It’s hard for some of us to contemplate, but any “traditional” student wandering around today’s college campus–to say nothing of those coming up behind them–has no living memory of the Cold War. For Boomers, it’s a different story: the Cold War, and its hot portions such as Vietnam, basically framed the world view of an entire generation, not insignificant now since these Boomers are in the seats of governmental and corporate power in this country.
One serious attempt to document and interpret this long and complex period of American history is Derek Leebaert’s The Fifty Year Wound: The True Price of America’s Cold War Victory. Leebaert, at the time of authorship a government professor at Georgetown University and today a partner in a Swiss management consulting firm, has written what is best described as an engaging yet sprawling account of the US’ longest “war.”
His account divides itself into three periods. The first is the period from World War II to the end of Eisenhower’s administration, when the generation whose baptism of fire was in the trenches and over the skies of France in World War I came to realise that the Soviet Union, ally in the defeat of fascism, was in fact the US’ greatest rival for both geopolitical and ideological reasons. He details the transition for the US from a country which took up arms when necessary and dropped them thereafter to one which maintained a sustained military and diplomatic front against communism. It wasn’t as straightforward of a transition as one would have liked, complicated by the machinations of the British (which the Americans eventually demote in the wake of the Suez crisis,) the transitions of the American Left which found its flirtations with communism suddenly a national security problem, and creeping militarisation of the society in general and academia in particular (the latter through the research grant system.) Nevertheless the transition was directed by leaders who, on the whole, had a reasonable handle on the challenge in front of them.
Things change when the “Greatest Generation” takes the helm, and that makes up the second part of the book, which encompasses the 1960’s and 1970’s. Leebeart is underwhelmed at the era’s two main protagonists, Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Both he characterises as emotionalists, and his whole discussion of emotionalism in American politics is an important one that has certainly resurfaced in this decade. Kennedy, obsessed by what he sees as an unfavourable “missile gap” (and, in Leebaert’s estimation, a non-existent one at the time) goads him on to cornering the Soviets, the result of which is the nearly disastrous Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy’s bringing on the “best and the brightest” did neither he nor Johnson any favours; ironically, their desire to bring on rational policy and administration got caught up with both Kennedy’s impulsiveness and their own overconfidence, and set the country up for the debacle of Vietnam. Nixon’s love of crises was matched by a desire for a modus vivendi with the Soviets: neither sits well with Leebaert, even with the Soviets finally achieving nuclear parity (and perhaps superiority) with the US in the 1970’s.
The third part concerns the Reagan years. If there’s a “hero” in this book, it’s Ronald Reagan, although Leebaert mercifully avoids the hagiography of the man that is de rigeur with the Right these days. Reagan’s taking a definitive position of opposition vis-à-vis the Soviets and his willingness to back it up with an investment in the US’s military strength is, in Leebaert’s estimation, what brought the Cold War to its conclusion. However, he is realistic in the “riverboat gamble” aspect of Reagan’s stance: had things gone differently with the Soviet Union, especially if Yuri Andropov had lived, things could have ended badly for the whole adventure.
In the midst of these eras Leebaert discusses many issues that don’t get much examination. I mentioned American emotionalism earlier; others include the militarisation of America’s campuses through military research grants (our universities are still addicted to such things, military and otherwise,) institutionalising the tendency for Americans to solve any problem by throwing money at it, the corrosive effect of secrecy and covert operations that were part and parcel of the Cold War, and the existence of two parallel revolutions in the 1960’s and 1970’s: one anti-war and luddite in the streets, the other the birth of “high-tech” that would transform American life in the 1980’s and beyond. Through it all he laments the opportunities for civil and societal gain that were lost in the sheer expense of the Cold War.
Leebaert has his share of figures and organisations which come in for adverse review. He is not fond of people who wanted to reach an accommodation with the Soviets, such as Henry Kissinger and George Keenan; with the latter, one detects a personal animus. On the other side he’s not high on the CIA; he makes a plausible case that, with the deficiencies in the organisation, we would be better off abolishing it and leaving intelligence of this kind to the military.
I mentioned at the start that this book is “sprawling,” which it is. Leebaert is good at keeping his narrative moving, which overall makes it a good read, but he hasn’t consistently synthesised his position re all of the events he covers. The editing of the book leaves a great deal to be desired as well. My guess that this last was forced on him to get the book out in 2002, right after 9/11, and influence then developing policy re the “war on terror.” If his objective was to help the Bush Administration avoid the errors of the Cold War in the new conflict, his concern was justified. Subsequent history showed that many of George Bush’s mistakes, from “democracy in the Middle East” and nation-building to his over-reliance on overwhelming force, could have been avoided if he and his advisers had learned from the Cold War mistakes (and understood that the new war was in many ways unlike the old.)
But Leebaert’s analysis is also timely for those who have come after George Bush and gone to the other extreme of American thought. Barack Obama has “engaged” the US’ adversaries with little to show for it, and, as was the case with many Cold War critics, shown a subtle aversion to his country’s own “rightness.” It seems that we are still locked in a “fight or flee” choice with few real alternatives. The US was, in many ways, grievously unprepared for the extended conflict the Cold War turned into, but it finally outlasted its Soviet opponents. It would be a tragedy if, having done that, the unlearned lessons and residual expense from that effort, coupled with subsequent loss of blood and treasure, would lead to the country’s own demise, but that is a real possibility. The Fifty Year Wound: The True Price of America’s Cold War Victory is neither a perfect book nor the best book that could be written on the subject, but it’s a great place to start if one wants to understand the conflict that shaped the historical legacy of three generations of Americans.