Realism and Idealism - The cold war

It required no more than the postwar Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, in defiance of the Western principle of self-determination, to create doubts regarding the Kremlin's ultimate intentions. As early as 1946, anti-Soviet officials and members of Congress predicted further Soviet expansion into war torn Europe and elsewhere. Clark Clifford's September 1946 report to President Truman, reflecting the views of top U.S. officials, described a deeply threatened world. When suspected Soviet ambitions, in early 1947, seemed to focus on Greece and Turkey, the Truman administration framed the Truman Doctrine, with its corresponding rhetorical predictions of falling dominoes across Europe, Africa, or Asia, should Greece fall to the country's communist-led guerrillas. Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan accepted the administration's dire predictions uncritically. "Greece," he wrote on 12 March, "must be helped or Greece sinks permanently into the communist order. Turkey inevitably follows. Then comes the chain reaction which might sweep from the Dardanelles to the China Seas." Never before, critics noted, had U.S. leaders described external dangers in such limitless, imprecise terms. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Soviet expert George Kennan, and columnist Walter Lippmann objected to the language. Lippmann accused the administration of launching a crusade, not defining a policy.

Even as the West triumphed in all of its anti-Soviet policies during the next two years, including the creation of West Germany and the formation of NATO, U.S. fears of the Soviet Union continued to mount. The National Security Council's study NCS 7, dated 30 March 1948, defined the Kremlin's challenge in global terms. "The ultimate objective of Soviet-directed world communism," the document averred, "is the domination of the world." NCS 68, of April 1950, comprised the final and most elaborate attempt of the Truman Cold War elite to arrive at a definition of the burgeoning Soviet threat. It concluded that the Soviet Union, "unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world." What underwrote such fears was not the prospect of Soviet military expansionism; Soviet armed forces were not prepared to march anywhere. Rather, it was the fear that the Kremlin, with its alleged control of international communism, could expand endlessly, without force, merely by inciting communist revolutions. Actually, by mid-century, Europe was stabilized with a vengeance. The United States and its allies would not risk war to change the status quo on the European continent; the Soviets had no power to do so. Europe was divided, but incredibly stable.

Events in East Asia, where the United States faced two unwanted, powerfully led communist revolutions in China and Indochina, seemed to confirm the fears of Soviet expansionism. The reason is clear. Washington officials presumed, logically, that both revolutions were under Soviet control. The State Department's China experts, in a memorandum of October 1948, concluded that the Soviets had established control of China as firmly "as in the satellite countries behind the Iron Curtain." The Soviet Union, apparently, had taken over China without one conquering or occupying soldier. Dean Acheson claimed no less. "The communist leaders," he declared, "have foresworn their Chinese heritage and have publicly announced their subservience to a foreign power, Russia." Following the Chinese communist victory in late 1949, NSC 48/1 declared: "The USSR is now an Asiatic power of the first magnitude with expanding influence and interests extending throughout continental Asia and into the Pacific."

By the 1960s, much of America's predominant realism had become soft, emphasizing less the requirements of security and defense than the need of accommodation with the realities of coexistence. Convinced that previous administrations had exaggerated the Soviet threat, President Jimmy Carter set out in 1977 to establish a more relaxed, flexible, nonideological relationship with the Soviet Union and China. With the U.S. failure in Vietnam, the country could no longer maintain the illusion of global power. Carter recognized that reality by lessening the strategic importance of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Nationalism, he believed, limited Soviet as well as American influence in the Third World. In dismissing the Cold War commitment to global containment, the Carter administration accepted Soviet activity in the Afro-Asian world with profound indifference. It expected the Soviets to respond by showing strategic restraint in exploiting opportunities for adventurism created by the new burst of revolutionary turmoil across the Third World. By the mid-1970s, former Democratic liberals launched, as neoconservatives, an anticommunist crusade to reassert America's role as defender of the free world against the renewed Soviet danger. The neoconservatives found themselves aligned with the traditional Right, characterized by Republican columnists William Buckley, George Will, William Safire, and Patrick Buchanan.

Already facing open challenges to its alleged loss of will, the Carter administration reacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in late December 1979, with bewilderment and rage. National security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski warned the country that the Soviet Union now threatened American interests from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan. On 4 January, the president revealed his fears to the nation. "A Soviet-occupied Afghanistan," he declared, "threatens both Iran and Pakistan and is a stepping stone to possible control over much of the world's oil supplies…. If the Soviets…maintain their dominance over Afghanistan and then extend their control to adjacent countries, the stable, strategic and peaceful balance of the entire world will be changed."

The widespread assumptions that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan exposed south and Southwest Asia to further Soviet encroachment pushed American hawkishness to a new high. For many journalists and public officials, the Soviet invasion sounded the inauguration of another cold war. Polls as well as the reports of newspaper correspondents around the country revealed the return of an assertive, Cold War mentality.

Ronald Reagan caught the country's post-Afghan alarms at full tide, embellished them, and rode them to victory in the presidential campaign of 1980. He and the Republican Party pilloried the Carter administration for leading the country into the posture of "weakness, inconsistency, vacillation, and bluff" that enabled the Soviet Union to surpass the United States in military power. Under Reagan, the Committee on the Present Danger gained the influence that Carter had denied it; fifty-one of its members secured positions in the Reagan administration. The Reagan team determined to counter the global Soviet threat by aiding Nicaragua and El Salvador, thereby preventing the rhetorical dominoes from falling across both South America and North America.

Despite the new administration's tough rhetoric and massive expansion of the military budget, it maintained the same defense posture of previous administrations, much to the disgust of those who took the Reagan rhetoric of rollback seriously. The Reagan administration made no effort to recover the alleged losses of the Carter years in Africa and the Middle East. It accepted the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, but held the established containment lines. Indeed, what perpetuated the decades of laudable superpower coexistence was the decision of successive administrations to abjure the dictates of ideology and pursue the limited goals of containment.

The process of Soviet disintegration culminated in the collapse of the Soviet satellite empire in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the demise of the Cold War during the following year. Reagan supporters attributed the Soviet collapse to the rhetorical toughness and military buildup of the Reagan years. For Soviet experts, the communist regime's crash flowed naturally from its internal flaws, its political erosion, and its ideological rejection.

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