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Reluctant Cold Warriors

By Charles Krauthammer

Friday, November 12, 1999; Page A35

My friend and colleague, The Post's E. J. Dionne, has noted how little coverage the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has received here. He is right. The 25th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' White Album caused more of a stir.

It is a puzzle. After all, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union are events of biblical proportion. They mark the end of a century of totalitarianism.

They also mark the end of the communist, indeed the socialist idea. I don't mean what is now called democratic socialism, which is simply democratic capitalism with a slightly larger safety net. I mean Marxism and socialism as understood for a century and a half, which elevate the communal over the individual, the state over society and politics over everything.

And they mark the ultimate vindication of the democratic idea as embodied by the American Revolution. Subsequent revolutions--most notably the French and the Russian (and, for a short and stupid time in our recent history, the Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese)--appeared to many intellectuals as more authentically revolutionary and in tune with history. And yet the American Revolution--restrained and respectful of imperfect human nature--and the Constitution it produced are now the model for newly freed societies everywhere.

That is a lot to celebrate. And yet there has been hardly any celebration at all. Dionne speculates that this is because after the Cold War we returned to normality and are less interested in foreign affairs.

We returned to normality after other world wars, however, and thought those victories so important that we commemorate them to this day. Veterans Day, which we celebrated yesterday , used to be called Armistice Day because that is the day the First World War ended. That victory hardly ranks in magnitude with victory in the Cold War, and yet it has a place on our calendar.

The fall of the Berlin Wall did not merit a single rally, a single major ceremony in the capital of the country that won the Cold War. Why?

Because many people now in authority prefer not to be reminded that the last 20 years of the Cold War were not their finest hour, and that victory in the Cold War was achieved despite--not because of--their best efforts.

Of course everyone pretends that we were all cold warriors, despite the fact that for its final two decades "cold warrior" was an epithet connoting a combination of fanaticism and small-mindedness.

In a speech the day before the Berlin Wall anniversary, President Clinton commended "President Reagan, who said so plainly what many people on the other side of the wall had trouble understanding--that the Soviet empire was evil and the wall should be torn down."

Other side? There was not a sentient soul on the other side who had any doubts about the evil of the Soviet empire. It wasn't just heroic dissidents like Natan Sharansky and Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa who recognized its evil. Everyone there knew it. The entire empire was wracked with a cynicism reaching all the way to the top about its irredeemable corruption, oppressiveness and bankruptcy.

It was on our side that people had trouble understanding the thoroughness of the Soviet evil. Reagan's "evil empire" speech drew ferocious criticism. Anthony Lewis called it "primitive." Tom Wicker called it "smug." Historian Henry Steele Commager said, "It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I've read them all." Even months later, George Ball, a former high official in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, published an open letter to President Reagan in which, almost in passing, he referred contemptuously to "your obsessive detestation of what you call 'the evil empire.' "

"What you call the 'evil empire'." Today everyone pretends that we were all singing from the same anti-communist songbook. We were not.

In 1983 President Reagan asked for military aid to the government in El Salvador fighting communist guerrillas. Sen. Christopher Dodd went on national TV with the Democratic response. He called the Reagan policy "folly, pure and simple," as it proposed "to wage a conflict which cannot be won." The United States, said Dodd, had "to move with the tide of history rather than stand against it."

Well, it turns out the tide of history was not communism spearheaded by revolution, but freedom backed by American power. We are the tide of history.

The fall of the wall was the final vindication of that view, the view of the much-maligned cold warriors. There are many--particularly the more adept maligners--who don't want to be reminded. That is why Nov. 9 passed so quietly.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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