Tag Archives: Soviet Union

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

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Judt.2

Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

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      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

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      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

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Filed under American Politics, European History, France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Moralizing Credibly to the World

Keys

Barbara Keys, Reclaiming American Virtue:
The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s 

     During the 1970s, political liberalism in the United States embraced the notion of international human rights as a priority consideration in shaping American foreign policy. The liberal argument that gained traction during the latter portion of the decade was that the United States should not support or provide assistance to governments that engaged in practices violating international human rights norms, particularly torture and repression of dissent. But this liberal argument could gain its traction only after the end in early 1973 of America’s role as a belligerent in the Vietnam War.  Such is the premise which Barbara Keys, a Harvard-educated Senior Lecturer in American and International History at the University of Melbourne, Australia, expounds in her thoroughly researched and solidly written work, Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s.

    Human rights as a “liberal foreign policy paradigm” was an “intellectual impossibility” while America was mired in Vietnam, Keys contends, and therefore “unthinkable in the circumstances of the war” (p.53).  As long as the war continued, a “profound fatigue with and abhorrence of the very idea of intervention precluded the development of any new, systematic effort to inject American power or values abroad . . . Only once the war was over would American liberals feel they could credibly moralize to the world” (p. 53-54).  What Keys describes as the “human rights revolution” of the 1970s in the United States was for American liberals an “emotional response to the trauma of the Vietnam War” (p.8) – or, as Keys’ title indicates, a means to reclaim American virtue.

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     The term “human rights” came into vogue only after World War II, with the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR, which established norms defining the basic rights that all humans were entitled to demand from their governments. Arising out of the destruction and devastation of World War II, the UDHR was one of the first international instruments to refer to human rights in general, rather than to the rights of specific groups. But the UDHR was mostly aspirational, a document “intended to be a beacon, not a guide to actual behavior” (p.22). It contained no enforcement mechanisms and numerous clauses indicated that it did not seek to infringe upon state sovereignty.

     Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the term “human rights” was largely dormant in the United States, except as associated with the ineffectual UDHR, and played little discernible role in American foreign policy. These were also the decades when the term “civil rights” became part of the national vocabulary. Although civil rights might be thought of as the specific name for the movement for human rights for African-Americans, the two terms have different lineages. The notion of human rights Keys emphasizes, seeks “legitimacy and solutions in international law resting above the authority of the nation-state,” whereas the civil rights movement in the United States above all sought “American remedies to American injustice” (p.33-34).

      When American involvement in the war in Vietnam ended in 1973, “emotions spilled into new areas, casting old questions in fresh light and creating novel possibilities for action. Slowly, as a process of accumulation rather than epiphany, human rights became one of those possibilities” (p.127-28). The end of combat activities in Vietnam “opened the way for members of Congress to vent long-brewing anger at the conduct and content of U.S. foreign policy” (p.133-34). A loose group of Congressmen dubbed the “new internationalists” pursued support for human rights abroad as part of an American foreign policy orientation that also prioritized economic cooperation, cultural exchanges and support for democracy, with less emphasis upon military assistance.

     Among the new internationalists, a now-obscure Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, Donald Fraser, more than any other national official, was “responsible for creating a framework that linked disparate global problems under the heading of human rights” (p.76). In the House of Representatives, Fraser led hearings in late 1973 that are “often regarded as the moment when a movement for international human rights in the United States began to take off,” generating a “blueprint for much of the congressional human rights efforts of the next few years” (p.141). The blueprint included several changes to the administration of American foreign aid that made it more difficult for the United States to provide assistance to foreign governments that engaged in human rights abuses, especially torture and detention of political prisoners. Section 32 of the 1973 Foreign Assistance Act, which came to be known as the “Fraser Amendment,” provided for “reductions (or, more often, the threat of reductions) in security aid for gross violations such as torture, coupled with the requirement that the State Department issue reports critiquing foreign countries’ human rights records” (p.165).

     In the aftermath of the Fraser Amendment, Congress used country-specific public hearings to “shape public opinion and signal concern about human rights abuses”(p.176). It focused on “sensational abuses, torture above all,” and made cuts in aid to “friendly but strategically expendable governments” (p.176). The results were “inevitably ad hoc and inconsistent, with some countries and some abuses drawing attention and sanctions while others were largely ignored” (p.176). Liberals hoped that cutting aid would stimulate reforms and reduce repression but, as Fraser and others admitted, they had “little evidence that targeting aid would work as planned” (p.160). Tangible effects were not, however, the measure of success. The crucial task was to “restore a commitment to American values by dissociating from regimes that tortured and murdered political opponents” (p.160) – and thereby reclaim American virtue.

     In Paraguay, for example, a country with “little significance to the United States,” human rights abuses were met with a “solid front: diplomatic isolation, total cutoffs in aid, and blocked loans in international forums” (p.257). Between 1974 and 1976, liberals also pushed through aid measures that reduced or cut off aid to South Korea, Chile, and Uruguay. Allies in these years included conservatives who supported dissidents in the Soviet Union, mostly Jewish, who wished to emigrate, most frequently to Israel.

     The spokesman for this group was another Democrat, albeit one considered highly conservative, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson from the State of Washington. Joining his cause were several intellectuals who were later labeled “neo-conservatives,” including Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol and Daniel Moynihan. With Senator Jackson leading the charge in Congress, “unrepentant Cold Warriors took the rhetoric of human rights newly popularized internationally by Soviet dissidents and fashioned a straightforwardly anticommunist policy around the universalist language [of the UDHR]. It was a stunning shift in the rhetoric of conservative anticommunism, which in the 1950s and 1960s had been overtly hostile to the UN and . . . had seen UN human rights instruments as a dangerous threat to American values” (p.104).

