Archive for the ‘Cold War’ Category

What To Do With Lenin

What do you do with the body of a man who undoubtedly changed the world, but now has – we can hope – been consigned to the dust bin of history?

Upon hearing of his death in 1924, the true believers reportedly said: “Lenin is dead. Long live Lenin.”  So, they embalmed the mastermind of the Bolshevik Revolution and laid him out for all eternity in his own red granite mausoleum in Red Square just outside the Kremlin Wall in Moscow.

Now, with a new dictator in town named Putin, Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov - Lenin – has become “the dead mouse on the national living room floor” according to a delightful piece in Sunday’s New York Times by the talented Christopher Buckley. Apparently more than 50% of post-Communist Russians favor burying the old boy once and for all.

Seeing Buckley’s story reminded me of my own fleeting, but memorable encounter with Lenin. It was 1984, a time of some of the greatest tension between the Soviets and the United States. We didn’t know then that the Soviet Union was on its last legs. After all, Ronald Reagan had referred to the Communist state as “the evil empire” and tensions ran very high.

I was fortunate enough to tag along with a group of Idahoans who went to the Soviet Union for about two weeks as part of a people-to-people exchange. We were there to make a television documentary and one of the genuine highlights of the trip was time spent gathering film footage in the vast expanse of Red Square where then, as now, Russian soldiers stand guard over Lenin’s Tomb.

Not everyone gets inside the mausoleum, but somehow we did, but no photos were permitted. Apparently our Soviet minders wanted the visitors from the capitalist west to see the man from which the revolution had sprung.

I remember that a long line of gawkers snaked by Lenin’s body in single file and, in my case, both fascinated and a little creeped out at seeing the extraordinarily well  dressed (and preserved) dictator bathed in soft and flattering light. His dress shirt was an immaculate white. The French cuffs adored by gold cuff links and his necktie perfectly knotted. Lenin looked like he’d stretched out for a long afternoon nap without bothering to remove his suit jacket.

The whole visit lasted maybe 30 seconds and the well-armed Russian guards did not encourage any loitering, but obviously I still remember the cuff links and being in the presence of the body, at least, of one of the century’s most consequential figures.

Lenin’s body, indeed his tomb in Red Square where so many generations of Soviet leaders stood and watched the high stepping Red Army march by, are  today symbols of a failed and discredited system, but are still symbols of our – and Russian – history. So, do Russians bury Lenin and with him hope that a distant, but still telling part of world history is pushed underground, too?

In the French capitol Napoleon’s Tomb is a tourist attraction that political correctness seems hardly to have touched. The Corsican did, after all, try to conquer European, but is honored still as a great man of France. Even Adolf Hitler couldn’t resist a visit when he toured Paris just after the fall of France in 1940.

Robert E. Lee, arguably guilty of treason for leading a war of rebellion against the United States, is buried inside the chapel at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, the state that still celebrates his birthday as an official holiday.

What do we do with the elements of our past that no longer seem relevant or appropriate? Do we, as the Stalin regularly did, airbrush those elements from history? (Stalin, by the way, was embalmed after his death and for a while laid out next to Lenin, but that pairing didn’t last.)

Lenin has been sleeping the sleep of the old, dead Bolshevik for nearly 90 years. What Lenin did must be remembered. Perhaps Russians can remember his role in 20th Century world events without keeping his corpse on morbid display in the very heart of their capitol city.

As Buckley calls him, “Sleeping Beauty from Hell,” deserves a final resting spot, not out of mind for sure, but finally out of sight.

 

George Kennan

Diplomat, Scholar, Intellectual, American

You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard the name George F. Kennan.

If you’re under 50, didn’t fixate, as many of us did, on the daily threat of nuclear holocaust from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and have always seen Russia (aka the Soviet Union) as “the evil empire,” then George Kennan might simply be a footnote in a dusty old college international relations textbook. In one way or another Kennan touched all those issues and lived a full, complicated, fascinating and fruitful life as well.

