Cold War, by CNN Perspectives
This 24-episode series, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, is a comprehensive history that examines the key events of the arc of the Soviet Union, from its birth to its fall, and provides a thorough analysis of what was going on behind closed doors. Informed by the stories of 500 eyewitnesses--from citizens and soldiers to historians and statesmen--and strengthened by painstaking reconstruction of archival historical film footage, CNN's Cold War is a heroic undertaking and a sweeping chronicle of the world's most fragile decades.
The Cold War over CNN’s Cold War
By Richard Pipes, Robert Conquest and John Lewis Gaddis
Earlier this year , CNN broadcast a twenty-four-hour television documentary on the Cold War, supplementing the documentary by publishing a companion book. The series created a furor. Critics charged that the series was inaccurate and—to use a phrase from the Cold War itself—soft on communism.
Herewith a debate among three historians. Richard Pipes explains what the television documentary got wrong. Hoover fellow Robert Conquest takes apart the companion book. Then John Lewis Gaddis, who served as an adviser to CNN, explains what CNN got right.
Richard Pipes explains what CNN’s television documentary got wrong.
Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the producer of the ambitious CNN series on the Cold War, has proven his ability to turn out first-rate documentary films with a previous series on World War II. The war films were relatively easy to make and relatively noncontroversial in that they depicted an armed conflict pitting young men, most of them draftees, risking their lives, for better or worse causes, but in fair combat. The battlefield is a contest of skill and courage, not an arena of ethics; its objective is clear—to crush the enemy. In this sense, the adversaries are comparable whether in terms of manpower, commanding staffs, weapons, or strategies. Because warfare is physical, not unlike an athletic contest, it lends itself eminently to pictorial presentation.
The Cold War, by definition (primarily) a nonmilitary conflict, was something else entirely. It pitted against each other two very different conceptions of life: one that stressed human rights and the rule of law, and another that subordinated human rights and law entirely to the interests of the state. In this contest, the rivals, even if they sometimes employed the same means, were not comparable. To render the Cold War properly, one must grasp and convey in unequivocal terms the difference between the aims as well as the methods of each side. No one will have any difficulty conceding this point in respect to World War II, when one of the adversaries represented pure evil in word as well as deed. It is somewhat more difficult in the case of the Cold War because the Soviet regime, although in deeds not much different from the Nazi one, in rhetoric liked to flaunt Western ideals.
Unfortunately, the producers of the CNN series have chosen to ignore the fundamental disparities between the two camps, treating the conflict as if it were essentially a trial of strength and ruthlessness.
The failure of the producers to come to grips with the nature of communism and the Cold War becomes evident in the very first installment. Here, nearly thirty years of Russian history—from the Bolshevik power seizure in 1917 to the end of World War II—are encapsulated in a single hour. This foreshortening of the early history of the Soviet Union is not accidental. It is necessary in order to present the Cold War as an “ideological struggle between East and West for world domination,” the main responsibility for which, in various subtle ways, is placed on the West.
In fact the Cold War began long before nuclear weapons were developed, on October 25–26, 1917, when the Bolshevik Party seized power in the Russian capital and proclaimed its intention of launching civil wars in every corner of the globe to usher in a new era of “proletarian dictatorship.” The ultimate objective of the revolution, in the words of Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s comrade in arms, was nothing less than “overturning the world.” In its official proclamations, the new regime declared war on all existing states by calling on their citizens to emulate the Russians by overthrowing them. This was not mere bluster. The Bolsheviks felt convinced they could not hang on to power in their own country unless they promptly secured the help of Communists in the industrialized as well as colonial countries. Even if they did manage to hold on to power by sheer terror, they feared they would have to abandon their socialist program under the pressure of an antisocialist, “petty-bourgeois” peasantry that happened to constitute 80 percent of Russia’s population. In this spirit, Grigorii Zinoviev, the head of the Communist International, boasted in 1919:
The movement advances with such dizzying speed that one can confidently say: in a year we shall already forget that Europe had to fight a war for Communism because in a year all Europe shall be Communist. And the struggle for Communism shall be transferred to America, and perhaps also to Asia and other parts of the world.
On coming to power, the Bolsheviks immediately proceeded to subvert neighboring countries. They staged a coup in Finland that the Finns managed to suppress with German military assistance. In Hungary they actually held on to power for half a year until they were overthrown. In January 1919 they staged a revolution in Germany; it failed, but failure did not stop them from trying again two years later. They also attempted, without success, to establish a communist regime in Persia. In the summer of 1920 they invaded Poland with the view to sovietizing it and using it as a base for the conquest of western Europe. None of these facts is reported in the CNN series. The omission could not have been due to lack of time, for time is found to depict, in harrowing detail, an eyewitness account of the slow death in the electric chair of Ethel Rosenberg.