      But this neo-conservative embrace of human rights was driven by a fervent rejection of the shame and guilt that had characterized the anti-Vietnam War movement and the campaign rhetoric of 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern. For the conservative proponents of Soviet Jewry, the Vietnam War “required no apology;” it had been not immoral but rather an “admirable expression of the nation’s moral principles, as well as a strategic necessity, and consonant with America’s consistently beneficent role in the world” (p.116).  Jackson and his cohorts believed that the “self-doubt provoked by the Vietnam War threatened to weaken America’s resolve in what remained a life-or-death struggle against communism” (p.104).

     The cause of human rights in the Soviet Union pulled liberals in two directions. While sympathetic to Jews who wished to emigrate, they also “strongly supported improved U.S.-Soviet ties, reduced tensions, and the broad aims of détente” which the Nixon and Ford administrations were pursuing. Their aims therefore “diverged from those of hardliners like Jackson who sought to derail détente” (p.125). The foil to this odd liberal-conservative alliance was Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford.

      Kissinger expounded a realpolitik approach to foreign policy, which gave priority to America’s geo-political interests and allowed little room for judgments about a country’s internal human rights record. Kissinger argued that it was dangerous to “make the domestic policy of countries around the world a direct objective of American foreign policy” (p.133) at a time when the administration was seeking to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union and thereby reduce the risk of nuclear war. Although Kissinger believed that human rights initiatives would hurt relations with America’s allies, what most spurred his opposition was resentment at what he considered congressional intrusions into executive branch prerogatives to shape the nation’s foreign policy.

     For 1970s liberals, Kissinger was the personification of all that was wrong with the way American foreign policy was conducted. But neither did he have many fans among the neo-conservatives pushing the Soviet Union on Jewish emigration. They regarded détente with the Soviet Union, pursued by both the Nixon and Ford administrations, as wrong headed and dangerous. Kissinger’s adamant defense of realpolitik and executive prerogatives backfired, playing a “pivotal role in moving human rights from the sidelines to the center of American diplomacy,” Keys argues.  Ironically, Kissinger would be a serious contender for designation as the person “most responsible for advancing the cause of international human rights in the mid-1970s” (p.153), she writes.

      Jimmy Carter, who won the presidency in the 1976 election, is often thought of as the catalyst for bringing human rights into the mainstream of American foreign policy. As a presidential candidate, however, Carter had been skeptical about elevating human rights to a foreign policy priority position. He did not share the deep emotional concern of Jackson and his cohorts for Soviet Jews, “nor was it his instinct to identify with political prisoners around the world” (p.236). His embrace of human rights was “both late and serendipitous” (p.215). But Carter “eventually came around to the issue because it resonated with his theme of restoring morality and, more pragmatically, because it would enhance his standing among Jewish voters” (p.236).

     Discovering what human rights promotion meant in practice was for the Carter administration “far more complicated than anyone had anticipated. The difficulties the administration encountered in formulating a human rights agenda attest both to a lack of specific planning and the sheer novelty of a human rights based foreign policy. There were no precedents to draw on, no prior models from which to borrow,” leaving the impression of “incoherence and muddle” (p.250). Given inflation, gas lines and above all the 444-day hostage crisis in Iran, which the Carter administration was unable to resolve, Carter’s four-year term was frequently viewed as a failure.

     Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential election, explicitly disavowed human rights as a priority consideration in the foreign policy of his administration. But, thanks especially to a credible human rights lobby that had taken shape during the Carter administration, Reagan could not ignore human rights entirely. In particular, Keys emphasizes how the American branch of Amnesty International, AI USA, evolved during the Carter administration into an organization with serious clout on Capitol Hill and with the State Department.

      AI USA focused initially on political prisoners, lobbying for aid cuts to regimes that tortured and jailed opponents in large numbers, a narrow focus “ideally suited to the Zeitgeist of the seventies” (p.181), Keys argues. Rather than seeking to effectuate wholesale structural changes within selected governments, AI USA aimed more modestly at making specific and targeted changes to practices and individual behavior within those governments. Amnesty “resolutely portrayed itself as nonpartisan – indeed as beyond politics” (p.192). But despite its apolitical mantra, its “most prominent activities and the majority of its leaders and grassroots members were on the left of the political spectrum” (p.192). Charitable tax law enjoined the organization from directly lobbying the government and AI rules prohibited it from taking a position on foreign aid. The office nonetheless worked closely with State Department officials and sympathetic members of Congress, providing information, requesting action, and prodding them to ask questions.

      Keys concludes that in light of the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, and the United States’ protracted military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Americans seem to be losing interest in the idea [of human rights] as a guide to U.S. foreign policy” (p.277). While American public sentiment could well be turning inward, repudiation of human rights in the formulation of American foreign policy would be far more difficult today than in the Reagan administration. Several other human rights organizations have cropped up beside AI USA, such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, to convey human rights concerns to Washington policy makers and the public. The clout of these organizations alone would make a repudiation of human rights unlikely. Moreover, the State Department is required to address human rights in a multitude of contexts.

      The Department’s annual country-by-country human rights report, coordinated by a vast bureaucracy within the State Department, the Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor, details individual countries’ human rights records in a strikingly broad array of areas. The report is read closely and taken seriously around the world.  Further, the United States’ anti-human trafficking legislation requires the State Department to produce another report, coordinated by another bureaucracy within the Department, which sets forth individual countries’ progress in curtailing human trafficking. The legislation provides for sanctions for those countries deemed to be making insufficient progress. During my career working in U.S. Embassies, I was frequently involved in the preparation of these reports.

       I was even more involved in what is termed “Leahy Vetting,” a process established by an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 sponsored by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. Leahy Vetting mandates a formal State Department determination that any specific instance of U.S. assistance to overseas law enforcement and security units will  not include officers or units that had engaged in serious human rights abuses. Although realpolitik of the Kissinger variety has hardly disappeared from the United States’ foreign policy formulation process, today it competes with human rights and a wide range of other institutionalized considerations in determining that policy.

