Peter – Sorry for the delay in responding, I was out for much of the day.
You write: “I’d be careful (if I may) about suggesting that we who man the mighty Corner in 2007 are possessed of better judgment and greater courage than the men who were manning an actual war in 1945 and 1946.”
I never brought up the issue of courage, I don’t think. And I think it unfairly muddies the waters considerably to do so. But I see nothing wrong or presumptuous about second-guessing those guys now. The whole point of taking interest in history — at least for me – is to question the decisions made by people in the past. Indeed, while I may lack the discernment of those men “manning an actual war” back then I do have something they did not: The benefit of hindsight.
Which addresses your point #1. I do not criticize Eisenhower, Marshall and Truman for failing to foresee what hadn’t happened yet (though trouble in China, for example, was hardly an unimaginable development by that time, recall the whole, “Who Lost China?” argument). My point was that, given what we know now, action — if possible — would have been better than inaction. Also, I should note that I while I am not speaking for anyone but myself, it is hardly the case that we who man the Corner in 2007 are the only ones to offer these critiques. Our forebears at National Review were hardly mute when it came to suggesting a more aggressive stance toward the Soviets than that offered by Eisenhower and Truman. Indeed, Eisenhower himself had promised rollback, not containment but failed to deliver on his promises when anti-Soviet uprisings rolled across East Germany, Poland and Hungary. Your retreat into “Who are you to judge?” does a disservice to folks who want to learn from the past.
In your second and third points it is clear that you do misunderstand what I was trying to say. As I am often unclear, I will try again. My point is this: the ideal policy was to force the removal of the Soviet regime. That would have been the best of all possible policies. It would have helped humanity and America enormously if we could have overthrown the Soviets anytime after the defeat of Hitler but before the arrival of the Soviet bomb (thank you Rosenbergs). Indeed, regime change after 1949 would have been ideal too, but the costs of nuclear war were so high that pursuing that path went from idealistic to utopian to perhaps in some cases apocalyptic.
You make a fine point when you say it was the best policy possible, but that isn’t quite the same thing as saying it was the best policy. Imagine if we could go back in a time machine and explain to Ike & Co. the consequences of containment: The mountains of corpses, the trillions of dollars, the gulags, killing fields, the military industrial complex, the balance of terror. Does it seem unreasonable to think that maybe Ike & Co. might have concluded that a bit more rollback or, conversely, a bit more diplomacy in 1953 (as Churchill recommended) might be the wiser course?
Containment was a compromise, with reality, yes. But also between Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves, America and the Soviets and our allies, between the weary American public and the experts and, most of all, between our own principles and our personal preferences. When I say people are nostalgic for the Cold War what I mean is that they seem to think that containment wasn’t a compromise at all, but the most enlightened policy in its own right. That even if we could have gone to war with the Soviets with relative ease, containment would still have been the better option. What if you received email from soldiers explaining how we could have easily toppled the Soviets? Would you think containment was still the best option?
Here’s where I am coming from. I think the best possible policy toward Red China is regime change. Ditto North Korea. Ditto Iran. But, right now, the costs are just way too high to even consider forcibly removing those regimes. So we settle for some mixture of detente, containment and the Reagan and Truman Doctrines. These are all compromises. We did — and do — what we can, where we can. The problem with the Cold War approach to Iraq in the 1990s wasn’t merely that it was terrible policy, but that it was unnecessary. We could have toppled Saddam in 1991. We could have supported the Shiites and Kurds. But for some people, the containment approach seemed the best approach in and of itself rather than a fallback, least worst, option. That is what I meant.
As for your other questions about the moral equivalence and weakness of subsequent leaders in regard to the Cold War, I think Charles Krauthammer’s essay from 1993 might be of interest.