Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
How our claim of victory distorts American foreign policy.
Cold War Triumphalism
Ellen Schrecker, editor
The New Press, $27.95 (cloth)
Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date . . . nor was any item of the news, nor any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on the record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as necessary.
George Orwell, 1984
In her moving eulogy to Ronald Reagan last year, Margaret Thatcher explained what had happened in the Cold War. In brief, the West won. To hear Lady Thatcher—as well as both Presidents Bush—at the funeral, Reagan’s own policies brought down the Berlin Wall and eventually the Soviet Union, too. A more complex version of this now dominant triumphalist narrative enables all sides to take credit for more than 40 years of American Cold War strategizing: Republicans stress the leadership of Eisenhower and Reagan; Democrats stress the firmness of Truman and Kennedy; nearly all claim the policies of deterrence and containment championed by both parties. Perhaps empires, steeped as they are in moral superiority, existential certainty, and fear, demand such flattering and ultimately false self-portraits.
An alternative image is suggested by the cottage industry of academics writing about the end of the Cold War. While the triumphalists make hay over the question of who won, these writers ask why the Cold War ended. Although no consensus has emerged, intense debate and often brilliant scholarship have generated a number of possible answers. Some scholars focus on the weaknesses of the Soviet economy and state. Others focus on legitimation crises created by the Warsaw Pact. Still others stress elite reform movements within the USSR and the role of ideas (such as human-rights norms) or individual actors (such as Mikhail Gorbachev). Activists, not surprisingly, believe in the importance of their own efforts—in Eastern Europe and in the West. Few if any of the serious scholarly treatments of the Cold War and its end credit a single policy or factor or agent.
Having been a peace activist in the 1980s, I thought that my colleagues and I had helped to moderate the nuclear arms race and end the Cold War, and I also assumed that the more complex story would eventually emerge from the scholarly discussion. I was relieved when the Cold War ended and was happy to move on; others (some of them my friends) would publish their books about structure, agency, and the failure of scholars to predict the end of the Cold War and write their articles in the Journal of Cold War Studies about reformism within the politburo. I read these with historical interest and assigned them to my students but felt no sense of urgency about questioning the dominant narrative of the Cold War or the claim that the West had won it.
But the essays in Ellen Schrecker’s Cold War Triumphalism make a persuasive case for the necessity of revisiting the legacy of the Cold War, and collectively they offer a serious alternative to the triumphalist narrative. The importance of this effort, as the contributors show, is not exclusively historical or historiographic. These historical narratives shape the United States’ strategy in the new war and the (largely supportive) American public attitude toward it. In contemporary American politics, the construction of America’s benevolent imperial identity is fostered by a Cold War narrative of innocence and virtue in a struggle against evil. The dismissal of contemporary dissent is, as the authors show, facilitated by the triumphalist story: the dissenters were wrong then, and they are wrong now.
Schrecker’s introduction argues that the triumphalist narrative has become “a truism in the world of politicians and talking heads” and that it plays a pernicious public role.
An undemanding patriotic celebration prevails, glorifying Washington’s past actions in order to justify its present ones. This triumphalism serves a partisan function as well: it supplies a supposedly irrefutable basis for disparaging left-wing critics of the Cold War, while it prepares the same historical dustbin for those who question current policies.
This reading of the Cold War reinforces American militarism while ignoring the domestic costs of militarization and eliding the legacy of battles fought during the Cold War. Further, Schrecker claims, it uses the Soviet Union’s collapse not only to vindicate American strategy but to confirm the supremacy of a distinctively American version of liberalism, capitalism, and democracy.
Thus, at West Point in 2002, George W. Bush proclaimed that “the 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.” Similarly, in the first sentence of his preface to the National Security Strategy of 2002, the president declares, “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.”
But the triumphalist story has much wider resonance. Bruce Cumings examines the post–Cold War narratives of three intellectuals—John Mearsheimer’s nostalgia for the Cold War balance of power, Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” and Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”—and argues that they were all wrong. Leo Ribuffo, who writes about the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, William Appleman Williams, and John Lewis Gaddis, is most sympathetic to Williams’s long durée approach to framing American history, specifically how Williams situated the Cold War in the pre-existing cold war of 18th- and 19th-century American expansionism and informal empire. While his analysis of Neihbur is almost disengaged, Ribuffo is respectfully scathing in his reading of the triumphalist Gaddis, who he argues primarily sees American foreign policy from the perspective of the post–World War I era (while essentially ignoring the domestic roots of American foreign policy) and who he faults for methodological inconsistency. Ribuffo might find similar faults in Gaddis’s most recent (and very short) book, but at least Gaddis reaches further back into 19th-century American history, if only to repeat his major themes and to note that preemption has a long history in U.S. foreign policy.
