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One-Way Flow

There are still a few people attempting to fight against the now-prevailing wisdom that Reagan ended the Cold War through his policies, claiming that he just had the good luck to be president when it happened. Now, of course one can never know for sure what the causes were, but I find it interesting that some people are determined to continue to attempt to prove that it wasn't Reagan's doing. I wonder why they have such a powerful emotional investment in that?

They should consider something--if there were a good case to be made for their position, then it should have persuaded many of those on the fence, and perhaps even some who originally thought that it was Reagan's doing, to change their opinion, but I don't see that happening.

From James Lileks, to Bill Whittle, Matt Welch, Roger Simon and others, many people this past week have confessed that they thought Reagan was a dunce at the time, but they've seen the light now. This kind of commentary has abounded in comments sections as well. But I haven't seen a single post or comment anywhere to the effect that someone thought Reagan was great at the time, but now they realize he was an idiot who had nothing to do with defeating the Soviet Union.

I wonder why that is?

[Update a few minutes later]

And yes, I do realize that I've just motivated them to start leaving me spurious comments with unverifiable claims about how brilliant they thought that Reagan was at the time, but that now they're older and wiser.

I point this out preemptively to make their claims all the more ridiculous, since none have appeared spontaneously heretofore.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 12, 2004 03:16 PM
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You probably won't be surprised by me saying
something here, but may as well. I was as much
of a Reagan fan as one could be at the age. I
was even a Bush I fan for a while. Heck, I was
even a huge fan of the Gulf War I. Then I grew
up. I guess when you've seen enough government
waste, stupidity, and injustice up close and
personal, you tend to start taking a real
skeptical eye toward all political figures and

So, I am a lot less impressed with Reagan now
than I was when I was a little kid. He still
might be one of the best presidents we've had
in the past century, but knowing what you
probably know about how low I esteem most of
our previous presidents this past century, you
can tell that isn't much of a complement coming
from me.

You may think I'm a loonie, but I still don't
think that our socialist military policies somehow
beat out their socialist military policies.


Posted by Jonathan Goff at June 12, 2004 05:33 PM

Jon, I'm referring to people who were of voting age at the time, not little kids. I think that when it comes to politics, you still have some growing up to do (just as you did when it came to rocketry), and you're just going through an overly cynical and hyperperfectionist phase right now.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 12, 2004 05:48 PM

There are still a few people attempting to fight against the now-prevailing wisdom that Reagan ended the Cold War through his policies, claiming that he just had the good luck to be president when it happened. Now, of course one can never know for sure what the causes were, but I find it interesting that some people are determined to continue to attempt to prove that it wasn't Reagan's doing. I wonder why they have such a powerful emotional investment in that?

Well, for starters, I'd say that these "few" people are a strong indication that you don't have concensus here. Ie, there's no "conventional wisdom" about Reagan's role in ending the Cold War. It is clear that the Cold War ended on Reagan's watch, and nuclear weapons never were used. Further, it's clear that Reagan tried in a number of ways to attack communism some which appeared to have significant effect. For example, the war in Afghanistan was measurably altered by the presence of Stinger missiles (which hindered the Soviet use of air power). Ex-Soviet officials claim that the SDI program helped bring about the end.

I can't help but wonder what would have happened if say Walter Mondale won in 1980 and served for eight years. I strongly suspect that the USSR would have fallen more or less as it did. Would those loud mouthed liberals be crediting the hypothetical fall of the USSR to the US's superior welfare and unemployment system (or some other Mondale activity)? You bet.

My point is that the role of Reagan (as well as many other parties) in the Cold War has been lost in a cloud of propaganda and self-interest emitted by both winner and loser. It is easy to say without proof that various policies of Reagan's (which you happen to favor) caused the end of the Cold War. And it's easier to say that you lost because the enemy was too strong rather than because your country was foolish enough to entrust its welfare to you.

These are myths. Sometimes myths are true or at least have a kernel of truth and this may be one of those cases.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at June 12, 2004 07:51 PM

You should read Charles Krauthammer's column on this subject. He notes that it became very popular for the left to discuss Reagan's "optimism," which is really a euphemism for "amiable dunce too stupid to know better." That way they can explain his popularity without having to admit that his his policies really did contribute to the end of the Cold War. And it also allows them to explain why Reagan seems more popular now and is given more credit than he was then.