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     As a means of “coming to terms with the Vietnam War” and a “way to heal the country” (p.3), the human rights revolution of the 1970s which Keys depicts represents still another legacy of the traumatic Vietnam conflict.  But Keys also demonstrates that human rights rose to its prominent position as a result of diverse pressures and motivations, which she methodically ties together.  Writing  in straightforward if not quite riveting prose, Keys  casts incisive light on an often overlooked aspect of modern American liberalism, now thoroughly mainstream; and on how and why the human rights records of other governments came to play a prominent role in defining America’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 3, 2015

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Politics, United States History, World History

Ike’s Arms

Dulles

Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers:

John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War

          In “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War,” Stephen Kinzer issues a trenchant critique of America foreign policy in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the United States deposed or sought to depose leaders in every corner of the world.   The architects of this policy were the brothers Dulles, John Foster (almost always called “Foster”), President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State from 1953 to his death in 1959; and brother Allen, Eisenhower’s CIA Director, who served the agency from the Truman Administration into the early Kennedy Administration.  Kinzer’s book is about one-third biography of the Dulles brothers, and two-thirds a scathing indictment of the foreign policy they helped fashion.

          Kinzer’s indictment focuses on six covert CIA operations which targeted leaders in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Indonesia, Congo, and Cuba.  The Congo and Cuba interventions took place after Foster died in 1959.  Although President Eisenhower had given strong encouragement to the Cuban Bay of Pigs plot prior to his departure, the infamous intervention occurred after he left office.  The first four, by contrast, were the joint work of Foster and Allen, each with the backing of President Eisenhower.  “With the Dulles brothers as his right and left arms,” Eisenhower “led the United States into a secret global conflict that raged throughout his presidency” (p.114), Kinzer writes.

          The reasons for targeting the six leaders varied and were driven both by local considerations and the United States’ assessment of the extent of Soviet interest and influence in the particular country.  But, Kinzer argues, none of the subjects of the operations was clearly in the Soviet camp.  Looking for a common denominator to the interventions, it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that the targeted leaders’ offense was that they had the temerity to stake out positions that were not sufficiently on the side of the United States.

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              The Dulles brothers were born into an extraordinary family, Foster in 1888, Allen in 1893.  The family also included Allen and Foster’s sister Eleanor, born in 1895, along with two other sisters only briefly mentioned here.  Eleanor, “as formidable a character” as her two brothers (p.14), also had a distinguished career in public service.  She served in a variety of critical State Department positions and overcame gender barriers to her career which her brothers never had to confront or reflect upon.  John Watson Foster, the grandfather of Foster, Allen and Eleanor, served as secretary of state for eight months in 1892-93.  Their uncle – husband of their mother’s sister – was Robert Lansing, who served as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State.

            The father of Foster, Allen and Eleanor was a Presbyterian minister and the children grew up in a household permeated with religiosity and Christian missionary zeal.  The children usually attended three Sunday services, took notes on their father’s sermons, and analyzed them afterwards with their father.  However, only Foster seems to have deeply absorbed the religious fervor of his father.  One of the striking features of the biographical side of this book is the vast difference in personality between Foster and Allen.  Foster was rigid and distant, with little sense of humor.   Further, early in life, Foster showed a “judgmental harshness that never softened,” Kinzer writes.  He was always “sharply self-righteous” (p.13).

          Brother Allen by contrast seemed in the 1920s to be a character from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, a bon vivant, outgoing and gregarious, a man who enjoyed parties and company, especially the company of women.  Although he stayed married to his wife, “[u]napologetic adultery” became an established part of Allen’s character in his early adult years and “remained so all his life” (p.44), with affairs and liaisons around the world.   Brother Foster’s married life was monogamous in the full sense of the word.  The popular expression “dull, duller, Dulles” was a reference to Foster, not Allen.  Despite the brothers’ differing devotion to their wives, they were “strikingly similar in their relationships with their children.  Both were distant, uncomfortable fathers” (p.45), Kinzer writes.

         Foster and Allen attended Princeton University, where each was inspired by Professor Woodrow Wilson.  The brothers, Kinzer writes, were “products of the same missionary ethos that shaped President Wilson.”  His example “strengthened their conviction that there is nothing intrinsically wrong – and indeed, much that is admirable – in American involvement abroad” (p.32).  It is striking how similar in personality Foster seemed to Wilson.  Kinzer describes Wilson as “sternly moralistic, and certain he was acting as an instrument of divine will” (p.31), and the same could be said of Foster.  With their former professor in the White House and their uncle serving as his Secretary of State, each brother was able to land a role in Wilson’s entourage at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference.  At the conference, Allen and Foster spent time together and realized how much their world views were similar, notwithstanding great differences in personality

          Foster went to law school, then started a highly successful career at New York’s fabled law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, where he made a comfortable living representing some of America’s most prominent corporations, particularly in their overseas ventures and misadventures.  Sullivan and Cromwell “thrived at the point where Washington politics intersected with its business.  John Foster Dulles worked at this intersection for nearly forty years” (p.19).  Foster’s legal work at Sullivan and Cromwell was instrumental in forming a lifelong view that equated the United States’ national interest overseas with those of the corporations he represented.  Integral to this view was the unquestioned assumption that his clients, as they operated overseas, were on the right side of justice and righteousness.  Although Foster’s mastery of complex legal and financial codes throughout his tenure at Sullivan and Cromwell “reflected a rigorously organized mind,” Kinzer writes that Foster was “not a deep thinker” (p.209).

            Allen joined the Foreign Service in 1916, where he served in Vienna and Bern and showed he could deal effectively – manipulate if necessary – his foreign counterparts.  Ten years later, Allen left the Foreign Service to join Foster at Sullivan and Cromwell.   His stay there was abbreviated, with most of it spent in the firm’s Paris office.  In Paris, Allen demonstrated a “flair for discreet deal making,” becoming a “potent advocate for America’s richest men, a banks, and corporations” (p.41).  Neither brother served in the military, in either World War, but Allen joined “Wild Bill” Donavon’s information gathering operations that would evolve into the CIA.  This experience brought to the fore Allen’s lifelong interest in the spy world, the world of both information gathering and what is known euphemistically as “operations,” which can encompass “dirty tricks” and more.

