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From the Film and Media column in the April 1999 Perspectives

The Cold War According to CNN

Lloyd Gardner, April 1999

The final episode of the CNN/Jeremy Isaacs Cold War series—written by Isaacs himself—avers that the Cold War from beginning to end was, above all, an ideological struggle, and the biggest losers were Marxism and communism. Elsewhere in this concluding hour, however, narrator Kenneth Branagh confidently informs viewers that the Cold War cost trillions of dollars, and, quite simply, it ended because the Soviet Union did not have the resources to keep up. The ideological struggle, then, or the wherewithal to survive a protracted conflict—which was the real Cold War? Both, presumably, in some combination. I'm troubled, however, by the thought that no real effort is made here (or throughout the 24 one-hour programs) to offer substantive analysis of such assertions—at least not beyond the sometimes facile affirmations of the various scriptwriters for the series.

The two interpretations of the origins and ending of the Cold War are not mutually exclusive, of course, particularly since among the West's resources must be counted the flexibility its leaders demonstrated in dealing with the political reconstruction of Europe after World War II, and the successful integration of Japan into the American-led world economy. Still, the historians who advised the producers and scriptwriters, let alone others who might be expected to have added commentary on such matters, are never seen on screen. Instead, the CNN series leaves analysis largely in the hands of the author of each hour program. There are several different authors, so it is not surprising that the interpretive framework is disjointed, and does not always mesh easily from one chapter to the next, but that is not a terribly significant defect.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of how the historians interacted with the material, except as a list of consultants placed above a similar list of archival sources at the end of each episode. And that is a troublesome matter. Was the decision to eschew commentary determined by time limitations or from a feeling that the series should not be pitched at too high a level? Surely the audience for the Cold War will never be the same as a sitcom.

Whatever the reasons, analytical opportunities slip by while the narrator's authoritative voice alone provides the connecting links between film footage and interviews. While this style has the dramatic advantage of the old CBS You Are There programs, where viewers could see Martin Luther nail his theses to the cathedral door, and listen to "eyewitnesses" describe the controversy, the overall effect can be more like a throwback to Movietone News. Even with 24 hours to tell the story, CNN's authors cannot find all the pieces of the puzzle, let alone fit them in place by the narration alone. There are, indeed, some very surprising omissions. The rancorous nature of Cold War historiography notwithstanding, it would have been possible to add a valuable dimension through interviews with historians, or better yet through panels. The half-hour discussions following some episodes do not really make up for this shortcoming.

Again in the final episode an unseen interviewer asks Mikhail Gorbachev and Paul Nitze to comment on the problem of whether the Cold War involved a series of tragic misunderstandings. Gorbachev states that the West exaggerated the military threat at the outset of the conflict, and hence forswore opportunities for adjustment; Nitze asserts just the opposite, that there was no way to deal with Stalin or his heirs until the Kremlin realized the futility of its quest for world domination. Historians rattling on about who was right might not have been an attractive ending for the project, but informed perspective on the Cold War's legacy could have helped the viewer understand that such large issues are not so easily boiled down to what either has asserted. To be sure, critical comments about official positions are challenged by former participants on both sides—but in my view that does not make up for the scriptwriters' "last word" advantage.

By seeking out previously unknown dramatic film records of crucial events, and pursuing interviews with the major players—and those who are now forgotten or reluctant—CNN has given viewers hearty adult fare to digest. There can be no question about its value for that reason alone. The best interviews offer fascinating vignettes that open new angles of vision on much larger events, without needing comment by the narrator or anyone else. Robert "Bud" McFarlane, President Reagan's security aide, tells the camera in the episode on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or "Star Wars") that the president ordered him to do his best to convince a doubting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the value of a missile defense program. Without her on board, Reagan admonished McFarlane, the plan was in jeopardy at home. At first McFarlane had little success, as Thatcher stuck with what she had told Reagan in person. Then he thought to mention that in the proposed appropriations of funds there would be subcontracts for British firms totaling $300 million. The Prime Minister immediately saw what had previously eluded her in the rationale for SDI.

The arms race is a constant of the Cold War, and a logical major theme of the series. The opening sequences of the first episode take viewers on a filmed tour of the secret underground meeting rooms and living quarters for government officials should an atomic attack take place. It is a very powerful visual statement of the way people anticipated a possible future that could not have been adequately conveyed in any other way. The point could have been made even stronger, however, by quoting from Prime Minister Clement Attlee's memoirs about a meeting with President Truman at the dawn of the atomic age. A worried Attlee queried Truman about whether he should go home and counsel Britons that henceforth they must prepare to live like troglodytes in underground caves. Such a use of memoirs or other materials would have introduced contingency into a narration suffering from too much certainty.

