Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Cold War, Ideology, and Dr. Strangelove

Ideology was at the heart of the Cold War. Though traditional aims of war and diplomacy – such as resources and territory – played their role, ideology informed nearly every word spoken, every decision made. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union sought to expand themselves per se; it was authority and influence they wished to spread. Minor conflicts in minor countries became proxy battles between two superpowers trying to staunch the proliferation of rival principles and beliefs. Sabotage, espionage, nuclear blackmail, and dangerous arm races all served the same purpose: contain, intimidate, and quarantine. Of course, the whole thing was in many ways a bad idea, as leaders in both nations recognized. The global standoff drained resources and distracted from domestic issues, while continuous interference in regional clashes brought little reward and could potentially spiral out of control. The truth is, however, that at the end of the day, governments are run by human beings shaped by memories and cultural values (Leffler 4-5). I find myself comparing Melvyn P. Leffler’s recent book For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, The Soviet Union, and the Cold War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007) with Stanley Krubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) as demonstrating in very different ways the overriding focus of ideology in the Cold War, as well as this focus's inherent hazards and drawbacks.

The power of ideology cannot be underestimated. According to Leffler, “Ideologies shaped perceptions – this is one of the great lessons of the Cold War . . . warping rational assessments of interests in Washington and Moscow" (458). In writing of American foreign policy as a whole throughout the nation’s history, Michael H. Hunt promotes a cultural approach to establish the role of ideology as something other than a tool for cynical, self-interested politicians. Ideologies, Hunt affirms, “are integrated and coherent systems of symbols, values, and beliefs.” The cultural approach refuses to pare down the messiness of human society to a single sweeping statement and looks instead at the entire matrix of political, economic, religious, racial, ethnic, historical, and psychological influences underlying human behavior on the international stage (Hunt 12). Sociologist George M. Thomas goes further, arguing that culture, and by extension ideology, act as cognitive practices, arranging peoples, places, events, beliefs, and so on in an ontological classification scheme that defines reality itself. These categories, or spheres (i.e. economics, politics), are then set in a coherent relationship to one another, forming a base which underlies cultural life. At the same time, this base is not any "higher" or more abstract than the classification system itself, as the given rules in any social situation are necessarily integral aspects of the total cultural environment. All culture is therefore circular and defines as legitimate any action, rule, or idea that fits into the base structure (Thomas 14-17).

Although Hunt specifically disputes the existence of a “base” that forms a societal “superstructure,” asserting, again, that ideology arises from a multitude of sources (Hunt 12), both his and Thomas’s books make clear the power of human thought in generating human reality. They can certainly explain the behavior of Brigadier Jack D. Ripper, Kubrick’s military madman, who single-handedly manages to destroy the world. Ripper’s delusional mindset seems to be a warped version of Thomas’s concept of cognitive social constructs, as he neatly arranged multiple unrelated events and ideas into an articulate (to him) worldview that logically points to a clear and present communist threat. War today is too important to be left to untrained politicians, he says decisively, “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” (The fluoridation of the American water supply is clear evidence of this terrible plot.) This leaves higher-ups in the “War Room” completely and utterly confused. To them this makes absolutely no sense. At the same time, however, as much as Krubrick satirizes and exaggerates it, this aggressively paranoid outlook was a mainstay of the Cold War mentality. Ripper is insane, yet no one questions the mental fortitude of the ridiculously belligerent General Buck Turgidson, who loudly insists that everything Russian Ambassador Sadesky says is nothing but "commie" lies, and takes great delight in the possibility of spectacularly destructive military action.

If everything is a communist plot, and communists are always lying so you can’t trust anything they say especially when they deny any sort of plot, it makes sense that perhaps the Soviets themselves would have held to an equally steadfast ideology. They too viewed current events through the prism of their own philosophy, diametrically opposing the free market capitalism of the United States. As East German author Uwe Johnson put it in his novel Speculations About Jakob:
– The victorious capitalists abused the defeated and encouraged exploitation through private ownership and reinforced retrogression in life’s revolution on earth, once again the criminals weren’t far away. Because the capitalists don’t like the way their neighbors distribute the surplus value, they prepare for war and want to free the worker of the freedom he has finally achieved; with all means at their disposal, they strive to undermine the strength of rational existence, they do not hesitate to use unscrupulous devices, they appeal to all your outmoded notions and hire you as the handyman of reaction: I say, do you hear, they are despicable and doomed, shouldn’t everybody stand up against their criminal doings for the sake of socialism’s national evolution?
To Stalin and his compatriots, World War II had been the inevitable result of capitalist rapacity, as prophesized by Marx and Lenin. Intra-capitalist wars would once again engulf the West and destroy its current socioeconomic order; until then, the Soviet Union must be diligent and alert in the predatory face of the capitalist reactionaries who encircled it (Leffler 2-27).

Ideology strongly informed Stalin’s view of the world; his paranoia reinforced it, turning him into a real-life Jack Ripper who may not have resorted to nuclear weapons, but who nevertheless perpetuated atrocities that placed him in Hitler’s class of tyrant as he reacted to perceived ideological threats. “The crisis of capitalism has manifested itself in the division of the capitalists into two factions – one fascist, the other democratic . . . We are currently allied with one faction against the other, but in the future we will be against the first faction of capitalists, too,” he is quoted as saying towards the end of the World War II. History had taught him to be wary and to rebut Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech in an indignant fury. Germany had invaded the Soviet Union through Eastern Europe, which could now be expected to serve as the base for the coming capitalist assault. Of course he wanted friendly governments there! (51). The United States saw things differently, of course. Europe’s post-war ruin had created a rich breeding ground for communist subversion, as did decolonization elsewhere. And to President Harry Truman – a staunch American patriot who loved God, the Constitution, freedom, and free enterprise – this was unacceptable (39, 58). The Cold War, that ideological standoff that threatened the future of humanity for the next fifty years, began because international conditions had given rise to unprecedented opportunities even as they tilted towards danger. Neither Stalin nor Truman could expect to maintain control under such circumstances (57-58).