          Both brothers’ opposition to the Soviet Union and all it stood for pre-dated World War II.  Foster had supported the Nazi regime as a strategic bulwark against Bolshevism until nearly the point when the United States entered the war against Germany, considering the regime “essentially Western, Christian, and capitalist” (p.84).  Once the war ended, both Foster and Allen saw the Soviet Union as just as implacably menacing, just as bent upon world domination, as the defeated Nazi enemy.  The USSR was pursuing more than traditional Russian strategic goals, Foster and Allen came to believe.  It was bent upon achieving “power over the whole world; it posed to the West not just the sort of threat that assertive powers have always posed to one another, but a ‘challenge to established civilization –the kind of thing that occurs only once in centuries’” (p.83-84).  Even more than Nazism for the two brothers, Communism was an “ultimate evil with which no compromise could ever be possible” (p.84).

          This was the environment in which the newly created Central Intelligence Agency came into being in 1947.  Allen joined the agency as Deputy Director for Operations.  In this capacity, he favored both intelligence gathering and covert operations.  “The collection of secret intelligence is closely related to the conduct of secret operations,” Allen argued in a confidential report.  “The two activities support each other and be disassociated only to the detriment of both” (p.87).  Many in the early CIA opposed Allen’s view, but it ultimately prevailed.

           When Dwight Eisenhower became President in 1953, he nominated Allen as CIA Director and Foster as his Secretary of State.  This put the two brothers at the levers of powers, with the smiling, grandfatherly Ike as their perfect boss.  Eisenhower was as much a Cold War warrior as the Dulles brothers, but he took office with a different perspective and experience.  Combining the “mindset of a warrior with a sober understanding of the devastation that full-scale warfare brings” (p.114), Eisenhower was very reluctant to commit American military forces to combat operations.  By contrast, covert operations were the precise method for meeting the worldwide communist menace head on.

* * *

          Kinzer notes that the brothers were Eurocentric in outlook, with little understanding of or interest in the independence movements that were raging through much of the world in the 1950s.  Yet, the brothers were conspicuously unsuccessful in their attempt to confront Communism in Eastern Europe.  CIA operations in Poland, Ukraine and Albania, which had encouraged anti-communist resistance, “collapsed in defeat” (p.132).   Allen’s CIA also failed to foresee Khrushchev coming to power after Stalin’s death, and did nothing to help Hungary revolt after “having whipped up anti-Soviet feeling in Hungary” (p.213).  Foster gained much attention for his publicly stated view that the objective of the United States was to “roll back” Communism in Eastern Europe.  This was nothing more than rhetoric, “devoid of serious meaning” (p.153), and Dulles knew it, Kinzer argues.  There was little or no policy to back it up and the Soviets likely knew it as well.

          The brothers’ lackluster record in Eastern Europe may have whetted their appetite for success outside Europe.  President Eisenhower authorized each of the six covert operations which Kinzer studies – Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Vietnam, Congo and Cuba, grouped together in a section entitled “Six Monsters” — but it seems that these operations were never the subject of explicit orders coming from the President, not oral and surely not written.  The first target was Muhammed Mossadegh, familiar to tomsbooks readers as the leader of Iran deposed in 1953 by a joint British-American covert operation.  Kinzer has written a separate book on the Iran operation, “All the Shah’s Men.”  Christoper de Bellaigue, in his book reviewed here last month, takes a swipe at Kinzer’s book, noting that Kinzer, unlike himself, does not read Persian and comparing Kinzer’s efforts to describe the coup to an author writing on Pearl Harbor knowing only Japanese (de Bellaigue at 5).

          But on the substance of the CIA’s Iranian intervention, Kinzer’s views largely coincide with those of de Bellagiue, that the coup was animated by a toxic combination of a British need to preserve its waning worldwide prestige and an American eagerness to confront an overstated communist threat in Iran.  Although Mossadegh was no communist, “Foster and Allen saw him as weak and unstable, an Iranian Kerensky who would be unable to resist if the Communists struck against him” (p.130).  The Dulles brothers won Ike’s support for covert action in Iran by framing their antipathy to fit cold war fears.  After failure of the initial coup effort, the agency succeeded in toppling Mossadegh, its first successful exercise in regime change.

          One year later, the CIA scored a similar victory in successfully deposing another democratically selected leader, Jakob Arbenz of Guatemala.  Guatemala for the Dulles brothers was the place where “Moscow’s global conspiracy reached closest to American shores, led by a puppet masquerading as a nationalist” (p.147).  The United Fruit Company, a Sullivan and Cromwell client, dominated the country, running it more or less as its private fiefdom.  In most countries, governments control and regulate corporations.  “The opposite was true in Guatemala: United Fruit was the power, Guatemala was the subsidiary,” Kinzer wryly notes (p.148).

           Arbenz was initially uninterested in nationalization of United Fruit’s extensive investments in his country, but he wanted to impose land reform and labor regulations which would benefit workers throughout the country, including those working for United Fruit.  “Foreign capital will always be welcome as long as it adjusts to local conditions, remains always subordinate to Guatemalan laws, cooperates with the economic development of the country, and strictly abstains from intervening in the nation’s social and political life” (p.149), Arbenz had said in his inaugural address.  These and similar statements convinced the brothers that Arbenz had to be removed.  In a covert operation that involved enlistment of the Catholic Church, the brothers scored their second straight success, barely a year after their first in Iran.  Colonial Castillo Armas, the CIA’s chosen “liberator,” decreed repeal of the land reform acts that had so enraged United Fruit, suspended the constitution, and banned illiterates from voting, thereby disenfranchising three-quarters of the population.  “Ten years of democratic government, the first that Guatemalans  had ever known, were over” (p.173), Kinzer writes.