You ask why public opinion seems to have shifted in one direction on Reagan and why fewer people have gone in the other direction. One reason for the change in elite opinion (defined as historians, scholars and other members of the over-learned class) is that several recent books on Reagan have presented him in a much better light, particularly books reprinting Reagan's own writings, such as his love letters to Nancy and his radio speeches in the late 1970s.

In particular, the collection of his radio addresses ("Reagan: In His Own Hand") demonstrate that not only did Reagan write a lot of radio addresses (about 750 of them), but that he wrote about a multitude of complex subjects. The draft versions of his radio speeches are supposedly particularly illuminating, because they show him working and reworking the phrasing and the arguments until he honed them into powerful short talks on virtually every subject in domestic and foreign policy of the day. This contrasts with the popular (liberal) perception of Reagan as "an amiable dunce" who was lazy and not too bright and did not know a lot. Looking at this substantial body of work, Reagan comes across as knowledgeable on a broad range of topics, sharp and hard-working (although he was a poor speller).

The best analogy is to Dwight Eisenhower, who was often criticised (once again by the left) as a genial doofus more interested in playing golf than running the country. But once Eisenhower's papers were declassified starting in the 1970s it became obvious that Ike was both smart and heavily involved in all of the key issues of his presidency (having studied and written about Eisenhower myself in numerous essays dealing with his space policies--see for instance my discussion of the "freedom of space" issue in the book Eye in the Sky--it is clear that he was calling the shots on policy issues).

What is more, as Fred Greenstein demonstrated in his book "The Hidden-Hand Presidency," Eisenhower deliberately cultivated the genial doofus image in order to make his adversaries underestimate him. There is not yet evidence that Reagan did the same. However, I would not be surprised if, as more of Reagan's presidential papers are declassified, his reputation improves as scholars discover that he was not disengaged and lazy.

It is worth noting that it has become a common liberal refrain to portray Republican presidents as stupid and disengaged (i.e. "Shrub"), whereas Democratic presidents are portrayed as smart and astute (Carter was a nuclear engineer, Clinton was a policy wonk, etc.). Although there may be some truth to these claims, they essentially miss the point, which is that there is more to being an effective president than scoring high on your SATs. Conviction, charisma, leadership skills, and the ability to convince others that your ideas are right are also important for presidential effectiveness.

Finally, as you note, some liberal critics of Reagan claim that he was merely in power when the Soviet Union collapsed. But this dramatically oversimplifies the entire situation. First, it might be useful to look at what some of these same critics were saying about the permanence of the Soviet Union at the time. Reagan was predicting that communism could not last, and yet there were books written by leftist academics as late as 1988 and 1989 that predicted that Soviet communism was still robust and not likely to collapse anytime soon. So he was right, they were wrong, and they have a shaky foundation for claiming that he had little to do with the collapse of communism.

Second, it is worth asking not only if Reagan's policies of his first term might have furthered Soviet collapse, but if they also made possible the rapprochement that happened with Gorbachev in Reagan's second term. Once Reagan had rebuilt the military, restored American confidence, and taken a hard line against communism, it was easier for him to adopt a concilliatory stance when he finally had a viable (and not terminal) Soviet leader to deal with. He was then dealing from a position of strength, not malaise. There is an old Vulcan saying that only Nixon could go to China. But one could also argue that only Reagan could have offered the olive branch to Gorbachev.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at June 12, 2004 07:53 PM

Well, for starters, I'd say that these "few" people are a strong indication that you don't have concensus here.

Karl, you need to get a better thesaurus.

"Consensus" != "Unanimity"

Beyond that, Dr. Day responds far better than I could.

Posted by Rand SImberg at June 12, 2004 08:01 PM


While it made me happy to read so many had been converted in their ideas about President Reagan, it was also disconcerting to realize that so many of the blogosphere writers that I admire were so horribly wrong. I voted for President Reagan, twice. He was the first Republican I ever voted for. I am sorry and ashamed to say that my previous two choices were McGovern and then Carter. But somewhere during Carter's term I guess I matured and realized that America needed a president who reflected the fundamental values of the American people and who had at heart the best interests of America. Ronald Reagan fit that bill like no other in the past 40 years. So, no, I am not sorry that I voted for him, not in the least. If he were still living and were able physically, mentally and legally to serve again I would gladly vote for him again.