The unwillingness to confront the fundamental causes of the Cold War by contrasting the long-term objectives and methods of the combatants inevitably leads to judgments reflecting “moral equivalence” under which Soviet aggression and Western responses to it are treated as basically identical. This propensity assumes bizarre dimensions in the sixth episode, called “Reds.”
To say that Joseph McCarthy was a vicious demagogue and a political opportunist is not to negate the fact that communist subversion was a real threat to America’s national security in the postwar years.
Here we are treated to a lengthy account of the Red scare of the 1950s, epitomized by McCarthyism. Senator Joseph McCarthy was, without doubt, a vicious demagogue who exploited widespread fear of communist subversion for his own political ends. But to say this is not to deny that communist subversion existed and was largely ignored by U.S. administrations. Classified documents released in the past few years from both Russian and American archives have revealed the extent to which Soviet agents had penetrated the highest levels of the U.S. government since the 1930s. This evidence is readily available, having been collected and edited by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes in The Secret World of American Communism as well as by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev in The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America. Additional evidence to this effect comes from the ultrasecret “Venona Papers,” texts of exchanges between Moscow and its U.S. agents intercepted by U.S. intelligence and recently released. Alger Hiss is now known incontrovertibly to have been a Soviet spy rather than the handsome WASP victim of Red hysteria depicted in the CNN film. Paul Robeson, whose harassment is emotionally recounted by his son, was not simply a communist idealist but a Stalinist. The Rosenbergs did betray U.S. atomic secrets to Moscow. The viewer of the CNN series is given no inkling of these facts.
Episode 16—called by the acronym “MAD,” for the doctrine of mutual assured destruction formulated in the 1960s by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—suffers from the same insidious flaw. It describes accurately the main phases in the evolution of nuclear weapons on both sides, but its recurrent depictions of nuclear mushrooms surging to the sky, bombers taking off, and submarines diving fail to address the fundamental difference in the way the two sides approached nuclear weaponry.
Once the Soviet Union had acquired an arsenal of atomic and hydrogen bombs and the means of delivering them, the U.S. leadership under President Lyndon Johnson concluded that these weapons had no utility other than deterrence and abandoned any notion of using them in combat, as dictated by the earlier strategy of “massive retaliation.”
This was not the case with the Soviet leadership. In developing nuclear missiles, Moscow proceeded on the assumption that, although they threatened unprecedented destructiveness and for that reason war should be avoided, if, nevertheless, war did break out, they would be an intrinsic component of the military arsenal. Soviet military theorists insisted that technical innovations in weaponry, even of the most revolutionary kind, did not change the nature of warfare: in other words, the more, the better. It is hard to know what accounts for the disregard of discussion of Soviet nuclear strategy unless it is the principles of parallelism and equivalence that dog the whole series.
The misunderstanding of Soviet motives resurfaces in the account of the invasion of Afghanistan, which is incorrectly described in the press materials for the series as “the USSR’s Vietnam.” In Vietnam, the United States sent half a million men halfway across the world to save a sovereign country from a communist takeover. In Afghanistan, the Soviet Union sent one hundred thousand men to a neighboring sovereign country to impose on it a communist government. Quite a difference.
The treatment in episode 17 of the two Middle Eastern wars—1967 and 1973—similarly suffers from the failure to discriminate. The Six-Day War is depicted as a conflict between Egypt and Israel. The fact that it was an integrated Arab effort involving, in addition to Egypt, Syria and Jordan, is passed over in silence. So is the fact that it was a war to annihilate the young Jewish state and evict if not slaughter its Jewish population a mere quarter of a century after the Holocaust. The Israeli surprise raid on Egyptian airfields, which in a matter of hours wiped out the Egyptian air force, is labeled a “preemptive strike,” although Egypt’s closing of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli navigation on May 23, 1967, was, by international law, an act of war. The low-intensity but costly in human lives “war of attrition” that followed and in which Soviet pilots directly participated in combat on Egypt’s side against Israel goes unmentioned as well. The rest of the reel, dealing with U.S.-Soviet competition in Africa, also fails to discriminate between aggression and response. Its concluding message is, “In the hunt of Cold War gains, the superpowers spawned an arms race in the developing world. Their solemn promises of restraint were thrown to the winds.”