           However, these two victories would not be repeated when the brothers turned their focus to Asia, first to Vietnam, then to Indonesia, with two resilient rulers, Ho Chi Minh and Sukarno. Although Ho Chi Minh was undoubtedly the most avowedly communist among the leaders the CIA had targeted to date, Foster and Allen “mistakenly saw China a pawn of the Soviet Union and Ho, also mistakenly, as a puppet of both” (p.176).  Crushing Ho, they believed, would strike a decisive blow against international world communism.  Kinzer’s view is that Ho Chi Minh was not only more nationalist than communist in ideology, but also more neutralist than communist in geopolitics.  CIA covert actions in the 1950s failed to dislodge Ho, but also failed to attract significant attention at that time.  Kinzer’s narrative is laced with speculation that a more supple United States approach might have averted the disaster that followed for the United States in Vietnam the following decade.

          Indonesia’s Sukarno professed a love for the United States, quoting profusely Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln and others.  In quoting Sukarno quoting great Americans with important views on democracy and freedom, Kinzer subtly suggests without saying so explicitly that Sukarno was a closer adherent to American ideals than either Dulles brother.  Sukarno’s tradition emphasized conciliation and harmony and abhorred confrontation, finding good and evil mixed everywhere.  “What Foster and Allen took as Sukarno’s abandonment of the West was actually his attempt to make foreign policy according to principles that shape life in Indonesia” (p.227).

              All this made Sukarno a fervent neutralist who wanted to keep his country out of Cold War alignments, and this was simply unacceptable to the brothers.   For the Dulles brothers and their boss, neutralism was almost worse than communism.  When he told Foster that neutralism doesn’t favor communism, Sukarno claimed that Foster had retorted, “America’s policy is global.  You must be on one side or the other.  Neutralism is immoral” (p.218).  Despite an extensive CIA covert operation in Indonesia that involved training and equipping more than 10,000 rebel soldiers, termed Operation Archipelago, the agency was unable to dislodge Sukarno as the leader of Indonesia.  Indonesia was the CIA’s most notorious defeat to date, and strengthened Sukarno in numerous ways.

           Foster died in 1959, but brother Allen continued to lead the CIA’s campaign to unseat threatening foreign leaders, the next being the “dangerously defiant” (p.264) former postal clerk Patrice Lumumba, who rose to be head of state in what had been known as the Belgian Congo.  Belgium left a dubious colonial legacy in the resource-rich Congo, which became an independent state in 1960, failing to educate the populace or build institutions which could function independently.  Lumumba was brutally killed by Western-backed supporters of Joseph Mobutu in a secessionist civil war raging within his country, with the United States playing a secondary role to the “more decisive and resourceful” Belgians (p.282).  In death, Lumumba became of a symbol of third world liberation, while Congo plummeted into a hell of repression, poverty, corruption and violence.  Allen admitted less than two years after Lumumba’s death that the CIA may have overrated the communist threat in the Congo.

           The final covert operation which Kinzer reviews was the disastrous Bay of Pigs intervention in Cuba in 1961.  After the 1960 election, while still in office as a lame duck President, Eisenhower expanded the anti-Castro operation, approaching it with “determination and focused enthusiasm” (p.288).  But several factors precluded launching the operation prior to the Presidential transition.  Against his better judgment, a young and untested President Kennedy authorized the operation, which failed spectacularly.  When the furious Kennedy called Dulles into the Oval Office to give him the news that it was time to move on from the position he had held since 1951, Kinzer quotes Kennedy as telling Dulles, “Under a parliamentary system, it is I who would be leaving office.  But under our system it is you who have to go” (p.303).  The Bay of Pigs was the “first time that the CIA was fully unmasked seeking to depose the leader of a small country whose only crime was defying the United States.” The Bay of Pigs thus became a “reviled symbol of imperialist intervention” (p.303).

            Kinzer notes that while the operation to depose Castro was underway, Allen “seemed asleep at the wheel” (p.285).  In general, Allen was a poor administrator, with an “undisciplined mind,” seeming to some “almost scatterbrained” (p.188).  He was easily distracted, with an “inability to focus, lack of attention to detail, and aversion to vigorous debate” (p.289).   By the time Kennedy asked for his resignation, Allen’s lackadaisical leadership had led the CIA to “endlessly tolerate misfits.  Even in high positions, it was not unusual to find men who were evidently lazy, alcoholic or simply incompetent” (p.318).  In Kinzer’s estimation, Allen had the “cold-bloodedness that an intelligence director needs, but not enough intellectual rigor or curiosity.”  Carried away by his “love of the cloak and dagger game” Allen “lost sight of the limits to what covert action can achieve” (p.318-19).    Kinzer speculates that in his final years at the CIA, Allen was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  He died in 1969.

* * *

            Having garnered the facts of the brazen CIA agency operations under Allen’s leadership, Foster’s encouragement until his death, and Eisenhower’s tacit authorization, Kinzer ends with what seems like a prosecutor’s closing argument against the Dulles brothers and the policies they pursued.  He contends that empathy was beyond their emotional range.  “Sympathizing with the enormous complexities facing leaders of emerging nations would have required them to consider those leaders independent agents, rather than instruments of Soviet power.  Their compulsive oversimplifications of the world prevented them from seeing its rich diversity” (p.327).  Neither was adept at “synthesizing, compromising, listening, adopting, or evolving.  Political nuance rarely clouded their world view.  Neither did moral ambiguity” (p.320).  Most damningly, the brothers’ “lack of foresight led them to pursue reckless adventures that, over the course of decades, palpably weakened  American security interests” (p.314).  Like many prosecutorial closing arguments, Kinzer’s may be slightly hyperbolic and overstated.  But the evidence he cites is sufficient to convince this reader that the Dulles brothers’ Cold War exploits did little to advance the long term interests of the country they served.

