There were many inanities that came with the Cold War, the 45-year period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. In fact, one might easily argue that the entire Cold War was an exercise in inanity.
U.S. officials, of course, have always maintained that the Cold War was necessary to prevent the Soviet Union from imposing communism on the United States and the rest of the world. There could never be peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, U.S. officials repeatedly told the American people throughout the Cold War, because the communists would never rest until their goal had been achieved. Any move toward peaceful coexistence was, in the eyes of U.S. officials, a first step in the surrender of the United States to the communists.
The utter inanity of that position is reflected by the fact that the United States did coexist with communist regimes, both during the Cold War and after it ended in 1989. In fact, today it peacefully coexists with China, Vietnam, and Cuba, all of which have long had communist governments.
There is absolutely no reason why United States and the Soviet Union could not have done the same in the postwar years. After all, the Soviet Union had been America’s World War II partner and ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. One of the inanities of the Cold War was that as soon as the so-called good war was over, U.S. officials converted the Soviet Union, which had been Germany’s wartime enemy, into America’s Cold War enemy. Equally inane, the U.S. government, operating through the CIA, secretly brought former high Nazi officials into the U.S. government in order to help U.S. officials wage the Cold War against their former partner and ally (and Hitler’s World War II enemy). In fact, U.S. officials did the same thing with high Japanese officials who had engaged in gruesome germ experiments on Chinese citizens during the brutal occupation of China.
The national-security state
Perhaps the biggest inanity of the Cold War was the decision to graft a national-security state apparatus onto America’s original federal governmental system that had been established by the Constitution. That’s how the American people ended up with an enormous, permanent military establishment, headed by the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA, an apparatus that remains part of America’s governmental structure more than 25 years after the end of the Cold War.
Prior to the Cold War, America had never been a permanent national-security state. After the Constitution called the federal government into existence, there was no large standing army or even a national police force (i.e., an FBI). That’s because our American ancestors had a deep antipathy toward standing armies. They knew that throughout history enormous military establishments not only bankrupted nations with their endless wars but also were the means by which tyrannical regimes imposed “order and stability” on the citizenry, especially when they objected to governmental policies.
Now, it’s true that in some of America’s wars, such as the Civil War and World War I, enormous military and intelligence establishments became part of the federal government. But after the wars were over, those enormous apparatuses were dismantled, pursuant to the founding principles of the country.
Not so after World War II. U.S. officials said that this time, things were different. They said that because their World War II partner and ally, the Soviet Union, was determined to establish communism in the United States and the rest of the world, it was necessary to adopt the same type of governmental system that had long characterized totalitarian regimes, including, needless to say, the Soviet Union!
Is that inane, or what? Think about it: In order to combat the so-called communist threat, they said, it was necessary for America to graft the totalitarian-like apparatus known as a national-security establishment onto the U.S. governmental system.
To appreciate the inanity of that reasoning, think about one of the distinguishing characteristics of living in the Soviet Union. The Soviet regime spied on its own people with the aim of ferreting out those who opposed communism. People who said (or thought) the wrong thing about communism or the Soviet communist regime were subject to being arrested, incarcerated, destroyed, punished, or killed.
How did the U.S. national-security establishment respond to that? In the most predictable way — by mimicking what the Soviets were doing, but doing it against Americans. If that’s not inane, what is? Think about the entire Cold War anti-communist crusade here in the United States. Mass surveillance on dissidents. Secret FBI files. McCarthyism. Ruination of lives. Infiltration of organizations. Persecutions, prosecutions, and incarcerations. Assassinations.
In other words, the same types of things the Soviets were doing! Of course, U.S. officials maintained that what they were doing was different because they were doing it to “communists” while the Soviets were doing it to “capitalists.” But isn’t that a distinction without a difference? A free society necessarily consists of people who have the right to believe in whatever they want to believe in and advocate any ideas or philosophy, no matter how despicable, dangerous, or unpopular, they desire. That necessarily includes communism, socialism, fascism, or any other form of collectivism. If people are free to believe in and advocate only views that are respectable or acceptable, that is not a free society.
Now, consider two of the biggest inanities in the Cold War, Berlin and Cuba, both of which became constant, ongoing flashpoints for crises, which obviously made it appear that the U.S. national-security state was an absolute necessity. Both of those Cold War flashpoints brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust.
In 1948, the U.S. military initiated what has gone down in history as the Berlin Airlift. Circumventing a blockade that the Soviets had imposed on ground travel through East Germany to West Berlin, U.S. military aircraft flew into Berlin to provide food and other supplies to the people of West Berlin.