There is worse to come. Ever sympathetic to Soviet sensitivities to the security of their borders and fears of “encirclement,” the CNN series shows no such understanding for U.S. concerns about Soviet penetration south of its border. The reel on the Cold War in Central America (episode 18) is one long tale of U.S. bestiality. Left-wing governments and left-wing guerrilla movements in this area are represented as inspired by nothing else than the quest for social justice. They had to struggle against their own right-wing governments and armies loyally backed by Washington and the great corporations with interests in the region (United Fruit, ITT, etc.). They always carried the people with them. If they did not win, it was because, enjoying only feeble Soviet and Cuban support, they confronted the unflinching enmity of the United States. (Fidel Castro adds a comic touch when he says that if the Communists had had a common strategy they would have won the Cold War.) Thus the narrator intones, “The American dollar and the failures of the armed left crushed Latin American revolutionary dreams.”
These are fairy tales. The CNN series misses no opportunity to show mutilated corpses of guerrillas and to talk to survivors of the massacres. The deeper reasons for the struggles elude them. The Communists have everywhere and at all times, beginning with the Russian Revolution of 1917, exploited social injustice and national frustrations to come to power and then, on coming to power, promptly restored social injustice and repressed national aspirations. There are brief hints here that the Chileans were miserable under Allende’s socialism, but his overthrow and suicide are squarely blamed on native right wingers and foreign “imperialists.” No explanation is provided as to why the Nicaraguan Sandanistas lost power in an election, which, in their overconfidence they had foolishly staged, other than that the U.S. government had allocated $10 million to their opponents. What remains unsaid is that, by virtue of their complete control of the Nicaraguan economy, the Sandanistas disposed of vastly larger sums. Nor is any explanation provided as to why, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the alleged “revolutionary dreams” of the people of Latin America evaporated and the guerrilla forces, allegedly fighting for them, laid down their arms.
Astonishing lapses of judgment occur in the treatment of the two administrations of Ronald Reagan. Reagan came into office with a clear program. Although not a learned man, he had the true statesman’s intuition. He understood the nature of the conflict with the communist bloc and he had a sound grasp of the balance of power; instead of allowing himself to be mesmerized by Moscow’s military arsenal and paralyzed by the fear of nuclear war, he grasped that the ideological poverty of the USSR and its desperate economic straits made it a weak if blustering opponent. This understanding led him to disregard most of the advice he was receiving. Instead, he formulated an offensive strategy based on the premise that the Soviet system, being incurably sick, could be forced in the direction of reform and possible collapse by a determined military buildup and measures of economic denial, both reinforced by bold rhetoric. He was the first U.S. president to challenge not just Soviet aggression but the communist system itself as its direct cause. None of these historic facts find reflection in the CNN series.
The final installment in the series, called “Conclusions,” offers no conclusions. Instead, it shows the last stages of the collapse of communism in Russia and ends with President Bush announcing the Cold War over. No insights are given into the nature of the conflict that had kept the world in a state of tension for nearly half a century, and no inferences are drawn from its outcome: Why did the West emerge triumphant? What does its triumph teach us about the limits of efforts to refashion human beings and create an entirely new kind of society—efforts that cost between 85 and 100 million lives? None of these questions is addressed. It is as if the Cold War had been nothing more than an athletic contest. And the viewer is left wondering: So what?
The CNN series ultimately panders to the natural propensity of people, especially young people, removed by the passage of time from great historic events, to see these events as meaningless happenings in which the protagonists pretended they were struggling for noble ideals while in fact they were merely pursuing their own selfish aims. This message is utterly false. For just as it did matter that the Athenians defeated the Persians, so it mattered that the West defeated the East in the Cold War. And it is a pity that, with the immense resources available to the producers of Cold War, they failed to make this obvious but most important point.
Robert Conquest examines the companion book to the recent television documentary, Cold War—and doesn’t like what he sees.
Let us examine the way in which the CNN companion book, The Cold War: An Illustrated History, treats individuals. Its view of Lenin, and others of his persuasion, in fact contrasts markedly with its treatment of Western leaders. Although it is not denied that the regime Lenin imposed on Russia led to tyranny, he is nevertheless given humanitarian motives: “His socialist principles were meant to ensure decent education, free health care, common ownership of the land, and fairness for all under the tough guidance of the Bolsheviks.” Lenin’s real attitude to humanity, except in the abstract, is well illustrated by his comment on the 1891–92 famine in Russia, that “psychologically, this talk of feeding the starving masses is nothing but the expression of saccharine-sweet sentimentality characteristic of the intelligentsia.” Maxim Gorky was to note that “Lenin has no pity for the mass of the people” and that even “the working class are to Lenin what minerals are to a metallurgist.” Many documents are now available in which Lenin insists on mass shootings and hangings. And Bertrand Russell, who met him when he was in power, reports that “his guffaw at the thought of those massacred made my blood run cold.”
