A review of Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First, by Mona Charen
The collapse of Europe's Christian monarchies in the aftermath of the Enlightenment resulted in at least three distinct solutions to the problem of how to organize society in a post-Christian world. One, which ultimately won approval in most Western nations, stressed the freedom of the individual, and gave rise to institutions that favored it, both politically (democracy) and economically (the free-market economy, or capitalism). Another, drawing on atavistic impulses allegedly resident in particular societies, and fueled by the Romantic rebellion against Enlightenment rationalism, resulted in the totalitarian regimes we know as "fascist": Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, and their imitators.
The third, insisting on its strictly scientific origins, professed to have discovered "the laws of history," under which capitalism (defined as the exploitation of workers by those owning the means of production) would be overthrown by the workers and replaced by a state which would itself control the means of production. This "socialist" state would then plan the national economy scientifically, on the principle "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."
It would be foolish to underestimate the appeal of this third solution to the modern mind. The Enlightenment's central achievement, after all, had been to replace faith with reason—to make mankind, with the aid of science, the arbiter of its own destiny. Socialism, as described above, seemed to many a 19th- and 20th-century mind nothing more than the application of this technique to the problem of economics on a national scale.
A century on, we have learned better. The challenge posed by the fascist nations was faced and disposed of in the first half of the 20th century. The second half was consumed in a decisive struggle between the heirs of the Enlightenment's two competing traditions: the tradition of freedom, and the tradition of state power, which, it soon transpired, inevitably resulted in the enslavement of the people the state purported to serve.
But it should not be surprising that many people in the Western world have always found it difficult to condemn Communism quite as wholeheartedly as they condemned fascism. Communism, and socialism more generally, at least assertedly appealed to science for their justification. Perhaps (many thought) their totalitarian tendencies were not inevitable but simply the result of circumstances.
Even capitalism had its problems. Capitalism, after all, did not even pretend that its own motivating impulses were high-minded: It argued only that each individual's desire for his own economic benefit would collectively result in a benefit to society at large. Surely socialism, and even Communism, deserved some credit for at least having a higher motivation than that.
Such, at any rate, was the frame of mind of many Western intellectuals when World War II ended in the decisive defeat of fascism, and left free societies and socialist ones (and more particularly Communism) squarely in contention for the leadership of the world.
In addition, and even worse, a good many intellectuals in the West were simply blind to the negative aspects of Communism. In the 1920s and 1930s they had become convinced that Communism was actually superior to Western societies, and no amount of evidence to the contrary—even eyewitness evidence—could change their minds. World War II, in which Britain and the United States became the military allies of "good old Joe," briefly made this mindset even easier to maintain, and the outbreak of the Cold War between the former allies found these people silently (or in some cases quite vocally) sympathetic to the Communist cause. As a result, the world's free societies were forced to wage the Cold War with far less than the wholehearted support of many liberal and leftist intellectuals. In one way or another, and to one degree or another, they effectively supported the policies and purposes of the Soviet Union.
Lenin reputedly referred to these Western intellectual defenders of Communism as "useful idiots," and this is the sobriquet Mona Charen confers on them in the title of her book chronicling their statements and activities. As a reference source, it will be absolutely invaluable to scholars for generations to come. For the rest of us, it provides a sharp reminder of just how stubbornly many liberals resisted this country's efforts to contain, and ultimately defeat, the deadly threat of international Communism.
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In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I have known Mona Charen personally since she worked on the editorial staff of National Review (of which I was publisher) a couple of decades ago. She left our employ for greener pastures—first as a White House speech-writer for Nancy Reagan, and ultimately as a popular television commentator and syndicated columnist—and I have watched her career with pleasure. She was splendidly suited, by temperament and intellect, to marshal this stunning collection of liberal follies into a deadly indictment of their stupidity (or worse) over forty perilous years.
