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Cold War: Mistaken Conflations and Ambiguous Concepts

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In his most recent work, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction, Bernard Crick opines that “Revolutions as often take place because the old regime simply collapses out of economic inefficiency and bureaucratic rigidity rather than for the reasons given out by their successors taking too much credit.” In this article I wish to elaborate a little more on this idea with the intention of re-invigorating the debate over the validity (or redundancy) of left-wing politics in contemporary society.

When looking back upon this particular era of modern history it is tempting – and often encouraged by the victors – to think of it as a standoff between two ideologically opposed superstructures that were symmetrical in both military and economic strength thus far unprecedented in the history of humankind, competing with each other on a level playing field for world hegemony. I propose an analysis of the commonly held conception that capitalism emerged victorious from a contest between equal opponents, and more importantly, this peculiar notion that Washington, as the principle proponent of capitalism, embodied not just free-market economics but also ‘liberty’, whilst communist Moscow came to personify totalitarian despotism.

One ought to adopt a sceptical stance when dealing with the concept of ‘liberty'; the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy puts it that “the value of liberty is dependent upon that of rational self-legislation… and dependent upon the nature of the social context.” In other words, ‘liberty’ in the context advocated by NATO during the Cold War should not be thought of as a universally understood or appreciated concept, for “protection of the liberties of the subject is one of the main aims (and boasts) of almost all constitutions” and, therefore, not exclusively defined and championed by NATO. Some, argues Crick, “complacently believe that liberty and democracy are inseparable twins. They should be but they are not.” What is being suggested here is that NATO, as the self-proclaimed defender of liberty during the Cold War, did not always act in the interests of liberty loving peoples, whether they were suffering under the rule of communist totalitarianism or otherwise.

Whilst it is impossible to excuse the barbarity and moral bankruptcy of the Stalinist regime before, during and after World War Two, “many Party officials” writes one eminent historian on this era of modern history, “certainly thought that both dictatorship and Stalin were an unavoidable consequence of danger from without.” Whilst America (and thus NATO) reasoned that it acted either pre-emptively or in response to Soviet expansion into territories and nations beyond the ‘natural’ borders of the USSR, Stalin himself, according to Alec Nove, felt that:

“American blackmail attempts and the formation of a Western bloc’ forced him to exert pressure on the ‘people’s democratic’ transformation process of the countries [under the Soviet sphere] of influence, in order to coerce their governments into unified courses of action and to secure its own dominance in [Eastern Europe] by the use of police-state methods.”

In this sense, then, whilst NATO could and did claim to be contesting totalitarian regimes such as those installed by Stalin in Eastern Europe, we must remind ourselves of the debate (encouraged and informed by Loth and other Cold War commentators) over which side could, if at all, legitimately claim to be acting in ‘self-defence’.

Proxy wars were considered by spectators and commentators alike during the Cold War not merely as military engagements between the two competing socio-economic models of capitalism and communism, but more as a great struggle between two competing ideologies, democracy and socialism; the former often being conflated, in the West at least, for ‘liberty’ and the latter with ‘totalitarianism’. These proxy wars were common occurrences because the two nuclear-armed superpowers did not wish to fight each other directly since doing so would have risked escalation to a nuclear war. Proxy wars were fought in Afghanistan, Angola, Korea, Vietnam and many other states… certainly for many peoples this war was rather more warm than for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere.

In the Korean War the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China aided the communists in North Korea against the United Nations forces led by America, but the Soviet Union did not enter the war directly whilst China, which sent millions of troops in 1950 to successfully prevent the U.N. coalition from defeating the communist government of the north, did. In the Vietnam War the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China supplied North Vietnam and the Viet Minh with training, logistics and materiel, but unlike the United States they fought the war through their Vietnamese proxies and did not enter the conflict directly .

It is important to consider exactly who and what NATO was fighting throughout the Cold War, as doing so compels us to reconsider the motives that drove this international body towards military engagement with self-styled communist regimes such as those that took power in Korea and Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh is described by another prominent commentator, J.A.S. Grenville, as a ‘legendary leader’ who established “a small Vietnamese Communist Party inspired by the Russian Revolution… in 1929″ as, in his own words, Minh “came to realise that socialism and communism alone are capable of emancipating workers and downtrodden people all over the world.”

