The Cold War Decoded

excerpted from the book

Buried Alive

Essays on Our Endangered Republic

by Walter Karp

Franklin Square Press (Harper's magazine), 1992


... during World War II ... a vast, exultant ambition fired America's leaders. They were determined at war's end to bestride the world like a colossus, to punish aggression, to root out "spheres of influence," to ensure the independence of all nations great and small-in a word, to "make the world over," in the exuberant phrase of the exuberant hour.

There was nothing entirely new in all this. As far back as the 1890s, when the nation's leaders had cried up a "large" foreign policy-the policy of looming "large" in the world-imperial ambitions had been germinating in American politics. Breaking out on occasion, they had always met powerful resistance. America's continental traditions stood in the way. So, too, did the venerated maxims of the founders. The strongest barrier of all, perhaps, was the American people's deeply held suspicion that power abroad and democracy at home were ever and always at war. America might gain "an imperial Diadem, flashing in false and tarnished luster the murky radiance of dominion and power," in John Quincy Adams's memorable words, but "she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit." The American people were right, more right than they could possibly know at the time, but the bombs that fell on Pearl Harbor shattered their former self-assurance. Amid the fevers and excitements of World War II, the great ambition, so long germinating, burst into grandiose bloom.

American officials spoke ecstatically of the beckoning "job of world leadership with all its burdens and all its glory." Postwar America, armed and mobilized, the "trustee for civilization," bears "responsibility for maintenance of world peace," declared James V. Forrestal,

Truman's secretary of war, in April 1945. As early as 1943, the State Department, grown giddy with newfound consequence, was already working up "a diplomacy which pretended that we were interested in every disputed region everywhere," as Walter Lippmann scornfully remarked at the time. In the British Embassy's weekly report from Washington, a young philosopher-diplomat named Isaiah Berlin noted in a February 1943 dispatch that "dreams of world domination are widespread and while they may yield to Mr. Hull's or the President's wiser counsels, their strength must not be discounted." Yet even the sharp-eyed Berlin underestimated the strength of the long-pent ambition to transform the old republic once and for all.

Thus, in the glory days of August 1945 his weekly embassy report noted that "America sees Soviet Russia as its only rival for world supremacy and at the same time has no desire to become unnecessarily embroiled with her." Alas, Berlin had spoken too soon. What Lippmann called at the time "a diplomatic war in the borderlands of the Soviet Union" commenced in September, bringing with it needless, peace-shattering embroilment.

To the legions of "world leadership", the U.S.S.R was not a problem but the solution to a problem, a heaven-sent gift from "providence," in the candid words of the State Department's George Kennan, to force the American people into "accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear." For the real barrier to an imperial republic was not the Soviet Union but the American people, humbled by Pearl Harbor but not entirely crushed.

The problem facing America's leaders was this: they could not establish an imperial regime without actively dominating the world, but they could offer no honest or persuasive reason for doing so. In the eyes of the nation's leaders, popular resistance to American world leadership led directly to World War II and would lead in turn to World War III. In transforming the old republic, in crushing its spirit beneath an imperial diadem, they were making the world safe from the American people. Such was the conviction that fortified America's leaders in 1945, but it made a poor argument in public. Ordinary Americans thought Hitler and the warlords of Japan had started World War II and they thought America's active membership in the new United Nations organization (which they overwhelmingly supported) would prevent a third global war. Nothing, it seemed, could win them over to the glory and burdens of world leadership.