It might be added that what is wrong is not only the inadequacy of the book’s assessment but its simplification of motive beyond the complexities and contradictions inherent in human character. It may, perhaps, also help us to gain a broader view of Lenin if we quote a comment of his on religion (in a letter of November 13, 1913):
Every religious idea, every idea of God, even flirting with the idea of God, is unutterable vileness . . . of the most dangerous kind, “contagion” of the most abominable kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions . . . are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of God decked out in the smartest “ideological” costumes. . . . Every defence or justification of God, even the most refined, the best intentioned, is a justification of reaction.
Again, when it comes to the Soviet spies Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby, we are told that “they acted from political conviction. They believed what they were doing was right.” The same could be said of agents of Nazism like John Amery. But, in any case, this is (again) a simplistic point. As Albert Camus long since pointed out, French sympathizers with communism did not love the Soviets so much as they “heartily detested part of the French.” On a different point, but again less simplistic, the poet Stephen Spender, who knew the three British spies (and to some extent sympathized with them), noted in his Journals, 1939–1983,
what they all had was the arrogance of manipulators. . . . Perhaps this was in part because they had voluntarily put themselves at the service of their Russian manipulators . . . their faith in a creed whose mixture of sanctity, bloodiness and snobbery gave them a sense of great personal superiority.
When the book deals with Western political figures, we are on different ground. Richard Nixon is shown (in the Hiss case) as motivated solely by ambition. No doubt such ambition played a role, but only an adversarial assessment could fail to consider that he might have had good motives too.
Ronald Reagan is treated in less hostile, but still hostile fashion, as a simpleton: “Reagan’s world was like an old Hollywood movie: he saw things in simple terms of right and wrong, with the Communists as the bad guys.” Now regardless of party or political views, this is at the level of caricature and would not be taken as adequate by any serious historian. The opinion of the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, is much more positive, and, which is more important, not only more positive but more nuanced. Indeed, Reagan emerges from recent research on his papers (by Kiron Skinner, for instance) as incomparably less shallow than the more or less hostile caricature.
On a further point, whether Reagan is justified, in effect, for seeing the confrontation in “black and white,” the CNN writers may disagree with the idea that, when it came down to essentials, the Soviet system was fundamentally hostile to, and concerned to procure the end of, what is usually called the Western demo-cratic culture. But in any case, agree or no, this is, give or take a nuance, the view not merely of simpletons but of major historians in the field. And, we should note, not only Reagan, but also Harry Truman and George Marshall are treated in the same uninformedly patronizing way.
In the reasons the book offers for the confrontation we call the Cold War, the main omission is a vital one. That is, the conception that the Marxist-Leninist creed saw the world as a scene of essential antagonisms and insisted that the conflict must be pursued until the overthrow of the noncommunist order the world over. This motivation has been confirmed by the memoirs of former Politburo members, by post-Soviet foreign ministers and others and was only abandoned by the last Soviet foreign minister, Edvard Shevardnadze, in 1990.
Cold War’s presentation of what is after all its central theme is notably different from that advanced in its leading U.S. historical adviser’s book on the subject, We Now Know, by John Lewis Gaddis, in which he describes the attempts by prominent Soviet officials to persuade Stalin to initiate at least a period of comparative cooperation with the West. Gaddis quotes Maxim Litvinov, the former Soviet deputy foreign minister, who was asked by the American envoy Averell Harriman, in November 1945, what the West could do to satisfy Stalin and answered, “Nothing.” In June 1946, still in that post, he warned a Western journalist that the “root cause” of the confrontation then reached was “the ideological conception prevailing here that conflict between the Communist and capitalist worlds is inevitable”—that is, no more than the doctrine long since announced by Lenin that “a series of frightful clashes” were bound to occur between the two systems, leading finally to world victory of communism. When the correspondent asked Litvinov, “Suppose the West would suddenly give in and grant all Moscow’s demands? . . . would that lead to goodwill and the easing of the present tension?” Litvinov answered, “It would lead to the West being faced, after a more or less short time, with the next series of demands.” The book simply implies, and that in a shallow and superficial fashion, that all Stalin wanted was a buffer area between him and the West.
