Our Dangerous Cold War Nostalgia

How both the left and the right abuse history


Communism was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, and one of the greatest in human history. Twenty years ago, suddenly and improbably, it fell into its death throes.

The end began the night of Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was opened, allowing East Germans to leave the prison that constituted their country. Throughout Eastern Europe, one Communist regime after another disintegrated. Within two years, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was not only out of power but banned by law. A system soaked in the blood of millions was gone.

It was the most dramatic, life-affirming, and miraculous event of our time. And for those of us in the West, it is one from which we have yet to recover.

The Cold War was often grim and scary. For four decades, we had to maintain vast defenses against a numerically superior enemy that threatened the freedom of our allies and, by extension, ourselves. We lived with the daily reality that, with the push of a button in the Kremlin, we would all be dead in half an hour.

But the "long twilight struggle," as John F. Kennedy called it, was also inspiring. It gave us a purpose greater than ourselves. In those days, most Americans understood it was our national duty to prevent the spread of the most malignant force on earth, lest it enslave us all.

That may sound absurd to anyone who has grown up since 1989. But there were serious people who feared the worst. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thought that in the 1970s, the West was "slowly but surely losing."

Our unequivocal victory brought joy, but it also created something else: a void in our lives. If upholding freedom and democracy against a global enemy was not our purpose, what was?

In his 1989 essay, "The End of History?" published in The National Interest, Francis Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberal democracy over communism. But he feared "centuries of boredom" once the "worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism" was replaced by such dull fare as "the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands."

The end of the Cold War left us searching for something to match its gravity, drama, and urgency. Unfortunately, some people have managed to find it.

For conservatives, it has been the war against terrorism. There was terrorism during the Cold War, but we regarded it as a lethal but limited nuisance. After 9/11, though, President Bush said our task was nothing less than to "rid the world of evil."

Before long, he persuaded himself and the country that the effort demanded the invasion of Iraq. The dangers Saddam Hussein and his kind presented, Bush told Czech students, were "just as dangerous as those perils that your fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers faced." That fantasy led us into tragic folly.

The right has also had trouble shaking the fear of totalitarianism. Lacking the specter of Soviet tyrants, they have found a suitable replacement in Barack Obama, who is routinely, and ridiculously, compared to Stalin and Mao.

Liberals are likewise susceptible to extravagant dread spawned by misplaced nostalgia. For many of them, the darkest time of the Cold War was the McCarthy era, when anti-communist fevers spawned abuses of power and persecution of the innocent. The left has spent the past eight years denouncing a new wave of domestic repression that, in reality, never materialized.

It's no coincidence that the film Good Night, and Good Luck, about CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow's brave stand against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, came out in 2005. Director George Clooney said it was highly relevant to the present: "We do this every 30 or 40 years; we just sort of, you know, go crazy."

But in the realm of civil liberties the Bush administration, though it often went wrong, did not go crazy. Dissenters were not ruined or jailed. Muslims were not herded en masse into internment camps. While there were instances of indefensible overreaching, there was no reign of terror on the home front.

In reality, we are never likely to face anything comparable to the perils and fears that hung over our heads during the Cold War, and for that we should be immensely grateful. Once was enough. Wasn't it?


NEXT: No Respect for the Dead

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  1. I’m not how ridiculous it is to be concerned when you have members of the administration tell everyone that Mao is one of their top two politcal philosophers.

    Yeah, the current situation is not as bad as the Cold War, but whistling past the graveyard because is better is several kinds of stupid as well.

  2. Yet another example of our “representatives” in congress doing what they can to keep themselves in office.

  3. Chapman, you commie. There’s no way your silver-tongued propaganda piece is getting me to drop my guard against the Red Menace.

  4. “It gave us a purpose greater than ourselves.”

    Chapman blows it right there. Big time. The evil premise inherent in communism is that the individual must sacrifice his personal self for the greater good of the collective. So we were fighting collectivism with…collectivism? It’s a deadly blunder that has been repeated again and again throughout history. In this regard, “conservatives” are on the same page as “liberals.”

