HEAR & NOW: Winning the Cold War, Bacevich says, led average Americans and policymakers to believe “the future was ours to define.” Instead, he found it led to folly and delusion. American leaders in 1989 had a “simplistic” view of the Cold War and concluded that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a “wonderful,” future-defining event, he says. The post-Cold War presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are defined by the belief that the Cold War positioned the U.S. to determine the future, he says.
Bacevich finds the problem with these presidents was not with the leaders themselves, but with “the ideas that shaped their presidencies.” These presidents believed globalization would make everyone rich, he says, when it instead creates wealth disparity. The belief in American military supremacy — that the U.S. could address and eliminate threats expeditiously — also erupted at the end of the Cold War, he says. But in reality, he says this pattern of interventionism led the U.S. to take part in “terribly wasteful, misguided and mis-managed wars.”
He also argues the end of the Cold War brought on “a deeply defective conception of individual freedom” that led people to abandon traditional moral norms. People detached the concept of freedom from collective responsibility, which Bacevich believes contributed to negative outcomes. President Trump saw a chance to advance his political ambitions by exploiting post-Cold War policy failures, Bacevich says.
“My interpretation is, if you want to know why an incompetent like Donald Trump could become president in 2016,” he says, “a sufficient number of people believed that he was going to overturn the post-Cold War system.” MORE
EXCERPT: Less than a year before, World War II’s triumphal conclusion had brought to fruition that establishment’s fondest dreams, thrusting the United States into a position of global preeminence. Even so, Dulles’s perspective was unrelentingly grim. Although Nazi Germany was gone and Imperial Japan vanquished, the United States faced another comparable threat. The Kremlin, he charged, was already pressing to create a vast “Pax Sovietica.” Russia and America were on a collision course, with Soviet ambitions directly threatening all that Americans stood for and cherished. It was therefore incumbent upon the United States “to resist all expansive manifestations of Soviet policy.” Failure to do so invited the ultimate disaster. “Assume that Soviet leaders cannot be brought to change their program,” Dulles wrote. The inevitable result would be a “drift into surrender or war.”
“If the past is any guide,” he added, “it will be war.” Averting such a terrible prospect was going to require concerted action or, as Dulles put it, “an affirmative demonstration that our society of freedom still has the qualities needed for survival.” Here, a mere nine months after V-J Day, was a blunt articulation of the theme employed with notable success over the next several decades to keep the rabble in line: Dark forces abroad posed an imminent threat to freedom’s very survival.
Dulles called upon Americans to confront this new peril head-on, making it “clear beyond peradventure that they are prepared to accept personal sacrifice to help keep freedom alive in the world.” The real-life counterparts of Al, Fred, and Homer might think that their work was done. John Foster Dulles held to another view: The struggle for freedom was only just beginning. Sustaining that struggle required the United States to take the lead in opposing Soviet totalitarianism.
A devout if dour Presbyterian, Dulles framed the task at hand in spiritual terms. To overcome godless adversaries would require that Americans remain a God-fearing people. Unless disciplined by faith, he warned, freedom becomes little more than an excuse for “self-gratification,” a temptation to which he suggested his countrymen were notably susceptible. “Under such circumstances,” Dulles cautioned, “freedom is dangerous.” Only by tempering the exercise of freedom could Americans ensure its preservation. MORE