A Cold Current Runs Through American Foreign Policy

If anyone wants to know the deep roots of the US animosity towards Russia, Jeremy Kuzmarov and John Marciano’s impressively lucid book, The Russians are coming, again: the first cold war as tragedy, the second as farce (2018) is the book for them. Monthly Review Press has edited this book with exquisite precision. Drawn from Marx, the statement that history repeats itself the “first time as tragedy, the second as farce” serves as our author’s sub-title. This book is packed with vignettes, stories and quotes that blow one’s mind, revealing a vicious and confrontational mind-set resident in American foreign policy circles, think tanks, the media and academy. This mindset is the cold and cruel current running through the heart of American foreign policy.

It is not an easy read. For sixties era lefties, The Russians are coming, again, they will be sharply reminded of their struggles half-a-century ago. They will be reminded, bitterly so, of how ruthlessly leftists were attacked and destroyed – the Soviet Union was perceived, it seems, as the evil wellspring of anti-capitalist thought and action. To destroy Russia was to destroy the source of the disease. To destroy Russia was to vanquish hopes for a socialist alternative to predatory capitalism.

And lefties may well be shaking their heads at the fierceness, extent and depth of the venom directed at Russia. Kuzmarov and Marciano begin their text with reference to Norman Jewisons’ movie parody of Cold War paranoia, The Russians are coming, The Russians are coming, in 1966. Well, here we are 100 years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the charges against Russia are relentless: they invaded Georgia, attempted to subvert the Ukrainian government, annexed Crimea and engaged in cyber warfare by attempting to interfere in the US presidential election in 2016. Hey, these guys are aggressive! They want to reassert power throughout the region! They are working to fracture the power structures of Germany and France! They want to destroy America! Putin is a self-confessed imperialist! Hysterical attacks against Russia and Putin fly mercilessly from the pens of hacks writing for the New York Times and less prestigious news sources.  

The authors boldly state—this is the core of their book—that “alarmism about Russia today has served to reinvigorate a traditional Soviet phobia that draws on a deeper European tradition in which Russia perfidy and aggression have been used to rationalize imperialist policies” (p. 14). Two (of lots) examples will suffice. Bill Browder, a ruthless proponent of the new Cold War, in his book, Red Notice: a true story of high-finance, murder and one man’s fight for justice, describes Russia as a “hopelessly corrupt, violent, and lawless country that supposedly enlightened Western entrepreneurs like himself could not save and now had to punish” (ibid.). Even George F. Kennan, the celebrated “Father of Containment,” said that anyone extending “good will” to Russia had “no real understanding of the malicious Russian character, which he said had been shaped by geography and a history of invasion by ‘Asian hordes.’  Kennan felt at liberty to describe Stalin as ‘holding court in the barbaric splendor of the Moscow Kremlin’” (p. 15). They also could not be trusted to engage in diplomacy. They confronted adversaries with “terrifying strength” while “keeping him uncertain and confused as to the exact channels of most of its applications” (ibid.). Wasn’t Kennan supposed to be the epitome of respecting Russia?

The centrepiece of The Russians are coming, again (chapters 3 through 5) explore deftly the extensive involvement of US military in subverting the Russian Revolution. For Marciano and Kuzmarov, the true origins of the Cold War lie in the First World War. We learn, for instance, of the US supported burning down villages (estimated by US intelligence at 30,000 lives), directed by Admiral Kolchak, a prominent anti-communist US ally in Soviet Russia’s civil war. Be careful: accusations of other countries’ actions as barbarous can be tossed back in your face. The demonization of Russia, its leaders and people started in earnest following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

During the 1917 Revolution US congressional hearings fostered the impression that “Soviet Russia was a kind of bedlam inhabited by abject slaves completely at the mercy of an organization of homicidal maniacs whose purpose was to destroy all traces of civilization and carry the nation back to barbarism—a depiction that was repeated after the Second World War” (ibid.). Kuzmarov and Marciano hammer home the way patriotic presses can sugar coat atrocities such as Kolchak’s.

One of my favourite quotations is from, of all people, General Douglas MacArthur, who asserted that to perpetuate the Cold War, the “US government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear—kept us in a perpetual stampede of patriotic fervor—with the cry of a grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power [Russia or China] that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have been quite real” (p. 16). The authors underscore the way “social conditioning combined with Russophobic prejudice thus enabled the skewed priorities in which the federal government spent an estimated $904 billion, or 37 percent of its budget, for military power from 1946 to 1967, and only $96 billion, or 6 percent, for social functions such as education, health, labor, and welfare programs” (p. 17).

To demonstrate that the Cold War (1945-1989), has its “true origins” in the first World War, they dig into the dark and dusty archives of US history to beam light on events such as Woodrow Wilson’s deployment of over ten thousand American troops in the European theatre of the First World War in support of “White Army counterrevolutionary generals” (p. 43). This “midnight war” is burned into the Russian people’s memory; it is a “non-event” for Americans.

Chapters 3 through 6 provide a pocket-history of the hots-spots of the Cold War. This period was rampant with the corruption of a famished military-industrial complex that corrupted political life and scientific research itself. The authors cite Albert Einstein who “considered the Cold War to have resulted in a ‘horrendous failure of Western civilization in its use of science and technology’” (p. 90). John and Jeremy take us inside the demented Pentagon world of harnessing scientific research to serve American dominance of the world. Indeed, President Truman observed: “In the Pentagon and in hundreds of labs and proving grounds from White Sands, New Mexico, to Aberdeen, Maryland, these scientists are engaged in a vast program, opening up awesome vistas of mass destruction and death” (p. 91). All of this malevolent work was oriented to the containment and destruction of Russia.