Robert McNamara continues the story of the arms race with a confession that before he became Secretary of Defense he knew very little about atomic weapons and the mounting numbers on each side. Once he grasped the meaning of it all, he says, he dedicated his life to seeing that the bombs would never be used. It is a poignant moment. But missing is any commentary on Khrushchev's belligerent boast in the Suez crisis that he could send scores of ICBMs hurtling at Western capitals, a boast he apparently thought would do him some good in dealing with his hardliners, but influenced more American hardliners in the wake of the fright caused by Sputnik. Kennedy rode the missile gap into the White House. It was left to officials below McNamara to confess in early 1961 that, yes, there was a missile gap—but in our favor. That admission made no headlines, leaving the impression the United States was behind. The whole affair was thus handled in a way so as not to slow down the Kennedy military buildup—surely a complication for Defense Secretary McNamara's concern about the arms race. It is that sort of contextual analysis that could have made the interviews more meaningful.

The series is at its best, on the other hand, in its ability to present sweeping comparisons of how the Cold War reshaped the two societies, particularly, again, as by-products of the arms race. A new class of scientific and technological elites arose in both countries. We are introduced to the enhanced lifestyles of the newly privileged with a paper boy's view of new suburban houses basking in the sunshine of a 1950s Technicolor movie. The contrasting image of these new "atomic cities" and the purpose of their existence is all the more powerful for being understated. Inside the Soviet Union the privileges were not on a level with those here, and were always tinged with the personal consequences of failure, especially in the Stalin years. Patriotism was a key motivating factor in both places, but in the United States, in part because of the way in which defense spending was spread out, there was a much greater ripple factor throughout the economy.

Unfortunately, all too little time is devoted to these developments, the demographic shifts, the consequences of resource allocations, and the power of the new "military-industrial" complexes. There is an effective discussion at various points of the great lengths the Soviets went to portray their society as approaching perfection, where everything was constantly getting better day by day, in every way. And then to expose the reality behind that pretense, later in the series, a Russian scientist speaking in the post-Cold War era declares that the Cold War is not really over, because of the legacy left behind by radioactive wastes. The camera sweeps over landscapes polluted with the residue of superpower glory. It is a grim heritage.

The diplomacy of the Cold War begins, according to the series, as a single-minded Stalin looked beyond victory to the likely political situation at the end of the war. Regaining his composure after the shock of the German attack, Stalin immediately sets out to pressure his allies into accepting Russian advances into Eastern Europe. All the talk about self-determination, from the Atlantic Charter to the Declaration on Liberated Europe at Yalta, meant nothing to the dictator. The series might have quoted from the Yalta minutes at the point where Roosevelt asks Stalin to make the elections in Poland as pure as Caesar's wife, and the Russian replies that there were those who knew she was not so pure.

Much less is said, on the other hand, about Soviet indecision over how to deal with postwar Germany. Through much of the series the United States is portrayed as merely reacting—often in shocked surprise—to Russian advances and schemes for conquest. But nothing is said about Russian exclusion from Italy, the example Moscow used to justify its plans for Eastern Europe, nor about the efforts to achieve a secret surrender of German forces in northern Italy near the end of the war so as to forestall any possibility of disorder from a partisan uprising. This famous episode produced an acrimonious exchange between Stalin and Roosevelt, with the former claiming that the old cordon sanitaire policies were on the Western agenda again. The claim was not entirely wrong—and the failed scheme was at the very least an example of American activism as tensions grew.

Similarly, the discussion of the wartime summit conferences stress questions that will have a long life in the Cold War—such as Poland's future boundaries. The Polish "agreement" at Yalta covered over profound differences, and the issue of Soviet noncompliance produced Truman's outburst at V. M. Molotov on April 23, 1945. It was hardly a passive reaction. Other questions that figured predominantly in the origins of Cold War disputes, such as the matter of Russian reparations claims, receive only passing attention, and then as a somewhat less than legitimate quest for war booty. Yet American policymakers at the final summit conference, Potsdam, had, in effect, told their Soviet counterparts that they must take what they found in their zone, pending an already dubious Big Four agreement on Germany's economic future.

As Churchill and others would put it, there was a growing feeling that the ancient capitals of Eastern Europe were being subjected to yet another blackout period—having barely survived the German occupation. But the series writers also make some rather hyperbolic claims in these early programs, such as Central Europe was re-entering the "dark ages."

As smothering as the Russian presence in Eastern and Central Europe became, as terrible as the secret police apparatus used to stifle dissent, learning did not disappear. Using terms like "re-entering the dark ages" is an overly dramatic device for summing up the presumed totality of the East-West conflict in a fashion that minimizes alternatives that might not fit so comfortably into the overarching narrative.

Shifting to the background of the Cold War in Asia, controversial issues such as the vexing question of "atomic diplomacy," and maneuvers surrounding Russian entrance into the war against Japan are scarcely mentioned. American ambivalence about colonial questions in the face of presumed communist expansion is not discussed, and the Korean War suddenly pops up as a simple case of Soviet aggression. As background for the Korean War, viewers need to be told much more about the impact of early policy decisions on Asia that followed the dropping of the bomb, such as the exclusion of Russia from any say in occupation policies in Japan.

