terror” in which neighbors denounced neighbors and children denounced parents, the United States suffered a “Great Fear” in which “neighbors were encouraged to spy on one another. Parents were asked to inform on their children, children on their parents,” and only by naming names “could penitent [American] Communists purge themselves and escape further torture by the Inquisition.”
In short, the U.S. and the USSR in the 1950’s—a period, let us remember, when the Communists, having destroyed all possibility of democracy in Eastern Europe, and having conducted outright military aggression in Korea, were still trying to foment civil war and internal subversion elsewhere in the world, including in the United States, while systematically continuing to brutalize and immiserate their own people at home—were not merely morally equivalent, they were essentially identical in key respects.
By the time CNN gets to the cold war’s end-game, the last of the four junctures I propose to examine, it succeeds in doing the impossible: giving credit to Moscow for terminating the conflict, and blaming Washington for attempting to extend it.
Ronald Reagan, not surprisingly, is the scoundrel of the story; in the film, and particularly in the book, he is charged with every sin. Like his predecessor Harry Truman, Reagan is described as ignorant of foreign affairs, but also as feebleminded, exhibiting his mental impairments in direct proportion to the zeal with which he adhered to his “fervent” anti-Communism.
Given Reagan’s “simplistic vision of an ideological crusade against Communism,” it is no surprise in CNN’s eyes that his defense policy should have amounted to giving the Pentagon “almost everything it wanted.” This included not only the right to attempt the “nuclear decapitation” of the Soviet political and military leadership in the event of war but also a chimerical program of missile defense, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—“Star Wars”—adopted “without any analysis of the technological problems or the costs involved.” Needless to say, “these hawkish plans were funded by immense budget deficits and by cutting back on domestic welfare programs.”
Reagan’s unrestrained military policies were made the more threatening, we learn, by being conjoined with his “aggressive pronouncements against Communism.” From his belligerent rhetoric—he was actually reckless enough to call the USSR “the focus of evil in the modern world” and “the evil empire”—it became clear that he was striving “for outright victory in the cold war.” In pursuit of this ambition, which, CNN suggests, put the destruction of the entire globe at the distance of a hair’s breadth, the United States found itself allied with unsavory forces everywhere: a multitude of right-wing military juntas, fanatically murderous Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, and even, in Cambodia, “the genocidal Khmer Rouge.” These alliances, Cold War‘s coffee-table book instructs us, were “a direct result of Reagan’s ‘noble cause’ of fighting Communism.”
If Reagan comes across as a superficially genial but in fact quite malevolent villain, Mikhail Gorbachev is presented by CNN as a charming prince of peace. Elected unanimously—“this was the Soviet way of doing things”—Gorbachev understood the profound and hitherto concealed truth that the Soviet Union needed “to move forward.” Many in the USSR “were excited by the appointment of a young, dynamic new leader”—for some, “he was a messiah coming to save them”—and Gorbachev responded to this popular enthusiasm in kind. He “regularly visited factories and colleges” and “loved to meet people.”
One hardly has to credit Reagan with single-handedly liquidating the Soviet empire to recognize that Cold War presents him in full-blown caricature. A far more generous assessment of Reagan and his policies can be found in, of all places, the memoirs of Anatoly Dobrynin, the arch-supporter of détente and longtime Soviet ambassador to the United States.4 Even as he bemoans Reagan’s “gross and even primitive anti-Sovietism” and confirms that the President’s rhetoric and defense policies shocked the Soviet Politburo, Dobrynin acknowledges that this cut two ways.
Dobrynin, in fact, showers Reagan not only with abuse but with accolades: “opponents and experts alike clearly underestimated him”; he “proved to be a much deeper person than he first appeared”; he “was endowed with natural instinct, flair, and optimism”; “[h]is imagination supported big ideas like SDI”; and, finally and most significantly considering the source, “Reagan’s achievements in dealing with the Soviet Union could certainly compare favorably with, and perhaps even surpass, those of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.”
