Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Redditor Cenodoxus explains how the Cold War era of Communist fear compares to Americas 'War on Terror.'

Saving this for posterity

Nothing is so irretrievably lost to a society as the sense of fear it felt about a grave danger that was subsequently coped with. -- George Will.
Reddit's demographic skews young, and people here don't often have the experience to be able to compare the modern "war on terror" to the "war on communism." The truth of the matter is that the war on terror is largely a peripheral concern in the United States, to a degree that Americans between, say, 1950 and 1989 would have loved to have. (As an aside, this is not to say that terrorism wasn't happening during the exact same period -- airplane hijackings in particular were relatively common during this forty-year period, and the thought process that developed on how to handle them played its own sad role on 9/11 -- just that it didn't filter to American cultural consciousness in a way that the "Soviet threat" did.) Yes, you see it on the nightly news, and yes, comedians make jokes about it and it informs both public and foreign policy -- but not to anywhere near the extent that communism did.
What the Americans saw: The USSR was, for at least a portion of its history, an aggressively expansionist and often foul-tempered entity with a largely opaque political process, a history of "disappearing" dissidents, and a united cadre of communist nations to back it up. Or at least, that was the American political establishment's experience with it. With the opening of the Soviet archives, we know a lot more now about the disagreements and infighting behind the scenes, and that what we thought of as being an unstoppable and belligerent empire was anything but. The Soviets didn't really want to go to war any more than we did (of course, exceptions existed on both sides), and each nation thought of the other as having all its ducks in a row and a united set of allies. Nope. Disagreements between the Soviets and Chinese over what to do about North Korea are pretty representative of stuff the Americans didn't know. It turns out the Soviets were no fools about what Kim il-Sung was up to and that they spent a lot of time trying to rein the crazy in. It didn't work and they sorely regretted having put him (and others around the world) in power, in much the same way that the Americans came to regret having supported their own batch of crazies in the interests of countering communism.
Not as crazy as it looks: This all looks insane with the benefit of 20+ years' worth of hindsight, but -- the more you study the era and how politicians on both side acted and why they did, the more you start to understand that, given the insanity of the time itself, just about all parties involved were actually behaving pretty rationally. The Soviets and Americans both behaved in a manner that made perfect sense for how their nations saw the world and their place in it. Or, to put it another way, look at the game theory governing mutual assured destruction. The idea of mass war with nuclear weapons is insane, but how people thought through it, and in essence, designed a system to prevent it, was actually pretty smart. Also smart was how quickly people on both sides recognized that the world was changing. I love to cite this article from 1989 as an example of the almost creepy prescience with which the U.S. military accurately predicted what it'd be doing today.
The Cold War's effect on the American perspective:
  • Think about a forty year national nightmare with Soviet spies in the American nuclear program, nuclear weapons being moved to Cuba and within easy range of the continental United States (probably the closest the two countries came to all-out war before Khrushchev blinked), the "space race," and dick-swinging contests over Olympic athletes and scientific and cultural accomplishments.
  • Think about Dead Hand and the rivers of ink spilled by commenters, academics, and polemicists for forty years about the potential for a Soviet-American War and what it would look like.
  • Think about the German army's bald admission that it existed largely for the purpose of slowing the Soviet tank advance in the event of an invasion of western Europe.
It was something rather more all-consuming than the current "war on terror." The modern CIA owes its existence to the USSR, as do generations of American politicians and policymakers. Condoleeza Rice, for example, is fluent in Russian, as are many in the State Department around her age. There's been a mass scramble to reorient the CIA around Chinese, Dari, Pashto, and Arabic lately. Hint, hint.
The world as a whole is safer and less violent than it's ever been, to a degree I think very few people truly appreciate. And if you want my honest opinion, future historians will see the modern "war on terror" as an inevitable development of the post-colonial world. They, too, will be writing in a period where that threat has passed and people are largely insensible to why it informed politics and culture the way it did. We are already starting to forget why the Cold War was as scary as it was.

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