The Cold War Decoded
excerpted from the book
Essays on Our Endangered
by Walter Karp
Franklin Square Press (Harper's
... 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
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
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
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
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.