Similarly, one hardly needs to view Gorbachev as an unreconstructed hard-liner to understand that CNN’s adulatory sketch is designed primarily to depict him as the exact opposite of Reagan. (Gorbachev himself is quoted calling Reagan a “caveman” and a “dinosaur.”) In addition to all his winning personal qualities, Gorbachev, we are told, also grasped the importance of “ending the arms race,” going so far as to propose cutting the USSR’s nuclear-missile force in half if only the U.S. would scrap “Star Wars.” Predictably, the ever-bellicose Reagan, “urged on by his hawkish national-security adviser,” said no.
Gorbachev, it bears remembering, is reviled in Russia today (as he was back then, too, pace CNN); and it also bears remembering one of the reasons why. The last Soviet leader began his tenure in office not as a democrat or a reformer but as a true member of the faith, who intended to restore the ailing Communist church to health through a policy of “uskoreniye.” Despite its bevy of Russian consultants and advisers, CNN’s book mendaciously translates this word as “acceleration of reform,” adding that “to awaken Soviet society from its lethargy, Gorbachev felt it was essential to inspire working people.”
In fact, uskoreniye simply means “acceleration,” and it was the slogan under which Gorbachev, in his first flailing efforts to wrestle with the USSR’s insoluble problems, attempted to speed up the tempo at which the working people worked, not, however, by “inspiring” them but by imposing greater discipline. Unable to overcome the national torpor through such measures as a crackdown on “shopping”—i.e., standing in unending queues for basic staples—during working hours, he then abandoned this approach in favor of other tinkerings that only managed to “accelerate” the system’s complete collapse.
The error in translation here is a small but telling example of the spirit of the book—if not, indeed, of the documentary as well. It goes without saying that neither Gorbachev nor Reagan was the unalloyed creature of good or evil that CNN strains to suggest. Just as there are issues worth debating about the origins of the cold war, so there are issues worth debating about its end, not least among them the question of whether the corroding Soviet superstructure collapsed in the late 1980’s merely by virtue of its own dead weight or as a result of pressure brought to bear from the United States. Whatever view one takes on that point, the film, and the book even more so, employ crude rhetorical tricks to offer a burlesque not only of the motives of the actors on the Soviet side but of the undeniable risks Reagan assumed in frontally challenging the USSR at a moment when its army was on the march and, militarily, at least, it was becoming mightier by the day.
Among the troubling matters raised by this entire CNN project is the growing authority accorded to “oral history,” now becoming a major subspecialty of the historical profession itself. Even if Cold War had truly confined itself to doing what Gaddis says it set out to do—namely, allowing “all kinds of people simply to tell their stories,” without attempting to settle issues of historical responsibility—there would still be ample reasons to object to it.
History, as Gaddis is well aware, is not just a random assemblage of “stories,” all equally interesting and equally authoritative. The raw materials of history need precisely the sort of sifting and weighing that competent historians are trained to undertake; they require, at the very least, evaluation, the same task a jury performs in a court of law to determine whether testimony is credible or self-serving and deceptive. And after that evaluation is performed, they need to be placed into some larger framework or context. Despite what Gaddis has written in the New York Times, the mere fact that Cold War shows us pictures of various Soviet atrocities is utterly irrelevant to the charge that it systematically portrays the U. S. and the USSR as moral equivalents.
By emphasizing “minimal narration” and an “international perspective,” and by excluding interviews with professional historians and focusing only on “participants in the events,” Cold War was destined from the start to be, at best, an exercise in historical distortion. A parade of silver-haired former Soviet apparatchiks appears on screen, wearing elegant suits and looking every bit like American academics as they tell us in soothing tones what may be truths or what may be lies. The former KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, invited to explain how the USSR sent its army across an international frontier in 1979, generously complies: “If we didn’t go into Afghanistan, then some other countries would.” Perhaps Kryuchkov is here accurately restating the considerations of the Soviet Politburo in the fall and winter of that year. Perhaps, throughout a long career swimming inside the entrails of the Soviet Union’s secret police, he was always a scrupulous truth-teller. Or perhaps not. Whatever the case, viewers of Cold War are never made aware of the enormous question mark that dangles over the words of such a man, a torturer whose recollections are here given equal weight with the recollections of the tortured.5
Still, in the end, it is not its failure properly to evaluate the numerous interviews from which it is woven that is the most objectionable aspect of Cold War. It is the absurd evaluations the program does provide, both in the accompanying book and in the tendentious commentary of the narrator. And that, too, raises a question: why is it that so many people in the West continue to cling to a version of history in which the most egregious Soviet conduct is excused or explained away, while the United States is condemned for transgressions it did not commit?