So, this fall I will vote for G.W.Bush because he comes the closest to embodying those same ideals. No, he's not perfect, but he is a damn sight more perfect than his opponents.

And I think that history will be good to GWB as well, particularly if he can continue our progress toward eliminating the basis for terrorism in the Middle East no matter what the cost and regardless of the harping of the media. I think he can and I am willing to bet my life on it. Because that, in essence, is what it comes down to, maybe particularly for those of us who live in New York.

God has blessed Ronald Reagan.
May God bless the President of the United States,
and may God bless the United States of America.

Posted by Dan M at June 12, 2004 08:11 PM

Mondale did not run for President untill 1984.

Carter was running for re-election in 1980.

Posted by Michael Puckett at June 12, 2004 08:12 PM

While it made me happy to read so many had been converted in their ideas about President Reagan, it was also disconcerting to realize that so many of the blogosphere writers that I admire were so horribly wrong.

It shouldn't be. The mark of a superior mind is the ability to change it in the face of new facts. All of the aforementioned bloggers (with the exception of Roger Simon) were impetuous youth at the time. I'll let Roger defend himself, but as a preliminary defense, reread the second sentence of this paragraph.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 12, 2004 08:20 PM

I flipped in my opinions of some of his policies between then and now (though I wasn't voting age until 1988, so maybe I don't count). He was right about how to deal with the USSR, and I was wrong. He was wrong about how to deal with Apartheid South Africa, and I agreed with him at the time.

In sum, my opinion of him has gotten higher, but that's not saying a lot. I called him heroic, which I think he was, but doing a great deed doesn't make you a good leader.

Posted by Andrew Case at June 13, 2004 08:01 AM

Karl, you need to get a better thesaurus.

"Consensus" != "Unanimity"

Beyond that, Dr. Day responds far better than I could.

Dwayne Day's reply is pretty impressive. But I think we should know more about what happened during the Cold War before we decide what happened. It appears that there's still significant hidden information in both the US and Russia.

Further, as I mentioned before, there's lack of consensus (oops, misspelled it before) on the matter. Call it "conventional wisdom" or whatever, but IMHO the public hasn't fully decided on Reagan. I think with the large number of people who've made up their minds no matter the facts, that consensus is far away.

For example, compare Eisenhower to Kennedy. Eisenhower. In considerable hindsight, Eisenhower looks stronger and smarter a president than he was given credit for at the time. While Kennedy is enshrined perhaps as the most visionary president of the 20th century (perhaps the democrat's answer to Reagan?), but he routinely took vast risks both personally and with the fate of the nation. It took many years for his numerous affairs to become public or the great gambles that Kennedy took with the USSR, Cuba, Vietnam, and organized crime. Some of them worked out well (eg, the Cuban missile crisis, the Apollo program), but others did not (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam War, perhaps even his death).

Certain public officials (eg, J. Edgar Hoover) look considerably different in hindsight than they did when they occupied the limelight.

I think we need to know more about Reagan, what he did, and what happened at the time before we can claim such broad benefits for his policies.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at June 13, 2004 01:30 PM

Eisenhower and Kenney were in a different era, when reporting standards were different. Had they been president today, or even in the eighties, it's unlikely (at least in the case of Kennedy) that things like affairs would have remained a secret (e.g., Bill Clinton).

I don't think that we're going to learn a lot more about the Reagan presidency than we know now, other than details, unless pehaps we find out that he knew more about Iran-Contra than he admitted at the time (I frankly think that the Alzheimer's was already starting to take its toll toward the end of his second term). While I don't think that that was an impeachable offense, it certainly was stupid.