Kennan was, at the same time, an absolutely fascinating and frustrating man; contradictions that make for the great story that Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis details – warts and all – in his superb new biography. It is a testament to Kennan, the self-taught historian, that he gave Gaddis complete access to his papers, diaries, friends and thoughts and the result is biography on a grand scale.

And it is not too grand a statement to say that Kennan was the man more than any other to define Cold War foreign policy on both sides of the great capitalist/communist divide from the 1930′s to the end of the 20th Century.

Gaddis, like Kennan in his time, is a probing and distinguished scholar of foreign policy who has produced a book that surely appeals to anyone who cares about how the world we inhabit came to be this way. But Gaddis has also written a story of the life and struggles of a man who worked his way from junior diplomat in Moscow in 1933 to become the foremost scholar of American foreign policy, a position he continued to occupy until his death in 2005 at age 101.

The Guardian newspaper wrote upon his death that few people can “claim to have changed the shape of the age they lived in,” but Kennan certainly had. “Virtually singlehandedly, he established the policy which controlled both sides of the cold war for more than 40 years.”

As Henry Kissinger noted in his New York Times review of George F. Kennan – An American Life: “The debate in America between idealism and realism, which continues to this day, played itself out inside Kennan’s soul. Though he often expressed doubt about the ability of his fellow Americans to grasp the complexity of his perceptions, he also reflected in his own person a very American ambivalence about the nature and purpose of foreign policy.”

Kennan’s personal story is every bit as interesting as his public life. Born in Milwaukee, graduate of Princeton, Kennan joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1925. He was sent to Moscow 1933 to set up the U.S. embassy when Franklin Roosevelt established diplomatic relations with the Communist regime then headed by Josef Stalin. Kennan traveled extensively, wrote brilliantly and voluminously, mastered several languages, including Russian, and by the late 1930′s was in Berlin watching the world explode.

Back in Moscow in 1946, Kennan authored his famous “long telegram” that brilliantly dissected Russian post-war aims and served as the foundation for the development of his policy of containment.

Kennan came to deeply regret that his notion of containment, basically a willingness to confront the Soviets economically, culturally and with ideas, was perverted into becoming a purely military response. The conclusion of his long telegram stressed his essential belief that U.S. democratic values would eventually win the day against Soviet communist values.

“Finally,” Kennan wrote in 1946 in words that he would repeat time and again over the next half century, “we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Kennan’s approach to diplomacy – we could have used some of his clear thinking before stumbling into Vietnam and blundering into Iraq, two military misadventures that Kennan opposed – was to understand the motivations, the history, the culture, the literature, the fears and hopes of your adversaries and then to apply that knowledge to prevent confrontation. While he admittedly became more of a cynic about politics later in his life, he came back time and again to the belief that western democracies, if they were smart and true to their ideals, could win the battle of ideas with anyone.

Gaddis has written a brilliant biography; a history of the Cold War; a book about one man’s life that illuminates the path along which we came to the world in which we live. I cannot praise this book enough.

 

What Goes Around

A Communist Under Every Bed

It is often said in politics that “what goes around comes around.” This is such a story.

In the 1940′s and 1950′s Arthur Dean was a pillar of the old East Coast Republican establishment, a leading corporate lawyer, chairman of the white shoe New York firm Sullivan & Cromwell and law partner and friend of John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower.

Dulles pressed his friend into service in the early 1950′s to negotiate an end to the Korean War. Ambassador Dean, unfortunately for him, agreed to take on that assignment where he ran headlong into the McCarthy era, and particularly Joe McCarthy’s Senate acolyte, Republican Herman Welker of Idaho.

Welker was a small-town Payette, Idaho lawyer and Idaho State Senator when he won a U.S. Senate seat in 1950. Welker arrived in the Senate at the dawn of McCarthy’s national political power and he devoted his one, six-year term to carrying McCarthy’s water, including suggesting that Arthur Dean, the very respectable and very Republican Wall Street lawyer, was “a pro-Red China” apologist.

