Learning the Wrong Lessons of the Cold War - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Learning the Wrong Lessons of the Cold War

Two professors — one from Yale University and the other from Renmin University of China — urge policymakers in Washington and Beijing to learn the “right lessons” from Cold War history in a new article on the Foreign Affairs website. Those lessons, explain Odd Arne Westad and Li Chen, include increasing communication and cooperation, avoiding the overemphasis of the aggressive intentions of the other, achieving a “basic level of trust when it comes to the other side’s actions,” pursuing “personal diplomacy … to convey respect of the other side as a great power,” discarding “harsh public remarks,” relying on “crisis management” to avoid conflict, and making the most of opportunities for “incremental improvement in great-power relations.” In other words, detente.

The authors begin by quoting a February 1961 letter that the new U.S. President John F. Kennedy wrote to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in which he proposed “more use of diplomatic channels … as a mechanism of communication which should … help to eliminate misunderstanding and unnecessary divergencies” in the U.S.–Soviet relationship. “Kennedy’s approach back then,” the two historians opine, “helped save the peace, even during some of the darkest moments of the Cold War.” Perhaps the authors have not read historian Michael Beschloss’ The Crisis Years, which put to rest for all but the most fervent Kennedy worshipers the myth of Kennedy as a masterful, prudent, and wise diplomat and foreign policy leader — a myth propagated, popularized, and perpetuated by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and other Kennedy court-historians. It was Kennedy, after all, who promoted the false “missile gap” as a political weapon during the 1960 campaign; who plunged recklessly into the Bay of Pigs fiasco; whose weakness at the Vienna summit practically invited the Berlin crisis, according to Frederick Kempe’s best-selling work of history; who took the first timid steps to escalate U.S. military involvement in Vietnam; and who publicly abandoned the Monroe Doctrine and secretly traded U.S. Jupiter missiles in exchange for Soviet removal of nuclear missiles from Cuba in what British historian Paul Johnson described as “an American defeat: the worst it had so far suffered in the Cold War.” So much for urging great power statesmen to follow Kennedy’s approach.

Westad and Li accuse both the United States and the Soviet Union of overemphasizing the aggressive intentions of the other to justify massive military buildups. The U.S., they write, “militarized” its Cold War strategy as a result of the Korean War, which they view as a “strategic misunderstanding” of Soviet intentions. But we know that Stalin and Mao not only encouraged the North Korean invasion of the South but also provided troops and supplies to the communist effort throughout the war. And how about this sentence in the article: “Beijing, in turn, thought intervention in Korea was essential to its own survival after the United States sent naval forces into Taiwan Strait and its troops crossed the 38th parallel”? The authors might want to read Attack at Chosin by historian Xiaobing Li, who teaches at the University of Central Oklahoma and who once served in China’s armed forces. Using Chinese sources, Xiaobing Li revealed that Chinese soldiers — more than 35,000 — fought with North Korean forces at the outset of the war, long before U.S. forces neared, let alone crossed, the 38th parallel. And President Truman’s dispatch of the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait did not put China’s survival at risk but did interrupt China’s planned invasion of Taiwan.

The authors write that during the Cold War “the potential for incremental improvement in great-power relations was often neglected in favor of the pursuit of fundamental changes.” There is no doubt that the Soviet Union pursued policies that sought to extend communist rule throughout much of the world by means of external aggression and internal subversion. But until the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the United States did not pursue “fundamental changes” within the Soviet Empire, even when opportunities arose in East Germany in 1953, Hungary and Poland in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Instead, American foreign policy hewed to the passive dictates of containment, which James Burnham in Suicide of the West aptly described as effectively dividing the world into the “zone of peace” (controlled by communists and off limits to U.S. intervention) and the “zone of war” (nations not yet subjected to communist rule). Reagan abandoned containment, implemented a policy of what Burnham called “liberation,” and won the Cold War (aided by Harvard historian Richard Pipes, who for a time served on Reagan’s NSC and helped draft key NSC documents that called for exploiting Soviet vulnerabilities and undermining Soviet power in Eastern Europe). Both Paul Kengor on the right (in his masterful book The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism) and John Patrick Diggins on the left (in his equally brilliant Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History) credit Reagan’s approach to the Cold War for achieving victory and liberating half a continent from communist rule.

The authors, however, praise the “era of detente,” during which they claim the United States and Soviet Union “managed to achieve a basic level of trust.” But it was during detente that the Soviets helped the North Vietnamese defeat the United States in Southeast Asia; it was during detente that the Soviets temporarily achieved a strategic “first-strike capability” that threatened the survival of U.S. land-based ICBMs (even President Jimmy Carter’s defense secretary lamented that “when we build, they build; when we cut, they build”); it was during detente that the Soviet Union went on the geopolitical offensive in parts of the underdeveloped world; and it was during detente that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev publicly announced the “Brezhnev Doctrine” that confirmed that the Soviets approached the Cold War just as Burnham said they did in his zone of peace/zone of war analysis.

Li and Westad want the United States to replicate the policy of detente — this time with the Chinese Communist Party. That is the essence of what they view as the “right lessons” learned from the Cold War. But as perhaps the greatest historian of the Cold War John Lewis Gaddis wrote in Strategies of Containment (revised and updated in 2005), Reagan succeeded in winning the Cold War because “he understood the extent to which detente was perpetuating the Cold War rather than hastening its end.” It was Reagan’s hard line, Gaddis explained, that “strained the Soviet system at the moment of its maximum weakness.” (READ MORE: The New Nuclear Arms Race)

Li and Westad conclude their article by urging policymakers to learn from history — “and from the historians who know it best.” Apparently the lessons you learn will depend on the historians and scholars you choose to read. And since Li Chen works for a university that is funded by, and whose charter commits it to be loyal to, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he essentially works for one side in the new Cold War. It is not clear that the editors of Foreign Affairs or Odd Arne Westad appreciate the significance of that fact. What is abundantly clear is that Westad, if not Li, has learned the wrong lessons from the Cold War.

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