  5. Yea, yea… liberals and conservatives both are living in the past. Good to see that communism is labelled as a tragedy, although a good percentage of liberals (prior to 1989) wholly embraced it. The purges of Stalin, the Khumer Rouge and Mao were tolerable, but when these folks realized that white Europeans were living like $hit, then, well, maybe communism was bad after all.

    Call a spade a spade for Christ’s sake. Somebody was DEAD fucking wrong.

    1. “although a good percentage of liberals (prior to 1989) wholly embraced it”

      That’s about as accurate as saying a good percentage of conservatives (prior to 1939) wholly embraced Nazism. Liberals never embraced Communism, even most leftists never did. The American Communist Party was always a fringe group, even in its 1930 heyday. When you ignore the contributions of people like George Kennan or Adlain Stevenson to the anti-Communist fight, you’re at best distorting history, at worst just flat out lying. And of course that bete-noir of American rightists, George Soros, did more to fight Communism directly in the 1970s and 80s than anyone not named Reagan or Shultz.

  6. The Cold War was often grim and scary.

    The film Dr. Strangelove is wonderful Cold War gallows humor. Highly recommended to the youngsters (although they may find it rather slow-paced).

    1. Not enough noise and mindless destruction for Gen Whatever.

    2. Watched it junior year of high school. One of the best movies I’ve seen.

  7. Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.

  8. So, what he is saying is, we need something to fill the void for everyone, something that brings us together. Let’s have WWIII, win it, then 50 years of Cold War 2!!!!

  9. Fighting the cold war was not just using proxy countries for fights against the reds. It also involved foreign aid and projects such as the peace corps to present other countries not just with the stick of military invasion, but with the carrot of bribery. The boomer kids were raised on this propaganda, that the US had to help benighted countries for no visible pay-off (although of course there was an unmentioned political payoff).

    When the cold war ended the US kind of backed off on the stick part, but the boomers are enacting the propaganda they learned as children as domestic and foreign policy. It’s like no adults ever sat them down and explained the facts of life to them.

  10. Highly recommended to the youngsters

    Warning: General Turgidson’s secretary may induce pubescence.

    It happened to me.

    1. Col. Mandrake induced pubescence in me, but luckily it was just an Anglophile phase like many confused boys go through.

    2. ?, honey, I’m not sleepy either…

  11. “It gave us a purpose greater than ourselves.”

    Any purpose in life, greater or less than ourselves, is a sad delusion. We are God’s unwanted children; deal with it.

    1. We are God’s unwanted children; deal with it.
      What’s your definition of God, then? It seems to me that if we were unwanted children, the Cold War would have been the perfect opportunity for an omnipotent being/presence to “help” the human race out of existence.

      1. He was trying to ‘help’ the human race out of existence. His plan was called ‘communism’.

        1. So you’re saying God is a Sadist?
          And if such an omnipotent being had such a plan, why did it fail? Or was the Cold War simply a warmup? (hmm. perhaps i just answered my own question…)

  12. Story on NPR this morning about how they’re bringing back the Trabant because– get this– it symbolizes the unification of East and West.

    I nearly drove off the road I was laughing so hard.

    The NPR reporter, when going for a test drive of the new prototype accidentally pulled off a door panel.

  13. Saddam’s internal killing policy in Iraq easily outmatched anything done by Czechoslovak communists, criminals though they were. If measured by evil inflicted on own population, Saddam stood in the same league as Stalin or Hitler.

    Other thing is that Saddam did not possess the industrial capability of USSR or Germany, so he could be ignored more safely – at least after the Kuwait war, in which his military was emasculated.

  14. It gave us a purpose greater than ourselves.

    One could argue that this purpose was used to curtail our freedoms and grow the power of the state.

  15. The Rwanda Holocaust killed more people quickly in a more brutal way than anything that took place behing the Iron Curtain. The Lesson is that a wide variety of situations and ideologies can give rise to genocide.

  16. I think to some extent America is going through a bit of an identity crisis right now. After WW2 we took the special responsibility of being ‘leader of the free world.’ Today however, the Soviets are gone, Europe doesn’t need our protection anymore, and Red China is now one of our biggest capitalist partners.

