“Democracy is more cruel than wars or tyrants.”
The correspondence on the origins of the Cold War between John Lukacs and George Kennan, who have been friends for more than four decades, is not entirely unknown to fans of either. Much of it was printed last year in American Heritage, and Lukacs’s stately introduction to this expanded version of the exchange reprises themes that come up in The End of the Twentieth Century (1995) and in his earlier works on contemporary history. As I have elsewhere commented extensively on the work of both men, it may be redundant for me to repeat tributes to these acknowledged mentors. Instead, it may be more useful to focus on what I find problematic about their vision of recent history: both men see this century’s two world wars as “the two mountains” (Lukacs’s words) dominating the historic topography of the modern era; and both see the Russian Revolution as an event of only secondary importance, born of World War I but greatly overestimated by conservatives and neoconservatives as the turning point of the 20th century.
These notions are troubling for two reasons. First, it is not at all clear that neoconservatives hold the Russian Revolution to be as earth-shaking as Lukacs suggests. A year’s subscription to Commentary or a reading of the historiography of Donald Kaben and Paul Johnson should make clear that neoconservatives are far more obsessive in their dislike of the Germans than of the Soviets, and that they are nearly as hostile to the Kaiser’s Reich as they are to Hitler’s. The neoconservatives and some British Tories may be the last proponents of the dubious thesis of Fritz Fischer, which blames World War I on the implementation of a supposed German plan for world conquest. The point is not whether this thesis can be sufficiently documented to make it worthy of respect (from what I can determine, it cannot). More relevant is that the neoconservatives’ preoccupation with the German problem would never allow most of them—Richard Pipes being a signal exception—to identify Bolshevism as the mother of all 20th-century disasters. From the neoconservative perspective, the Soviet problem was a secondary one, compared to a German menace extending from Bismarck to Hitler.
A fixation with communism, from the Soviet Revolution on, was rather characteristic of certain postwar conservatives—most particularly Frank Meyer, Robert Strausz-Hupé, Stefan Possony, and, for a while, James Burnham. Nonetheless, what critics call “apocalyptic anticommunism” has been less an idée fixe for the American right than antifascism has been for the American left and center-left. Despite the militantly interventionist anticommunism prevalent among those who read and wrote for National Review, isolationism continued to be found on the Old Right into the 1950’s and 60’s. Such right-wing libertarians as Frank Chodorov and Murray Rothbard, while impressed by the ostensible housecleaning within the federal government undertaken by postwar anticommunists, held no brief for an interventionist foreign policy. Like Robert Taft, they saw McCarthyism, rightly or wrongly, as an expression of anti-New Deal republicanism, but not as a call to engage in crusades beyond America’s borders. For Chodorov and other opponents of the welfare state, the overriding concern was not communism but the United States’ drift toward socialism. By contrast, American liberals were fighting international fascism even as they favored strong action against communist aggressors. For them, communism was what Harry Truman called it in the 40’s: “Red Fascism,” an essentially rightist enemy resembling the Nazis but pretending to be progressive. From Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center, George Orwell’s novels, and the social democratic Congress for Cultural Freedom to the neoconservative reconstruction of the American anticommunist right, this depiction of communism as a fascist variant has been a key anticommunist theme. By the end of the Cold War, as Samuel Francis observes, it had trumped all other forms of anticommunism.
Second, Lukacs and Kennan may be stating what is either obvious or misleading when they present the two world wars as twin mountains in the modern historical landscape. No knowledgeable person would deny that World War I produced unfortunate consequences with whose ramifications we are still grappling: devastation, Bolshevism, Wilsonian globalism, Nazi genocide, and the Cold War. Lukacs is right to say that the guns of August did colossal harm beyond the human lives it extinguished. As scions of Central European families who lost that struggle and were subsequently persecuted by the Nazis, both he and I have every reason to deplore the explosion in 1914. Bolshevik killers were among those who benefited from that explosion, which helped topple two successive Russian regimes before Lenin took power. Both World War II and the Cold War may indeed be seen as outgrowths of what commenced in 1914.
But if Lukacs means that the Bolshevik Revolution and its effects have been vastly overrated and that anticommunists have sold us a bill of goods, then I must respectfully dissent. The Soviet seizure of power in 1917 was every bit as laden with ugly consequences as the European war from which it came. It resulted not only in a gruesome bloodbath, but ironically helped pave the way for Hitler’s successes. German communists, under orders from Moscow, collaborated with the Nazis in destroying the anti-Nazi opposition; and French communists in 1940 undermined French military efforts to resist a German invasion, owing to Stalin’s alliance with Hitler. In the 30’s, moreover, the Nazis gained active and tacit support from those who took seriously their claim to being a bulwark against communist violence. And many of those who were repelled by the Nazis were even more appalled by the Soviet regime, which by the 1930’s had already carried out their holocaust. Those who, unlike Churchill, hesitated to grasp the Soviet hand, nettles and all, against Hitler, were not being overly squeamish. Decent statesmen were disgusted by the thought of an alliance with a murderous regime and a subversive ideology for the purpose of forestalling a then less-obvious mass murderer. If the Soviet Union had not been a continental power and the leader of the antifascist Popular Front in 1934, a grave geopolitical and moral obstacle to dealing with Hitler would have been removed.
