June 15, 2009

It takes two parties to tango

Having become semi-addicted to reading David Halberstam's histories of the recent American past, I'm now deep into his fascinating The Fifties, which just happens to be the decade that my consciousness was formed. It's still early in the decade, as far as my bookmark is concerned, because those years between 1950 and 1954 were chockablock with tidal changes in the American political landscape as the United States assumed its role as the only real economic superpower in the world, and, for a while at least, the only nation with the H-Bomb. The Republicans were able at last to throw off about 20 years or so of complete electoral frustration, the two decades between the first election of FDR in 1932 and Ike's election in 1952.

What's striking are the historical parallels between our present time and the early Fifties. I think the French do have it right when they say the more things change, the more they remain the same. The early Fifties, between 1950 and 1954, were marked by McCarthyism, a symptom of the extreme anti-Communist feelings of the era. Anyone and everyone could be labeled a traitor, even native American scientists such as J. Robert Oppenheimer who ran what was probably the single-most successful technological enterprise in American history, the Manhattan Project. He was sold out by the rabid anti-Communist Edward Teller, a Hungarian refugee with personal axes to grind against the Soviets, because of Oppenheimer's misgivings about building the "Super," or hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer's attitude was shared by many scientists and politicians, most of whom could hardly be called "fellow travelers." But it made no difference in those hopped-up times of loyalty oaths, blacklisting and paranoia. Richard Nixon made his reputation by his tireless work in persecuting Alger Hiss and his smear campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, all on the basis of alleged Communist ties.

McCarthy was an irresponsible alcoholic whose ideas were championed by the owner of the Chicago Tribune; in much the same way, Rush Limbaugh, a confessed prescription narcotic addict who probably long ago burned out his synaptic wiring, is the current voice of the Far Right, combining both mouthpiece and media sponsor. The players have changed but the basic tactics have not. In the Fifties we had the Commies, and the invective of the Right against the Democrats was directed at their "appeasement" of the Soviets, or of themselves adopting "socialist" policies from the New Deal. In our time, the Right attacks the Democrats because they are "soft" on terrorism or Muslim nuclear proliferation, and are imposing a "Socialist" order of public medicine and government ownership. In both historical epochs, the reaction of the Democrats has been the same: to move to the right into their own brand of anti-Communism and latter-day anti-terrorism to avoid the charge of being soft on defense.

The net effect is to homogenize the two parties when it comes to national defense issues and national defense spending. Truman had no choice but to react to the North Korean invasion of the South in the summer of 1950 (which many American isolationists, including Republicans, opposed) because any other approach would have played into the hands of his Congressional political foes. The monolithic view of Communism and the Soviet Union, in which the Cold War was seen as a battle for dominance over the Third World, was applied indiscriminately to every situation by both parties, so that no distinction was made between actual Soviet aggression (as in Hungary in 1956) and regional, nationalistic revolutions as in Vietnam and Yugoslavia. It was all just "Communism."

Thinkers who took a more particularist, nuanced view, such as the great Kremlinologist George Kennan, were of course shouted down in the general frenzy. The question always remained whether the Soviets ever had any intention of extending their hegemony beyond the Eastern bloc of satellite countries which they conquered at the end of World War II. They "earned" these countries by dint of their staggering losses in opposing the full brunt of the Wehrmacht, over 20 million dead, which dwarf the casualties sustained by the United States. Josef Stalin could not be dislodged without yet another global war, and no one wanted that in 1945.

Islamic terrorism has picked up where Communism left off. The important thing is always to have an enemy which poses an existential threat so the American populace is held in a constant state of dread. As a kid in the Fifties, we periodically crawled under our desks and clasped our hands behind our necks. As long as we weren't too near the windows, I guess that would do the trick for a 10-megaton H-bomb exploding over San Francisco 18 miles away. Or probably not.

I think it's realistic to worry about Islamic terrorists acquiring an operable nuclear bomb. I guess in that sense I agree with Dick Cheney. (Write a blog, amaze yourself with what you say.) I don't see how fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in any sense lessen the odds of such a thing happening. International protocols on the security and protection of all fissile material and nuclear bombs, rigorously enforced, are probably the only real defense. No matter how long we go on fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fact remains that we will never reach the point where we can say that every single terrorist capable of wreaking destruction on the U.S. with a weapon of mass destruction has been killed, captured or neutralized. Such common sense, however, runs counter to the natural inclination to use our huge military resources to deal with any situation which arises, because (a) those are what we have, and (b) nothing looks tougher than aircraft carriers and smart bombs, no matter how inappropriate to the problem at hand.

I guess that's why the Obama Administration's approach to the Great War on Terror seems roughly comparable to the Bush/Cheney years. You simply can't afford to make too much sense in the American political arena, not with the other party always ready to leap onto any show of "rationality" as a fatal sign of weakness in the face of the Enemy. So Obama fires up the war in Afghanistan, decelerates in Iraq, and the band plays on.

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