Deadened Reckoning

By Garfinkle, Adam | The National Interest, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Deadened Reckoning


Garfinkle, Adam, The National Interest


The last several months have brought forth the first major histories of the Cold War based on new archival sources.(1) While this may be good news for historians, the appearance of such books also marks the end of a disappointing period of what may be called popular historiography. A brief epoch of instantly gratifying factual revelation is fading fast into an era of ponderous tomes, and no matter how wise some of these books may turn out to be, it is inevitable that, given the present state of the American academy, the good will before long be shadowed, if not overwhelmed, by the intellectually bad and the morally ugly.

It may be only a standard taunt of the modem historians' trade to end up muddying with equivocation a slice of reality that was uncharacteristically clear-cut, but it is sad all the same. The end of the Cold War brought emotional and intellectual closure to too few Americans, and that is unfortunate, for the civic rituals of collective celebration, no less than of collective mourning, are a part of what knits political communities together. They give its members a common history to recite, to extol, and to bequeath, and the less of one any society has, the poorer it is liable to be in both virtue and verve.

One reason why relatively few Americans enjoyed the end of the Cold War is that the American media elite showed only cursory interest in its historical revelations. Between 1989 and 1992 several symbolically charged arguments that we once feared might never be settled due to the standard secrecy and stealth of communist regimes were in fact resolved. Five examples will make the point.

Did South Korea trick North Korea into invasion in June 1950, as many revisionist historians have argued, or did South Korea even attack first?(2) We got the answer in 1990 directly from North Korean officials: Stalin knew about and encouraged North Korea's aggression, and so did Mao Tse-tung.(3)

Did the Soviet Union abet international, and especially Middle Eastern, terrorism? The Soviet government always denied it, but five years ago the Russians revealed that the Soviet government gave aid and arms to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for use against Americans and Israelis.(4) We have since learned from former Polish, East German, and Czechoslovak files that the flow of agents, money, and explosives to terrorist organizations worldwide was far more extensive than Western intelligence organizations had suspected.

What about the claim that the Warsaw Pact never had plans to seize and hold territory in Western Europe? Such claims were repeated until literally a few days before then current operational plans for occupying Western Europe were found by West German officials upon entering East Berlin.(5) (Interestingly, Soviet plans called for Warsaw Pact first-use of nuclear weapons in the event of an attack toward the West. So much, then, for the theoretical finery of NATO strategic planning under flexible response.(6))

The Soviet Union denied ever having an offensive biological weapons program, and Soviet sympathizers in the West cited Moscow's accession to the 1972 Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention as proof. But a defector revealed in 1990 that the Soviets had a program that was more than twice the size of the highest U.S. intelligence estimates. Moscow also supplied mycotoxins to Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan in violation of the treaty.(7)

Both American Communists and the Soviet government claimed repeatedly that the U.S. Communist Party, while pro-Soviet in foreign policy debates, was a purely American institution that never took funds from communist governments. This was also untrue. A January 27, 1987 letter from Gus Hall to Anatoly Dobrynin found in Mikhail Gorbachev's own files basically says "thanks" for the $2 million given over during the previous few years, and asked for $2 million or, better yet, $4 million more.(8) And I.F. Stone a KGB agent? …

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