In a long book supposedly exploring every aspect of the Cold War we may conclude by noting it is strange to find one phenomenon of some significance in covering American attitudes to the Cold War and to the Soviet Union not treated here. That is, the position of the American media. One has only to note that a recent Nexis search of American newspapers in the postwar period reveals the word “bellicose” applied to Reagan 211 times, to Margaret Thatcher 41 times, and to Brezhnev 5 times—this in a period covering the launching of the Afghan war. This attitude seems to have some application to this book and, of course, to its media sponsor.
John Lewis Gaddis defends the CNN series against its critics, asserting that truth exists, to a considerable extent, in the eye of the beholder.
Cold War historians have seen many apparent “truths” overthrown. “Orthodox” scholars insisted, during the 1950s and the early 1960s, that the Soviet Union had been solely responsible for that conflict. “Revisionists” reversed that interpretation over the next decade, holding the United States chiefly to blame. “Postrevisionists” then tried to find a middle ground between these extremes, with only limited success. Despite such striking differences, all of these interpretations of Cold War history had two things in common: Their advocates did not know the outcome of the event they were attempting to chronicle, and—because Soviet, East European, and Chinese sources were closed to them—they had access to the archival record of only one side. They were writing history from within their subject, rather as if Jonah had attempted to characterize the whale that swallowed him from the limited perspective of its gullet.
By the end of the 1980s, though, the Soviet Union was going belly-up, the Cold War was winding down, and historians could begin to see, for the first time, the possibility of representing that subject in the way that most history is represented: with knowledge of how it all came out, and with access to the archives—and the memories—of all the major participants. There arose during the early 1990s, as a consequence, a “new” Cold War history that was, in its relationship to the “old,” something like what Einstein had been to Newton. Everything required reconsideration, and the conclusions that followed—which even now are highly preliminary—were bound to be controversial.
The “truth” about the Cold War, therefore, has shifted with time. Even today no one can claim to have pinned it down without starting an argument. The subject looms too large in the consciousness of those who lived through it to allow the detachment that is possible for the more distant past. The historians are nowhere near agreement on how to represent it. Any television documentary on the Cold War, therefore, would have had the critics ready to pounce.
When the word got out, though, that Ted Turner had conceived, financed, and—at least in the United States—would be broadcasting a new Cold War documentary, the fur really began to fly. Turner is not exactly known for shyness. He expresses his views openly, frequently, and at times imprudently. The possibility that the “Mouth of the South” might use his particular representation of Cold War history, not just as a mouthpiece but as a loud and obnoxious trumpet, set all kinds of alarm bells ringing.
The “truth” about the Cold War is inherently controversial. Historians are nowhere near agreement on how to represent it. Any television documentary on the Cold War, therefore, would have had the critics ready to pounce.
I myself worried about this when I was asked to serve as a historical consultant on the project. It was reassuring to learn, however, that Turner had asked Sir Jeremy Isaacs, whose classic World War II documentary, World at War, set the standard for the responsible portrayal of history on television, to produce the series. I was also relieved to hear that Turner had requested of Isaacs only two things: that Cold War tell its story from an international, not just an American perspective, and that its tone not be triumphalist. These guidelines posed no problems for me or for my British and Russian colleagues, Lawrence Freedman and Vladislav Zubok; we would have insisted on them even if Turner had not.
For with the availability of new Soviet, East European, and Chinese sources, our fellow Cold War historians would never have taken the series seriously had it sought only to perpetuate an Americocentric view. Avoiding triumphalism also made sense because self-congratulatory history is rarely very good history: Winners as well as losers have their shortcomings and need to know about them. Beyond these instructions Turner did not go. In three years of working on this project I know of no other significant effort by him to shape editorial content.
Turner’s critics have it badly wrong, therefore, when they claim that the series reflects his political views: We were never even told what those might be. All we saw was a remarkable willingness to foot the bill for whatever it would take to make this project a contribution to Cold War scholarship as well as to television entertainment. We were therefore able to document the footage we used more thoroughly than has ever been done for a series of this kind. We archived and have made available on-line the complete transcripts of each of the some five hundred interviews featured in it—something else that is unprecedented. And when we decided that the originally planned twenty episodes would not be enough—that we needed more coverage of the Cold War in Central America and Africa, of Sino-Soviet relations, and of espionage—Turner agreed instantly.