Dean’s transgression, in the view of Herman Welker, was to suggest that the United States just might consider a more enlightened policy toward Communist China at a time when right wing, virulent anti-Communists in Congress were making almost daily headlines by demanding to know why the United States  “had lost” China to Mao Zedong.

During an interview with a Providence, Rhode Island newspaper reporter, Dean said this: “I think there is a possibility the Chinese Communists are more interested in developing themselves in China than they are in international Communism. If we could use that as a decisive method of putting a wedge between the Chinese Communists and the Soviet Union, I think we might try…”

In essence, Ambassador Dean, a Republican serving under a Republican president, was suggesting what Richard Nixon began to accomplish nearly 20 years later – a more nuanced, mature relationship with Communist China. But such talk in 1954, with Joe McCarthy identifying a Commie under ever bed and in every office at the State Department, was not only un-American, but dangerously close to displaying Communist sympathies. Welker pounced on Arthur Dean.

Dean was channeling, in Welker’s view, the views of pro-Communist elements in the U.S. State Department. As to the contention that the Chinese might be more focused on their own internal development than imposing Communism on the rest of the world, Welker dismissed the thought out of hand. “I can’t believe anything can be farther from the truth,” the Idaho Senator said.

Welker’s assault on Dean caused some weeks of discomfort for the Ambassador. He had to repeatedly deny any Communist leanings and justify what many at the time, and most today, would simply consider smart diplomacy. In short, Dean’s loyalty was questioned at a time when your blindly anti-Communist bonafides were the only litmus test for service to the American government.

The myths about “losing China” are deeply embedded in the DNA of American politics. The tangled belief that un-American activities at the highest levels of the United States government had conspired to abandon China to the Communists was the sort of political hot air that powered much of McCarthy’s demagoguery. Idaho’s Welker sang from the same song book.

But it has been Ambassador Dean’s view that has stood the test of time. With the Chinese now threatening U.S. economic leadership worldwide, China owning a huge chunk of our debt and manufacturing ship loads of the consumer goods exported to America, its very clear that the diplomat had a much better crystal ball than the Red Baiting Senator from Idaho.

It turns out the Chinese really were “more interested in developing themselves” in order to compete with us than in advancing world-wide Communism. The proof is all around. The numbers crunchers in Beijing must be sharpening their pencils in anticipation of the failure of our dysfunctional political system to find a solution to debt, spending and revenue so that they can take another great leap forward in cornering a bigger share of the world economy.

Herman Welker, McCarthy’s Senate friend and fellow Commie hunter, is mostly forgotten now; his one Senate term distinctive for nothing more than being on the wrong side of history. Welker’s attacks in the early 1950′s on Idaho Democrats like Frank Church and Glen Taylor for their alleged “radical” and “pink” politics read now like ancient, misguided history, yet some of the old myths and fears about the Communist Chinese continue even as the descendants of Mao eat our economic lunch.

Were Senators Church and Taylor still with us – both died in 1984 – they would no doubt appreciate the irony of the Idaho Republican Central Committee recently demanding an accounting of the state’s political and economic ties with China from Idaho’s Republican Gov. Butch Otter.

The Lewiston Tribune reports that the Idaho GOP resolution reads: “the stability of our form of government is being undermined by strategies used by the Chinese state-government-controlled entities through investments, corporate takeovers, intelligence operations and rare-Earth monopolization.”

Most members of the state central committee weren’t born when Herman Welker represented the state in the Senate, put they are channeling Joe McCarthy’s buddy all the same. What goes around.

The United States has rarely had a sane and sober policy when it comes to China. For years we maintained the fiction that Chiang Kai-shek and the government he established in Taiwan after losing a civil war constituted the real government of China. We squandered years on the fiction that State Department bureaucrats had “lost” China. We fought a senseless war in Southeast Asia, in part, to head off Chinese domination of Vietnam, countries that maintain an historic rivalry and have rarely made common cause.

