Let’s Get It Straight: The Empire Was Evil

LET’S be blunt: It is necessary to make it clear who was right about the Cold War. The reason is not to glorify the aging Republicans and Henry Jackson Democrats who were derided as “Cold Warriors” during the four decades between Stalin and Gorbachev, nor to kick those on the left who led peace marches and befriended Havana, Hanoi and Managua. The purposes, rather, are, first, to get the history straight, before the regnant revisionists in academia succeed in distorting it, and, secondly, to reflect on the lessons for our current foreign policy.
The revisionist line is that the Soviet Union didn’t really pose a serious threat to the West and, in any case, eventually would have collapsed on its own. This line shows up now at scholarly centers, in commentaries and in the guidelines of the government-funded National Education Standards Improvement Council, which is trying to change the teaching of high school history.

Under the revisionist interpretation, American sacrifices of blood and treasure during the Cold War were largely a waste of both. The West’s actions in the Cold War are seen as more or less morally equivalent to those of the Soviets.

What would it take to get the revisionists to admit that they were wrong all along? Not two generations of American and Western experience, apparently. But, how about the first-hand testimony of the leaders who lived the Cold War on the Soviet side?

Just that unique perspective is now arriving in a stunning four-part series, “Messengers from Moscow,” that already is being shown on PBS in the East and began airing in Seattle (on KCTS) last night. Here are former top-ranking Politburo members, KGB directors, Soviet generals, diplomats – some bitterly disillusioned, some relieved, some merely rueful – who were leaders in what Ronald Reagan, to the left’s scorn, accurately called an “evil empire.”

The “messengers” testimony, backed by newly discovered secret documents and fascinating archival film footage, establishes without doubt from the Soviet side that the Kremlin really was ideologically driven, did aspire to conquer all of Europe and eventually to provoke revolutions everywhere, and did menace U.S. security.

These remarkable programs should attract heightened interest in Washington state, home of the late Sen. Henry Jackson, a leader of Cold War “hawks,” and also home to some of the most militant opponents of U.S. policy during the Cold War. But of greatest immediate interest, Seattle is home to the chief consultant and inspiration of the project, Dr. Herbert Ellison of the University of Washington. (The series was written and directed by an Englishman, Daniel Wolf, with project management provided by the National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle.)

Professor Ellison has a long career of scholarly achievement behind him, but with “Messengers” he finally will emerge in the public’s attention as one of the nation’s most significant figures in Russian studies. His revealing interviews may be said to be the first oral history of the monstrous Soviet tyranny that, with Nazism, disfigured most of our century.

One can imagine the public reactions that will greet his work in Russia when “Messengers” airs there this spring. In just the final program, for example, “The Center Collapses,” Russian citizens will see confirmed that:

— The Western peace marches of the ’70s and ’80s were, indeed, manipulated by the KGB;

— The Kremlin genuinely believed that the American loss in Vietnam in the ’70s and the Carter administration’s retreat, under pressure, on the neutron bomb presaged communism’s imminent worldwide victory;

— Over 70 percent of Soviet industrial production was devoted to military purposes;

— Leonid Brezhnev was so addicted to sedatives over his last six years in charge of the Kremlin that he was “out of touch with reality”;

— The Reagan military buildup, the U.S. success – despite huge protests – in answering the Soviet installation of SS20 missiles in Eastern Europe with deployment of Cruises and Pershings, and, finally, the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) completely demoralized Soviet leaders, convincing them they could not prevail;

— When Gorbachev acknowledged to the public that the West did not have expansionist designs on the U.S.S.R. and simultaneously began to allow greater freedom of speech, the outside and inside fears that had held the U.S.S.R. together dissolved, and so did the people’s silence. The U.S.S.R. – as an idea and a reality – collapsed.

What is remarkable about these insights, again, is their source: former Soviet leaders themselves. The “messengers” are virtually irrefutable witnesses to the wisdom and virtue of America’s sustained resolve to contain communism as a military threat and to defeat it as an idea. They also show why the American people should resist proposals today, from left or right, to turn America back to pre-World War II isolationism and abandon its leadership role in the world.

Meanwhile, much more needs to be known about what actually transpired in the Cold War. Dr. Ellison and his team should be encouraged to continue finding hitherto-ignored film footage and to extend their unique foray into oral history on both sides of the Cold War. This expansion of their project is urgent. Already, since the interviews for the present series, about a dozen key interviewees have died.

Someone has called World War II “the longest running program on television,” because, in different forms, it absorbs so much scheduled time. In contrast, consider the relatively neglected saga of the Cold War: a global contest of ideologies that lasted over 40 years, with “hot” conflicts in China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua and Afghanistan, among others, with numerous surrogate struggles elsewhere. Scores of millions of people were killed; far more than that were imprisoned, and hundreds of millions of lives were blighted.

Yet the great toll in people and money taken by the false utopia is not the main story in the saga. Rather, it is the West’s ability – terribly tested by often well-meaning but wrong-headed critics at home – to avert a global hot war and the nuclear exchanges that would have come with it. The heart of the West’s policy was a rigorous military preparedness coupled with a diplomatic willingness to negotiate.

Much of the story is yet to be told. Even now, something has to be said about the courage and persistence of Herbert Ellison in seeing “Messengers from Moscow” through to this stage. These qualities may have been needed in obtaining the interviews in Moscow and the old Soviet films, but they were most needed, ironically, in America. Raising dollars from the U.S. government’s National Endowment for the Humanities was extremely difficult. Liberal foundations (which are the overwhelming majority) were not willing to back the project, so a few foundations on the right became crucial to the project.

You see, we in this country are still in thrall to an elite, adversarial academic, media and philanthropic culture that is uncomfortable with the kind of values “Messengers from Moscow” helps to validate. The smugness of the adversary culture, equaled only by its lack of knowledge, is reason enough why the message of the “Messengers” is so needed – and its arrival is such a triumph.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.