A question naturally arises: Why did the Soviets impose that blockade? That was a question that hardly anyone dared to ask in 1948 because to do so risked the ire of the entire U.S. national-security bureaucracy. To ask that type of question was akin to political heresy and subjected the questioner to being labeled a communist or a communist sympathizer. Americans were expected to blindly damn the communists and support the troops.
To appreciate the utter inanity of Berlin during the Cold War, we need to go back to World War II. As the capital of Germany, and as the city where Hitler was based, Berlin was the target of massive bombing by Allied forces during the war. The United States and England were doing everything they could to kill everyone in Berlin, just as they were doing in Dresden and the rest of Germany.
Have you ever heard of the Morgenthau Plan? It was a plan devised by U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. that called for the destruction of all German industry after the war, which Morgenthau and other U.S. officials knew would produce massive death by starvation among the German populace. That didn’t bother many people within the U.S. government. As far as they were concerned, the only good German was a dead German. In fact, while the Morgenthau Plan was never adopted, even the president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, supported it.
While we are on the subject of Roosevelt, let’s not forget how it was that the Soviet Union ended up controlling East Germany, where Berlin was located, and, for that matter, all of Eastern Europe. It was because Roosevelt, viewing the Soviet Union as America’s wartime partner and ally, agreed during the war that the Soviet Union would take control over Eastern Europe and East Germany. That’s why Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the rest of Eastern Europe never viewed the victory over Nazi Germany as the great triumph that the United States and Great Britain did. For them, living under communist tyranny wasn’t any different from living under Nazi tyranny.
Now jump ahead three years to 1948, the year of the Berlin Airlift. All that enmity toward Germans had been converted into love and concern for the people of West Berlin, who, you will recall, U.S. and British officials were trying to kill a few years before for being Nazis or Nazi supporters. Suddenly the people of West Berlin were worth risking a nuclear war over, which would take out much of the United States.
Well, why only them? Why not the Germans in East Berlin or, for that matter, the Germans in the rest of East Germany? Why not the people of Eastern Europe, who had been sold down the river as part of America’s wartime partnership with the Soviet Union?
Let’s examine West Berlin from the standpoint of the Soviets. They had a part of a city within the Soviet empire that was controlled by their Cold War opponents, including West Germany, who were determined to bring an end to the Soviet empire. It was an area that could easily be infiltrated by U.S. military personnel and spies. Moreover, the area was providing an easy means of escape for people who wished to flee the Soviet empire and move to West Germany.
To get a better grasp of how the Soviets viewed West Berlin, think of Cuba, the other big Cold War flashpoint, where the Soviet Union and the United States also came to the very brink of all-out nuclear war. Recall how the U.S. national-security state viewed Cuba. They said that America could never survive with a communist outpost 90 miles away from American shores. Later, they said that a communist regime much further away — in Chile — also posed a grave threat to U.S. “national security.”
Why then should it surprise anyone that the Soviet national-security establishment would feel the same way about a U.S.-controlled outpost inside the Soviet empire, especially given that the United States, at the same time, was rebuilding West Germany (by means of the Marshall Plan) and even incorporating former Nazis into the U.S. national-security establishment? Why would anyone think that the Soviet Union, which had gone to war with Germany twice in 25 years and which had lost some 27 million people and 25 percent of its capital resources in World War II, would not be concerned about the possibility of another invasion within the next 10–20 years, especially given that the United States was now helping to rebuild West Germany as rapidly as possible?
When Harry Truman was formally calling into existence the U.S. national-security establishment, he was told that in order to get the support of the American people for this dramatic change in their governmental structure, he would have to “scare the hell” out of them. If the American people could be filled with fear, the argument went, they would be less apt to object to a fundamental change in the nature of their government.
So, the question naturally arises: Why was the U.S. government so insistent on keeping control of half of Berlin, the city it had just recently tried to demolish during the war, especially given that the eastern half of Germany, along with its inhabitants, had already been relinquished to the Soviet Union? Whatever the reason was, U.S. officials came to realize that maintaining control over half a city in the middle of Soviet-controlled East Germany could provide a continuous, ongoing flashpoint between the United States and the Soviet Union, which would “scare the hell out of the American people” and thereby justify converting the federal government into a national-security state, with ever-growing budgets for the Pentagon and, later, the CIA and the NSA.
As inane as the ongoing Cold War crisis in Berlin was, its inanity actually paled compared with the inanity of the never-ending Cold War crisis with Cuba.
