Lessons From Memories Grown Cold

The world has changed forever. This now familiar mantra rang truest for me in the wake of the first allied retaliatory strike in Afghanistan. I knew it was coming; I just did not know what the it would be. Speaking before the press corps in the wounded Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld explained that this new campaign would be the first in a long struggle. In fact the war on terrorism would, according to Rumsfeld, be waged much like the cold war.

This qualification was both ominous and ironic. Who could have imagined that Mr. Rumsfeldwho just months ago assumed the mantle of reforming the armed forces for a new worldwould find himself steering a war effort likened to the protracted superpower conflict that he managed as secretary of defense in the Ford administration? Twenty-five years later, and more than a decade since we triumphantly declared victory over the evils of Communism, have we already forgotten the costs and stakes of the cold war?


Will this new war on terrorism be fought like the cold war? I hope not. But perhaps it can be won the way that one was.

In fairness to Secretary Rumsfeld, his suggestion of a parallel was intended to express the international reach of the enemy in the war on terrorismwell beyond Afghanistan. True enough. Yet the international breadth of the cold war’s hostilities are chief among its haunting memories. Restrained from direct conflict by the precarious veil of nuclear-afforded security, the superpowers conducted war by proxy in every corner of the globe.

The great American statesman and scholar George Kennan is widely acknowledged as the founding architect and spokesman for the cold war policy of containment. Writing under the pseudonym X in a now famous article published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, Kennan stressed the need to check Soviet ambitions broadly, by the adroit use of counter-force at a series of shifting geographical and political points.

Although containment evolved both rhetorically and practically in the decades that followed, the drive to restrain Soviet Communism became the prism through which policies were conceived and implemented. Democratic and Republican administrations alike pursued the goal with remarkable consistency. Our focus and unanimity were laudable but hardly infallible. Too often containment warped our vision, obscuring our view of the suffering and destruction wrought in the pursuit of our just cause. We undertook policies unrepresentative of our values and counterproductive in effect. We fostered revolutionary movements to topple our foes while defending our friends, no matter the cruelty of their reign. And we lived in fearand hoped for our sake that the enemy did too.

Conventional wisdom has it that Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical and material escalation of the cold war was the straw that broke the back of the Soviet bear. Our tit-for-tat opposition in Afghanistan, Africa and Central America matched the Soviet stretch. America’s budgetary commitment to missile-defense research proved prohibitively costly to the Soviets. In hindsight it is hard to deny that the Soviets were on the brink of economic collapse. That we were so blinded then to the imminence of our rival’s demise might give us pause about our confidence in explaining it today.

There is no question that the Reagan administration’s bellicose diplomacy and swollen defense budgets raised the stakes. But did they set the stage for what ultimately occurred? Economic and strategic pressures alone cannot explain the watershed transformation the world witnessedan empire dissolving largely in peace. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev might not have chosen the decidedly Western course of economic reforms coupled with political liberalization. Nor did he have to bend to popular pressure and abandon recalcitrant old guard allies. Poverty and opposition do not so easily remove unwanted régimes. Would that they did! Moreover, how can we explain the peaceful unanimity and courage of civilian movements that swept aside dictatorships throughout Eastern Europe? Can containment take credit for this remarkable implosion?

George Kennan’s 1947 article offers clues to our victory, too often overlooked in its tenacious pursuit. In fact, Kennan’s analysis now reads like a prescient portrayal of how America ultimately won the peace. Kennan understood that to defeat an aggressive ideology directed by a flawed conception of human nature and destiny, America needed most of all to be itselftrue to the values and principles upon which it thrives and that it inspires. In cautioning against excess, Kennan explained that effective containment had nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward toughness.’ Rather, Kennan saw the real struggle of the cold war as turning on the inward authenticity and credibility of the American way of life. In the face of such integral opposition, the Soviet ideology was doomed to failure. It is the Russians, not we, who cannot afford a world half slave and half free. The contrasts implicit in such a world are intolerable to the fictions on which their power rests.... If only one ray of light of individual dignity or human inquiry is permitted to exist, the [Soviet] effort must eventually fail.

America’s surest defense lay in the preservation of its values. The struggle against Communism was in essence a test of the over-all worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction, the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.

For America’s new war, can we learn something from how the last was overcome? Surely the courage and generosity extended in the weeks following the carnage of Sept. 11 represent the best of the United States. In fact, the witness of our human solidarity has already dealt a blow to the hatred that inspired this terrorism. The world has seen and heard America unite in a strong common purpose in the face of weakness and vulnerability. And in doing so, we have moved even some of our most recalcitrant critics.

As brave young men and women risk their lives to bring the perpetrators to justice, we must strive even now to build the peace. In this struggle, like those faced before, our integrity matters. The Congressional debate over antiterrorism legislation reveals our abiding commitment to individual libertieseven in the face of danger. More Americans are eager to understand Islam and to demonstrate in words and deeds a genuine respect for this religious tradition. We see more clearly the foolishness of relying on Hollywood to project our values to a curious and needy world. Our leaders speak more respectfully and humbly about other nations. We recognize that we cannot go it alone. The world is a complex community from which we cannot flee into selfish isolationism. We have a new awareness of how violence and terrorism have wounded too many for too long. In a word, we’ve become more humanand truer to ourselves.

Reflection on the just war tradition has led many observers, American bishops among them, to judge the present military campaign as an appropriate response to terrorist aggression. While this ethic provides a valuable tool for examining the morality of force in particular circumstances, it offers little guidance on the broader question of how to forge a just and peaceful world. Such is the aim, however, of Catholic social thought. Our reflection and response must rise to the breadth and nuance of this body of church teaching. Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., astutely observed on Oct. 8 that ours is a battle to change minds and hearts. American freedom and prosperity have undeniably captured the imagination of the world and its marginalized. We can and must be more deliberate and consistent in allowing our actions abroad to reflect the values in defense of which we are prepared to wage war.

On the cusp of the protracted conflict of the last century, George Kennan urged Americans to a trusting constancy. His words ring true today for a new and ominous chapter of world conflict. Americans need not be fearful, but rather should experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which...has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

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