The past harbors an abundance of truths. Historians mine the past to unearth truths relevant to their own age, discarding others that have lost their capacity to illuminate or explain. In so doing, historians challenge conventions, discomfit the comfortable, and annoy those who have a vested interest in preserving old verities. This is their essential function. If they fail to perform it, history becomes indistinguishable from antiquarianism.
When it comes to understanding America’s role in the world today, the obstacles complicating the search for relevant historical truth are especially formidable. Because the received wisdom about U.S. foreign policy—the triumphal narrative of liberal internationalism—has lodged itself so deeply in the nation’s collective psyche, gatekeepers of respectable opinion tend to view any departure from that narrative as tantamount to civic heresy. And because pursuit of the liberal internationalist project—a preeminent America exercising “global leadership”—suits the interests and ambitions of the interlocking elites that dominate the precincts of power, to question the wisdom of that project is inevitably to elicit harsh denunciation or ridicule from on high.
Yet events since the end of the Cold War, culminating in the catastrophe of September 11 and in the ensuing, amorphous, but expanding “war on terror,” suggest a compelling need to reexamine the events through which the United States emerged as Number One. If, as the nation’s leaders warn incessantly, last year’s attack on New York and Washington was only the first sip from a cup out of which Americans can expect to drink deeply, then perhaps we ought to consider how we came to grasp this particular chalice in the first place.
It is in this regard that Derek Leebaert’s reassessment of the Cold War is an especially timely and welcome contribution. Overly long, at times overwrought, and laced with inconsistencies and quirky judgments, this is by no means a perfect book. But its virtues easily outweigh its flaws. The Fifty-Year Wound is bold, challenging, and unfailingly provocative. Its publication also stands as a tribute to its author’s considerable courage.
Eschewing both the crabbed isolationism of the Old Right and the anti-American inanities of the New Left, Leebaert offers a fresh, warts-and-all perspective on the postwar decades during which the United States secured its present status as the sole superpower. In essence, The Fifty-Year Wound subverts the sanitized version of the Cold War that has gained widespread acceptance since 1989. In so doing, it offers readers new truths that bear directly on the situation that the United States faces today.
It is emphatically not Leebaert’s purpose either to minimize the evil of totalitarianism or to question the imperative of resisting its spread after World War II. He readily accepts the fact that the Cold War needed to be fought and needed to be won. But how much did victory cost? And to what extent were those expenditures necessary and justified?
To answer those questions, Leebaert undertakes a grand inventory of U.S. actions during the Cold War, cataloguing instances of ignorance, waste, recklessness, opportunism, venality, and a “moral sinuosity” that found American officials employing the most sordid means to achieve ends noble and otherwise. All of these lapses, he finds, flourished on a scale that can only be described as lavish. As a result, individuals and institutions ostensibly committed to defending democracy managed, in the name of “national security,” to do that democracy grave, perhaps irreparable, harm.
Looking beyond specific political, economic, and moral costs, the way that the United States chose to wage the Cold War—above all its penchant for meddling in far-off places—exacted a human toll as well. This too Leebaert tallies with painstaking specificity. Measured in American lives lost and American families shattered, that toll was severe. It becomes larger still when taking into account the “friends”—Kurds, Montagnards, Hmongs—that the United States casually abandoned to their fate when no longer useful. It becomes positively immense when considering the populations that suffered under the boot of corrupt and oppressive dictators with whom successive administrations—every one declaring America’s fealty to liberal principles—found it expedient to make common cause.
With presidents from Harry Truman onward designating security the overriding national priority, the federal government during the Cold War raised up (or greatly enlarged) a host of agencies. All of them—DOD, NSC, JCS, AEC, NSA, FBI, and so on—justified their existence and their claim to the nation’s resources based on their role in preserving freedom. Yet in short order each could be found avidly pursuing its own parochial agenda even if that meant compromising freedom and disregarding the rule of law. Each seemed to expend as much energy protecting its own prerogatives and budget share from cross-town poachers as it did in attempting the thwart the machinations of the Soviet Union. Each gave birth to its own cadre of inbred, self-perpetuating bureaucrats, who, Leebaert observes, came to view the Cold War as a trellis on which they could grow careers.
To each of these institutional leviathans Leebaert devotes suitable attention. But he singles out for special consideration the Central Intelligence Agency: the ultimate expression of Cold-War-induced dysfunction and excess. In savage detail he recounts the Agency’s repeated failures of analysis and operational blunders with even ostensible “successes” such as Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s and Afghanistan in the 1980s ultimately bearing bitter fruit. He indicts the Agency for its profound arrogance, its persistent lack of accountability, and its resistance to reform or effective oversight and finds all sadly affirmed by 9/11 and events since.
Why then throughout the Cold War (and again today) did Congress so willingly shovel vast sums of money at the CIA and the various other components of the national security establishment? And why did the electorate so readily acquiesce in such misuse of the nation’s treasure? Leebaert speculates that it was because, beginning in the 1940s, Americans fell into the habit of “hand[ing] responsibility over to the experts of war and science.”
This habit may turn out to be the heaviest, or at least the most enduring, price of all. In Cold War America, the idea took hold that the people were incompetent. Certain topics—nuclear strategy, for example—simply lay beyond their ken. Other sensitive matters, it was said, needed to be kept hidden away from prying eyes, including those of the American public. Such issues were best left to specialists, mostly self-anointed and typically unelected, but all supposedly possessing unique knowledge and insights and motivated by the purest of patriotic sentiments.
Leebaert is at his most effective in exposing such claims as hollow. He shows how the experts—starting with George Kennan, the Cold War’s senior-ranking Wise Man—got too many things dead wrong. Furthermore, he shows that ostensibly expert judgments all too often derived less from carefully reasoned analysis than from raw prejudice, wild misperception, and groupthink.
Whether these privileged insiders in whom Americans placed their trust were more interested in sound public policy or in greasing the revolving door between the upper echelons of government and the lucrative worlds of consulting, lobbying, and corporate boards is, Leebaert suggests, a tough call. But this much is certain: carried over from the Cold War, reflexive deference to a small national security elite leaves Americans today ill-equipped to think critically about U.S. policy, let alone to have anything meaningful say in its formulation.
The ongoing and apparently open-ended war on global terror makes the point. At the apex of the national security apparatus, a handful of men and women, exuding conviction and zeal, deliberate over when and how to open that war’s next front. Saddam must go, they declare. America must liberate Iraq and bestow upon it the blessings of democracy. On this point the Bush administration’s national security experts speaks with near unanimity. They call urgently for action. Meanwhile, the people, consigned to the role of passive bystanders, observe respectfully and await their instructions.
The Fifty-Year Wound offers fair warning of what awaits the United States as it prepares to plunge more deeply into the morass of the Persian Gulf and the troubled world of Islam. Intervention will have unforeseen and unintended consequences. In fixing some problems, we will create others. We will not extricate ourselves any time soon nor will we emerge with clean hands. And the price entailed will far exceed anything that we can today anticipate.”
Andrew J. Bacevich, who teaches at Boston University, is the author of American Empire, to be published this month by Harvard University Press.