There's abundant information at the library, and we also learned a great deal after the Soviet Union fell from their side. To the degree that our minds change about his legacy, it will be from the passage of further time, and the ability to put it into a broader historical perspective. I suspect that such a process is more likely to burnish his reputation than fade it, particularly when compared to his immediate successors and predecessors.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 13, 2004 02:15 PM

Oh, and the public is never going to "fully decide on Reagan," if by that you mean there will never be a difference of opinion. I'm referring to how the history books will judge him. There will always be people who dissent on who killed the Soviet Union, but their view will probably always be a minority. I think that Reagan was as great a president as Roosevelt (and I do think Roosevelt a great president, in the sense of his impact on the course of the nation), but I don't agree with the myth that he ended the depression, and I think many of his accomplishments have been disastrous in terms of the growth of power of the federal government. He remains one of our great presidents nonetheless, and ultimately I'm confident that Reagan will be so judged as well.

And I think that Bill Clinton will be remembered primarily as the first elected president to be impeached.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 13, 2004 02:21 PM

I lived it, and studied it. I didn't vote for Reagan the first time, but certainly did the second. By then, I had a pretty good idea of what he was trying to do. I was telling friends that the USSR couldn't last for much more than 20 years - and they thought I was nuts. It was a given that the USSR would be around forever. The fact that the USSR fell without a single American city getting nuked, far sooner than *I* expected, confirmed for me that yes, Reagan had a great deal to do with it ending quickly and without a world war.

By the way, can anyone here think of any well known "expert" that predicted the "inevitable" fast collapse of the USSR at that time?

Posted by VR at June 13, 2004 03:36 PM

We should keep in mind that there is "public" opinion of Reagan and "elite" opinion of Reagan.

The elite opinion of Reagan is best typified by surveys done by an American historians association (I cannot remember which one--it might be the American Historical Association itself). I think these surveys are conducted every five years or so. The public opinion polls are taken more often.

The two surveys do not match very well. In public opinion surveys, Kennedy usually ranks third or fourth as the "greatest" American president and the top ten list is dominated by recent presidents, so Clinton would be in there as well. One natural and obvious problem with this kind of list is that people are going to say the names that they remember the best, and recent presidents will rank higher. I suspect that the next time this survey is done, Reagan will rank in the top five. It will probably be: Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, Jefferson, Reagan, Clinton, or some close variation of these names.

The "elites" list is probably much more objective, because at the very least the people voting in these surveys tend to know far more American history. However, these academic groups also tend to be more liberal, so Reagan might not do as well. However, Kennedy also suffers a lot in these lists. In fact, his position on these lists is probably their most notable feature. While he is usually in the top five for the public lists, he often ranks in the teens on the elites lists.

A quick Google search turned up this list:

In that list, compiled in 1999, Kennedy is #8 and Reagan is #11.

(The elites list is less trendy than the public list, but still subject to various biases. Historians are, after all, people. One interesting question is how such lists are affected by the release of new books on American presidents. There have been quite a few books published in recent years on the founding fathers that may have affected these kinds of lists.)

It is also worth noting that Kennedy's legacy is distorted in part by an active propaganda campaign by his colleagues. Kennedy surrounded himself with a lot of very literary people who have sung his praises for decades, creating the Camelot myth and fighting attempts to besmirch it. Kennedy also had the great fortune of being very good-looking and having a very pretty wife, and surrounding himself with excellent photographers and PR people. Photographs from his administration are still some of the best ever taken of any president. The result of all of this is that an objective assessment of Kennedy's "greatness" (assuming that these things can ever be objective) probably will be impossible for another 5-10 decades, or until much of the Camelot machine has rusted away.

In historical terms, Kennedy has not done well in recent decades. A number of revelations about his presidency have cast him in a worse light. Information on his attempts to assassinate Castro came out in the 1970s, but a lot of this blame was redirected at the CIA, rather than at the administration that established the policy.

The Camelot myth became more tarnished during the 1990s, however. For instance, it was recently revealed that he was heavily medicated during most of his term--raising questions as to whether a man who was taking so many drugs should have been in charge of nuclear forces. Also, one very damning revelation was that he was sleeping with the girlfriend of a mob boss--a fact that opens the possiblity that he was blackmailed by the mob. These revelations have hurt Kennedy in the eyes of American historians.