In this sense the totalitarianism that the forces of liberty contested during the Cold War was to many such as Minh and his supporters a liberating force; managing in time to successfully defy oppressive colonialists like the French that had been extorting Vietnam et al since the mid-nineteenth century. Crick adds that “They [the Vanguard] believed that the working class should be emancipated, should rule over other classes in a time of revolutionary transition until a classless society was achieved, the rule of the people — democracy.” So we can see how even democracy cannot be defined and championed exclusively by America and the Western powers, as totalitarian leaders such as Minh, with popular support, claimed to be acting on behalf of the Vietnamese people’s will in much the same way that successive US administrations did on behalf of the US people Throughout the Cold War.

In scrutinising NATO’s policy of containment we can deduce that it too denied the ambiguous values of liberty and democracy both to the majority of its member-state citizens and those peoples living under its sphere of influence. Whilst drawing attention to the dangers of Soviet hegemonic consolidation and expansion into Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, the US administration was engaged (and had been for a considerably longer period of time than the Soviets) in the very same process of “informal empire” building via its proxies in bankrupt post-war Europe and oil rich Arab nations. Loth argues that “the USA had from its very beginnings been orientated towards a perpetual opening-up of new trade and sales markets, and thus indirectly towards the extension of its political sphere of influence.” When thought of in this light, the liberty that America upholds domestically and exports abroad serves as a pseudonym for capitalism; an economic system practiced in a variety of forms throughout Western nations since the bourgeoisie took power from the aristocracy in late eighteenth century Europe. Writing in mid to late nineteenth century Europe, Karl Marx (among other political economists) elaborated upon capitalism’s overwhelming reliance upon a working class that constitutes society’s vast majority, which would someday come to realise the injustices committed against it by the bourgeoisie and smash the capitalist economic system in favour of one that better supplies the needs, wants and desires of society’s majority.

The contest between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union during the Cold War should not be thought of as the decisive battle between liberty and totalitarianism because the upholding of liberty was not the primary objective of NATO. Furthermore, as Grenville puts it “The Soviet and American strategies involved building a sound pro-Soviet or pro-Western political base in each of their zones… which could then be expected to conform to their views.”

It is possible, in my opinion, to analyse the American Cold War strategy independent of the Soviet one based on Grenville’s assertion alone; as NATO was actively involved in establishing authoritarian regimes such as the government of Dr. Syngman Rhee in South Korea, who was “not only violently anti-communist” according to Grenville, “but also an ardent nationalist determined… to defeat, if necessary by force, the communists in the North.” Which is evidence enough of the contradictions that plague American conceptualisations as they force themselves upon the alienable civilisations and societies of the world.

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About Graham McKnight

  • Tisme

    What?

  • Graham McKnight

    Read it again, slowly, then ask me something a little more substantial.

  • Zedd

    Grahm,

    Interesting analysis.

    In your conclusion there is an underlying message which suggests that the stamping out of communism was not about providing liberty but stamping out oportunity. Am I reading you correctly?

    If the goal of communism was to empower the powerless, perhaps the goal of the leadership in capitalist society is for the powerful to retain power and attain as much as they possibly can?

  • Doug Hunter

    Where does the massive genocide, oppression, and starvation that occured inside the Communist realm fit into your little fantasy?

    Apologists and deniers are the lowest form of scum. Apologists and supports of the Nazis are thrown into prison in Europe, too bad they didn’t have the good sense to apply the same law to those that support communism. (which killed an order of magnitude more people)

  • Graham McKnight

    Doug,

    You have misunderstood the thrust of my argument; that it would be a mistake to think of NATO as a liberating force during the Cold War, and why OTHER people societies (during the War)saw communism as a real alternative to capitalism and neo-colonialism. In short, this article has nothing to do with my particular political beliefs.

    Zedd, your analyses of my argument is correct.