So what about the consultants? Did we impose our views? We certainly suggested topics to be covered and people to be interviewed. We reviewed the scripts of each episode three times: in outline, as rough-cut video, and in broadcast-ready form. We gave advice freely, and most of the time we got our way. We were, though, still a committee, which meant that disagreements did occur among us. None of us got everything we wanted, nor did we have final editorial control. That authority rested, as was clearly understood from the outset, with Jeremy Isaacs and his production team. Within these ground rules, we obviously sought to influence the series: That was our job. Our critics have differed, though, as to just what the nature of our influence was.
Lloyd Gardner, for example, finds that we emphasized “systemic Soviet weaknesses while faulting the United States mainly for miscalculations.” Bruce Cumings goes further, complaining that Cold War presents its subject “as an open-and-shut case. When you open it, there is Soviet aggression. And when you close it, there is the aggressor collapsing, courtesy of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and the heroic Mikhail Gorbachev. . . . The good guys defeated the bad guys, even if the cost was often excessive.” This perspective, Cumings maintains, “is closely identified with the one American who played an important role in making the film, John Lewis Gaddis.”
But Jacob Heilbrunn insists that the series “retrospectively accords a patina of legitimacy to a Soviet system that was utterly illegitimate.” Charles Krauthammer sees in it “a relentless attempt to find moral equivalence between the two sides.” And then there is Gabriel Schoenfeld, who writes, “It beggars the imagination that John Lewis Gaddis, a historian who has shown he knows better, should have lent his name to such an exercise.”
As someone committed to a mushy middle in most historiographical disputations, I will admit to a certain satisfaction in having displeased both Cumings on the left and Schoenfeld on the right. Avoiding extremes is generally better than embracing them. The fact that these two critics came away with such diametrically opposed impressions of the role I am alleged to have played, however, reflects an important point about historical “truth”: that it exists, to a considerable extent, in the eye of the beholder.
In making Cold War, we had to remember that we were working in a visual medium. That meant that we could do certain topics better than others: It was easier to represent the Berlin Wall, for example, than it was the Bretton Woods system; we had far more footage on the Hungarian Revolution than on the Great Leap Forward. We had to fit what we included within rigid time constraints: Even twenty-four hours is too little to recount in detail a history that extended over twice that many years. And we had to hold the attention of our audience.
We chose to do so by respecting their judgment. We imposed no single interpretive framework, but rather allowed multiple voices to be heard. Each episode had its own writer and its own distinctive viewpoint. Each of our interviewees participated in or observed the events recounted; no retrospectively pontificating talking-head historians appear anywhere in the series. No doubt we sacrificed clarity by handling things in this way; but we captured more than we otherwise could have of the complexity of events and the ambiguity of human responses to them.
It’s clear now that in doing so we made our critics uncomfortable—especially the neoconservatives. Our refusal to tell our audience what to think, together with Turner’s injunction to avoid triumphalism, has convinced several of them that we had set out from the start to present the Cold War as a “morally equivalent” contest.
As someone who has himself condemned “moral equivalency” in no uncertain terms, I find it odd to be on the receiving end of such a charge. Cold War is full of implied and often explicit judgments of both sides. Yet no one who sees all its episodes can doubt that the struggle it documents ended in a clear-cut victory for the West, that the illegitimacy of Marxist-Leninist systems brought about that result, and that there are profound moral implications in all of this.
I can only conclude that Heilbrunn, Krauthammer, Schoenfeld, and others like them lack confidence that viewers, if allowed to make up their own minds, will reach conclusions similar to theirs. They regard Turner as a left-leaning Pied Piper, seeking to rehabilitate the reputation of old Cold War adversaries while beguiling a new generation of students who have no direct experience of that conflict. The only remedy, they seem to be saying, is a rigidly enforced historical orthodoxy.
This is particularly ironic in light of what the neoconservatives were saying—all too accurately—about the Soviet Union during the 1970s and early 1980s. For it was they who then criticized a system that insisted on single truths, dogmatically presented—a system that lacked the self-confidence to allow people to view the evidence and make up their own minds. It is almost as if, with the end of the Cold War, a kind of panic has set in on the right; there has to be an adversary, and if the Soviet Union is no longer available, then Ted Turner will have to do.
All I can say is, relax, guys. After having now taught this television series to over six hundred Yale undergraduates, I can testify that the last thing they take from it is a belief in moral equivalency. What they do get is an exposure to historical complexity: a sense of how things looked at the time, an awareness of how people who did not know the future attempted to anticipate it, perhaps even the ability to imagine themselves in their place and to ask the tough question: What would I, in similar circumstances, have done? In short, they gain historical maturity.
