Ding, dong, the witch is dead!
Keeping Things in Perspective
I’ve read a number of editorials reflecting on the life and times of Fidel Castro. They’ve fallen into two camps: moral euphoria at the death of a dictator and a recitation of his crimes; or, the mealy-mouthed moral equivalency game played by those on the left (see Obama, Trudeau, Junker, Corbyn et al.).
To be clear, Castro was a bad guy and any attempt to cover over his crimes by appealing to his good intentions is the sort of deplorable, high-minded elitism that average Joe sees for what it is: baloney.
Then again, we ought to keep Castro’s crimes in perspective: he was a two-bit thug who caused a great deal of trouble for his people and sparked fires in South America and Africa for decades. Given the chance, he may have been a monster on the scale of Mao and Stalin, but even in his own country his tyranny never reached such diabolical heights. He only brushed with global significance on the occasion of the Cuban Missile Crisis—a scheme driven by his boss in Moscow and not even of his own making.
Further, it should be added that Castro’s death is not “the end of an era.” Castro had long been out of circulation, a ghost of a man, and Cuba still labors and suffers under an entrenched, kleptocratic dictatorship created by the late Fidel. We will have more of business as usual.
Starting in the 1960s, the Revisionist school of thought began to make its mark on Cold War studies. Reversing the earlier Orthodox position that put the blame on the Soviets for the conflict, the Revisionists claimed that American greed and capitalism was to blame for the conflict between the West and Moscow. As the historiography began to shift, the Soviets and Americans were beginning to move their strategic focus to the Third World. The Soviets had a moral upper hand as they excoriated America and her allies for the colonial system and promoted the glories of their own socialist economy and political system free of the abuse of the bourgeoisie. Embracing this paradigm, left-wingers in the West began to see men like Guevara and the Castro brothers as freedom fighters against Western imperialism.*
It’s a nice story, but more false than true. When you’ve already determined who the villains are, you have a tendency to white-wash your heros and smear your foes.
The crimes of Castro are well-documented and do not bear repeating here. No amount of paint will hide the stains on that picket fence. What is of greater interest to this writer is the moral-strategic framework and constraints that American leaders operated within which muddles the morality tale told by those on the left.
Foreign affairs for a nation committed to principles (God-given rights, the rule of law, constitutional government, etc.) is tricky business. We Americans want to play by gentlemen’s rules, but the world is a nasty place and America has found itself confronted on numerous occasions by foes that play only by the principle of might makes right. Whether it was the Nazis or the Soviets, expecting fair play was wishful thinking at best.
In light of this reality, George F. Kennan outlined the two fundamental objectives of American foreign policy during the Cold War (although it’s worth noting he believed these were more-or-less eternal principles of statecraft):
- to protect the security of the nation…to pursue the development of its internal life without…interference from foreign powers.
- to advance the welfare of its people, by promoting a world order in which this nation can make the maximum contribution to the peaceful and orderly development of other nations and derive maximum benefit from their experiences and abilities.
One could be a cynic about the exercise of American power, but notice here how Kennan sees no inherent contradiction between American security and global peace and prosperity. Even Kennan, though, realizes it isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. There is tension.
As the esteemed historian and Kennan biographer John Lewis Gaddis puts it, “[T]here need be no conflict between the demands of security and those of principle, provided the first were understood as necessarily preceding the second.” Regarding necessity, as I’ve written elsewhere (here and here), it is by definition a matter that is fundamentally amoral in that there is no good choice, only the lesser of evils.
Case in point: the Third World. During the Cold War American often found itself caught in a tricky spot: advocates of democracy and free markets, they feared that their allies’ liberated colonial states, well-versed in the abuses of European empires, would fall into the Soviet’s hands along with their resources and markets.
Bad choice 1: back dictators to suppress the communists and hope for reform. Bad choice 2: let communist insurgents go unchallenged and conquer with the backing of Moscow creating a mental domino effect among friends and enemies alike.
Choice 3: to many in America’s foreign policy establishment there was no third choice (something our current leaders would be well-advised to consider what with their daydreams of pro-democracy moderates in Syria. But I digress).
This should not leave us in despair. As Kennan puts it:
Our country has made the greatest effort in modern times…to treat questions of international life from the standpoint of principles and not of power…but even we in the end are compelled to consider the security of our people…because…unless they can enjoy that security they will never be able to make any useful contribution to a better and more peaceful world (Gaddis 31, emphasis mine).
There’s the nub: the rub between power (security) and principle. Unless America is secure and healthy, her principles will whither on the vine. If we violate our principles in pursuit of security, we also risk undermining ourselves. For example, Dwight Eisenhower warned the American people of the military-industrial complex sapping the nation’s strength. Others warned that Vietnam and Iraq would undermine America’s moral authority despite good intentions. There is no easy out, but nor is there easy moral condemnation. There are only trade-offs in pursuit of security for our principles and way of life.
JFK’s Stark Reminder
Does the acknowledgment of moral ambiguity mean that one can reduce foreign affairs to a game of moral equivalency?
John F. Kennedy, the man who unsuccessfully launched an operation to liberate Cuba from Castro’s tyranny and stared down Khrushchev’s missiles, starkly rebuked the idea. In West Berlin at the height of the Cold War he gave a speech in front of the newly constructed Berlin Wall, built by the Soviets to keep people escaping to the West:
Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect: but we have never had to put up a wall to keep our people in…the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system, we take no satisfaction in it, for it is an offence not only against history but against humanity…
Throughout the speech Kennedy is interrupted by the cheers of free Germans who only a few decades before had labored under the yoke and even been complicit in the Nazi regime. America, once the savage foe, had become in peace the best of friends and the advocate of the imperfect good: democracy, freedom, the rule of law. The Germans, more than most, knew what they were cheering.
This does not mean that America cannot lose her way (or hasn’t) but we also ought to keep in perspective (like our leaders haven’t) what we have. Say what you will about the unnecessary violence America has perpetrated in the pursuit of its security and principles, say what you will about the imperfection of our politics, at the end of the day people fled from Castro’s Cuba by the boatload to get to our shores. Those who make it here from all over the world sing the praises of America and even those who arrive from Canada or Western Europe, though they are critical, for some odd reason still would rather work here amongst us than in their homelands.
This does not mean we should rest on our laurels. As Kennan wrote in 1947 and is equally applicable today:
The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.
Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this. In the light of these circumstances, the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.
We are now entering a period of our national life in which we will be confronted by existential foes both internal and external in a way we have not had to since the end of the Cold War. The challenge we face will require leadership, discipline, hard work, and economic thinking. But most importantly, it will require us to get our house in order, to make peace with our fellow citizens, and to find the common cords that bind us and restore confidence in our way of life.
Oddly enough, debating over whether or not to build a wall along our Mexican border to keep people out is tragic, but it’s a sign of national health: people still want to come here and badly. It’s a good problem to have and one that Castro and the totalitarian world never had to contemplate. But this underscores a point we’d do well to heed: immigrants think more of us than we think of ourselves and that should give us some confidence. Buck up, America!
Are the best days of America and the West behind us? Is this the beginning of the long descent? Perhaps, but as European democracy, order, and prosperity wavers, America for all its flaws still has it going on. America is already great. Let’s make it greater and not squander what we have.
*It’s worth clarifying that Revisionist historians on the whole did some excellent work and brought to the forefront economic-strategic considerations. The politicization of their work was not their doing perse.