Contrary to Lukacs’s suggestion, moreover, the Western powers until the late 1930’s could have disposed of the Nazis without Soviet help. Before then the German Wehrmacht was no match for combined Anglo-French forces, assisted by Czechoslovakia and other French allies in Eastern and Central Europe. Even afterward there was no justification, as Kennan points out, for lying about Soviet intentions and actions—including the Katyn Woods massacre—in which both Churchill and Roosevelt engaged. The United States could have assisted the Soviets in fighting their former Nazi allies without embracing Stalin and his henchmen as trusted friends.
Finally, the Soviet lockhold on Eastern and Central Europe in 1945 and Soviet subversive activities elsewhere accelerated the transformation of the United States from a constitutional republic to a centralized administrative monolith. While this metamorphosis might have occurred in any case, the Cold War made it a certainty. Conservatives joined liberals in favoring governmental expansion, providing it could somehow be related to “national security.” Under that protean term were grouped such diverse activities as road-building, the subsidization of mentally distraught graduate students (most of the hysterically pro-communist members of this category whom I taught in the late 1960’s held National Defense Fellowships), the provision of “butter with guns,” in LBJ’s memorable phrase, and the mobilization of federal bureaucrats to fight prejudice and discrimination. The long-term beneficiaries of this welfare-warfare state have not been fascist rednecks, or other predictable targets of liberal polemics. They have been, by and large, the multinationals, the public sector, international labor unions, and professional global democrats. These victors over “Red Fascism”—not rightists or traditionalists—wrote the official evaluation of the common enemy, and shaped the battle against him.
The future first became clear to me in the 1970’s, when I began noticing the growing indistinguishability between anticommunists and anti-anticommunists. Both talked about social reform and civil rights, but one side associated them with the continuing progress of American democracy while the other, by contrast, thought that our involvement in the Cold War had become an obstacle to domestic improvement. As early as the 1970’s fierce anticommunism mixed with economic libertarianism or traditional Catholicism (as featured in National Review) was becoming a sideshow, assuming it had ever been anything more. The main architects of an anticommunist foreign policy, at least since the 60’s, had been Cold War liberals, typified by Eugene and Walt Rostow, Scoop Jackson, Hubert Humphrey, and Dean Rusk; now a new ideological development occurred. Those who had been identified as “conservative” anticommunists began sounding like the liberal opposition, while at the same time appealing to Cold War imperatives. This first impressed itself upon me while listening to an address by the conservative celebrity Harry Jaffa, delivered at a conservative youth gathering. The speech, far from being greeted as poppycock, brought forth extended applause and was printed with minor variations in several conservative journals. In his remarks Jaffa explained that desegregating all public facilities in the United States was essential for defeating communism. Unless the federal government assured every black person equal access to whatever public amenity was available to whites, it could not triumph in the struggle against totalitarianism. And in a preview of what by the 1980’s became a mainstream conservative view, Jaffa opined that communism was really a reactionary force related to the thinking of the Confederacy and of other antidemocratic movements. Communists were opposed to human rights and did not hold all men to be born equal.
Thus, to my surprise, there emerged a “conservative” variant of leftist anticommunism, which by the 80’s incorporated the Cold War liberal brief, holding that communists were anti-Semitic, anti-gay, and anti-labor. Needless to say, there was nothing in this anticommunism that the American left would not have been able to buy, were it not for its persistent softness toward Stalinist murderers. Only this particular softness kept the official left, including the media, from embracing the anticommunist ideology that prevailed by the end of the Cold War. What the left never grasped, or wanted to, was that there was nothing in this anticommunism that conflicted with their interests. The fall of communism would bring about a leftist triumph—not the dark night of some hallucinatory McCarthyism. Indeed, the antifascism that is alive and well today in both the Old and New worlds, fueling p.c, hate speech laws, and government-mandated sensitivity training, is not a reaction to the Cold War. It is more of the usual guided democracy, including forced mobilization to fight an enemy which is always imagined to be on the right, that was already a notable aspect of American life in the Cold War period itself.
[George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment, 1944-1946, by George F. Kennan and John Lukacs (Columbia: Universitv of Missouri Press) 85 pp., $19.95]