Neither Cumings nor Leo Ribuffo discusses at any length how non-American intellectuals are constructing narratives of post–Cold War history. The British historians Niall Ferguson and Paul Johnson—both read widely in Britain and the United States—combine a triumphalist reading of British empire with a dash of colonial nostalgia. Both are advocates of greater American intervention, and their work is used to bolster American arguments for intervention and the unapologetic assertion of America’s “rightful place” in the world. So even as American intellectuals feel their post–Cold War oats, a mixture of hubris and insecurity has prompted a backward look to the virtues of imperial Britain, which have similarly been under debate for some time. Johnson and Ferguson’s broad postcolonial triumphalism bolsters the American post–Cold War imperial mission as much as the Cold War triumphalism of some American intellectuals.
If the first task of this collection is to expose the triumphalist narrative and its current deployment, her second is to remind readers of the tremendous economic, environmental, and domestic political costs of the Cold War and the loss of alternative visions, even on the left. Nelson Lichtenstein’s contribution explores the extent of this loss. He argues that during the Cold War “left-of-center academic intellectuals became invested in a set of ideas that marginalized both class conflict and the business of enterprise, capitalism and its ideological opponents.” Hence, even before the end of the Cold War, alternatives to market capitalism had faded, reinforcing the view that they had been decisively defeated.
Without a sense of the alternatives, the Cold War’s effect on the American economy went unexplored. Michael Bernstein argues that the Cold War and also the current war in Iraq have in fact “deformed” the American economy—and he may even be underestimating the economic impact of the current administration’s policies on war and tax cuts. In any case, Bernstein’s arguments are supported by another important new book by Joshua Goldstein, The Real Price of War, which exposes many of the hidden costs of past and current military spending.
Some of the most compelling chapters in the book tell what Jessica Wang calls “parallel histories.” Wang and Carolyn Eisenberg propose alternative interpretations of the Cold War and suggest what might have been. In questioning the received wisdom that the Cold War containment strategy was brilliant, necessary, and effective, Eisenberg reviews Soviet and American actions before and during the Berlin blockade. She suggests that containment and the hardening of the division of Germany were at best unnecessary overreactions, and in the process she challenges the assumption that the Cold War was inevitable.
Jessica Wang argues that viewing American unilateralism as virtuous depends on “obliterating” the record of legal-institutional internationalism. Fully aware of the limitations of the United Nations, Wang nevertheless shows how its real contributions in, for example, human rights and peacekeeping, as well as its potential, were diminished by unilateralists within the United States during and after the Cold War. Wang suggests that to focus on the UN’s failures is to miss both its accomplishments and its potential to shape a more peaceful world.
Chalmers Johnson is much more pessimistic about the possibility of change. Johnson argues that the Cold War has ended only in Europe, and even there the United States has lost influence by alienating former allies. The other two cold wars, he argues, rooted in “different ideological and material foundations,” continue in East Asia and Latin America. In East Asia, the United States continues confrontations with China and North Korea and has not significantly reduced its military presence. Also, Johnson notes, the United States has not halted its longstanding practice of intervening in Latin America, which now continues under the rationale of an anti-drug campaign. The continuing American military presence in East Asia and Latin America, along with the declared “war on terror,” Johnson argues, only hastens “the imperial overstretch the United States was already experiencing before the end of the Cold War in Europe.”