In the space field, I know a number of people who were surprised to learn in August 2001 that Kennedy was not a fan of space exploration but pursued it entirely for international political reasons. For more information on this, see:

So how American presidents are viewed both by the public and by elites changes constantly and this will happen with Reagan too.

My suspicion is that Reagan will move much higher in the public list in the next few years. But I also expect him to slowly climb higher in the elites listings as well.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at June 14, 2004 08:19 AM

I'd throw out there the other bookend question: Who started the Cold War?

The Left, through the revisionist histories of William Appleman William, Gabriel Kolko and the like, have long argued that the United States bears an overwhelming portion of the burden. Martin Sherwin, frex, argues that b/c we did not share the secret of the A-bomb w/ Stalin, "naturally" he was more suspicious of the US. Yet, it's not like Stalin's own nature, or the Katyn massacre, or the extraordinary unlikelihood of anything approaching a free election anywhere in Eastern Europe are unknown.

And this is not a "fringe" bunch equivalent to Holocaust deniers. This is a serious chunk of the American history profession.

To think, then, that who ended the Cold War is any more likely to be uncontroversial is extremely optimistic.

Posted by Dean at June 14, 2004 12:23 PM

My prediction is that the 'consensus' opinion of Reagan will continue to grow in approval and stature as time marches on. The resistance to Reagan's high stature now is coming from people who still carry the scars of political battles lost in the 1980's. As objectivity grows, Reagan will rise in stature. You're already seeing this starting to happen. People are increasing referring to the 'pre-Reagan' and 'post-Reagan' eras, and they look markedly different.

As for winning the cold war, one reason why Reagan is getting more credit for this is because information is becoming declassified that shows that the Reagan administration was actively destabilizing the Soviet Union - for example, by planting defective software that eventually caused a huge pipeline explosion that severely damaged the Soviet economy.

For 30 years, the U.S. had a policy of detente and co-existance. For 30 years, the Soviet Union coexisted with the U.S. Reagan came along, scrapped detente, and started actively seeking the destruction of the Soviet Union. By the end of his second term, the job was done. Those are the facts.

Anyone who says the Soviet Union would have collapsed anyway is underestimating the power of a dictatorship to stay in power regardless of economic condition. China never collapsed. North Korea is still going strong. Saddam had to be forcibly removed. All of those countries had economies far worse than the Soviet Union was suffering. It could have survived another fifty years. Would we have avoided a nuclear war for that long?

Reagan had a three-prong strategy towards the Soviet Union. First, he made the polituro's life miserable by claiming the moral high ground, fomenting dissent in client states and funding rebels in Soviet clients, and by engaging in clandestine sabotage and other things we probably still don't know about. Second, he pressured them militarily with an arms buildup and threatened them with a technological arms race (SDI) they could not hope to win. Then finally, when the pressures he applied caused a reformer to pop out, he both leaned on him when appropriate ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!") and extended an olive branch when Gorbachev moved in his direction.

These are all strong, positive actions that can be evaluated for effect. There's no guesswork involved. Reagan found the weak spots of the Soviet Union and pressed hard on them until the whole creaky edifice collapsed.

To be sure, there were other players - it was a team effort. Thatcher, Walesa, Havel, John Paul II. But Reagan was the quarterback. He led the plays, he supplied the muscle and the rhetoric. Without him, the Soviet Union would have eventually collapsed anyway, but the collapse could have taken a lot longer, and been a lot bloodier.

Posted by Dan Hanson at June 14, 2004 02:55 PM

Mr. Hanson's comments are quite interesting and cogent. He points out a very important fact: there have been many countries that have been economically stagnant for a very long time where authoritarian governments still hold power. So it is entirely possible that the Soviet Union could have continued to exist despite its deteriorating economic condition.

There is currently a mini-controversy within the community of Cold War scholars over whether or not anybody accurately predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. A colleague of mine argues rather forcefully that the CIA was actually making some pretty accurate predictions about the Soviet economy by the mid-1980s and deserves credit for predicting collapse. However, there are others who are wholly dismissive of this claim, arguing that the CIA really missed the Soviet collapse. I don't know the particulars of the argument, but can point people in this direction if they are interested.

