Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

I learned of a new author, Andrew Alexander, the same year he died. I came across him because of a book he wrote on the Cold War, America and the Imperialism of Ignorance: How America Won the War and Lost the Peace – US Foreign Policy Since 1945. I’ll add that book to my reading list for all Americans, even if Oprah doesn’t include it in her book club list.

Alexander was highly critical of Cold War policies and propaganda (and its continuing influence), having seen it as some combination of ignorance and delusion. But he was no radical activist, academic revisionist, or dogmatic ideologue trying to defend left-wing politics. Besides being a respectable editor, journalist and columnist for The Daily Mail, he was a Tory conservative (and once a Conservative candidate), Thatcher neoliberal, right-wing British patriot, and hardline anti-communist. As Simon Jenkins at the Guardian puts it, “No one could possibly call him leftwing, let alone a pacifist appeaser. He has no illusions about the evil of Stalin or Mao, any more than he has about Saddam and al-Qaida.” David Duff, in an Al Aribaya News article, states it simply when he calls Alexander “a crusty Tory of the old school.”

Alexander’s social circle included many in the British political and economic elite. He wasn’t some nobody attacking his perceived superiors in hoping to make a name for himself. His career has been well established for a long time. His is not an angry commentary from an outsider, but a set of long considered concerns directed toward his own ideological peers and associates. He makes this clear in the dedication to his book: “To my numerous friends in the Conservative Party whose relentless belief remains to this day that the Cold war arose from the aggressive ambitions of the Kremlin, thwarted by the bold response of our American friends. Their refusal to contemplate any other explanation has spurred me on in this, my survey of US foreign policy over the last sixty-five years.” His book was an offering to friends, not an attack against enemies. It was his love of country that made him take this issue so seriously, as he worried about the costs wasted and damages done.

It is interesting to read the views of someone like him. It is hard to imagine a conservative of that variety in the mainstream media of the United States. From a Guardian article more than a decade old, he offered this gem (The Soviet threat was a myth):

“One can, of course, understand why few in the west want the orthodox view overturned. If that were to happen, the whole edifice of postwar politics would crumble. Could it be that the heavy burden of postwar rearmament was unnecessary, that the transatlantic alliance actually imperilled rather than saved us? Could it be that the world teetered on the verge of annihilation because post-war western leaders, particularly in Washington, lacked imagination, intelligence and understanding? The gloomy answer is yes.”

That is a damning conclusion, especially considering it comes from a conservative. To give some perspective, here is a passage from his book’s first chapter, The Flawed Cold War Orthodoxy (Kindle Locations 137-154):

“A wider look at history shows that a strongly interventionist US foreign policy is nothing new – though the current power to intervene globally is. A century ago, an American incomprehension of the outside world was exemplified by President Woodrow Wilson, so determined to remake countries in the American image after the First World War. His mixture of benevolence and ruthlessness may be summed up in a dispute with Mexico in 1913, when he announced ‘I will teach the Latin-Americans to elect good men’ followed by bombarding the town of Vera Cruz. His gunboat diplomacy intensified such feelings of nationalism and anti-Americanism that Germany hoped to make Mexico an ally in an attack on the USA in 1917 – famously exposed in the Zimmermann telegram, decoded by London.

“In 1945, the USA dedicated itself in Wilsonian language to bringing ‘democracy and freedom’ to the countries occupied by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War. The goal was high-minded. But there was a puzzling refusal to acknowledge the Soviet claim that two invasions by Germany in twenty-seven years made the firm control of Eastern Europe essential to Russian security. Truman insisted on seeing the Soviets as the determinedly expansionist enemy of the free world almost from the day he assumed office. They were, he said, ‘planning world conquest’.2

“The United States over which he presided had emerged from the Second World War with a military and economic supremacy unparalleled in history. Of the three powers which defeated the Axis alliance, the USA was unique in ending the war wealthier than when it began. By contrast, Britain’s income was down by a third with much of its overseas assets sold to buy armaments from the USA. In the case of Russia, which had been responsible for destroying the vast bulk of Hitler’s forces, the loss of income was immeasurable. Soviet statistics, always dubious, have never provided a wholly reliable picture of national income. But the scale of the devastation, involving at least twenty-two million and possibly twenty-seven million military and civilian deaths, speaks for itself.

“There was in fact no evidence in 1945 that the Soviet Union had a sinister plan to conquer the West. The threat perceived by Truman and others was imaginary – though no less powerful for that – stoked up by years of fearing the deadly spread of Communism.”

Alexander is able to write with such authority because he has gone to the direct words of Stalin and others. Mining records that weren’t available to earlier historians and journalists, his writings on the Cold War includes many telling quotes. What becomes clear is that Stalin was simply another nationalist despot with nationalist concerns. He worried about his own power and position, and of course he took seriously his role as leader of the country he ruled. He was a Russian nationalist, not an ideological communist and Trotsky internationalist (Stalin, by the way, assassinated Trotsky). Alexander states this in no uncertain terms (Kindle Locations 195-202):

“Given the German invasions, it would not have mattered whether the government in Moscow had been Communist, Tsarist or Social Democrat. It would still have insisted on firm control of these countries through which invasion had come; and bound to regard with deep suspicion any attempts to prevent it. In any case, Moscow could never forget that it was British and French policy in the interwar years to make Eastern Europe a barrier against the Soviet Union, even to consider – crucially – allowing Hitler a free hand against Russia. Colonel, later President, de Gaulle noted that even after the start of the Second World War:

“Certain circles saw the enemy in Stalin rather than Hitler. They busied themselves with finding means of striking Russia, either by aiding Finland or bombarding Baku or landing at Istanbul, much more than in coming to grips with Hitler.”