  • MBD

    “When looking back upon this particular era of modern history it is tempting and often encouraged by the victors to think of it as a standoff between two ideologically opposed superstructures that were symmetrical in both military and economic strength thus far unprecedented in the history of humankind, competing with each other on a level playing field for world hegemony..”

    Symmetrical?

    Level?

    It wasn’t symmetrical and level while the United States disarmed and the Soviet Union did the opposite.

    At the end of WWII, the United States disarmed. That changed abruptly in 1948 when the Soviet Union blocked access to the city of Berlin in violation of the Potsdam Agreement. The result of this Soviet aggression was the United States switched from its disarmament strategy and rearmed to counter Soviet aggression.

    You want to look back?

    Start there.

  • Graham McKnight

    My use of the word symmetrical is not only valid but more suited to the flow of the introductory paragraph than the word ‘level’. The word ‘level’ is dull and clunky, whereas my prefered choice of word to describe the common belief that both the USA and USSR were ‘exhibiting symmetry; having harmonious or proportionate arrangement of parts’ (common dictionary definition) is more suited to my writing style.

    Please do not even attempt to argue that the USSR was stronger than the USA throughout the entirety of the Cold War; it is a defenceless argument that can be brushed aside with the words ‘atom’ and ‘bomb’ (The USSR tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949, one year after the Berlin Blockade). Also, ‘world’s largest single economy’ helps.

  • MBD

    “Please do not even attempt to argue that the USSR was stronger than the USA throughout the entirety of the Cold War”

    Did I attempt that?

    Why don’t you read what I said.

  • Graham McKnight

    You question my assertion that the Cold War was symmetrical by refering to a particular event in the Cold war that asserts the Cold War to have been asymmetrical in the Soviet’s favour. You paint a picture of an America that was provoked into taking action by an aggressive Soviet Union as it cut off Berlin. You fail to mention why Stalin decided to blockade the city.

    The fact that blockading the city was morally and ethically wrong (as Stalinism IS in general) is a different matter, what we are dealing with here is ‘who provoked who first?’.

    It is not difficult at all to ascertain why Stalin blockaded Berlin, a quick search on Wikipedia will tell you that ‘the Soviets sought to create a unified but demilitarized Germany under their tutelage, or as Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov told U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in 1946, a united Germany that could be neutralized after Russia received industrial reparations from Germany. This strategy was a response to a 150-year history of repeated Western assaults on Russia, including World War I and Napoleon’s 1812 invasion. Stalin considered it essential to destroy Germany’s capacity for another war, which conflicted with the U.S. desire to rebuild Germany as the economic center of a stable Europe. (Stalin assumed that Japan and Germany could menace the Soviet Union once again following their postwar reconstruction.)’

    I do suggest a more comprehensive study of the Cold War via the use of such historians and Loth and Grenville, but Wiki serves my purpose here: looking behind the actions to discover the motives. Your assertion was simply not a balanced one given the (widely) available facts, MBD.

  • MBD

    “It is not difficult at all to ascertain why Stalin blockaded Berlin…”

    “What we are dealing with here is ‘who provoked who first?’

    So, who provoked who first?

  • Graham McKnight

    I shall repeat what I have authored in the article for you MBD:

    ‘the USA had from its very beginnings been orientated towards a perpetual opening-up of new trade and sales markets, and thus indirectly towards the extension of its political sphere of influence.’

    Considering that the USA was created before and survived the death of the USSR, I clearly imply that the USA provoked (as a result of its socio-economic behaviour) the USSR.

    You repeatedly tell me to read your words, did you not bother to read mine in the article? Are you a hypocrit, sir?

  • MBD

    Now I shall repeat what I said…

    “Symmetrical? Level? It wasn’t symmetrical and level while the United States disarmed and the Soviet Union did the opposite. At the end of WWII, the United States disarmed. That changed abruptly in 1948 when the Soviet Union blocked access to the city of Berlin in violation of the Potsdam Agreement. The result of this Soviet aggression was the United States switched from its disarmament strategy and rearmed to counter Soviet aggression.”

    I stated that the Soviets committed the first act of aggression in closing land access to Berlin which you refuse to address. Do you contest my statement?

    Or is it because you couldn’t find it in Wikipedia?