The role of history should not just be to convey information or impose orthodoxies: It should cultivate critical minds. That requires presenting students with various points of view. It requires leaving them as often disturbed as complacent. It requires asking them to question their values as much as it does congratulating them for holding such values. Indeed it was precisely the absence of that critical perspective that, in the end, proved fatal for Marxist-Leninist regimes in the Cold War. It is strange that so many critics of Cold War expected of it a similar ideological rigidity.
Adapted and excerpted from the new book CNN’s Cold War Documentary: Issues and Controversy, edited by Arnold Beichman and published by the Hoover Press.
CNN's Cold War Documentary: Issues and Controversy, edited by Arnold Beichman, is available from the Hoover Press. Also available is the Hoover Essay The Cold War: End and Aftermath, by Peter Duignan and L. H. Gann. To order, call 800-935-2882.
Richard Pipes is Baird Research Professor of History and former director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University.
Robert Conquest is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
John Lewis Gaddis is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University.
Copyright © 2009 by the Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University
CNN Perspectives series explores the Cold War experience from many different angles. Included are interactive maps, rare video footage, declassified documents, biographies, picture galleries, timelines, interactive activities, a search function, book excerpts, an educator's guide, and more. ( Highlights from episodes:
Episode One: Comrades (1917-1945)
Though ideological enemies, the Soviet Union and the U.S. are allies against Hitler during WWII. At the end of the war, Europe is divided, and the one-time allies now confront each other. The U.S. has the atomic bomb.
Episode Two: The Iron Curtain (1945-1947)
The Soviet Union dominates Eastern Europe. Churchill warns of the consequences. Stalin insists that the governments of the Soviet Union's clients states be pro-communist. Impoverished after the war, Great Britain opts out as a world power. The U.S. assumes the mantle of world leadership.
Episode Three: The Marshall Plan (1947-1952)
The U.S. adopts the Truman doctrine, pledging to defend freedom worldwide. Secretary of State George Marshall plans to bolster economic recovery in Europe. Seeing this as a threat, Stalin forbids his satellites to participate. The world effectively divides.
Episode Four: Berlin (1948-1949)
In Berlin, the American, British and French sectors form a Western enclave in the Soviet zone of divided Germany. In June 1948, the Soviets blockade the city, but the Western allies successfully airlift in supplies. In August 1949, Soviet scientists explode an atomic bomb, establishing nuclear parity between the two superpowers .
Episode Five: Korea (1949-1953)
In June1950, North Korea invades the South, with Stalin’s blessing. The United States, backed by the United Nations, defends South Korea, and then is confronted by communist China. In mid-1951, the war grinds to a bloody stalemate but eventually an armistice is signed. Aggression has contained.
Episode Six: Reds (1947-1953)
Following Stalin’s domination of Eastern Europe and the loss of China, American democracy falls victim to anti-communist hysteria, but survives it. Eisenhower is elected President. In the Soviet Union, Stalin reinforces the climate of terror on which his rule is based. When he dies, in 1953, the Soviet people mourn the end of an era.
Episode Seven: After Stalin (1953-1956)
Thaw is conceivable with Stalin's death. Khrushchev outmaneuvers Malenkov for power and visits the West. Germans, Poles and Hungarians attempt to rise against Soviet rule. In 1956, an uprising in Hungary is ruthlessly crushed by Soviet tanks. The U.S., pledged to contain rather than overthrow communism, does nothing.
Episode Eight: Sputnik (1949-1961)
In the mid-50's the Soviet Union seems to be forging ahead. In October 1957, the first Soviet satellite Sputnik orbits the earth-to the dismay and fear of the U.S., frustrated by its own ineffectual space program. In 1961, the Soviets launch Yuri Gagarin into space. America will have to meet the challenge.
Episode Nine: The Wall (1959-1963)
The fate of Germany remains unresolved. West Germany has been admitted to NATO. Within East Germany, Berlin is divided between East and West by an open border. Thousands seize the chance to flee the communist system. To keep their people in, the East Germans, with Soviet backing, build The Wall.
Episode Ten: Cuba (1959-1962)
Khrushchev decides, with Castro's agreement, to install short and medium-range missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles from the U.S. The U.S. detects missiles sites and blockades the island. The superpowers confront each other; rather than embark on nuclear war, they each step back. It was close.