There is an intriguing insight about Stalin and non-Russian revolutions. Alexander explains that (Kindle Locations 161-165):

“Stalin’s attitude to the so-called world proletarian revolution is essential to understanding his personal and political motivation. He was, like the despot throughout the ages, principally concerned with his own survival rather than with ideological issues. He abandoned the grand global ambition of the world proletarian revolution in 1924 when he proclaimed that, henceforth, the aim was to be ‘socialism in one country’. To believe that he remained at all times a devout ideologue is to misread his character.”

One suspects those who saw Stalin as an ideologue were maybe projecting their own dogmatic tendencies. These Western ruling elites wanted an ideological war, whether or not Stalin wished to participate. “The determination of the West to see every Soviet move as explicable in terms of the pursuit of the world proletarian revolution provides one of history’s great ironies: the West took Communist doctrine more seriously than Stalin” (Kindle Locations 180-181). These ideologues were eventually able to force the hand of the Soviets to join this game of ideological battle, as they insisted on goading the Soviet government into aggression. In discussing the “European powers’ readiness to follow the American lead,” Alexander makes the point that “ironically…” (Kindle Locations 114-121),

“the launch of the Cold War by the USA did in due course bring into existence the very danger which had been imagined. It made frantic defence measures seem sensible. Threatened by President Truman, Russia responded by a vigorous programme of rearmament and an even tighter clampdown on Eastern Europe. With the refusal of the USA to respond to peace initiatives launched by the Soviet leadership on the death of Stalin in 1953, the Kremlin fought back under the new and more assertive leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. American and Western power in general was challenged wherever it could be found. It became rational to talk of a Communist threat and of the danger of a Soviet Union with a nuclear armoury. What was inaccurate was the assumption that a new military threat had come into being when the wartime allies finally came face to face in Germany.”

I sometimes find myself talking about the Cold War. I’m on the tail end of the Cold War generations, when that era was winding down. It’s just a childhood memory to me, mostly as portrayed in the fictionalized accounts of Hollywood movies and tv shows. I sense how different older Americans often respond to Cold War history. What to me just seems like propaganda to many who are older seems tangibly real. The ideological terms of capitalism versus communism so fully define and determine their sense of reality.

I found it interesting that even the Soviets talked about defending freedom and democracy from American greed, immorality, and destructiveness. Both sides were often making similar arguments. I’ve come to the conclusion that it never was about ideology. You can see evidence of that in how easily formerly communist Russia and Maoist China have come to embrace variants of capitalism.

It seems to me that the greatest threat to the United States has always been fascism, not communism. You can also see the evidence of that in how easily this country has taken on forms of crony capitalism, corporatism, and inverted totalitarianism. But it isn’t an ideological issue, per se. It is partly just about power and in the US power has always been tied up with capitalism, not any opposing ideologies. Even the most left-wing progressivism in the US merely sought to reform capitalism and did so to protect against anything further left.

Plus, I see the cultural angle being so much more important. That is seen with Stalin. He was a Russian nationalist, first and foremost, through and through. The United States has never been an ethnically homogeneous country like any of the communist countries or, for that matter, any of the traditionally fascist countries. Diversity has been a great protection for the US against the worst forms of authoritarian takeover.

In terms of Russia and Eastern Europe, there was never much of an issue, since only a small part of America’s population comes from that part of the world. The main reason fascism was a threat in this country wasn’t even the dominance of plutocratic capitalism, but because so many Americans came from countries that became fascist. Many German-Americans, the single largest ancestry in the US, proudly marched in the streets carrying flags and banners with the swastika. The characteristics of the American people that resonated with fascism were cultural rather than ideological. Even ignoring ancestry and issues of national loyalty, this resonance included America’s populist folk religiosity, a defining feature of fascism and quite opposite of official communist ideology. The same social and political forces that brought fascism to Europe also brought the German Bund and Second Klan to America.

Yet we go on arguing about ideology. It never was about ideology. It still isn’t. So many ideological debates ring hollow. Like the Cold War, the culture wars were simply a spectacle of distraction. Most Americans agree about most things. There is no grand ideological conflict in America, although there is a class war between the economic elite and everyone else (Joe Bageant made the argument that 60-70% of Americans are actually working class, those with little economic freedom and self-determination), but a class war in raw form is still not directly an issue of ideology. There certainly isn’t any threat of communist takeover. Even Bernie Sanders is simply a moderate mainstream social democrat and not a radical dogmatic ideologue.