Mr. Dean asks the interesting question about the historical consensus of who started the Cold War. But I think that he is overlooking a lot of recent scholarship on this subject. Since 1993 or so a large number of documents have been released that have really undercut the traditional Leftist academia view of the start of the Cold War. In particular, the work of the Cold War History Project (formerly at the Woodrow Wilson Center) has shed light on a lot of these early Cold War controversies.

For instance, documents have shown that Stalin approved the North Korean invasion of South Korea (many historians had claimed that there was no evidence that this was really a communist effort and might have simply been Korean nationalism at work). They also demonstrate that Ho Chi Minh was a communist from the start (and not pushed into that camp by the United States). And it is now clear that the Soviets had the plans for the A-bomb very early on. (Raising the new question of why it took them so long to build a bomb on their own especially since they had the plans.)

I am not an expert on these issues in Cold War history. However, my guess is that a lot of the argument that the US started the Cold War has been successively chipped away by these revelations. It is entirely possible for left-wing historians to still claim that the United States started the Cold War. But they will now have to base this argument on different points, because key parts of the previous foundation for this argument have been washed away.

I have just picked up a book edited by Ellen Schrecker titled "Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History After the Fall of Communism." Schrecker is on the far left and the subtitle indicates that she feels that in recent years history has not been kind to her side in the Cold War historian community. This book follows the excellent book "In Denial" about the left-wing historical community's denial of communism.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at June 14, 2004 03:59 PM


First, a small quibble. "Dean" is the first name, not the last. (No way you'd know that, of course.)

On the larger point: I'm afraid that, judging from the stuff that appears in the historical journals and academic stuff, there are quite a few "questions" that have not been resolved, along the lines of "Who started the Cold War."

I believe that Sherwin continues to defend his stance. Bruce Cumings has fought w/ the Cold War History Project on the issue of who started the Korean War. Professors I've known argue that Ho being Communist and being anti-American are somehow unrelated (and Castro wasn't really a Communist, somehow we made him one). Schrecker, in at least some of her articles, by no means concedes much at all.

This does not mean these people are correct. I, for one, vehemently disagreed w/ them back when I was a student, never mind now. But it also suggests that, given the virtual fanaticism w/ which some continue to hold the US responsible for the Cold War (or are prepared to "concede" that the US and the USSR were morally equivalent and equally culpable), there are those who will continue to argue that the USSR would have collapsed of its own weight and Reagan, as "an amiable dunce" was no more than lucky to have been in office at the time.

Posted by Dean at June 14, 2004 04:09 PM

Yes, yes, Reagan was just lucky, it was just matter of time...

...and, in the meantime, the Gulags, the Psychiatric Wards, the Punishment Battalions, the Terror Famines, the Show Trials, the Year Zeros, the Great Leap Forwards, the Juche Ideals, the Five Year Plans, the Lubayankas, the Chernobyls, the Re-education camps, the Katyn Massacres, the Barbed Wire, the Walls and the Minefields and all the other lethal artifacts of Communism would have claimed just a few million or tens of millions more lives. And not just the lives snuffed out, but the squandered futures of those who survived, as well.

But, hey, it was just a matter of time.

WHICH, BTW, still doesn't explain the continued existence of the Outdoor Museum of Human Misery that is North Korea, or of its slightly less impoverished and sunnier cousin the Island Prison of Cuba...unless it does.


Posted by furious at June 14, 2004 04:17 PM

Dean wrote:
"First, a small quibble. "Dean" is the first name, not the last. (No way you'd know that, of course.)"

Actually, I assumed that it was your first name. But not knowing your last name I decided upon the formality. As I have stated in other comments on this site, I prefer to use the formality out of respect. Too many blogs degenerate into incivility very quickly. They are often little more than opportunities for people to launch attacks on those they don't like. I think that the decline of American civilization can be traced to the start of Casual Fridays, children calling adults by first names, and the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Dean wrote:
"On the larger point: I'm afraid that, judging from the stuff that appears in the historical journals and academic stuff, there are quite a few "questions" that have not been resolved, along the lines of "Who started the Cold War.""

