Published June 1, 1995
GW: Let’s jump ahead to today. We’ve just marked V-E Day. We’re now arguing about V-J Day, or whether we can even call it that. What I’d like to ask is: Why was there no “V-C Day”? Why was the victory over communism never properly celebrated? Why, for six years, has there been no large-scale statement from a president of the United States, putting a clear interpretation on the events that unfolded between 1989 and 1991? One suspects that this has something to do with the presidential personalities involved; is there more?
EA: Well, to get an introductory point out of the way, cold war and hot war are different. World War II, like World War I, when there were also great victory parades, was a very familiar form of declared war: there was a finite end date, with an instrument of surrender in writing on paper, followed by an occupying army entering conquered territory. It was all very traditional, very clear, very easily comprehensible. You woke up one morning and the president announced, “The war is over; your loved ones are coming home; there will be no more casualties.”
But there are other factors, at least as important. The American Left’s long-standing romance with collectivism led to the judgment that, while right-wing totalitarianism—that is, fascism and Nazism—was pure evil, left-wing totalitarianism was different, and it couldn’t be denounced as pure evil without jeopardizing the position of non-totalitarian leftist ideologies. It’s not that there weren’t any enemies to the left; it was that they had to be dealt with in terms different from those applied to enemies on the right. Because if you denounced communism as a moral atrocity on a par with Nazism, other left-leaning ideologies—”light socialism,” so to speak—were going to get sullied. Communism, on this analysis, could change; it could be “saved,” so to speak. But Nazism was the paradigm of pure evil, and it had to be expurgated. So there was this ambivalence …
GW: But we know, empirically, that that simply wasn’t the case. Communism in its Leninist form (as many of Gorbachev’s former colleagues now freely concede) was not a self-reforming system. It was, in fact, wholly incapable of self-reformation, or self-reconstitution.
EA: You’re right: we know that, and we knew that. But not everybody did (or does). And if you look back at the history of the Cold War, the growing unwillingness of the American Left to challenge communism, which eventually resulted in the reluctance of the American Left to declare and revel in a happy, gorgeous victory over communism, had a lot to do with the Left’s sense of its own position in America, which, in turn, had a lot to do with McCarthyism. There was a widespread feeling on the Left that everybody on the Left would get swept up along with the communists, and therefore one had to be an anti-anti-communist in order to prevent the Right from going too far in its anti-communism.
Then, from a practical point of view, one could make the argument (as two administrations have) that, in the aftermath of the Cold War, it’s important to get along with the Russians. Now I think there’s a certain fraudulent quality to this argument. We certainly had a “national interest” need to get along with the Germans in the late 1940s. Indeed, you can make a persuasive case that we had more need to get along with the Germans then than we do with the Russians today. Nobody doubted, in the late forties, that Germany would, someday, return to greatness; the timeline was murky, but the future of German greatness in 1949 was a lot clearer than the future of Russian greatness in 1995. To put it bluntly, I don’t think the argument that we should be nice to the Russians because they’re important is very persuasive. Rather, I think it’s primarily an excuse, masquerading as pragmatism, for the nervousness we’ve just been discussing, all of which tells us not to revel in our Cold War victory.
But why didn’t the American Right more strongly and more successfully insist on reveling in that victory? One part of the answer surely has to do with President Bush, who, as you remember, thought it was also bad form to revel in the victory over Saddam Hussein and Iraq. I think that was a mistake, and I think our failure to declare victory with the collapse of the Soviet Union was a mistake.
When you put it all together, though, taking full account of both the Realpolitik dimension and the fact that this was not a hot war, I still think that what you’ve got here, basically, is a cultural phenomenon: a product of the American Left’s ambivalence about the Cold War.
GW: Which had, as we know, an enormous impact on virtually every culture-shaping and values-transmitting institution in the country.
EA: Particularly since the Vietnam War. If you go back to the 1950s, when liberal organizations like Americans for Democratic Action and the AFL-CIO were fiercely anti-communist, there simply wasn’t this ambivalence, at least on the mainstream Left. But it has certainly been there since Vietnam. And so this fabulous victory for freedom goes uncelebrated.
As for our present circumstances, the ambivalence shouldn’t be surprising. The President isn’t interested in a V-C Day. But then he wasn’t very interested in V-E Day, either, so he spent the fiftieth anniversary of V-E Day in Moscow, of all places, rather than in London. That’s a rather telling symbol of the problem we’re talking about. If you think you should be in Moscow rather than London on the fiftieth anniversary of V-E Day, then you’re not likely to think of the end of the Cold War as a victory of freedom over communist totalitarianism. That sums up the problem very nicely indeed.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.