Consider the Cuban Missile crisis, which was precipitated by the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Every American schoolchild is inculcated with the notion that the Soviets installed those missiles as part of their plan to subject America to communism and that it was the steadfast refusal of the United States to countenance such action that caused the Soviets to back down and withdraw the missiles.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Soviets placed missiles in Cuba purely for defensive purposes. After all, if they had done it in order to start a nuclear war with the United States, they would have proceeded to start the war by firing the missiles at the United States. They didn’t do that. And the reason they withdrew the missiles is that they achieved what they had intended to achieve with the installation of the missiles. As part of a negotiated agreement with John F. Kennedy, the Soviets secured a commitment from him to not invade Cuba. Once they got that commitment (plus a secret commitment by Kennedy to withdraw U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union), they withdrew their missiles. That’s, in fact, why Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay called Kennedy’s settlement with the Soviets “the greatest defeat in our history.” Of course, that was before the Vietnam War.
You see, Kennedy did what the Pentagon and the CIA could not do. In analyzing the Cuban Missile Crisis, he asked himself why Soviets were installing the missiles. He figured that if he could come up with the answer to that question, he might be able to avoid war by coming up with a negotiated agreement. As far as the Pentagon and the CIA were concerned, that made Kennedy a weakling, a coward, and an appeaser. As far as they were concerned, there was only one right response to Soviet communist “aggression” with respect to Cuba: bombing, followed by a full-scale invasion. Of course, as we all know now, if Kennedy had done what the U.S. national-security establishment wanted him to do, the result would have been nuclear war.
Why were the Soviets concerned about the possibility of a U.S. invasion of Cuba? Because they knew that the Pentagon and the CIA wanted to invade Cuba for the purpose of effecting regime change. That’s what the Bay of Pigs had been — a CIA-sponsored invasion intended to effect regime change on the island, one that would oust Fidel Castro from power and install a pro-U.S. “capitalist” dictator in his stead.
After the ignominious and humiliating defeat of the CIA’s troops at the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. national-security establishment was more determined than ever to do whatever was necessary to defeat Castro and his communist regime, including, if necessary, coming up with bogus pretexts for war. That’s what the infamous Operation Northwoods was all about.
During the entire Cold War, owing to deference to authority, hardly anyone asked a fundamental question: What gave the U.S. national-security establishment the authority to attack and invade Cuba, which was a sovereign and independent nation, one that had never attacked the United States? Indeed, what gave the national-security establishment the authority to repeatedly attempt to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro? Aren’t those the types of things that totalitarian regimes do?
The national-security state’s attitude was that because Castro was a communist and because Cuba was governed by a communist regime, the U.S. national-security state had the authority to initiate a sneak attack on the island and also to assassinate the country’s ruler.
That’s the same mindset, of course, that guided their harassment, abuse, surveillance, and prosecution of American citizens who believed in communism, such as the members of the Communist Party and the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
The inanity of that mindset was reflected in 1976, when national-security state agents of Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet entered the United States and assassinated a Chilean citizen named Orlando Letelier and his young assistant Ronni Moffitt, who was an American.
What was Pinochet’s justification for assassinating those two people on the streets of Washington, D.C.? The same justification for the U.S. national-security state’s assassination attempts against Fidel Castro. Letelier, who had served in the administration of Salvador Allende, a communist-socialist physician who had been elected president of Chile and whom Pinochet had ousted in a U.S.-supported coup, and Moffitt were considered communists. In Pinochet’s mind, that made them legitimate targets for assassination, just as Castro’s being a communist made him a legitimate target for assassination in the minds of the Pentagon and the CIA.
In fact, the Pinochet regime compounds the utter inanity of the entire Cold War. For three years —from 1970 to 1973, the Pentagon, the CIA, and President Richard Nixon orchestrated the ouster of Allende from office and the installation of Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In the process, the CIA did everything it could to secretly compound the economic suffering of the Chilean people from Allende’s socialist economic policies and even orchestrated the violent kidnapping of the commander of the Chilean armed forces, a man who stood in the way of the coup, owing to his allegiance to the Chilean constitution.
Consider the aftermath of the coup. Pinochet’s dictatorship, which was also founded on a national-security state, proceeded to round up, incarcerate, torture, rape, or execute some 30,000 people, with the full support of the U.S. national-security establishment. Pinochet’s justification? All those people were communists and, therefore, got what was coming to them.
In fact, as I pointed out in my article “The U.S. Executions of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi,” during the coup U.S. national-security state officials used the Chilean national-security establishment to murder two Americans, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. The justification? They were considered communists and, therefore, it was okay to kill them. Moreover, Horman had discovered evidence of U.S. complicity in the coup, which made him a threat to U.S “national security.”
The Cold War was one of the biggest mistakes in American history, exceeded only by the U.S. adoption of a national-security state. It would be difficult to find better examples of pure inanity.
This article was originally posted in the December 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.