Reading about the corruption of the scientific-academic community in the Cold War was “further exemplified in the army’s biological weapons program at Fort Derrick, Maryland, that led to the creation of anthrax, pest-laden bombs, and herbicides like Agent Orange, which resulted in birth deformities, cancers, and environmental damage when applied in Viet Nam” (p. 92). Wretched example is piled on wretched example: our hearts are wrenched and our spirit is tormented. We read about the “arsenal of folly”: the nuclear arms race and its pitfalls.

These stats pound open the skull: the US developed a nuclear stockpile of 22, 229 warheads (or 3,420 megatons of TNT), and, by 1961, the Soviets had 3,320 warheads. I was shocked to read that, in 1954, that the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) put forth a plan to attack the Soviet Union with hundreds of bombs, turning it into a ‘smoking, radiating ruin at the end of two hours. The plan involved killing 80 percent of the population in 118 major cities, or 60 million people” (p. 94). And in 1958, the US had placed almost 3,000 nuclear weapons in Europe. They’re still there: around 100 in five NATO countries.

Kuzmarov and Marciano are particularly good at not only demonstrating the extent of “military Keynesianism,” but also of documenting the extent of right-wing attacks on organized labour. They show how these attacks “resulted in a precipitous decline in union membership and labour union militancy, which was key to the surging social inequality that was facilitated by the rightward political drift” (p. 99). Perhaps the epitome of anti-labour political action was the Taft Hartley Bill of 1947 (or “slave labour bill”) that “forbade strikes in support of workers in other companies and made it illegal to honor the picket lines or refuse to work on goods made by scabs” (ibid.). In the 1930s,1940s and 1950s, workers alleged to be “communists” were purged and, in the US, some workers were forced to take loyalty oaths (see my analysis of the “red scare” in Canada in Unearthing Canada’s hidden past: a short history of adult education [2013, pp. 171-178).

Kuzmarov and Marciano make a link seldom made when they draw upon Joel Kovel’s idea that the “principal object of the Cold War was not the Soviets but domestic radicals; it was really about this nation, not the Soviet Union. This changes the dominant perception of the Cold War from a professed fear about Soviet aggression and international tensions to US “radicalism [that] was an ever-present threat to the order of things. At least it was perceived that way’” (p. 100). By the 1940s the US Communist Party was, in Kovel’s words, a “ruined shell” (ibid.). It was also the case in Canada where the red label was used to target those committed to building a democratic socialist world in adult education, the trade unions and academy.

Both Canadian and American trade union leadership was led by the likes of George Meaney who stated that he “did not intend to abandon the capitalist system for some pipe dreams or some ideological fantasies invented by those who don’t understand the worker’s real needs and aspirations. At the 1965 [AFL-CIO] convention, he instructed his underlings to ‘get these kooks out of the gallery,’ referring to activists chanting ‘Get out of Vietnam’” (p. 101). Kuzmarov and Marciano also document how the AFL-CIO/CIA-supported Cold War actions in Latin America “included efforts to overthrow the democratically elected Arbenz government of Guatemala and the establishment of the American Institute of Free Labor Development (AIFLD), headed by J. Peter Grace, head of United Fruit” (ibid.). Persons like Grace shared FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s delusion that a “communist mentality representing a systematic, purposive, and conscious attempt to destroy Western civilization and roll history back to the age of barbaric cruelty and despotism, all in the name of progress” (p. 103).

The authors detail how American citizens were spied upon and their civil society associations permeated with spies. I will only mention in passing that they devote one chapter to “Truman, McCarthyism, and domestic repression.” In this miserable period, dissenters like singer Woodie Guthrie stand-out as principled independent thinkers. The authors conclude that they “have documented the repressive practices and abuses bred by US policies in the Cold War along with some of its victims and iconoclasts. Rather than invoking nostalgia or pride, this history should better be remembered as one of political repression in the United States and reckless foreign policy interventions under the pretext of moral crusade” (p. 164).

They counsel Americans to turn away from screeching about Communist failings or the evil-doings of Putin to “look critically at its own failings and crimes” (ibid.). Concurring with Kuzmarov and Marciano, in his provocative article, “The hierarchy of tribalism,” Consortium News, June 16/22, Jonathan Cook says that the “Western tribe” (led by Tribe America) is “the strongest tribe on the planet, we are also the most deluded, the most propagandized, as well as the most dangerous.”

In their carefully crafted conclusion, “Avoiding a third world war,” the authors offer us a poignant list of critical insights. The US used the Soviet Union as a “perfect foil” for propaganda purposes. “The true danger, however, was that Communism represented an alternative to capitalist industrialism, structured around a command economy, attractive to Third World nations that equated capitalism with colonialism” (p. 165). They claim that the US uses Putin’s Russia as an “object of derision and ridicule alongside North Korea and Islamic terrorism. Russia helps to reaffirm US national identity and visions of exceptionalism and righteousness at a time of escalating domestic crises, and helps rationalize the expansion of NATO and maintenance of huge military budgets” (ibid.).

Stripping away the hysterical judgments of the Soviet Union and contemporary Russian Federation, Kuzmarov and Marciano state decisively that “it was the United States that invaded the Soviet Union—not vice versa. It was the United States that encircled the Soviet Union with military bases during the Cold War and initiated many other provocative policies while intervening in third world nations under the pretext of fighting Communism” (p. 168). And, a final comment, “After the Cold War ended, it was the United States that expanded NATO toward the Russian border in violation of a promise not to, and meddled in the affairs of nations on Russia’s border, including Ukraine and Georgia, while overthrowing defiant leaders like Qaddafi in Libya—all of which alarmed the Russians” (ibid.).

Kuzmarov and Marciano that now is the time for the development of a “citizens’ campaign for peace and justice along the lines of the anti-war Vietnam War movement, one capable of restoring some sanity to our foreign policy” (p. 172). Get to it – not much time left.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.