During his 1971 congressional testimony about the Vietnam War, a man who would one day seek the Democratic party’s nomination in the 2004 presidential race was asked by a senator to assess the threat of Communism, not just to Indochina, but to world peace in general. The witness responded, “I think it is bogus, totally artificial. There is no threat. The Communists are not about to take over our McDonald hamburger stands.”
In the decade following the witness’s testimony, the nonexistent threat resulted in the slaughter of 2,000,000 Cambodians; the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets; the internment of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese in reeducation camps; numerous civil wars and bloody insurgencies in Central Africa, South and Central America and Southeast Asia; the mass migration of hordes of starving refugees; the proliferation of state-sponsored terrorism; the “disappearance” of hundreds of thousands of “undesirables” and enemies of the state; the imprisonment and torture of countless dissidents; and the continued brutal subjugation of more than one-third of the world’s population.
Whether this particular congressional witness was callous, calculating, cavalier, or just obtuse is perhaps less important than the fact that his assessment of Communism was (is) shared by many in the free world. There are several reasons for this, including the mendacity of Communism’s apologists who covered up horrific crimes against humanity, the amnesia of those who concluded that the collapse of the Soviet Union closed the book on Communist atrocities and a worldview among many elites that casts American imperialism as a greater evil than Communism.
All of these factors contribute to a casual ignorance about an ideology that caused human suffering on a scale that dwarfs that produced by any war, epidemic, or natural catastrophe in the history of mankind. Indeed, the sheer magnitude of the horror challenges the imagination and numbs the conscience. Stalin reputedly declared that “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” The mind can process lots of statistics. One hundred million deaths, however, is a figure that can exist only at the outer limits of human comprehension.
But the titanic scope of Communism’s crimes can’t be an excuse for superficial inquiry or summary review. The crimes committed by the Nazis have been and continue to be chronicled in exhaustive detail. This is not just right but necessary. Civilization must be issued incessant reminders of how swiftly it can descend into barbarism. A full accounting of past threats renders complacence to current or future threats less likely.
Yet the accounting of Communist atrocities is paltry and incomplete. There are no international commissions or tribunals cataloging communist crimes and criminals. Popular culture makes few references to Communist depravities. There are no supra-national agencies dedicated to bringing Communist tyrants and their agents to justice.
That’s why endeavors to continually remind of Communist depredations, such as the Victims of Communism Memorial, are so important. Monuments that enumerate the pathologies of totalitarianism serve not only as watchtowers against emerging threats but as gauges to measure the gravity of current ones as well. Without such bellwethers the sober identification of serious threats often yields to sophistry, ridicule or a juvenile inability to perceive true danger.
For example, in 1998 John Kerry considered Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction a threat “with respect to potential terrorist activities on a global basis” (Emphasis added). However, just five years later he flip-flopped, contending that Vice President Cheney had exaggerated the Iraqi threat. Later still, during the Democratic-primary debate in Greenville, South Carolina, he became even more dismissive: When asked whether the President had exaggerated the threat of terrorism in general, he responded, “I think there has been an exaggeration. They are misleading all Americans in a profound way.”
And while Kerry dismisses the threats of Communism and terrorism as “bogus” or “exaggerated,” he sees fit to compare the threat of global warming to the threats of the Cold War. This kind of flippant analysis–from a presidential candidate, no less–would not be lightly tolerated in a society with a long memory.
In a perfect world, historians would be churning out libraries about the social, economic and moral devastation wrought by Communism; an academy with a sense of proportion would insist that the collected works of Solzhenitsyn be mandatory reading; and the mention of the names of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Castro would be met with the same opprobrium as that of Hitler.
We’re not there yet. Far too many consider communism merely an alternative, if somewhat imperfect, economic model. Absent frequent reminders of the evils of communism, we shouldn’t be surprised to witness the spectacle of a former Secretary of State grinning as she toasts North Korea’s vile dictator. And professors in our finest universities will continue to insist that Communism could “work” if only practiced correctly.
Constancy is required. As unimaginable as it seems today, regression is not impossible. With different threats on the horizon, it is easy to forget that communism was the 20th Century’s dominant threat, or, as in the case of John Kerry’s congressional testimony noted above, that it was ever a threat at all.
–Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.