It was one of those moments that demonstrate decisively how much the world has changed -- and how the end of the Cold War is challenging world views right and left.
The moment came Sunday afternoon, in the midst of a series of glowing tributes to William Appleman Williams, the late historian who pioneered a revisionist and highly critical view of the United States' role in the world.
Williams, who died in March and would have turned 69 today, was the intellectual inspiration of a generation of New Left historians. He battled all his life against the prevailing view that "containment" of the Soviet Union was a sensible goal of American foreign policy.
Not surprisingly, most of the scholars at Sunday's memorial colloquium, sponsored by the left-of-center Institute for Policy Studies, were firm in their view that the revolutions in Eastern Europe had done nothing to vindicate the Cold War or invalidate Williams's arguments against containment.
"I don't think the U.S. won the Cold War," said Marilyn Young, a professor of history at New York University. "I think the Soviet Union stopped fighting, which is a different matter."
So it was all the more riveting when Christopher Lasch, a radical historian in Williams's independent-minded tradition, rose to offer his dissent. Speaking slowly, almost hesitantly, Lasch suggested that the left follow Williams's example of "looking facts in the face without the distortions imposed by wishful thinking."
"We ought to admit the truth ... that the West won the Cold War -- even if it goes against the grain, against our political inclinations," Lasch declared. He then ticked off a long list of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's actions, including unilateral arms reductions, his abandonment of Eastern Europe and his political reforms "that implicitly condemn the whole course of Soviet history."
"If these actions don't add up to a victory for the West," Lasch said, "the term surely has no meaning."
Lasch scored American leftists who idolized Gorbachev as "a candidate for sainthood" and "a socialist hero, an inspiration to socialists all over the world."
Yes, Lasch said, "he is a bold, imaginative politician, compared with whom our own leaders are pygmies. But boldness and imagination have been thrust on him. ... These qualities define his creative response to defeat, to the crisis that now confronts the Soviet state, both abroad and at home."
Then Lasch posed what is for socialists the hardest question of all. "We have to ask ourselves," he said, "whether he isn't presiding not just over the collapse of the Soviet empire, but over the collapse of socialism as well."
Lasch acknowledged that "in many ways, the Soviet empire was the antithesis of socialism." But he added: "The hope that sustained several generations of socialists was that the Western democracies would evolve in the direction of socialism, while Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would evolve toward democracy -- 'socialism with a human face.' Neither the West nor the East is moving in the anticipated direction, however. Leaving the West aside, what we see in the East is not the humanization of socialism but its rapid abandonment."
Lasch added: "We don't have to join the celebration of the free market to see that the masses in Eastern Europe and Russia no longer have much faith in socialism."
Lasch's address stirred the 75 or so scholars gathered in the small meeting room at the Dupont Plaza Hotel. The University of Rochester historian was immediately challenged by Walter Lefeber, one of Williams's best-known students and a prolific writer of books challenging a heroic view of America's world role.
Lefeber, a professor of history at Cornell University, contended that the real issue was not whether the West had won the Cold War, but rather the U.S. failure to end it much earlier. Lefeber argued that the United States missed opportunities for "a slow disengagement" which might have left the nation in a stronger political and economic position today.
Lloyd Gardner, a professor of history at Rutgers University, then argued that the collapse of Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe may rob Western conservatives of one of their greatest assets. The existence of such dictatorships, he said, "stood as a constant warning to the countries of the West" of what fate might await them if they turned away from the Western alliance.
And Manning Marable, a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said the events in the East needed to be examined from the perspective of the Third World. Marable warned that the "common European home" that Gorbachev posits "could become a new leviathan, a new manifestation of Eurocentrism," in which former elements of the Soviet bloc unite with the West "to control Third World markets, raw material and a cheap labor force."
That Lasch's view generated such debate was a tribute to the impact of Williams's anti-Cold War arguments on a generation of the American left.
In books such as "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy," first published in 1959, Williams challenged conventional accounts of America's use of its power by pointing to connections between the nation's economic interests and its actions around the world. Williams was one of the first historians to analyze the Cold War as the product of "American imperialism," a view that later dominated the thinking of the New Left.
Yet if Williams's analysis of American power enraged conservatives, his fierce criticisms of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln enraged liberals, as did his kindly treatment of such figures as John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover. Williams, who always took pride in his first career as a naval officer and an Annapolis graduate, cherished what appeared to others as his contradictions.
"No one since Charles Beard so influenced the writing of U.S. history or revised conventional wisdom so deeply," Gabriel Kolko, a well-known radical historian, wrote in a letter read at Sunday's colloquium.
Lasch himself argued that while the outcome of the Cold War might be said to have vindicated containment's supporters and Williams's critics, Williams and his allies may yet be proved right in having foreseen that "even if the West prevailed, it would pay dearly for its success and that the United States, in particular, would pay most heavily of all."
"If the West can be said to have won the Cold War," Lasch said, "the United States can hardly be said to have shared in the fruits of that victory." The economic costs, he said, were formidable. "Nations unburdened by large military expenditures, notably West Germany and Japan, have shot ahead of us in their productive capacity, taken over markets formerly dominated by American exports and invaded the domestic market in the final indignity."
The Cold War, he said, "contributed to the centralization of economic and political power," widened the gap between the advanced and "technologically backward" sectors of the economy, and impoverished public services in such areas as health care and education. Finally, Lasch declared, the Cold War led to an "erosion of civil liberties," stifled political debate, promoted secrecy in government and made lying "routine in American politics."
For Lasch, the lesson of all this is straightforward: "that political discussion can no longer revolve around the choice between socialism and capitalism."
Lasch, author of the best-selling critique of the counterculture and capitalism, "The Culture of Narcissism," was by turns a supporter and a critic of the New Left, and habitually enraged his allies no less than his intellectual adversaries. Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University historian who attended the colloquium, said the warm atmosphere of remembrance may have protected Lasch from much fiercer polemical fire.
Ribuffo said Sunday afternoon's debate was only the first skirmish in what was likely to be a long struggle on the left over the meaning of the Cold War.
He said the end of the Cold War on Western terms would pose a problem mainly to "those for whom the Soviet Union meant something special and who lamented that it didn't turn into a humane socialist regime to be emulated." They were now a relatively small group, Ribuffo said, compared with those who saw the Soviet Union as "an unappealing world power" and welcomed the end of the Cold War as an opening for more moderate brands of social democracy and welfare state liberalism.
As for Williams himself, Ribuffo said, "There's absolutely no question that he would have loved this debate."