Thomas H. Peebles

Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)

October 25, 2014

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, History, Politics, United States History, World History

Totally Gloomy

  • Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain:

    The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

               Applebaum.bigger

                Anne Applebaum’s “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956,” sheds much light on a dark period, when the brutal Nazi occupation ended in Eastern Europe, only to be replaced by slightly less brutal communist rule.  Although Applebaum  covers the whole of Eastern Europe – the so-called “Eastern block,” those countries outside the Soviet Union that became communist – she concentrates during this 12-year period on Poland, Hungary and East Germany, which she has chosen “not because they were similar but because they were so different” (p.xxxii).  There are also occasional references to Czechoslovakia, Tito’s Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria and Romania.  Despite differences between countries, Applebaum highlights striking similarities among them and thereby provides an incisive overview of the gloomy and oppressive totalitarianism that prevailed across Eastern Europe during the period she covers. 

                Writing for general readers and specialists alike, Applebaum divides her meticulously-researched book into two general parts, “False Dawn” and “High Stalinism.”  “False Dawn” covers the period from 1944 to roughly 1948, during which there was a general if cautious optimism throughout the region that the countries liberated by the Soviets would be allowed to work out their own destinies in their own way.  But the period of “High Stalinism,” 1948-1953, revealed this cautious optimism to have been entirely misplaced, as Stalin tightened the Soviet grip on all of Eastern Europe, except Yugoslavia.   Applebaum’s study is not strictly chronological.  In a single, final chapter, she treats two defining moments in Eastern Europe with which most Western readers are likely to be familiar, the 1953 uprising throughout East Germany and the even better known Hungarian uprising of 1956, which occurred after Stalin’s death. 

    * * *

               It is deeply misleading, Applebaum argues in “False Dawn,” to consider the communist takeover of Eastern Europe as coterminous with the end of World War II.  Stalin’s initial policy was to “tread softly, not to upset the Allies, and to win people over by persuasion or stealth” (p.89).  Communist parties were “under strict instructions to disguise or deny their Soviet affiliations, to behave as normal democratic parties, to create coalitions, and to find acceptable partners among the non-communist parties” (p.67).   During this period, social democracy — advocating policies “which, by modern standards, were very left wing” (p.194) — appeared to be on the rise in Western Europe.  The USSR and its Eastern European communist allies thought that something resembling real democracy, with pluralism and free elections, “would work in their favor” (p.194).  Thus, there was no economic revolution in Eastern Europe in 1945.  The state “took control of the economy in small batches.  The new regimes began with the reforms that they guessed would be most easily accepted” (p.224). 

              Simultaneously, the Soviets set about to undermine civil society and replace it with a view of the public sphere as “universal and univocal” (p.151).  Far more than is usually acknowledged, a “profound suspicion of civil society was central to Bolshevik thinking” (p.151).  Relying upon a cadre of hard-core, dedicated communist party members, “police forces were put in place, civil society was subdued, the mass media were tamed” (p.223).  Strong Ministries of Interior, capable of spotting and checking not only actual opponents but also potential dissidents – people who seemed unlikely to support the communist system – were key to concentrating power.  Throughout Eastern Europe, communist control over the secret police gave them “outsized influence over political events.  Through the selective use of terror, they could send clear messages to their opponents, and to the general public, about what kinds of behavior and what kinds of people were no longer acceptable in the new regime” (p.115).  In general, secret police in Eastern European countries were carbon copies of the Soviet model, “in their organizations, methods and mentality,” to the point that they were termed “little KGBs” (p.68).  The East German Stasi, in particular, “mimicked the KGB to an extraordinary degree” (p.82). 

              Among the most suspect in each country were its freedom fighters who had fought the Soviet Union’s enemy, Nazi Germany, many of them communist by inclination if not outright party members.  If they could oppose Nazism so fiercely, the communists appear to have concluded, they could easily turn on the new regime– indicating, perhaps, that the communist apparachiks in Eastern Europe and their backers in Moscow were aware at some level that what communism offered the citizens of Eastern Europe was not significantly more palatable than Nazism. 

    * * *

               By the end of 1948, Stalin had effectively eliminated his most capable opponents throughout Eastern Europe, marking the advent of the period of “High Stalinism.”  Eastern European communist parties and their Soviet allies then began a “very long-term effort to corrupt the institutions of civil society from within, especially religious institutions.  The intention was not to destroy churches but to transform them into ‘mass organizations,’ vehicles for the distribution of state propaganda” (p.255).  Social democracy, despite its deep roots in the region, “vanished from the political arena, along with large private companies and many independent organizations” (p.249).    

               During the five-year period of “High Stalinsim,” from 1948 to Stalin’s death in 1953, Eastern European states would:

    directly mimic Soviet domestic and international policies in the hopes of eliminating their opponents for good, achieving higher economic growth, and influencing a new generation of firm supporters through propaganda and public education.  Until Stalin’s death in 1953, all of the region’s communist parties would pursue an identical set of goals using an identical set of tactics (p.250).

               Although a  renewed attack on the enemies of communism was the “most visible and dramatic element of High Stalinism,” Applebaum regards the creation of a “vast system of education and propaganda, designed to prevent enemies from emerging in the future” as “just as important to the Eastern European communists.  In theory, they hoped to create not only a new kind of society but a new kind of person, a citizen who was not capable of even imaging alternatives to communist orthodoxy” (p.255).  From 1948 onward, the theories of Marxism-Leninism “would be explained, expounded, and discussed in kindergartens, schools, and universities; on the radio and in the newspapers; through elaborate mass campaigns, parades and public events” (p.255). 

