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Does the Cold War Have Lessons for Today?
Posted on Sep 19, 2008
Now that the European war was over, America had other priorities. Chief among them was the desire to use German raw materials and industrial production to rebuild the economies of Western Europe. U.S. leaders did not intend to cut out the Russians completely, but to subordinate their needs to those of other European nations and to Germany itself. For the Russians, this came as a stunning blow. For years, they had carried the main burden of defeating Hitler’s armies, with 100,000 of their soldiers killed capturing Berlin. And now with the Soviet economy in a desperate condition, the Americans were depriving them of the fruits of victory.
At a time when there was still some degree of political pluralism in eastern Germany and when the Soviets were still aiming to unify the country, the United States effectively tore up the Potsdam agreements, shutting the Soviets out of the largest, most populated and industrially rich portion of the country. Inside the U.S. government, this was a fiercely debated decision because leaders of the American occupation understood that if West Germany became a separate country, the eastern zone would be completely subjugated and the nations of Eastern Europe, which still retained significant freedoms, would be doomed.
As the dissenters anticipated, the consequences were profound and long-lasting. The immediate result was Stalin’s decision to blockade Berlin. This was not because he wanted to starve a city or to snuff out freedom, as Barack Obama so recently assumed. The Soviet leader cut off western access through the eastern zone in order to demonstrate that if the Western powers were abandoning the wartime agreements, they had no legal basis for remaining in the city. Although generally overlooked, during the so-called blockade eastern Germany continued to provide the West Berliners with most of their supplies. Furthermore, it was Stalin’s obvious and openly stated aim to halt the creation of a separate West German government and to go back to Potsdam. Of course, the effort backfired, solidifying popular support for partition and hastening the formation of NATO. Yet this military alliance might have been superfluous if the United States had not abandoned diplomacy on the German question.
In the wake of the Berlin crisis, the line across Europe was sharply drawn and the Cold War became more difficult to reverse. From the outset, this competition entailed horrific consequence for millions of people across the globe. “For the Soul of Mankind” underplays this. We are reminded of the potential dangers, but we get no indication of the actual suffering that ensued. Inside Eastern Europe, people’s lives were torn apart, as was the case for the Koreans, the Iranians, the Guatemalans, the Congolese, the Indonesians and many others.
When it comes to Vietnam, we find the obligatory acknowledgment that more than 50,000 Americans died, and millions of Asians. Yet it is hard to discern from this book the real scale and character of American destruction: the dropping of napalm, the use of defoliants which scorched the countryside, the burning of villagers, the torture of Viet Cong prisoners, the assassination of rural leaders, the relentless bombing. Several months ago on this Truthdig Web site, journalist Fred Branfman posed a rhetorical question: “Is it really possible for America to have killed hundreds of thousands of Indochinese peasants and still, 30 years later, act as if it never happened?” The answer is yes, and despite its many virtues, “For the Soul of Mankind” nurtures that blindness.
This returns us to the troubling present and the still developing crisis over Georgia. American news commentators have hastened to invoke the Cold War, suggesting that Vladimir Putin embodies the militarism and brutality of his Soviet forebears. Yet the Cold War lens might enable us to perceive that in Georgia, as in the Middle East, the American tendency to overreach has once again gotten another country into a conflict it cannot handle.
Mikhail Gorbachev had a dream, and it was of a safer world in which military alliances would disappear and the habit of using force was replaced by a habit of diplomacy. Yet the Americans never bought into Gorbachev’s vision. Instead, they took the occasion of Soviet collapse to engage in new interventions and to build up NATO close to its borders. The Russian attack on Georgia is the unhappy consequence of American provocation.
It is long past time for Americans to give up their romantic image of the Cold War, and to apprehend its irrationality and damage. Despite its disappointing waffles, “For the Soul of Mankind” is a fascinating, brilliant book that can only advance a vital debate.
Carolyn Eisenberg is a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Hofstra University and the author of “Drawing the Line: the American Decision to Divide Germany, 1944-49.” She is currently writing a book on Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and the Vietnam War, to be published by W.W. Norton.
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