Better Dead Than Red

If you don’t remember the slogan that is the title of this blog entry, I’ve got a book you need to read. It’s called The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, and it’s about the formation of our foreign policy after World War II. It’s lengthy, it’s deep and it’s enlightening.

Without going into any details about the book (for the moment) let’s take a really broad look at our history with Russia. We bought a bunch of land from them (Alaska) in 1867, we invaded them (on behalf of the losing side in their civil war) in 1919, they became our allies in 1942 and finally became the lead boogeyman -- The Reds -- in the late 1940s. “Red” was spit from the mouths of right-wingers much like “liberal” was in the last decade and “socialist” is now -- hence the title of this entry; better dead than red.

There’s something in The Wise Men for everyone, but if I had to sum it up, I would say it’s about nuance. Subtlety. The world is complicated yet we all insist on trying to simplify matters (just like I’m trying to do right now) so that we can help others understand a situation. Yet, in doing so, we destroy any chance of conveying the nuances that are needed for true understanding.

George Kennan -- the least likable (in my opinion) but most-enlightened of The Wise Men -- wrote: “It (a democracy) soon becomes a victim of its own propaganda. It then tends to attach to its own cause an absolute value, which distorts its own vision of everything else. Its enemy becomes the embodiment of all evil. Its own side, on the other hand, is the center of all virtue.” If you think about our involvement in Afghanistan -- the difference between the mujahideen, the Taliban and the terrorists -- you begin to understand the truth in the statement.

If Afghanistan doesn’t interest you, how about “Big Oil” ? This paragraph reads like filler in the book but I found it very enlightening.

”McCloy was disturbed that Dulles seemed so panicky and uninformed. But in fact, Dulles’ ignorance about developments in the Middle East was not so surprising. Ever since World War II, the U.S. government had preferred to leave Middle East diplomacy to the oil companies and the bankers who financed Big Oil -- now chief among them John McCloy.“

It was simple really. America needed cheap oil. American politicians needed Jewish voters. Our politics are pro-Israeli. Our money is pro-Arab (as long as they have oil.) So much truth in such a little space. But perhaps “truth” is the wrong word. “Reality” might be a better choice. If you will take the time to read John McCloy’s Wikipedia entry (you can skim the bomb-the-Auschwitz-rail-lines ax grinding) you’ll get a feeling for the depth of this book. The breadth of his career is stunning and he is only one of the six “Wise Men”. (Just a bit of trivia for the younger readers; McCloy picked Henry Kissinger out of the foreign affairs herd and boosted his career.)

It’s a bit of a slog to get through the book but there’s no two ways about it, it’s interesting reading.

”Kennan began to feel more like a Janus than a Cassandra, casting his wary glances both at the anti-Communist zealots in his audience as well as the naive Soviet sympathizers. He was particularly anxious that a distinction be made between socialism and Sovietism, the latter being the true danger. It is important, he explained, “to distinguish what is indeed progressive social doctrine from the rivalry of a foreign political machine which has appropriated and abused the slogans of socialism.” “

Like I said, nuance. You might want to keep that in mind when listening to today’s public discourse and you hear words like “socialist”, “terrorist” and "Islamofascist". In addition to “wise men”, the world still contains men like Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy. And we still elect them.

Don Brown
June 8, 2009


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