"A breach of the peace anywhere in the world," claimed their new President, "threatens the peace of the entire world," but Americans did not really believe this because it was patently false. We are "the strongest nation on earth," the new President boasted on Labor Day, 1945. Then why, Americans rightly wondered, was the strongest nation on earth simultaneously so weak and so vulnerable that it had to dominate the world just to be safe? Because "America must behave like the Number One World Power which she is," replied Senator Arthur Vandenberg, foreign policy leader of the Republican Party, begging the question in the safety of his diary. "The position of the United States in world affairs," noted a typical official statement, "is based on the premise that our security and welfare are intrinsically related to the general security and welfare, and upon an acceptance of the responsibility for leadership in world affairs which is called for by that premise." Alas for "world leadership," this kind of high-toned sophistry, reeking with dishonesty in every cant phrase, could neither move a people nor subdue a republic. General George Marshall would speak of "the vast responsibility which history has clearly placed upon our country," but the overwhelming majority of Americans, unenlightened by higher education, did not understand that "history" told their leaders what to do. "No sudden cultural maturation is to be anticipated in the United States," lamented a political scientist named Gabriel Almond as late as 1950, "which would be proportionate to the gravity and power of its newly acquired international status." The only thing Americans want to do, complained Averell Harriman, our ambassador to Moscow, is "go to the movies and drink Coke."

The problem was urgent. "The reluctance of our people to remain on the international scene" was the State Department's greatest fear, said a high-ranking department official. The general solution was obvious. "The United States will not take world leadership effectively," warned Will Clayton, another high-ranking department official, "unless the people of the United States are shocked into doing so." In September 1945 an adviser to Secretary Forrestal warned that unless Americans were persuaded that invasion was perpetually imminent they would not support the "complete realignment of government organizations [needed] to serve our national security in the light of our new world power and position."

An ambition pent up for fifty years was not to be thwarted by a nicety of scruple. An imperial republic was not to die stillborn for want of a lie. "Because the masses are notoriously shortsighted," wrote the eminent diplomatic historian Thomas Bailey, summing up the matter in 1948, "and generally cannot see danger until it is at their throats, our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their long-run interests." The new imperial republic was to be ruled by official duplicity, provocations, and false alarms. And by a "bipartisan foreign policy" as well, for duplicity cannot long withstand public scrutiny and "world leadership" lacked sufficient merit to bear open discussion and partisan debate.

"Bipartisan foreign policy is the ideal for the executive because you can't run this damned country any other way.... Now the way to do that is to say politics stops at the seaboard-and anyone who denies that postulate is a son-of-a-bitch and a crook and not a true patriot. Now if people will swallow that then you're off to the races." Thus Dean Acheson, explaining how to muzzle a free-people and stifle their freedom.

So it was (to leap five years ahead) that when a reckless demagogue cried out in February 1950 that Acheson's State Department was a hotbed of pro-communist treason, millions of Americans flocked to that lunatic banner and cheered that manifestly false charge. For in its perverse and twisted way it conveyed the deep forbidden truth of the age, a truth which by then could no longer be spoken, which could scarcely even be thought, which I feel even now my own temerity in uttering: the truth that, while Stalin was a despotic Asiatic brute, the lying pantaloons who sought an imperial diadem, contemptuous of all that Americans had the sacred right to hold dear, who lusted after "the murky radiance of dominion and power," were indeed betrayers of the American republic.

The real success of the political leadership lay elsewhere. While alarums and excursions diverted the electorate, the nation's leadership took up where Nixon had been forced to leave off. Quietly, stealthily, and with utter impunity they spent eight years [1980s] concentrating unprecedented domestic powers in the White House-powers illicit, usurped, and perilous to self-government. Under the new-modeled presidency the very laws of the land can now be altered to conform to the presidential will. The White House is becoming a private legislature, violating the deepest principles of the U.S. Constitution, putting enormous secret influence into its hands. Under the new-modeled presidency the White House now has unprecedented official influence over public opinion. It can keep from the American people virtually any official information which a President's men think it best for people not to know. It can prevent the executive agencies of the government from even investigating a social condition if a President prefers to leave it in darkness. One by one, the new-modeled presidency narrowed or shut down the avenues of public enlightenment. The executive now has the power to censor the writing of tens of thousands of retired government officials, including even letters to the editor. It now has the power to harass, intimidate, and even imprison dissenting officials who dare tell the truth to the American people. It now has the power, equally unprecedented, to review and censor private, unclassified academic research. Under the Espionage Act, judicially expanded in 1985, the executive now has a mighty weapon for harassing and subjugating the press, fulfilling one of Nixon's keenest ambitions. If "popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it is but the Prologue to a farce," as James Madison long ago warned us, the nation's leaders have spent the past eight years trying to turn popular government into a farce.