Johnson is surely correct in many respects, although the fact that the United States has recently reduced its forces in South Korea while maintaining a military presence in the region suggests a certain flexibility that will perhaps allow the nation to engage in confrontations on multiple fronts longer than Johnson might imagine.Moreover, Johnson neglects the doctrinal and bureaucratic obstacles to the construction of any policy other than continuing those of the Cold War. Indeed, even though in many ways the Clinton administration saw the world as much less hostile than either Bush administration did, it was not able to radically transform the military, reorient doctrine, or decrease the American military presence around the globe. Part of the reason for the failure to end the Cold War in Latin America and East Asia was certainly the enduring Cold War mentality and the sense that there were economic interests that must be defended and promoted by military force. But the continuing militarization of American foreign policy also has to do with the institutionalization of these doctrines. Cold War–ism became a way of seeing the world—one that justified the interests of the U.S. armed forces by asserting the continuing presence of urgent military threats. The peace dividend disappeared because the Pentagon could not see any peace.
Marilyn Young also argues that the United States is continually reenacting and reacting to its experience in recent wars. Politicians would rather have the clarity of World War II but are stuck with the legacy of Vietnam: “Initially the Vietnam syndrome referred to the reluctance of the public to engage in war. Now, it seems, it is the government of the country that is caught in its grip, convinced that the only cure for that long ago defeat is yet more war.” The so-called war on terrorism—“the Cold War redux”—offers the possibility for “permanent war in a unipolar world.”
Corey Robin develops this theme by arguing—using interviews with leading neo-conservatives and close readings of their work as evidence—that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, while shocking, also provided welcome relief for neoconservatives. (A version of this chapter was first published as “Endgame” in the February/March 2004 Boston Review.) Dismayed by the loss of challenge and focus in American foreign policy following the end of the Cold War, neoconservatives embraced the renewed sense of purpose that the terrorist attacks prompted. While corporate America would rather be making money hand over fist, Robin argues, the neocons are in search of a fight “between good and evil, civilization and barbarism.” The war against terrorism thus provides all the bracing purpose (and perhaps manliness) that the Cold War and other “Great Wars” provided.
* * *
What remains now is to build on these criticisms of triumphalism, to sharpen the analysis of why the Cold War remains such a powerful organizing force, and to craft a counternarrative that is as appealing as the dominant line—though more complex than the flattering fairy tale of manly men who faced down totalitarianism and are now turning to confront an even-more-terrifying barbarism.
An alternative narrative would stress several points: (1) that the Cold War was not inevitable or necessary; (2) that it was tremendously costly at home and abroad; (3) that the end of the Cold War has as much to do with the work of peace and human-rights activism as it does with the triumph of Western strategy or economics; and (4) that the United States takes a tremendous risk in perpetuating its Cold War doctrine of threat and confrontation. This would be a cautionary tale of catastrophes narrowly averted and environmental damage now emerging. Its heroes would be the mothers who marched against nuclear-weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s, the anti–Vietnam War activists; the scholars who worked to create an alternative understanding of security; and the activist intellectuals—most notably, the British historian E.P. Thompson. Indeed, Thompson and many other Europeans understood that the Cold War was itself the problem and blamed the United States and the USSR equally for the long confrontation. European intellectuals such as Thompson and Václav Havel imagined that it was possible to end the Cold War peacefully, and in fact some in Eastern Europe who were promoting “détente from below” declared that that the Cold War was ending well before many in the West had begun to recognize this. Attention to how Europeans understand the Cold War and its ending might guide us to our alternative narrative and help us understand why Europeans are, on the whole, unsupportive of current American strategy. Thompson wrote the following in 1982:
What we can glimpse now . . . is a détente of peoples rather than states—a movement of peoples which sometimes dislodges states from their blocs and brings them into a new diplomacy of conciliation, which sometimes runs beneath state structures, and which sometimes defies the ideological and security structures of particular states . . . The Cold War road show, which each year enlarges, is now lurching toward its terminus. But in this moment changes have arisen in our continent, of scarcely more than one year’s growth, which signify a challenge to the Cold War itself. These are not ‘political’ changes in the usual sense. They cut through the flesh of politics down to the human bone. . . . What I have proposed is improbable. But, if it commenced, it might gather pace with astonishing speed. There would not be decades of détente as the glaciers slowly melt. There would be rapid, unpredictable changes; nations would become unglued from their alliances; there would be sharp conflicts within nations; there would be successive risks. We could roll up the map of the Cold War and travel without maps for a while.
Thompson would perhaps be disappointed today to see how quickly the Cold War and hot-war maps were redrawn to focus on rogue states and terrorists. On the other hand, he would surely applaud the effort to renarrate Cold War history as part of a broader rethinking of our course.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.