Her book does not contain, alas, the remarkable statement that constituted my own first introduction to a useful idiot. It blazes in my memory across the 58 years since it was uttered. It was 1946. The Cold War was just beginning, and I was listening to a radio debate on the subject between Clare Boothe Luce and Rev. Harry F. Ward, former chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union and an ornament of New York's Union Theological Seminary (professor of Christian ethics there, I believe), who was already famous as an apologist for Communism. Mrs. Luce made a scathing reference to the Soviet Union's "concentration camps," to which Dr. Ward promptly responded, "Those are not concentration camps. They are personal rehabilitation camps, and they have done those people a world of good!" It is testimony to the impact that piece of idiocy had on me that I remember every word, and am prepared to bet money that my quotation of it is practically verbatim.
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Ms. Charen's formula is simple, and devastatingly effective. She simply recounts the history of the Cold War, in chronological order, and quotes what noted liberals of the day were saying about it. In recent years there has been a good deal of revisionist history ground out, the general tendency of which is to leave the impression that America was of one mind and voice on the subject of the Cold War, and specifically on the matter of the evil deeds of the Soviet Union. But Mona Charen will have none of it.
To be sure, it took the liberals a little while to get accustomed to criticizing America's resistance to the aggressive policies of post-war Communism. In a chapter entitled "The Brief Interlude of Unanimity on Communism," Charen allows that up until about 1960 both major parties were fairly uncompromising in their insistence on the need to block Soviet aggression. Probably the fact that the Korean War was embarked upon and largely waged by Harry Truman, a Democratic president, and under the nominal auspices of the United Nations at that, had a lot to do with muffling early liberal impulses to appeasement. And it was in 1960 that John Kennedy, in his inaugural address, so memorably vowed to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to ensure the survival and the success of liberty."
But in the decade of the sixties, under the pressure of the seemingly endless struggle in Vietnam, and impressed by the explosive growth of the New Left on campuses across the United States, many American liberals turned sharply to the left, and gradually modified their view of reality to reflect not only opposition to the war but a more generous concept of the purposes and possibilities of the Soviet Union and its satellites. (A minority of veteran liberals, unable to stomach the change, broke with their colleagues altogether and eventually found a new home under the name "neoconservatives.")
But it was not merely a certain sympathy for the Communist cause that began to manifest itself in America during the 1960s. As Charen perceptively remarks, "The profound tremor that went through American society starting in about 1965 was not just about the Vietnam War. Some deep wellsprings of dissatisfaction, petulance, and irritability were tapped by the war. All at once everything about American society—from its 'materialism' to its supposed 'militarism'—was decried and despised." Susan Sontag unerringly identified the true enemy: "During the last years Vietnam has been stationed inside my consciousness as a quintessential image of the suffering and heroism of the 'weak.' But it was really America 'the strong' that obsessed me—the contours of American power, of American cruelty, of American self-righteousness."
An entire book could have been written about the scores of liberals—Ramsey Clark, William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Mary McCarthy, Frances Fitzgerald, Jonathan Schell, Harrison Salisbury, and Noam Chomsky, to name just a few—who shared Sontag's negativism. As the Cold War progressed, domestic resistance to America's efforts to block the advance of Communism continued to reflect this element of hatred for America itself.
Take, for example, Pol Pot's bloodbath in Cambodia. By now the liberal tendency to make excuses for Communist atrocities was well entrenched. New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg, in a front-page story on April 13, 1975, reassured the paper's readers: "…for the ordinary people of Indochina…it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone." Difficult, perhaps, but unfortunately not impossible.
Not surprisingly, de facto support for Communist causes often took the less dangerous form of "anti-anti-Communism." "The problem" Charen explains dryly, in describing this phenomenon, "…was not the existence of a communist threat but our groundless paranoia." What about the 10 new nations that had fallen into Communist hands between 1974 and 1980? Resistance to Marxist revolutions was futile. "The fact is," warned Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, "that we can no more stop change than Canute could still the waters." And that included Marxist "change." President Carter himself spoke disapprovingly of our "inordinate fear" of Communism.