In contrast to the later episodes on Angola and Afghanistan, which do provide a great deal of new information about internal disputes and factions within those war-stricken countries, and the ensuing involvement of the superpowers, the lead-ins to the Korean War—the conflict that had so much to do with the permanent militarization of the Cold War—are hardly developed at all. Like Angola and Afghanistan, the war in Korea had deep domestic roots, but those conflicts receive only a few words. Syngman Rhee's pronouncements are dismissed as the rhetoric of a patriot, perhaps a bit overdone, but hardly meaningful. The information we now have about American willingness to consider dumping Rhee because of his stubborn insistence on fighting his own war has not found its way into the programs.

From the moment the Russians entered the Far Eastern War, a potential four-party struggle was in the offing in Korea. The atomic bomb, which was supposed to be the "solution" to certain political problems, became the stimulus to others that plagued all sides. The sudden ending of the war with Japan brought in its wake the occupation of Korea, and its temporary division at the 38th parallel. Certain Asian "boundaries" were in question, for example Vietnam's with China, and the new political orders that would follow colonialism were uncertain. What to do with the Japanese economy plagued policymakers, who saw hopes for a pro-Western China disappear with the Nationalist flight to Taiwan. Without some discussion of what links all these things together, we are left to ponder how the internal Korean situation developed the way it did until Stalin gave Kim Il Sung a green light; how American policymakers wrestled first with the French over control of the Western position in Indochina at the Geneva Conference, putting in place their own putative "George Washington" of Southeast Asia with such fateful consequences; and how concern for the reintegration of the Japanese economy figured in all these decisions.

Internal controversies over the development of the hydrogen bomb or MacArthur's march to the Yalu remain outside the narrative. The debate over the building of the hydrogen bomb is reduced to a few minutes and seemingly settled once and for all by George Elsey's valedictory comment that Truman went ahead, because if he didn't, the Russians would. There was a soul-searching debate, however, inside the United States, with some rather prominent figures, including George Kennan, arguing in favor of reopening (or opening might be more correct) serious bilateral negotiations over control of the weapons before going ahead with a project that would begin an endless quest for perfect deterrence. In the aftermath of the Chinese Revolution, and with Republican critics pounding on "Who Lost China" drums, Truman's choices were indeed circumscribed, but it was a much more complicated question than simply could the Russians do it. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who cast a deciding vote of sorts, told a skeptical David Lilienthal, it was his duty to protect the president against domestic enemies as well as foreign.

Nikita Khrushchev had to face his own China crisis in regard to the hydrogen bomb a decade later. In a face-to-face meeting with Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader demanded that Moscow provide aid for his nuclear program, using the argument that "we" are all communists. Khrushchev demurred, "What do you want it for?" Mao replied, "China is a great country." Khrushchev scoffed, "You don't need it." Soviet-Chinese relations rapidly declined from that point forward. In a final interview with Vaclav Havel, the Czech leader speaks to the pretensions for nuclear "nationalism." Rather than Western military spending, he avers, it was the yearnings of individuals for free expression of ideas, and a different way of life, that ultimately undermined the Soviet Empire.

It has been argued, in fact, that the arms race actually prolonged the life of the Soviet system and empire. However that may be, one of the forces behind the movement for d&#233tente on both sides in the 1970s was the increasing restiveness within the alliances after the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam. There is a marvelous sequence depicting Leonid Brezhnev's wariness about the Helsinki accords concerning human freedoms, and how Andrei Gromyko had to persuade him that they would never become an issue. Did Gromyko and others around the ailing Soviet leader really think that? And then there is Egon Bahr, an aide to Willy Brandt, revealing to CNN's interviewer that when the West German government began its "independent" policies toward East Germany and the Soviet Union, he confronted an angry Henry Kissinger with a statement almost precisely like that Dean Acheson used with Charles de Gaulle (the original proponent of Ostpolitik) during the Missile Crisis. "I am not here to consult, but to inform," Bahr told Kissinger of Bonn's determination.

As the series reaches the final years of the Cold War, the surprising collapse of the fences around Eastern Europe become less surprising in retrospect. These programs are perhaps the best in the series. We witness the still amazing Reagan reversal, and Gorbachev's emergence as someone willing to break apart the fossilized party structure, while still believing in the dream. A new Hungarian leader puts the question directly to Moscow: will you intervene to halt change? Gorbachev gives assurances that the Brezhnev Doctrine, under which Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to end the "Prague Spring," cannot be resurrected. There was, in fact, little else he could say. Nevertheless, George Bush states again what he said at the time. The worst thing he could have done was to dance on the Berlin Wall the night of November 9, 1989.

CNN's Cold War is an ambitious undertaking. It achieves many of the goals its originators set as their ultimate objective, to relate how the superpowers survived the era without launching the all-out war that could have ruined humankind's prospects for centuries. In April 1992 President Bush made a statement that suggests where matters stand today. "With the passing of the Cold War, a new order has yet to take its place. The opportunities, tremendous; they're great. But so, too, are the dangers. And so, we stand at history's hinge point. A new world beckons while the ghost of history stands in the shadows."

We still need to confront that ghost fully, and bring it completely out of the shadows.

—Lloyd Gardner is the Charles and Mary Beard Professor at Rutgers University.