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In from the Cold: Review of Derek Leebaert’s “The Fifty Year Wound”

When the Cold War ended, historians and pundits rightly cautioned that it would take time to sort it all out. Most then spent the next 10 years flailing about to buttress their previously held opinions. A cumulating tonnage of American and Soviet revelations, selectively invoked and analyzed by all sides, demonstrated nothing so much as a sclerotic determination to keep the old feuds and world views viable.

Then, in early 2002, a new book by an obscure academic-turned-entrepreneur did what the experts and the usual suspects of left and right most feared —  bypassed their dreary symbiotic bickering, told the story in all its aspects, and set the standard by which future efforts must be judged.

Derek Leebaert teaches government at Georgetown University and CEO’s his own Beltway business. A founding editor of International Security, his resume includes numerous prestige fellowships, captaincy of the Harvard pistol team and the standard vague “consults frequently for the government” notation. It took him five years to write “The Fifty-Year Wound: The True Price of America’s Cold War Victory.” The book runs over 700 pages, but don’t try to skim it. Mr. Leebaert’s a master stylist with a superb eye for the singular fact or vignette that simultaneously focuses, entertains and persuades. As literature alone, this book deserves a Pulitzer.

But what makes the book so compelling is that it’s actually a blend of perspectives hitherto regarded as distinct and irrevocably hostile. It’s at once conservative, liberal, Libertarian and populist. The wonder is: They fit.

The book’s conservative in the sense that Mr. Leebaert shows only scorn for those who would forget, deny or minimize the evils of Marxist totalitarianism. Nor has he much patience with the argument that the Soviet Union would have imploded no matter what America did or didn’t do. Ronald Reagan receives full credit here.

Whatever his failures in other areas, the Gipper clearly understood that the USSR could be brought down by a set of economic pressures, firmly and judiciously applied. He applied them. From cutting off hard currency and technology transfers (and thefts) to a Strategic Defense Initiative intended to force the Soviets to expensive countermeasures, Mr. Reagan kept the heat on – and took the heat at home. It worked. But it was also dangerous. Mr. Leebaert argues that in the early 1980s, when the Soviets realized what was happening, we came closer to nuclear war than ever before. His point is plausible.

But this book, as the subtitle indicates, is mainly about what it cost the United States to win this necessary victory. Here Mr. Leebaert speaks from a more leftward and Libertarian orientation. He measures costs in many ways. Some have dollar signs. The scores of trillions directly spent on armaments, on foreign aid and bribery, and to be spent on future nuclear cleanups and build-downs. The opportunity costs of alternatives foregone; the millions of scientists and engineers who might have worked on more productive technologies. Yes, the military-industrial complex gave us many a “spin-off.”

But defense was never a particularly efficient form of civilian R&D, and the book is suffused with images of inventors and entrepreneurs quietly going about their world – changing business while America fretted some over-hyped emergency out of Laos, Angola, or the sovereign nation of United Fruit.

Mr. Leebaert also assesses the cultural and spiritual costs, and does so with the grim expertise of a surgeon studying a tumor far larger than he’d expected to find. No, American society was not “militarized” during the Cold War. Militarized societies don’t watch “M*A*S*H” for decades on end. But it was politicized in a peculiarly malignant way. Crisis became a way of life, abetted in some cases by men who seemed to need crises to validate their own worth. It was also perpetuated by claques of “national security” experts and pseudo-experts intent upon forcing reality to conform to their theories.

If crisis became a way of life, so did secrecy, and secrecy’s bastard twins, paranoia and lying. As America became ever more politicized, so did American distrust of government. And only now are we starting to discover just how justified that distrust was. From official falsehoods about exposure to nuclear toxins to assorted CIA/FBI malfeasances, thence to revelations concerning how many corrupt and murderous regimes and movements we supported for so long and to so little final benefit, the evidence against the victors mounts.

And two ineluctable conclusions emerge. Yes, the Cold War was necessary. Yes, we had to win. But it didn’t have to take the form it did, or cost so hideously much in treasure and in spirit.

And also: It’s time Americans rediscovered that the most important things going on in this country don’t always – or even often – come out of Washington.

But can we go home again? Or did September 11 plunge us once more into decades of waste, distortion and corruption? And is it not fair to ask, how much of this new struggle was brought about by American Cold War practices? Mr. Leebaert can’t answer that. But by writing “The Fifty-Year Wound,” he has provided an invaluable national resource – a guide to what to avoid as well as an understanding of how, not so long ago, we won.

Philip Gold is senior fellow in national security affairs at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and author of Against All Terrors: This People’s Next Defense.