    Aside from your penchant to evade what I said, you want to play your juvenile game of using the word, ‘hypocrite’ to cover that you don’t really know what you profess to know.

    A hypocrite is someone who does not possess his stated beliefs, or whose opinions are not consistent with statements he has made.

    Beyond that, the word ’hypocrite’ was misspelled. It’s spelled ‘hypocrite‘. Or did you mean to say ‘hypo crit’? That would have an entirely different meaning,

    Perhaps you should just grow up, start reading more history, stop using insulting words you don’t understand, and learn how to spell.

  • Graham McKnight

    There is a big difference between ‘typo’ and ‘illiteracy’, MBD.

    You accuse me of evading your questions and assertions. You, however, draw attention to my typos (why, when we have so much more important matters to discuss?). And why repeat what you said in your opening salvo when it has since been smashed by the historians (oh yes darling, I do indeed read history) that I quote in my article? How many times do you wish me to repeat myself?

    I am somewhat disillusioned with you and your argument MBD; if it were a particular shape, it would be circular. Round and round and round you go, clutching desperately at straws in a vain attempt to stop this sickening ride that you take us on and prevent an unstoppable tirade of verbal diarrhoea from spewing all over your disenchanted passengers.

    You are a selective reader of the worst kind, Sir.

  • Zedd

    MBD

    The truth is that you missed Grahams point and are making an issue of something that wasn’t. You totally missed what he was saying by using those terms. He was talking about the play by play analysis of the era which often has nothing to do with what the deeds of NATO during that time were, or motivation and affects.

    You in essence are going back to the play by play and diverting from the topic at hand. The issue is larger this time. I realise that you display a great deal of defensivness on these threads and wont display any acknowledgement of my point however, consider it. You are off point.

  • Zedd

    Graham,

    I don’t think that the desire to subjugate by capitalistic societies was intentional. I think this model is so ingrained that it is invisible. It FELT wrong to talk about empowering peasants, just as racial equality FELT wrong. The need for there to be a depressed class has been such an intrinsic part of Western culture that anything else seems immoral because of its alien nature.

    The interesting fact is that Nato felt as if it was their decision as to how these countries would evolve. The paternalistic attitude of the wealthy which exists in most Western countries, spread internationally. They decided for these mostly non White nations what was good for them regardless as to what fit them best.

  • Graham McKnight

    An interesting analyses Zedd, I agree with what you are saying. When I highlight the wrongs present in Western activities past and present I often write in such a way as to suggest that they were intentional, which is not at all the case 100% of the time.

    In time I shall attempt to incorporate ‘unconcious wrongs’ into my arguments and articles as a worthy factor to consider. This notion is backed by credable cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall et al; an academic I have much respect for.

    Thanks for the constructive crit’ Zedd.

  • MBD

    Zedd says…

    “He was talking about the play by play analysis of the era which often has nothing to do with what the deeds of NATO during that time were, or motivation and affects.”

    That’s what was not done.

    It was I who was talking about ‘the play by play analysis’ of why the United States started rearming its military and continued it for 60 years.

    As JFK said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

    In this case, the Soviets took it.

    BTW, NATO was established by the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, a year after Berlin was blockaded.

  • Zedd

    MBD

    You still don’t get it.

    I am saying that the play by play analysis is pointless to the discussion at hand. Yes it was you who was doing that. THAT is exactly what he was saying distorts the entire picture.

    Because you missed what he was saying you did exactly what he was saying the problem was.

    Why did you feel it necessary to share when NATO was signed into existence with me? Did that have something to do with my posts on this thread?

    The discussion is about who NATO was during the cold war mainly during the conflicts in East Asia. When they came to be is rather irrelevant to a great degree.

  • Zedd

    Graham,

    I didn’t sense that you were saying that the actions were intentional. I however know that many people who have set ideas about capitalism vs anything else will see it as a good vs evil discussion and will label you as one who thinks that capitalist are intentionally bad.

