Notes & Comments: December 1999

New Criterion, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Notes & Comments: December 1999


Remembering the Cold War

The impending turn of the millennium may be based on dubious chronology, but these final weeks of 1999 nevertheless offer a good opportunity for stock-taking. Whatever else can be said of it, the twentieth century has been a study in contrasts. The mighty engines of capitalism have produced wealth beyond reckoning even as mankind's technological ingenuity has populated the world with dazzling instruments of comfort, inquiry, and diversion. At the same time, as Hilton Kramer notes in his reflections below, this "unrepentant" century has been, by far, the most murderous on record. Untold lives--numbering in the hundreds of millions--have been blighted or extinguished in the name of political ideology --above all Communist ideology--over the course of the century.

Facing up to the real dimensions of this evil has proved to be extraordinarily difficult--partly because the seductive nature of political ideology is felt even by those who have escaped its murderous rage. Indeed, it is not at all clear whether, even at this late hour, Western liberal opinion is prepared to acknowledge either the depth of Communist tyranny or the accessory nature of its own repeated capitulations and fellow-traveling. If the twentieth century has been the most deadly in history, it is also shaping up to be the most amnesiac.

We were reminded of this recently on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9. A more eloquent symbol of freedom triumphing over tyranny is hard to imagine. As Charles Krauthammer noted in his column for The Washington Post ("Reluctant Cold Warriors," November 12), "the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union are events of biblical proportion. They mark the end of a century of totalitarianism." And yet this apocalyptic anniversary came and went virtually without fanfare. "The twenty-fifth anniversary of he release of the Beatles' White Album," Mr. Krauthammer noted, "caused more of a stir."

Why? Why is it that this historic anniversary passed without celebration or ceremony, passed with only perfunctory acknowledgment here? Because, as Mr. Krauthammer observed, "many people now in authority prefer not to be reminded that the last twenty years of the Cold War were not their finest hour, and that victory in the Cold War was achieved despite--not because of--their best efforts."

It is may be difficult to remember this now when nearly everyone speaks blithely of America's victory in the Cold War. But it was not so long ago that liberal orthodoxy snidely derided the very idea of the Cold War as the product of right-wing fanatics who mistakenly saw Communists under every bed. All that is conveniently forgotten now in the warm glow of complacency. But when Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," the liberal establishment was practically unanimous in its ridicule and outrage. As Mr. Krauthammer reported, Tweedledee and Tweedledum from The New York Times--Anthony Lewis and Tom Wicker--weighed in with their usual hand-wringing, calling Mr. Reagan's comment "primitive" (Lewis) and "smug" (Wicker). Henry Steele Commager agreed: "It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I've read them all." George Ball, an apparatchik in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, published an open letter to President Reagan complaining about "your obsessive detestation of what you call `the evil empire.'" What, we wonder, would Mr. Ball have called it? Perhaps, like Lincoln Steffens, he looked at the Soviet Union, saw the future, and believed that it worked.

Had it not been for President Reagan and other cold warriors who, undeterred by liberal heckling, persevered in the fight against Communist tyranny in the former Soviet Union, in El Salvador, and elsewhere, Mr. Ball may indeed have been looking at the future. But when it finally arrived, he would have been given ample reason to repent his fatuousness. …

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