"National security" is no longer the main excuse. The President's men spoke of the need for governmental "efficiency," the need to "cut waste," the need for "consistency." They cited the imperious need for cost-effective" government-harmless-sounding pretexts to supplement the fading pretensions of the imperial regime and the tainted imperial presidency." Purged of virtually every friend of democracy, the entire political establishment supported the new-modeled presidency. "Conservatives" who once feared concentrated power demanded ever more power for the President and power ever more free of lawful restraint. "Liberals" who had opposed the "imperial presidency" kept their mouths shut for eight squalid years while the new "cost-effective" tyranny exploded. When the Iran-Contra scandal threatened to expose the truly lawless pretensions of the Reagan White House, party leaders in Congress, terrified of that exposure, transformed the scandal into the inconsequent mischief of wayward underlings and renamed it, officially, the Iran-Contra "affair." The power of "bipartisanship" to blind the American as it was in Acheson's.

While a mendacious White House demagogue pretended to "get the government off the back of the people," the government extended, with utmost rapidity, its sway over the lives and liberties of the people. The central government now has unprecedented authority to spy on the American people, to keep dossiers on the American people, to trace the movements of the American people, to question people without them knowing it, although not the faintest link to a crime attaches to them. The executive now has the power to bar any person from receiving any government or "government-related" loan, grant, or credit, even one given out by a local school board, if the central government people is as strong in our day as it ever declares him a "seriously improper" person. This new, chilling proscription list is kept by the White House budget office.

At every level of government the police power of the state has been rapidly expanded. Stopped and searched at roadblocks, millions of motorists are arrested each year for possession of criminal blood, defined as blood containing .1 percent alcohol-in the name of "safety," which it improves not a whit. Random drug-testing invades our privacy and assaults our dignity in the name of a "productive" work force, which instead it makes sullen and angry. The police invade our households as never before in defense of "family values." Millions of wayward husbands may now be tracked down nationwide and arrested in the service of those "family values." Some 23 million smokers of marijuana, doing harm to nobody, are now subject to federal punishment, threats, and blackmail in the name of a "drug-free" America. Whatever distresses the great electronic audience-missing children and battered wives, AIDS infection, drug-addicted athletes, parolees who commit crimes, arrogant racketeers-has been cried up and exploited with the greatest alacrity to curb personal liberty, to sow fear and discord, to expand the scope of the police spy, the billy club, and the official dossier.

Does anyone suppose that this surging domestic state power bears no relation to the receding imperial tide? The ambition of America's political leaders to subjugate the American republic once and for all had spawned and sustained the Cold War. The Cold War is waning, but the ambition endures. If anything, it has grown more fierce, more reckless, and more radically anti-republican than ever before. Unable to rule us through an external threat, our leaders are prepared to rule us through domestic hatreds, discords, and distempers. Unable to bestride the world, they are ready to bestride a mob; to make us a mob, the better to bestride us. In place of "world leadership" they would give us private virtues enforced with a nightstick; in place of the "International Communist movement," a domineering White House bristling with unprecedented powers, its bully pulpit turned into a Ministry of Truth, overwhelming public opinion and popular government along with it.

"Elective despotism," in Jefferson's phrase, tempered by the congressional leadership is the new regime now taking shape in America: the old legislative oligarchy warily united with the new White House autocracy in common defense against a revived, post-imperial republic. That outcome, however, is far from inevitable. "We are still "a republic if you can keep it," but perhaps not for long if we do not awaken. Despite the apparent stability of American politics, the bitterest of classical parallels keeps coming to mind: Rome's weakened senate oligarchs calling on Pompey the Great to help them fend off the people of Rome-until the onslaught of Caesar put finish to a republic grown incorrigibly corrupt.

Buried Alive

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