You make a lot of very good points, Jonah, but 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 the immediate aftermath in 1946. To wit:
1. You write: “But, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that if we’d forced regime change on the Soviet Union in, say, 1946, that there would have been no Vietnam and, perhaps, no Korean War and no permanently Red China (which alone would have reduced the pile of 20th century corpses considerably).” Do you seriously mean to suggest that in 1946 Truman, Marshall, and Eisenhower should have been able to foresee the Korean War, the Cultural Revolution, and the terrible flight of the boat people from Vietnam?
2. You also write: “The reason this is important is that there seem to be lots of people who think the Cold War was not merely the best we could get, but the ideal policy option period. It wasn’t.” I’m not quite sure what you’re saying here. If you mean that there were lots of Soviet sympathizers in the West who favored the cold war on the theory that it bought time for their side, I’m with you. But you seem to be going further than that. I myself would argue that the Cold War was the ideal policy option, precisely because it was the best we could get. (And again, I’m willing to defer pretty substantially here to Generals Marshall and Eisenhower. Having five stars on your shoulder and having spent your life intelligently and selflessly in the service of the nation—that cuts a lot of ice. The testimony of those who were there at the time matters.)
But if you want to insist that the cold war really wasn’t our best policy option—not simply that we could have hoped for or imagined better, but that we could actually have done better—then what was? If you believe we should have gone to war with the Soviets in 1946, please say so. And then explain how. (For the military challenges that would have been involved, see “A Solder Speaks,” below, the email from a major in the U.S. Army that I posted yesterday.)
3. In his later years—and, since he lived to be 101, he had a lot of later years—George Kennan turned into an almost McGovernite liberal, and, for this later Kennan, Ronald Reagan in particular represented a kind of permanent affront. But the old George Kennan shouldn’t be confused with the author of the Long Telegram. And when you read that document, you’ll see that Ronald Reagan adhered to its recommendations a lot more closely than did, say, Jimmy Carter. (The Soviets, the Long Telegram argued, to name just one example, were “impervious to the logic of reason” but “highly sensitive to the logic of force.”)
My point? That the strategy of the cold war as that strategy was originally adopted by Kennan, Marshall, Truman, and Ike did not involve the moral equivalency of Carter or Callaghan or Schroeder or Trudeau (for the last three, see Mark Steyn’s post of today). Let me put that a little more carefully. The men who adopted the policy of containment did not themselves in any way believe in moral equivalency—and with Greece, Turkey, and Korea, Harry Truman demonstrated within just a couple of years of the Long Telegram that wherever necessary the United States would expend resources, and fight. Reagan, I believe, took up this early understanding—he was, I suppose you might say, a cold war originalist.
As for the period between the originals and the originalist, the late Sixties and the Seventies—Carter and Callaghan and Trudeau and the whole complex of weakness and self-delusion that Paul Johnson calls the West’s “suicide attempt”—I myself am undecided. Did we simply happen to have weak and feckless leaders in those days? Was our weakness in part the result of Soviet propaganda? Or was the period almost to have been expected—the result of asking democracies to endure so many years of nuclear anxiety? Psychologically, in other words, was the long, low bad period of the late Sixties and the Seventies more or less inevitable?
I’m unsure. But even if the bad times were, somehow, entailed in the hard effort of waging the cold war, I’d still tend to seem them a cost of the best policy that was, in actual reality, available to us—the “long twilight struggle.”