Episode Eleven: Vietnam (1954-1968)
Vietnam has been divided since the end of French colonial rule. The North is run by communists, the South by anti-Communists. Ignoring warnings against involvement in a nationalist struggle, the United States commits its armed forces. American protests against the war mount. The U.S. realizes this is not a war it can win.
Episode Twelve: MAD (1960-1972)
Throughout the 60’s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are locked in a nuclear stand-off; each realizes that bombings the enemy could provoke retaliation and self-destruction. Nuclear strategy evolves into Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, in which both sides are guaranteed certain annihilation in the event of nuclear war.
Episode Thirteen: Make Love, Not War (The Sixties)
Western economies grow and prosper, fueled partly by armaments production. Rejecting their parents' affluence and the Cold War, many of the young protest and rebel. There is racial violence in U.S. inner cities. Rock music expresses the mood of a disenchanted generation.
Episode Fourteen: Red Spring: (The Sixties)
In the Soviet bloc, communist rule stifles ambition and achievement. Soviet defense expenditure cripples economic growth. The young lust for totems of America's youth culture - blue jeans and rock 'n roll. In Czechoslovakia, Dubcek attempts limited reform, but in 1968, Soviet force crushes the Prague Spring.
Episode Fifteen: China (1949-1972)
Chinese communists win the longest civil war in 20th century history. Mao's land reforms are popular but in 1958, he embarks on a series of catastrophic changes. China maintains an increasingly uneasy relationship with the Soviet Union. In 1960, the Sino-Soviet split paves the way for President Nixon's historic visit to Beijing.
Episode Sixteen: Detente (1969-1975)
North Vietnam launches a new offensive against the Sot. The U.S. steps up its bombing campaign but seeks peace through diplomacy. Nixon and Brezhnev sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT). The U.S. finally withdraws from Vietnam. Détente culminates in the Helsinki Declaration of 1975.
Episode Seventeen: Good Guys, Bad Guys (1967-1978)
The superpowers use surrogates to wage ideological and often physical conflict. In 1967 and 1973, American-backed Israel triumphs over Soviet-backed Egypt and Syria. In Africa, the Soviets exploit nationalist, anti-colonial struggles. The U.S. supports South Africa in its battle against communism.
Episode Eighteen: Backyard (1954-1990)
The United States has always regarded Latin America as its own backyard. Fearing the spread of communism, it seeks to destabilize leftist governments. In 1973, the CIA helps overthrow the Chilean president Salvador Allende; in the 1980's it support right wing extremists in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Episode Nineteen: Freeze (1977-1981)
Concern for human rights in the East grows; détente ebbs. The Soviets arm Eastern Europe; the U.S. threaten to site missiles in Western Europe. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ends détente. Promising tougher measures against Moscow; Reagan defeats Carter for the presidency. In Poland, martial law is imposed.
Episode Twenty: Soldiers of God (1975-1988)
Afghanistan is a war that costs the lives of almost 15,000 Soviet conscripts and an estimated one million Afghans. The United States supplies billions of dollars of weapons to unlike allies-Islamic fundamentalists. The result is a Vietnam-style conflict which takes its toll on the Soviets and hastens the end of the Cold War.
Episode Twenty One: Spies (1944-1994)
Early CIA attempts to penetrate the Iron Curtain are thwarted. The U.S. reacts with increasingly sophisticated technological intelligence - the U-2 spy-plane, satellite reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping. Yet human spies remain important. Sometimes betrayers, sometimes betrayed, many spies pay with their lives.
Episode Twenty Two: Star Wars (1981-1988)
Reagan boosts U.S. defense spending and proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative, an anti-missile system in space. New premier Gorbachev knows the Soviets can't match the U.S., and wants to liberalize and reconstruct the economy. After summits in Geneva, Reykjavik and Washington, the leaders agree to drastic arms cuts.
Episode Twenty Three: The Wall Comes Down (1989)
The dominoes fall: incredibly quickly, the Soviet bloc is breaking up, virtually without bloodshed. First Poland, then Hungary, the East Germany slip away from communist control. Gorbachev makes no effort to hold them back with force. Amid scenes of jubilation, the hated Berlin Wall comes down.
Episode Twenty Four: Conclusions (1989-1991)
The U.S. proves the stronger, the Soviet Union implodes. Germany is reunified. Shorn of its empire and communist domination, Russia faces its future with its economy in chaos. The balance of terror that has kept the peace for more than 40 years vanishes. The Cold War has ended without the use of nuclear weapons.