  • Zedd

    I personally am not that impressed with human beings and tend to believe that we are fudging it most of the time, hoping that what we endeavor to do actually works. Revisionist history often leaves out the goofs and unintended nature of the results, simply recording the framers or leaders of that time as larger than life, having great foresight and understanding. I tend to not revere the “great” ideologies which we are so attached to. While respecting the evolution of how human beings organize themselves, I believe in a practical solution for every situation. I believe in continuous change to accommodate the changes in societies.

  • Graham McKnight

    Zedd,

    Give you last post, you may appreciate ‘Mao: The Unknown Story’ by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. They depict Mao as a chancer who rather than meticulously plans his rise to power, simply found himself in the right place at the right time.

    I found this particular framework a refreshing change from the usual style exercised by historians that suggests a dictator’s rise to power was inevitable and predictable (it is often evident in the language that they use).

    Thanks again for the constructive advice.

  • Zedd

    Graham,

    I’ll look at it. I am rather excited. Thank you.

    May I ask what your background is? If not academic, what interests influence your political perspective? Your view point is fascinating.

  • Graham McKnight

    Zedd,

    I was thinking of asking you the same question. Your comments in the politics section seem to go against the consensus in many respects.

    In brief; I am an undergraduate at the Brighton School of Historical and Critical Studies (England). The campus has built itself a reputation for being exceptionally subversive in terms of the way in which it (the lecturers) view and teach what British society take for granted. This entails a critical study into the workings of the Western world and how it came to be, dominant and subversive ideologies, cultures and sub-cultures, etc etc.

    To give you a better idea of what goes on down here in Brighton; the article above is actually ony of my essays that bore the original title; ‘Was the Cold War a Contest Between Liberty and Totalitarianism?’, I edited it so as to give it the appearance of an article rather than the academic essay that it once was.

    I self-define as an atheist. I believe in no greater purpose for humanity and as such may be though of as nihilistic. I settle for democratic socialism as the best form of government. For inspiration I look to Rosa Luxemburg (political activist and revolutionary), George Orwell (journalist, diarist and fiction writer), Joseph Conrad (fiction writer) and Trent Reznor (musician) to name but a few.

    I hope this info dispells a few myths about my person? I look forward to reading your life story Zedd.

    Graham

  • Zedd

    Graham,

    More so than academics, Sociology/Political Anthoropology, I am more propelled by an insaciable craving for information and a deficiancy in engaging in or processing theatrics. I suppose my ethic background plays somewhat of a role in shaping my processes. I’m mostly Zulu.

    I do believe in the divine. Not for the dramatic aspects of it but because of the enormity of it. The respect for grandness and all that I don’t know is beautiful to me. It is an equalizing force and an empowering concept also in a sense because it makes us part of something huge.

    It is these factors:”religious”, social and personal characteristics, that form my way of thinking.

    I believe that we tend to dramatize in order to get our way. Written history is full of drama and theatrics in order to convince us of one view point over another. Politics certainly is. I suppose that is what Brighton speaks to.
    It would seem that I would be in thinking heaven there :o)

    However, overall, I self profess as a goober :o)

  • Graham McKnight

    Well, you certainly are a more interesting character than one could possibly have imagined.

    I am in agreement with you, friend, in many respects. You say that ‘…all that I don’t know is beautiful to me. It is an equalizing force and an empowering concept also in a sense because it makes us part of something huge.’ And these words may also apply to me in equal measure.

    For me, the universe is made all the more magnificent knowing that no intelligent being played a part in it’s construction.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Gordon,

    Your article has a couple of minor problems in grammar that are based on misperceptions of fact.

    You refer to the Cold War in the past tense. When Mr. Putin threated to aim missiles at Europe yesterday, he pushed the freezer right back to the middle of the stage. The future tense is more appropriate.

    Putin does not think like a spoiled frat brat who can’t manage a business (Bush), a guy whose daddy collaborated with the Nazis (Sarkozy), a scared kike with a yellow streak as wide as the tallit he doesn’t wear (Olmert) – he thinks like a black belt in karate, which he is. The appropriate characterization for him is “wolf.”

    And don’t worry about “left” or “right” wing politics on the one wing Yankee chicken eagle. That bird ain’t flyin’ anymore…

  • Graham McKnight

    An interesting insight Ruvy.