I doubt the ideological Cold War will end until the last person with living memory of that era has left this earth. It has been such a powerful force in ruling over our collective psyche, strangling our ability to imagine anything else. We can only hope that with historical distance its grip will loosen and its influence fade.

5 thoughts on “Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

  1. I must admit that my views had been leaning in this direction long before having come across this book. But Alexander was able to put my thoughts in a larger perspective, something I always appreciate. He is a good guide to this area of global politics and history.

    My knowledge and understanding of the Cold War has been limited. Most of those older than me are too caught up in ideology to think straight. Most of those younger than me are too uninformed and indifferent to have much opinion, beyond vague opinions, often ideologically driven as well. My own upbringing puts me on the cusp of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, which has left me feeling confused and ambiguous about it all.

    I always sensed I wasn’t getting the full picture. That is the one advantage my generation had. We got a clear sense of the power of propaganda, with just enough personal distance to hold it at arms length, at least for some of us. Anyone younger than me simply can’t comprehend how all-consuming was the Cold War worldview. Even in the form of late Cold War fiction, it ruled the imagination of the American mind.

    Maybe that is why a British perspective was helpful. Plus, I’ve always been fond of a certain no-nonsense Tory attitude. Alexander was highly critical of Reagan, which is interesting as he praised Thatcher. An even more malcontented Tory was Henry Fairlie, another one of Reagan’s detractors. Somehow Tory views at times can come off sounding like liberalism when responding to the reactionary right-wing nature of American politics.

  2. I was thinking about why this confusion was so prevalent. It probably wasn’t just ideological ignorance and obtuseness on the part of Westerners. The incomprehension was surely mutual.

    During the 19th century, every major power in the world was an ethno-nationalistic empire. Everyone understood that the battle lines were drawn on cultural divides. That had begun to change with the rise of the multicultural former colonial states.

    A country like the US had to find a new means of uniting a country when ethnic homogeneity was lacking. But the seed of this was planted during the revolution, when ideology came to the forefront. The American Revolution could be seen as the first battle between the newly forming ideological nation-state and an old ethno-nationalistic empire, as some of the American colonies lacked WASP majorities. The US, once it was founded, didn’t take long to show its own imperialistic tendencies in expansionism, even if it wouldn’t gain the full power to act on it until the 20th century.

    The Cold War was maybe a continuation of this centuries old conflict. Russia hadn’t ethnically changed much since its own imperial era. It remained a culturally insular country. It would have been surprising if a Russian despot like Stalin had acted differently than any Russian despot had ever acted. Stalin simply wanted the Russian empire back, that old ethno-nationalist project. He had no interest in ruling over Western Europe or any other part of the world, since only Eastern Europe was the only part of the world that either had military or cultural significance for defense of the Russian ethno-nationalist project.

    Someone like Hitler was a bit different. Germanic culture was more widely influential and widespread. All of Western Europe and Anglo-America were Germanicized, ever since the Germanic tribes swept across the Western world. Germans could easily sense the cultural familiarity of the countries they sought to take over. That wasn’t the case with the Russians, who had spent their history fighting against Western influence, from Napoleanic Wars to World Wars. Expansionism was in the cultural mindset of Westerners in a way it wasn’t in the Russian mindset, at least in terms of Europe.

    The US brought the Western worldview to its furthest extreme of cultural imperialism and ideological expansionism. As a multicultural immigrant country, the US saw all or at least much of the world as part of its cultural territory. That had its origins in the British empire, but it took the American experiment to bring it to fruition.

    Americans in particular and Westerners in general couldn’t understand a country like Russia and its old ethno-nationalistic imperial aspirations. And undoubtedly Russians couldn’t understand a country like the US, where political and economic ideology had replaced traditional ethnic culture. The Cold War was nothing more than this mutual incomprehension.

    • American and Western leaders could only understand someone like Stalin through their own biases. They projected Western aspirations onto him. They assumed that he would attempt to do what they themselves would want to do in his position. They simply couldn’t believe that his imagination could be so limited as to merely want to rule Russia and control the border countries around Russia.

      Certainly, American leaders had bigger dreams than that in wanting to rule the world. Those American leaders needed Stalin and the Soviets to be scarier than they were in order to justify America’s own scary vision of global power. The American ruling elite assumed someone had to rule the world. It never occurred to multicultural and multinational Americans that ethnic nation-states and cultural regions could be left to rule themselves.

      How dare the Russians try to control their old imperial territories of Northern and Eastern Europe! Even as the Americans sought to reclaim the imperial territorial might and global aspirations of their British forebears. Everyone must be forced to trade with the US and under terms favorable to the US. No national economy should be allowed to be independent or control its own trade routes, besides of course the US.

  3. yeah, it suddenly showed up again, didn’t it, the Cold War? Like the Reagan/Gorby thing was nothing but a photo op. It’s East VS West, as always, sort of, right? But also, in the sense, that Oriental means ancient. (Joseph Campbell counted Egypt as Orient and never Occident because of it’s relative geographic isolation from Asia and Europe and and its society stayed ancient world right up to and possibly beyond classical times, God-Kings and whatnot . . . ) It’s east VS West and modern VS ancient . . . I’m sure you’re right, if it wasn’t Left VS Right it would have been something else.

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