               Applebaum treats different aspects of life in Eastern Europe during the High Stalinist time, discussing art, architecture, and youth. Two of her most interesting chapters are “Reluctant Collaborators,” and “Passive Opponents.”  Here she delves into the compromises that average citizens had to make to survive as the regimes became more oppressively totalitarian.  The Soviet system excelled, she writes, at “creating large groups of people who disliked the regime and knew the propaganda was false, but who felt nevertheless compelled by circumstances to go along with it” (p.392).  By 1950 or 1951, it was “no longer possible to identify anything so coherent as a political opposition anywhere in Eastern Europe” (p.412).  And yet:

    there was an opposition.  But it was not an active opposition, and certainly not an armed opposition.  It was rather a passive opposition, an opposition that sought outlets in jokes, graffiti, and unsigned letters, an opposition that was often anonymous and frequently ambivalent (p.413). 

    The harshest features of communist regimes died with Stalin in 1953 or shortly thereafter, but “even-post Stalinist Eastern Europe could be harsh, arbitrary and formidably repressive” (p.463).    

    * * *

             As she dissects communist policies in different Eastern European countries, Applebaum perceives a positive side for Soviet communism:  communist authorities “did call for a war on ignorance and illiteracy, they did align themselves with the forces of science and technological progress, and they did appeal to those who hoped that society could be remade after a terrible war” (p.388).  But the damage which Eastern European communism wreaked was nonetheless “enormous.” In their drive to power, Applebaum writes,

    the Bolsheviks, their Eastern European acolytes, and their imitators farther afield attacked not only their political opponents but also peasants, priests, schoolteachers, traders, journalists, writers, small businessmen, students, and artists, along with the institutions such people had built and maintained over centuries.  They damaged, undermined, and sometimes eliminated churches, newspapers, literary and educational societies, companies and retail shops, stock markets, banks, sports clubs, and universities (p.467-68).

               Applebaum characterizes the extraordinary achievement of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe as its ability to “get so many apolitical people in so many countries to play along without much protest” (p.387).  But “if the genius of Soviet totalitarianism was its ability to get people to conform, this was also its fatal flaw: the need to conform to a mendacious political reality left many people haunted by the sense that they were leading double lives” (p.394).  The success of postwar communist regimes in holding on to power for the better portion of four decades reveals an “unpleasant truth” about human nature, Applebaum concludes:

    if enough people are sufficiently determined, and if they are backed by adequate resources and force, then they can destroy ancient and apparently permanent legal, political, educational and religious institutions, sometimes for good. And if civil society could be so deeply damaged in nations as disparate, as historic, and as culturally rich as those of Eastern Europe, then it can be similarly damaged anywhere.  If nothing else, the history of postwar Stalinization proves just how fragile civilization can turn out to be (p.468).

              Today, the iron curtain across Eastern Europe has been lifted for nearly a quarter of a century and, as we look back to the communist period, it is easy to see the regimes as doomed to failure.  One of the many virtues of Applebaum’s richly-detailed work is that she forces the reader into a time and a perspective in which the unsustainability of the communist regimes was not at all apparent.  To the contrary, many on both sides of the Iron Curtain regarded this gloomy and oppressive totalitarianism as entrenched for the foreseeable future.  Individuals as diverse as Nikita Khrushchev, John Foster Dulles, and Hannah Arendt agreed that “totalitarian regimes, once they worked their way into the soul of a nation, were very nearly invincible” (p.461). 

              Applebaum recognizes that the term “totalitarianism” is overused, much like “racism” and “fascism,” and today can refer to almost anything we don’t like — a “crude, imprecise and overly ideological” word (p.xxii).  But she rightly says that we cannot comprehend the 20th century without an understanding of “how totalitarianism worked, both in theory and in practice” (p.xxiii).  “Iron Curtain” constitutes a valuable contribution to that understanding. 

    Thomas H. Peebles

    Rockville, Maryland

    July 2, 2013

     

4 Comments

Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, History

Stephen Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

In this series of essays, Stephen Cohen, a well-known scholar of Russia and the Soviet Union, looks at “alternative possibilities” in Russian and Soviet history – possibilities “grounded in realities of the time, represented by leaders, and with enough political support to have had a chance of being realized” (p.xi). Throughout the book’s seven essays, along with an epilogue written early in the Obama administration, Cohen challenges what he terms a “school of inevitability” prevalent in the United States that treats seventy five years of Soviet history as having been “closed to alternatives” (p.xii).

The first essay, “Bukaharin’s Fate,” takes a new look at the enigmatic Nikolai Bukaharin, one of several original Bolsheviks whom Stalin liquidated in the 1930s. Cohen speculates that the Soviet Union would have been a very different country, without the terror of the 1930s and 1940s, had Bukarhin prevailed over Stalin in the struggle for power after Lenin’s death in 1924. The second essay, “The Victims Return,” focuses on the Soviet Gulag and highlights the ambivalence of the Soviet Union and Russia about the crimes that Stalin inflicted on his country.

Although Gulag returnees were “survivors in almost the full sense of victims who had survived the Nazi extermination camps,” (p.34), the Soviet Union never undertook exercises like those that sought to hold Nazis accountable for their war crimes after World War II. The primary reason, of course, was the complicity of post-Stalin Soviet leadership in Stalin’s crimes, including Nikita Khrushchev himself. Even today, a fault line runs through Russia between those who contend that Stalin was a despicable, inhuman tyrant, and those who see him as a wise leader of his country. This is not simply an historical debate, Cohen contends, even though most of the survivors of the Soviet Gulag have now died. 27% of Russians today have ancestral links to the Gulag, according to a 2006 poll. A reckoning remains on Russia’s political agenda, Cohen argues, because “there is no statute of limitations for historical crimes as large as Stalin’s . . .the victims’ return is not over” (p.60).