    In the Cold War we were in a sort of grand quest for freedom… at least people felt this way. Since then this quest has failed to find an outlet, and there is the sense that the grand march of our history has nowhere else to go. But I don’t see it that way.

  17. Perhaps I missed something, but I though libertarianism was supposed to represent the ideas of self-ownership and autonomy. While this article rings true regarding the overarching impact of historical events, I reject the notion that we need to be collectively defined by the impact of international events. I don’t think there should be “a void in our lives” because we lack “a purpose greater than ourselves.”

    While Obama certainly hasn’t killed anyone, a dogmatic defense by the People, not government, against totalitarianism is the best defense. Let’s not be naive, when hasn’t it been the best defense? Mass movements are irrational, but they have to be confronted by other mass movements, which will inevitably also be irrational. Since when is it demanded that protesters be policy experts, or, for that matter, have a clue?

    Forgive me, but I’m a bit put off when libertarians suddenly decide that a reasoned table discussion is called for when they’ve suddenly got a chance of gaining some ground, when anything but a reasoned discussion has been going on for 40 plus years.

    What is to be gained by taking a good guy stance? Obama has surrounded himself with people who are on record sympathizing with totalitarian ideologies, and Congress just passed a healthcare bill forcing people to get health insurance. So, let’s ride the fence and try and be a good guy. Good grief. Like it or not, libertarianism isn’t going to “thinktank” its way into being a powerful political force.

    1. Grilled,

      You’re absolutely right. If we try to build a cult of noncommittal political bystanders who always criticize but never take part, we will never get anywhere. Sure, it makes us feel good to stand above the fray and not bathe in the nastiness that is politics. We feel purer somehow. And all the while our liberties are waving bye bye. Isn’t there something to the idea that indifference is the worst of all evils?

      There is a real chance to win the hearts and minds of others. I see no reason to hide our principles or be tentative in the fight for liberty.

      Having lived in Russia and Europe, I can say that I am truly perplexed by the statement that believing Obama is the next Mao or Stalin is absurd. True, he is not those people, but he can open the gate for such people, and that is the point. Hitler walked into Germany democratically. Liberty-lovers must be ever vigilant. We shouldn’t blind ourselves to try to be the nice guy all the time.

  18. Very weary of this article, seeing as so many people in the Obama adminstration hold a mass murderer as their icon. I say mass murderer because the son of a bitch doesn’t even deserve to be recognized. For the sake of clarity I will: Chairman Mao. I find this article also lacked a bit of clarity, seeing as the statement “it gave us a purpose greater than ourselves?” Seems like an oxymoron, seeing as an individual determines that, rather than state. And during the Cold War, it seemed both sides mimicked one another very well in this sense.

  19. Chapman’s nostalgic for the Cold War as a good & necessary war, which he uses to argue that the War on Terror (including Iraq) has been bad & unnecessary.

    As for substitutes for the Cold War, he omits to mention how all the leftover leftists who lost their Soviet state sponsorship have now turned to the Islamo-Fascist oil dictatorships in their latest alliance of convenience against Western capitalism.

  20. “…Barack Obama, who is routinely, and ridiculously, compared to Stalin and Mao.”
    This assertion is correct, though it may be misread:’ridiculously’ because ridicule is the solitary proper response to MaoBama, not because comparing him to Mao is ridiculous. That is what the author meant.

  21. The intervention in Iraq was at the very least a leftover from the cold war. The Ba’athists were socialists, and Saddam got 99% of his kit from the Soviets. But his habit of invading his neighbors eventually caught up with him. How long were the western lefties willing to tolerate the useless no-fly zones and the Kurdish separate bit? Forever? Useless lefties got no real answers for anything.

  22. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on.

  23. The intervention in Iraq was at the very least a leftover from the cold war. The Ba’athists were socialists, and Saddam got 99% of his kit from the Soviets. But his habit of invading his neighbors eventually caught up with him. How long were the western lefties willing to tolerate the useless no-fly zones and the Kurdish separate bit? Forever? Useless lefties got no real answers for anything.

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