Stalin’s death in 1953 offered the chance for peace, yet once again ideology inevitably hindered the process. For all his crimes, Stalin, according to Andrei Sakharov, had also seemed a communist messiah of sorts: “In the face of all I had seen, I still believed that the Soviet state represented a breakthrough into the future, a prototype . . . for all other countries to imitate. That shows the hypnotic power of mass ideology" (87). Ideology permeated American thought as well. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles worried about what they perceived to be the Soviet Union’s deceptive use of soaring rhetoric to convince, as Eisenhower put it in his diary, “many misguided people to believe they can count of communist help to achieve and sustain national ambitions. Actually, what is going on is that the communists are hoping to take advantage of the confusion resulting from the destruction of existing relationships . . . to further the aims of world revolution and the Kremlin’s domination of all people" (98-99, 130). America’s suspicion of Third World revolutions long predated the Cold War, however. John Adams, writing in the 1790s, argued that the ultimate goal of a legitimate revolt was the liberty secured by a democratic government with a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branch. Examining history, he concluded that only the English seemed to have been successful in this area, as revolutions had the tendency to descend into chaos before they reach the final stage. Thomas Jefferson was a more enthusiastic proponent of political insurrection, viewing it as the thunderstorm that would have to break from time to time to clear the air. To Jefferson, the American Revolution was the model for all other uprisings to follow (Hunt 93-94).

In the ensuing decades, as revolutions rose and fell elsewhere in the world, Adams and Jefferson’s thoughts on the matter came to represent a special American understanding of how revolution was supposed to play out. Any deviation from the American model was immediately suspect, as well as confirming innate American superiority (124). “In the presence of God, we are called as a people to give testimony in the sight of the world to our faith that the future shall belong to the free,” Eisenhower said in his inaugural address. “Freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark" (Leffler 98). Dulles, meanwhile, feared that Third World opinion was shifting in favor of the Soviet Union, which had been portraying itself as a dynamic vision of the future to peoples struggling for independence (99).

The post-Stalin Kremlin was also run by true believers. Despite their overtures of peace, Malenkov, Beria, and Khrushchev were staunch Marxists who felt “encircled, beleaguered.” Life under Stalin had left them overly dependent on totalitarian methods and communist doctrine. The capitalist West, they felt, was fundamentally and inevitably hostile because they knew that communism would triumph in the end. (Marx had said so.) At the same time Khrushchev and his compatriots also understood that the Soviet Union had to improve internally in order to be a true model for humanity. It was this concern that drove their offers of peace. The arms race was distracting them from their “sacred duty,” as Malenkov put it, of “strengthen[ing] our great Socialist state" (89, 90).

Enter the doomsday device.

The peace process petered out. “[T]here could be no real détente or peace so long as ideological presumptions shaped the two sides’ perception of threat and opportunity in a dynamic international system. The United States and the Soviet Union possessed the most powerful weapons the world had ever known, but neither of their leaders could liberate himself from his fears or transcend his ideological makeup" (149-150). In Kubrick’s vision, some Soviet citizens, in the words of fictitious ambassador Sadesky, “fought against [the doomsday device], but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. At the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we had been spending on defense in a single year. The deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.” (Their source for this was the New York Times.) Unable to come to an understanding, their respective ideologies coming between them, both the Soviet Union and the United States launched an arms race that created a situation in which, theoretically speaking, one crazy, fanatical man can destroy the world.

The ludicrous nature of this state of affairs forms the central theme of Dr. Strangelove: the Cold War was about ideological competition that was not always merely rhetorical. It was, in fact, quite lethal, even as it was also quite ridiculous. “Thank you, no; I do not support the work of imperial stooges,” Sadesky huffs in response to an offer of Jamaican cigars instead of Havanas. The shrill rhetoric traded back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and ’60s sometimes bordered on the absurd. In the Great Kitchen Debate of 1959, for example, Vice President Nixon and Premier Khrushchev resorted to arguing over whether capitalism or communism was better, using a model American ranch home as their context. The innate superiority of each system, it seemed, could be ascertained from kitchen appliances and housewifery (Tyler 10-12). Jack Ripper’s delusion about water fluoridation, meanwhile, was an actual concern of the John Birch Society, a prominent presence in conservative circles at the time. Joseph Heller’s 1961 World War II novel Catch-22 takes the lampooning even further by featuring an amoral über-capitalist who argues that his simultaneous deals with the Americans to bomb a bridge and the Germans to protect the bridge “presented a victory for private enterprise, . . . since the armies of both countries were socialized institutions" (Heller 255). In other words, given this political atmosphere, Melvyn Leffler is probably correct in asserting that it was precisely Premier Gorbachev’s ability to transcend ideology that ended the Cold War.

After decades of proud boasts that communism would best capitalism “in a generation,” both the Soviet Union and its way of life were in decline. Its claims to utopia had fallen flat in the face of inefficient socialist bureaucracy, the waning of anti-colonial sentiment, and the spectacular failures of social engineering, particularly in China and Cambodia (Leffler 458-459). Gorbachev understood this, and recognized as well the growing discontent at home. He hoped to refurbish and revitalize communism. He did not hope to open the floodgates but that is precisely what occurred (460-461). By 1991 the Soviet Union had collapsed in a wave of secessions arising from a sudden burst of nationalism in non-Russian provinces. The world never ended, no Jack Rippers ever reared their heads, but hopefully the lessons taken from the Cold War will ensure it never will.


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