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As for the Soviet Union itself, it never lacked for liberal apologists, even in its worst Stalinist moments. George Bernard Shaw, Edmund Wilson, H. G. Wells, Julian Huxley, and Henry Wallace were only a few of the scores of prominent Americans and Britishers who made fools of themselves praising Stalin's Soviet Union. And three decades after Stalin's death, Princeton professor Stephen Cohen was still taking in the washing of the Soviet leadership, as in this almost poetic depiction of Yuri Andropov, who briefly took the helm: "Andropov seems to have been the most reform-minded senior member of Brezhnev's Politburo, an impression he chose to reinforce cautiously in his first policy speech as the new General Secretary. Nor does his 15-year stint as head of the KGB disqualify him as a potential reformer. Soviet police chiefs, who must understand the limits of control, have become advocates of liberalizing change before." (And, let us hope, since—President Putin, take note.)
Similarly, when Constantin Chernenko succeeded Andropov, the New York Times's John F. Burns was on hand with this bouquet: "Others caution against underestimating Mr. Chernenko, who impressed several Western leaders who met him after [Andropov's] funeral as a warmer, earthier man than Mr. Andropov, seemingly comfortable in his new role." As for Mikhail Gorbachev, the enthusiasm of the Western press simply knew no bounds. CNN founder Ted Turner arguably won the prize for uncritical adulation with this effusion: "Gorbachev has probably moved more quickly than any person in the history of the world. Moving faster than Jesus Christ did. America is always lagging six months behind." (There were those who suspected that Gorbachev "moved" a great deal faster than he had any intention of moving.)
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The American president who confronted all three of these Soviet nonpareils was, of course, Ronald Reagan, and it goes without saying that he suffered in comparison with all of them, in the eyes of contemporary liberals. When, in March 1983, he described the Soviet Union as "an evil empire," their reaction was little short of hysterical. Henry Steele Commager, then a professor of history at Amherst, condemned Reagan's speech as "the worst presidential speech in American history, and I've read them all." Hendrik Hertzberg, later editor of The New Republic, protested that "words like that frighten the American public and antagonize the Soviets. What good is that?" Time's Strobe Talbott, later President Clinton's deputy secretary of state, made the same objection: "When a chief of state talks that way, he roils Soviet insecurities." George W. Ball, undersecretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, sounded a somber warning: "Mr. President, you have set us on a dark and ominous course. For God's sake, let us refix our compass before it is too late."
The idea that Reagan's willingness to challenge the morality, and hence the fundamental legitimacy, of the Soviet empire would be welcomed where Communism was known the best, and would ultimately contribute to its downfall, never occurred to this bunch of Chicken Littles.
Charen notes that straight through the 1980s liberal Democrats in Congress "found fault with every weapons system for which they were asked to vote. Pointing to some future system that would theoretically work better, many would vote against nearly all military expenditures. In 1984, 194 Democratic members of the House of Representatives voted to bar funding of the MX missile. In 1987, 195 voted to forbid testing on a space-based "kinetic-kill vehicle." Two- hundred-nineteen Democrats voted to urge the president to maintain the unratified SALT II limits without regard to Soviet compliance. A smaller number, but still a clear majority of Democrats (134 of them), voted against developing the neutron bomb. In 1986, while the Cold War was very much a going concern, 76 Democrats voted for a resolution proposed by Colorado Democrat Patricia Schroeder to cut U.S. troops devoted to NATO by 50% over five years. One hundred forty-five Democrats voted for an amendment to the defense authorization bill proposed by California Democrat Ron Dellums to bar funding for the B-1 bomber. And 146 voted to prevent modification of submarines to carry Trident II missiles." As Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984, saw it, "[F]our years of Ronald Reagan has [sic] made this world more dangerous. Four more will take us closer to the brink."
