The Greatest Cold War Myth of All

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"We look back to that era now, and we long for a -- I even made a crack the other day. I said, 'Gosh, I miss the cold war.' It was a joke, I mean, I don't really miss it, but you get the joke."

-- President Clinton, interview with the Washington Post, Oct. 15, 1993

It is not really a joke. It is an alibi. When the Clinton Administration runs into trouble abroad -- debacle in Somalia, humiliation in Haiti, dithering over Bosnia -- it likes to preface its list of extenuations with: Of course, we no longer have the easy divisions of the cold war to make things clear and crisp and simple. Things are so much harder now.

So clear and crisp and simple? Curious. During the cold war, especially during its last two decades, liberals claimed that things were not so simple, that only ideologues and dimwits -- Ronald Reagan, for example -- insisted on seeing the world through the prism of the cold war.

Now they tell us how clear and clarifying it was. "We had an intellectually coherent thing," said Clinton of the cold war era. "The American people knew what the rules were and when we did whatever." How about when we did Vietnam? Vietnam, fought under the theory of containment enunciated first by Harry Truman in 1947, was the quintessential cold war engagement. It was also the most divisive.

At the time, Bill Clinton called it "a war I opposed and despised with a depth of feeling I have reserved solely for racism in America." Yet it was prosecuted by two successive Administrations. In the 1972 election, the winner by landslide was Richard Nixon, war President. Same war. Clinton had a clarity of vision about the war no less certain than Nixon's -- only diametrically opposed.

Vietnam rent the nation because it presented the basic dilemmas of the cold war period: Was containment the paramount American foreign policy goal? Was it worth the risk of military intervention? Where? At what cost? There were no easy answers. There was certainly none of the unanimity that nostalgics now pretend there was.

To hear the blather about cold war consensus, one would think that the '80s never happened. At every turn, on every issue for which there presumably was one simple, knee-jerk, anti-Soviet answer -- the MX, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada, "Euromissile" deployment -- there was deep division. And practically every time, liberals, so wistful now for the easy choices of yore, made the wrong choice.

In the late '70s, for example, the Soviets aggressively deployed medium- range Euromissiles designed to intimidate and neutralize Western Europe. It was a clear-cut challenge. The correct response was equally clear-cut: a NATO counterdeployment of comparable medium-range missiles.

Reagan and Thatcher and Kohl pulled it off. But not without enormous resistance from Western liberals and leftists. In America the resistance took the form of a nuclear-freeze movement that would have frozen Soviet missiles in place and frozen NATO's out.

Where were the Democrats on this one? They forced a nuclear-freeze resolution through the House of Representatives, 278 to 149. Their central idea -- if one can speak of a hysteria in terms of ideas -- was that Reagan was blinded by his cold war anti-Sovietism. The real enemy, they insisted, was not communism but the nuclear weapons themselves.

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