So, perhaps the Red Chinese Scare of Joe McCarthy’s and Herman Welker’s day really is alive and well in Idaho. The only thing different now is that Republicans are questioning other Republicans about providing aid and comfort to the Communists.

By the way, Arthur Dean’s reputation has survived in substantially better shape than those of the men who blindly questioned his motives and loyalty in the 1950′s. Dean went on to served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, helped persuade Lyndon Johnson to end the bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, and donated a ton of money to Cornell University where he and his wife financed the acquisition of a remarkable collection of papers related to Lafayette and the American Revolution.

Senator Welker’s papers consist of a few large scrapbooks housed at the Idaho Historical Society and the University of Idaho. Most of the pages are covered with newspaper clippings of Welker’s 1950′s assault on Americans who had the audacity to think differently than he did about the world and its future. Some things never change.

 

A Little History

Idaho in the Age of McCarthy

Edward R. Murrow famously said of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy that he had not created the fear of Communism that swept the nation after World War II but that McCarthy “had merely exploited it, and rather successfully.” Joe McCarthy had lots of help in Idaho.

Next week the Idaho Humanities Council hosts its annual summer institute for teachers at the College of Idaho in Caldwell and Joe McCarthy is on the agenda. Nearly 40 Idaho teachers will spend the week in an intensive, multi-disciplinary look at the age that still carries the name of the junior senator from Wisconsin – McCarthyism. The Institute’s title: “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been…Fear, Suspicion and Incivility in Cold War America.”

On Tuesday evening, July 26th, I’ll have the pleasure of presenting a talk on Idaho’s politics in the early 1950′s that will focus on McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate, Idaho Sen. Herman Welker, and the Idaho politician who most suffered the guilt by association and out-and-out smears that defined much of the age, Idaho Sen. Glen Taylor.

My talk – drawing upon the nicknames of both Idaho Senators – is entitled “The Singing Senator and Little Joe from Idaho.” The event is scheduled for 7:00 pm at the College of Idaho’s Langroise Recital Hall. My talk is one of several during the week. You can check the full schedule at the IHC website.

I’m going to make the case that Welker and Taylor, a very conservative Republican and a very liberal Democrat, were the two most controversial political figures in the state’s history. They both came of age in the dawn of the Cold War and each flamed out as McCarthyism began to diminish as a political force. Between these two flamboyant men, one a rough, tough former University of Idaho athlete, the other a homespun, charismatic country music performer, the space was created that was necessary to allow the 32-year-old Frank Church to win a seat in the United States Senate and stay there for 24 years.

If you’re interested in Idaho political history and particularly how the McCarthy period in the early 1950′s influenced the political development of Idaho, you should plan to attend some of the events next week in Caldwell.

Other speakers include Nicholas Thompson, Senior editor of The New Yorker, who has written a fine book on his grandfather, Cold Warrior Paul Nitze a great foreign policy hawk, and George Kennan, one of the great figures in 20th Century American diplomacy. Thompson speaks Sunday night, July 24th.

Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History at Yeshiva University, speaks on Wednesday, July 27th. Professor Schrecker is one of the foremost historians of the Cold War period and has written extensively on McCarthy.

And Idaho native F. Ross Peterson speaks on Thursday, July 28th on McCarthy’s influence on politics across the Mountain West. Dr. Peterson is the author of a great book on Sen. Taylor.

One of the enduring lessons of the McCarthy period, a lesson we continue to struggle with as a nation, is the confusion, as Murrow so eloquently said in 1954, of dissent with disloyalty. Idaho was fertile ground for Red Baiting in the 1950′s. The charge of being “soft on Communism” or entertaining thoughts even slightly out of the mainstream could be enough to torpedo a political career. Making the charge against an opponent, on the other hand, was a proven strategy to advance a career.

The years when Joe McCarthy was a dominate figure in American politics are not among prettiest chapters of our history, but the period is one worth revisiting, understanding and evaluating in the never ending quest to create “a more perfect Union.”