Our Dangerous Cold War Nostalgia

Steve Chapman

11/8/2009 12:01:00 AM - Steve Chapman

Communism was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, and one of the greatest in human history. Twenty years ago, suddenly and improbably, it fell into its death throes.

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The end began the night of Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was opened, allowing East Germans to leave the prison that constituted their country. Throughout Eastern Europe, one Communist regime after another disintegrated. Within two years, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was not only out of power but banned by law. A system soaked in the blood of millions was gone.

It was the most dramatic, life-affirming and miraculous event of our time. And for those of us in the West, it is one from which we have yet to recover.

The Cold War was often grim and scary. For four decades, we had to maintain vast defenses against a numerically superior enemy that threatened the freedom of our allies and, by extension, ourselves. We lived with the daily reality that, with the push of a button in the Kremlin, we would all be dead in half an hour.

But the "long twilight struggle," as John F. Kennedy called it, was also inspiring. It gave us a purpose greater than ourselves. In those days, most Americans understood it was our national duty to prevent the spread of the most malignant force on earth, lest it enslave us all.

That may sound absurd to anyone who has grown up since 1989. But there were serious people who feared the worst. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thought that in the 1970s, the West was "slowly but surely losing."

Our unequivocal victory brought joy, but it also created something else: a void in our lives. If upholding freedom and democracy against a global enemy was not our purpose, what was?

In his 1989 essay, "The End of History?" published in The National Interest, Francis Fukuyama celebrated the triumph of liberal democracy over communism. But he feared "centuries of boredom" once the "worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism" was replaced by such dull fare as "the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands."

The end of the Cold War left us searching for something to match its gravity, drama and urgency. Unfortunately, some people have managed to find it.

For conservatives, it has been the war against terrorism. There was terrorism during the Cold War, but we regarded it as a lethal but limited nuisance. After 9/11, though, President Bush said our task was nothing less than to "rid the world of evil."

Before long, he persuaded himself and the country that the effort demanded the invasion of Iraq. The dangers Saddam Hussein and his kind presented, Bush told Czech students, were "just as dangerous as those perils that your fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers faced." That fantasy led us into tragic folly.

The right has also had trouble shaking the fear of totalitarianism. Lacking the specter of Soviet tyrants, they have found a suitable replacement in Barack Obama, who is routinely, and ridiculously, compared to Stalin and Mao.

Liberals are likewise susceptible to extravagant dread spawned by misplaced nostalgia. For many of them, the darkest time of the Cold War was the McCarthy era, when anti-communist fevers spawned abuses of power and persecution of the innocent. The left has spent the past eight years denouncing a new wave of domestic repression that, in reality, never materialized.

It's no coincidence that the film "Good Night, and Good Luck," about CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow's brave stand against Sen. Joseph McCarthy, came out in 2005. Director George Clooney said it was highly relevant to the present: "We do this every 30 or 40 years; we just sort of, you know, go crazy."

But in the realm of civil liberties the Bush administration, though it often went wrong, did not go crazy. Dissenters were not ruined or jailed. Muslims were not herded en masse into internment camps. While there were instances of indefensible overreaching, there was no reign of terror on the home front.

In reality, we are never likely to face anything comparable to the perils and fears that hung over our heads during the Cold War, and for that we should be immensely grateful. Once was enough. Wasn't it?