Although you are correct in noting that the issue is not settled in academia, it is clear to me that the Leftist version is in full retreat. Schrecker's book, which I just started reading last night, is clearly defensive in tone. She and her colleagues are concerned that throughout the 1990s the "triumphalists" were able to equate the collapse of the Soviet Union with both the collapse of the Left and a moral victory over Leftist interpretations of Cold War history.

So far I have read one chapter in the book, by Maurice Isserman and Ellen Schrecker, called "Papers of a Dangerous Tendency," dealing with revelations about Soviet espionage from the 1930s through the 1950s. It is actually a pretty good chapter, less radically left than I expected. But it makes clear that they are fighting a rearguard action in full retreat. Previously they could claim that McCarthyism was wholly unwarranted and snared a large number of completely innocent people and that there was no evidence that the Communist Party of the USA engaged in espionage or took money from the Soviets--it was a very black and white interpretation. Now they have to concede many of those points and are left with a much more complex and unconvincing argument. For instance, they point out that the vast majority of American communists did not engage in espionage and so it is unfair to taint the entire organization. They are also left arguing that although Soviet espionage did take place, it had little overall effect on the Cold War. In effect, they have gone from arguing "It did not happen. Period." to "It did not matter. Okay?"

Another striking aspect of the book is how they have changed their tune about early American communists. Rather than bold idealists fighting for justice, they now portray these people as misguided souls whose hearts were in the right place, but who were woefully ignorant about the beast that they served. Their tone is one of sympathy rather than admiration.

As for the question of "who started the Cold War," it is clear that they feel like they are in retreat on this subject as well. Skimming a few other chapters in the book, they are often responding to what they claim is a turning of the tide against the argument that the US started the Cold War. For instance, they cite John Lewis Gaddis' book "We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History." Gaddis claimed that we now know who started the Cold War--Joseph Stalin. Clearly Schrecker and her compatriots feel that the "triumphalists" are winning this debate and have the benefit of newly released documents on their side.

Rather lamely, she and Isserman lament that the documents are mostly being released by the "loser" and that the "winner's" documents--i.e. the US--are only being released in self-serving batches that tell one side of the story. Even more lamely, they both seem rather sad that none of the documents that are emerging actually help their cause and it seems that they wish that these documents had not been released at all. This is consistent with what Haynes and Klehr have written in their book "In Denial"--that Leftist historians have actually undercut their own profession by shunning the new documentary evidence, but are now regretfully having to acknowledge its existence.

Now who is "winning" this debate in academia is also a matter of perspective. If you read Haynes and Klehr's book "In Denial," they claim that the "revisionists" (i.e. left-wing, communist sympathetic historians) still hold much power in academia. Haynes and Klehr claim that people like them, "traditionalists" who focus on the evils of communism, are still under seige. Certainly being a conservative historian is no way to get tenure. And as Haynes and Klehr note, you can still be sympathetic to communist apparatchiks and be welcomed at academic conferences, whereas being sympathetic to Nazis will get you thrown out on your behind.

But looking at both sides, it is clear that the Leftist interpretation of the Cold War has taken some major hits in the past decade, and they are reeling from them. That was not the case before the end of the Cold War.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at June 15, 2004 08:38 AM

Dr. Day:

Belated thanks for your courtesy. My observation was not meant to be snide, only corrective. And I certainly appreciate the effort to maintain civility, and apologize for failing to recognize such.

On the core of your response: I don't deny that, for those who are interested, there is much more basis for debate. As you note, prior to the end of the Cold War, there was much more homogeneity among academics about things like "Who started the Cold War?" or "Was McCarthy completely wrong?"

But consider what it has required to make it through the intellectual equivalent of the bocage---the collapse of the USSR in order to access documents about a dictator that Khrushchev himself had already (secretly) denounced. Even then, I've heard John Lewis Gaddis denounced as an unabashed Cold Warrior, as though his intellectual honesty was questionable simply because he had concluded that many of the worst analyses of the USSR were, in fact, correct. Similarly, I've heard Robert Conquest being dismissed as exhibiting "unreliable research methodologies" for overly relying on emigre accounts, despite the fact that such accounts, in the end, were more accurate than the social science "analyses" in this country.