These two essays are polished and thoughtful, with Cohen indulging in the reasoned speculation that is a prerogative of a senior scholar. The last five essays and the epilogue blend together, and are more polemical and provocative. In these pages, Cohen addresses critical questions involving Russia and the Soviet Union. The titles of three of the five essays are themselves questions: Was the Soviet System Reformable? Why Did It End? Who Lost the Post-Soviet Peace? Here, Cohen takes on the conventional wisdom – conventional at least in the United States and much of Western Europe — that the Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight and internal contradictions; that it was beyond reform; and that Gorbachev’s petrosoika and his goal of “socialism with a human face” were hopelessly naïve in light of the nature of the Soviet state. In response, Cohen argues that the Soviet Union could have been transformed into a functioning democracy; that its current anti-democratic tendencies could have been avoided; and that the United States bears considerable responsibility for setting post-Soviet Russia on its current anti-democratic path.

To Cohen, Gorbachev was a genuine reformer, a “Lincolnesque figure determined to ‘preserve the Union’ – in his case, however, not by force but by negotiating a transformation of the discredited ‘super-centralized unitary state’ into an authentic, voluntary federation” (p.105). At some point in the 1980s, Cohen argues, Gorbachev “crossed the Rubicon from Communist Party liberalizer to authentic democratizer,” evolving from a “proponent of ‘socialist pluralism’ to a proponent simply of ‘pluralism,’ from advocate of ‘socialist democracy’ to advocate of ‘democracy,’ from defender of the Communist Party’s ‘leading role’ to defender of the need for a multi-party system” (p.78-79). During Gorbachev’s last years, “all the basic forms of economic activity in modern Russia were born” — born, that is, “within the Soviet economy and thus were evidence of its reformability” (p.105). Under Gorbachev’s leadership, Russia (then Soviet Russia) came “closer to real democracy than it had ever been in its centuries-long history” (p.141).

Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev’s successor, was the anti-Gorbachev (p.140), driven by a “pathological, destructive, all-consuming hatred of Gorbachev” (p.132). Yeltsin oversaw the breakup of the Soviet Union, dissolving it in a manner which, according to Cohen, was “neither legitimate nor democratic,” but rather, a “profound departure from Gorbachev’s commitment to gradualism, social consensus, and constitutionalism,” and a “return to the country’s ‘neo-Bolshevik’ and earlier traditions of imposed change. . . ” (p.151). In the privatization of former state-held property, Yeltsin unleashed a “true bacchanalia of redistribution,” sometimes euphemistically called “spontaneous privatization,” which Cohen and others derisively term “grab-it-ization” (p.137). Gorbachev, by contrast, was prepared to “go boldly” toward “destatization” but only on the condition that “property created by whole generations does not fall into the hands of thieves” (p.139). Even today, Cohen finds the political and economic consequences of the manner in which privatization unfolded in the 1990s “both the primary cause of Russia’s de-democratization and the primary obstacle to reversing it” (p.154).

In particular, privatization in Russia has led to endemic corruption throughout the public and private sectors, buttressed by frightening violence:

The shadowy, illicit procedures and contract murders that fostered the birth of the oligarchy spread with the new system. As a result, corruption also now deprives Russia of billions of dollars and the efficiency needed for modernization. Meanwhile most of the frequent assassinations of journalists and related crimes, usually attributed to the Kremlin, are actually commissioned by corrupt “businessmen” and officials against reporters and other investigators who have gotten too close to their commercial secrets (p.205).

Cohen provides a disturbing analysis of the role that the United States has played in Russia’s authoritarian turn over the last two decades. Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush supported Gorbachev and the path toward reform he tried to follow. But the Soviet Union was gone by the time Bill Clinton became President, and US policy toward Russia embarked on a disastrous course during his presidency that has continued to the present. The United States elected to treat post-Communist Russia as a “defeated nation, analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II, which was expected to replicate America’s domestic practices and bow to U.S. international interests” (p.171). The United States thereby squandered the “historic opportunity for an essential partnership in world affairs – the legacy of Gorbachev, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush” (p.181). Cohen labels this approach “triumphalism,” a “bi-partisan” and “unbridled” exaltation that America had “won” the Cold War and therefore Moscow’s direction “at home and abroad should be determined by the US government” (p.181).

What the United States euphemistically termed a “strategic partnership” with Yeltsin’s Russia was unbalanced from the beginning, Cohen argues, a “relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia’s post-1991 weakness” (p.168). Washington’s insistence on expanding NATO eastward was for Russia the “original sin” (p.189), with Washington unwilling to acknowledge legitimate Russian security concerns with such expansion. “As the Western military alliance continued its ‘march to the east,’ taking in former Soviet-bloc countries and republics along the way, it finally convinced Moscow that U.S. policy was not ‘strategic partnership’ but a quest for domination” (p.189). Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO was (and still is) seen in Moscow as “hammering the final nail into the coffin of Russia as a great power” — exactly the motive behind the United States’ support for Ukraine membership, Cohen contends (p.190).

In his epilogue, Cohen seeks to refute the notion that a reset in US-Russia relations occurred when Barack Obama became President. “Reinforced by a cult of conventional ‘tough-minded’ policy-making, which marginalized and invariably ‘proved wrong’ even ‘eloquent skeptics’ like George Kennan, the triumphalist orthodoxy still monopolized the political spectrum, from ‘progressives’ to America’s own ultra-nationalists, in effect unchallenged in the parties, media, policy institutes, and universities” (p.218), Cohen argues.  For a real reset, triumphalism must be replaced “in words and in deeds, as the underlying principle of U.S. policy by the original premise that ended the Cold War in the years from 1988 to 1991 – that there were no losers but instead a historic chance for the two great powers, both with legitimate security interests abroad and full sovereignty at home, to escape the perils and heavy costs of their forty-year confrontation” (p.195).

There is certain crankiness to Cohen’s relentless assault on two decades of Washington policy toward Russia, reminding me of Ron Paul taking on the Federal Reserve. I do not have anywhere near the expertise to reach a conclusion as to whether Cohen has made his case in these essays that US policy toward Russia has been as consistently wrongheaded as he contends. But I can easily conclude that his provocative views will prompt me to look at Russia and US-Russian relations through a different lens going forward.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
April 24, 2012

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