In the 1930’s, according to CNN’s book, those in the West who cast their sympathies with the USSR did so because they “hated the inequalities and injustices they saw in their own societies.” In addition, they were “unaware” of what was going on in the Soviet Union, a country that was “a closed book.” This explanation is itself a falsehood.
Despite the hermetic seal Stalin attempted to impose throughout his dictatorial reign, there was no shortage in the West of English-language reporting making it plain that a man-made calamity was unfolding in the Soviet Union. The “idealists” (CNN’s term) who in the 1930’s regarded the USSR as a progressive beacon for humanity were not unaware of what was going on; they fully understood, as Lenin liked to repeat, that when you chop wood, the chips will fly. But when it came to those chips—millions of innocent people being done to death by starvation or pistol shots to the back of the head—they consciously averted their eyes.
Today, after the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, after the opening of Soviet archives themselves, after the accumulation of so many unalterable facts, it is no longer possible to claim one is “unaware” of what the Soviet Union was and how it behaved over the course of its disastrous seven decades. That behavior fully merits Reagan’s accurate term for it: “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Yet, as the very existence of the CNN documentary testifies, the same impulse to avert one’s eyes, and the same hatred of democratic society, are with us still. It beggars the imagination that John Lewis Gaddis, a historian who has shown he knows better, should have lent his name to such an exercise.
Second only to the rampage that Hitler embarked upon in Europe in 1939, the cold war was the most terrible conflict of the terrible century that is now drawing to its close. As younger generations that did not live through those terrors come of age, CNN’s 24-part Cold War series, with its panoply of educational appurtenances, is likely to be the one version of this momentous stretch of the past that most people will see and remember. Though the film succeeds, sometimes brilliantly, at giving a vivid sense of what kinds of tribulations and anguish and nightmares the Soviet-American conflict entailed, it nevertheless advances an utterly false explanation of what the struggle was all about.
Although it remains unfashionable to say so plainly, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan had it right: at bottom the cold war was a colossal battle between good and evil, between freedom and slavery, between democracy and totalitarianism. It was also a battle in which, at every step of the way, tremendously difficult moral choices had to be faced by the forces of good. On some occasions those forces, led by the United States, took actions that were questionable, even highly questionable; on some, rare occasions, they took actions that were indefensible and wrong.
But recognizing the moral ambiguities of the war, and the occasional but very real moral shortcomings and failures of the West, is one thing; CNN’s version of history is entirely another. As that version proceeds, the “noble cause” of defending freedom is mocked, good is turned into evil and evil into good, and the moral and political categories that distinguish a democratic country like the United States from a totalitarian one like the USSR are blurred and then entirely erased. Considering the great lengths to which the Soviet Union went to falsify history, the fact that Cold War is today being introduced into the standard curriculum of American high schools is a nightmarish irony. It is also an insult to all those who paid a terrible price for risking their own freedom in freedom’s name.
1 I reviewed this book in the September 1997 COMMENTARY.
2 See “Nerve Gas, Lies, and Videotape” by Joshua Muravchik in the September 1998 COMMENTARY.
3 Cold War: An Illustrated History, 1945-1991, Companion to the CNN TV Series, by Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing. Little, Brown, 438 pp., $39.95.
4 In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold-War Presidents (1995).
5 In the segments of Cold War devoted to the Soviet-American competition in the third world, the Communist side is consistently represented by attractive-looking, articulate spokesmen—Soviets, Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Angolans—who passionately and persuasively defend their cause. The U.S. side, by contrast, is represented by a gaggle of cynical ex-CIA men who not only look like thugs from central casting but speak like them as well. By this means is a process that looks like evenhandedness put in the service of deliberate historical falsification.