Given this, one has to wonder just how long it will take for a proper accounting of both the achievements and failings of the Reagan Administration. I would merely suggest that, given the time-lag, it may well take several decades---with a grudging, inch-by-inch rear-guard action from his greatest detractors.


Posted by Dean at June 15, 2004 09:00 AM

Dean wrote:
"Belated thanks for your courtesy. My observation was not meant to be snide, only corrective. And I certainly appreciate the effort to maintain civility, and apologize for failing to recognize such."

I never took any offense nor interpreted the correction as being snide. We're on a neutral plane here. Everybody's friendly. And no need to call me "Dr." I cannot use the degree to get people to take off their clothes, so what point is there in drawing attention to it?

I think that you are right that it may take decades for Reagan to be properly recognized for his achievements. (And I would redirect you to one of my earlier posts where I discussed how long I think it will take before the Camelot Myth fades for JFK.)

However, I would also caution to prejudging the history. Right now we only have a first draft of history concerning the Reagan administration. It usually takes a couple of decades at least for important documents to emerge from presidential libraries. (Note that Eisenhower left office in 1961 and it was not really until 1981 that his image began to change among historians.) Right now we do not know all that is in the Reagan papers and there could indeed be bad in there along with the good. It is entirely possible that future document releases might reveal things placing Reagan in a more negative light. For instance, documents on Iran-Contra could emerge that might indicate that Reagan was fully aware of illegal activities and approved them anyway. Now one could argue that Reagan's hands should not have been tied with regards to fighting communism in Central America, but certainly such documents, if they exist, would tarnish his image among even neutral historians.

Or to put it in more stark and humorous terms, what if there is a document sitting in the Reagan archive demonstrating that he really was an "amiable dunce," or even a baby-eating vampire? We cannot assume that documents released in the future will automatically confirm the image of Reagan that we currently hold. They could reveal quite negative things about him. It became harder and harder to defend Richard Nixon as audiotapes revealing the depth of his anti-semitism and general nastiness were released during the 1990s.

I think that my warning here is that we should not commit the same sins that we know that the Leftist historian community commits, which is allowing our ideology to ride roughshod over our objectivity. We have to adopt an attitude that we will greet all new information with objectivity and fairness, because that will make us better than the academics who chose to deny the evidence of the evils of communism and the prevalence of Soviet espionage within the United States during the 1930s and 40s.

There are also things that can delay our understanding of the end of the Cold War, particularly developments in Russia. For a while during the 1990s the Russians were releasing impressive amounts of Cold War documents. They seemed genuinely interested in greater openness, although they did not know how to pursue it.

That attitude seems to have faded, and we will probably not see as much archival material released from former Soviet archives. So how are we to have a true understanding of why and how the Cold War ended if the information coming out on the Soviet side dries up?

In particular, there are several key areas of the 1980s that we really need to know much more about. One is the scare in late 1983 when the Soviets became convinced that the United States was about to launch a nuclear attack. We came much closer to war then than most people realize, but the information on this period is still scarce. Then of course there are the events leading to Gorbachev's rise to power. Why and how was he selected? And finally, there is Gorbachev's rule. How come he was allowed to be more open than his predecessors? How come he was allowed to admit that their society was in trouble? If we are to understand the end of the Cold War in more than a shallow and schizophrenic fashion, then we must have more documentation and interviews of Soviet affairs during Reagan's terms.

What this demonstrates is that history is not only what gets written, but also includes the machinery (for lack of a better word) that allows it to be written. That machinery includes academia (meaning how universities sponsor history programs) and archives, research grants, cooperative programs, etc. If the current Russian government becomes less open, then our ability to freely write about the Cold War will suffer. And although I hate to point it out, the same thing is happening in the United States. The American government has taken a much more restrictive approach toward the release of historical government documents under George W. Bush than it did under Bill Clinton. Every time I hear of another decision by the administration restricting access to historical documentation, I can mentally tick off in my head how many years that may set back scholarship on the subject. Shut down a program at the National Archives for declassifying documents and it might increase the wait for information on a subject by many years.

My point here is that it is not simply an ideological battle with Left-wing historians that restricts the writing of history, but an ideological battle being waged in the current administration as well.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at June 15, 2004 03:55 PM

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