No group was more influential in pressing the case for "arms control" than the great majority of America's main-line churches. In the early 1980s the National Council of Catholic Bishops called on the United States to pledge "no first use" of nuclear weapons—a pledge the Soviet Union had cheerfully made, knowing that its tremendous superiority in conventional weapons would overwhelm Western Europe. The (Protestant) National Council of Churches and the Rabbinical Assembly of America both endorsed a nuclear freeze. Bishop Matthiesen of Amarillo urged loyal Catholics to give up their jobs in nuclear arms plants.
Charen notes that on television, "Phil Donahue probably earned the title 'useful idiot' as much as anyone during the 1980s," slavishly promoting a Soviet "journalist" named Vladimir Pozner, whom he advertised as Exhibit A for the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union.
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President Reagan's proposal of a Strategic Defense Initiative, to intercept Soviet nuclear missiles en route to their targets, predictably brought on another spasm of opposition. This time the preferred weapon was ridicule; Senator Kennedy derided the whole idea as "Star Wars," and insisted that it would never work. A group of 6,500 scientists, including 15 Nobel Prize winners, signed a "pledge of nonparticipation" in SDI research. Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis described SDI as "a fantasy—a technological illusion." (The Soviets, however, didn't think so. At Reykjavik, Gorbachev offered to reduce Soviet conventional forces in Europe, eliminate intermediate range missiles from Europe, and reduce the Soviet nuclear arsenal by half if only President Reagan would agree to limit SDI research to the laboratory.)
And so it went, with every development in the Cold War. The Cuban revolution was explained and praised as a different kind of Communism. (In 1981, more than 20 years into that tyranny, a United Methodist Church document described it as "a vision for the future.") President Reagan's occupation of Grenada, which had been turned into a Communist base in the Caribbean, was denounced by the New York Times as "a reverberating demonstration to the world that America has no more respect for laws and borders, for the codes of civilization, than the Soviet Union." Determined Communist bids for power in El Salvador and Nicaragua were explained away as peasant revolts deserving, if anything, American sympathy. (Michael Harrington, founder of the Democratic Socialists of America: "The Nicaraguans are a generous people, a poor and often hungry people, who want to make a truly democratic revolution and it is we who work to subvert their decency.")
Even when the Soviet Union collapsed and the evidence of its evil nature could no longer be concealed, its apologists found cause to regret its passing. On the CBS Evening News on April 11, 1990, Bert Quint described southeastern Poland as "a place where the transition from communism to capitalism is making people more miserable every day." And Connie Chung told viewers of the same network in late 1991 that "in formerly Communist Bulgaria, the cost of freedom has been virtual economic disaster." Barbara Walters could hardly bear the comparison: "In the old Soviet Union, you never saw faces like these—the poor, the homeless, and the desperation of the Russian winter. Their numbers are growing. Tonight: Is this what democracy does? A look at the Russia you haven't seen before…the price of freedom can be painfully high."
In retrospect, it is clear that American victory in the Cold War was no foregone conclusion. At any one of half a dozen turning-points, events could have moved in directions favorable to Communism, until the cumulative momentum of serial successes overwhelmed the forces opposed to it. Fortunately, if sometimes by the narrowest of margins, the leaders of the West had the skill, the determination, and the luck to prevail. But it is very much worth remembering that their resistance was opposed, tooth and claw, by liberal and radical forces within the Western societies themselves. If those forces had had their way—if their interpretation of events had prevailed—the free world would ultimately have succumbed to its enemies.
It is hard to resist the conclusion that such an outcome would not have been wholly unwelcome to many of these internal foes who worked so diligently to bring it about. For at bottom, as Charen notes in her conclusion, "the rotten kernel of their appeasement and weakness throughout the second half of the Cold War was America-hatred"—the animus against this country that Sontag had frankly admitted early on.
Perhaps every free society nurtures in its bosom similar destructive impulses forever ready to test its vulnerability. Certainly this one did, and we are fortunate that, in the 20th century at least, the United States proved equal to the deadly challenges, both foreign and domestic, that confronted it.