Cold Warriors in Heaven

Why we're still arguing over who beat the commies


Fitting, that Pope John Paul II should die just two weeks after George Kennan and nine months after Ronald Reagan. The pontiff backed Solidarity at a crucial and dangerous juncture and made anti-communism a pressing freedom-of-religion issue; Kennan recognized Soviet murderousness decades before most westerners and invented the doctrine of containment; Reagan gave the empire its "evil" name and helped both spend and negotiate the Russkies to the surrendering table.

Yet the passing of the Greatest Cold War Generation is another reminder that Americans never quite did get around to assigning proper credit or blame for our most impressive, yet divisive, foreign policy success. Behind the made-for-TV melodrama of the Pope's funeral were the muted but persistent sounds of domestic Cold War opponents still clinging to their own side's interpretative orthodoxies, still fighting a battle that began long before I was born and that looks to continue long after most humans won't even remember what Soviet communism looked like.

For the American right, the Pope's legacy was as obvious as it was omnipotent. "WHAT A MAN! What a life!" gushed Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. "No political leader did more than John Paul II to bring an end to the Cold War." The National Review's Rich Lowry used John Paul's demise to praise theocrats ("when the chips are down, give me a freedom-loving man of faith every time"); and the Heritage Foundation's Lee Edwards observed that "only Margaret Thatcher remains of the remarkable triumvirate that led the West to victory in the Cold War."

The Left was more circumspect and diffuse, focusing instead on the Pope's opposition to capitalism and the death penalty, or on the church's scandals and decline. The Cold War claim was treated with skepticism by some ("the Pope himself did not credit outside pressure with the collapse of Communism," wrote Max Sawicky), and the Old Left hostility voiced by others, such as The Guardian's Terry Eagleton, was almost refreshing.

"As a prelate from Poland, Wojtyla hailed from what was probably the most reactionary national outpost of the Catholic church, full of maudlin Mary-worship, nationalist fervour and ferocious anti-communism," Eagleton spat. "Years of dealing with the Polish communists had turned him and his fellow Polish bishops into consummate political operators. In fact, it turned the Polish church into a set-up that was, at times, not easy to distinguish from the Stalinist bureaucracy. Both institutions were closed, dogmatic, censorious and hierarchical, awash with myth and personality cults. It was just that, like many alter egos, they also happened to be deadly enemies, locked in lethal combat over the soul of the Polish people."

One of my biggest shocks upon returning to the United States in 1998 after spending the decade in post-communist Central Europe was that this bitter family feud within the democratic West had utterly failed to sort itself out, even as the toddling new democracies struggled heroically with confronting their own domestic collaboration.

If black South Africans could engage in Truth and Reconciliation with their white former oppressors, why couldn't William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer finally 'fess up their past excesses and errors in judgment, preferably moderated by Dick Cavett? Chile and El Salvador are exhuming the skeletons in their closets; why not Washington, D.C. and Manhattan?

Looking back, I can see where I was naive. In a country where grassroots political expression is bursting through the cracks of the once-powerful apolitical media, partisanship and ideological self-branding are almost certainly on the rise. And as communism itself illustrated, murderously, ideology has rarely provided a shortcut to the truth.

Also, Americans are easily distracted by what comes next. Instead of painful self-reassessments, the early 1990s were filled with big-picture debates over The End of History, The Clash of Civilizations, and (for all too brief a period) whether the post-Cold War U.S. should play the role of Global Cop. It's hard to dwell on CIA malfeasance in the 1950s when Sarajevan grandmothers are being picked off by Serb snipers, and Rwanda's rivers are running with blood.

And finally, a look at the three dead Cold Warriors themselves suggests that maybe history is just too complicated for a one-size-fits-all explanation for dynamic events. Wojtyla and Kennan and Reagan may have agreed on the evils of Stalinism, but Kennan was a bitter opponent of Reagan's version of containment, while the Pope railed against the two Iraq wars conducted by Reagan's ideological successors.

But all these are just explanations, not justifications. Even if you reject the very premise of "Who Won the Cold War?" (my favorite answer is: "the citizens who overthrew communism"), certainly it's possible and arguably necessary to give recognition to those who called an evil system by its proper name, and gave inspiration to the courageous dissidents and protesters who did the heavy lifting.

Even though belonging to a specific ideological team can be fun (I guess), it strikes me that an excellent way to learn the lessons of the Cold War, and to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the open-ended struggle against authoritarian Islam, is to unseal the old files, and deliver a sober assessment of what went right and wrong.

That process should begin internally. Back in the late '80s, we used to have a saying that "perestroika begins in the home." The Pope forgave his assassin, for crying out loud (an act so mind-bendingly generous that the non-Catholic Hollywood producer Robert Evans has spent decades working on a film about it); the least we can do to honor the old guy's passing is to recognize our own Cold War sins, and pray that they deserve forgiveness.