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Liberal Revisionism and the Cold War; A CUNY Professor Airbrushes Conservatives out of their Cold War Victory
by Ron Capshaw
27 April 2004

John Patrick Diggins' rewriting of the Cold War is the latest attempt by liberals to claim victory for their side.


The chill winds of the Cold War are blowing again.  Russia is again bragging about missile superiority. A Russian leader with a dubious, bloodied background is exhibiting superpower ambitions and returning Russia, if not to communism, then at least to authoritarianism.   Russian elections are once again rigged.

All that is missing to make the nostalgia complete is shoe-banging at the UN.

Now more than ever, we must turn to history for guidance.  Unaltered, history can tell us which group and which methods helped America win Cold War I.  Altered, history can send the country over a cliff.   

Which brings us to Professor John Patrick Diggins of CUNY and his history lesson. 

Ideologically, Diggins considers himself a moderate.  At CUNY where he teaches, he is considered a conservative (so too is Arthur Schlesinger Jr.).  In reality, both are standard-bearers for the Democratic Party.  Diggins' latest argument in the December 2003 issue of the left-wing journal The American Prospect, is merely election ammunition for the Kerry campaign disguised as a history lesson.

In "The -Ism that Failed," Diggins argues that neoconservatives are wrong in asserting they won the Cold War.  "As the neocons lead us deeper into the holy war, it's time for a history lesson," he writes.

In his piece, Diggins quotes voluminously from the center-to-left Commentary as if it were National Review.  He blames its "persistent assumptions about communism" as obscuring the Islamic threat, thus paving the way for 9-11.  But Commentary has always had a wide spectrum of opinion among its writers, from self-described New Democrat Sam Tannehaus to then-Troskyite Christopher Hitchens (who incidentally, has always had his eye on the Islamic ball).

But Diggins wisely sticks to Norman Podhoretz as the symbolic head of this "disastrous" school of thought.  Podhoretz dismissed the "Islamic revolution" as a "sideshow concealing the movement of the Soviet Union in the Mideast."  But Podhoretz is hardly a politic seer let alone a conservative, neo or otherwise.  For instance, Podhoretz supported Bill Clinton, who was hardly a conservative or a fighter against terrorism.

But it is in the area of the Cold War, his "history lesson," that Diggins commits his biggest blunders.  As proof of the "compromising disposition of conservatism," he cites the "pecuniary politics" of Henry Kissinger that proved willing to "accommodate itself to communism."   But Kissinger was no Ronald Reagan, whose call for the masses to overthrow their communist rulers the former feared would create instability--a component Kissinger feared more than totalitarianism.

Kissinger and Nixon both criticized Reagan's assertions that the Soviet Union was about to collapse as wishful thinking (so too did Diggins' mentor, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who claimed he witnessed firsthand a bustling Soviet economy).  To support his thesis that "world communism had nothing to fear from American conservatism," Diggins lists Dwight Eisenhower as a conservative who allowed communism in Korea and did nothing about the Hungarian revolt in 1956.  But again Diggins is wrong in his labeling.

Conservatives like William F. Buckley saw Eisenhower as too moderate and sought to create a conservative third-party alternative in the presidential election of 1956.  George Bush the first is also cited by Diggins to show the timidity of conservatism in confronting the butchers of Tianamen Square.

But conservatives were also deeply dissatisfied with Bush, who was a protege of the China-appeasing Kissinger and Nixon.  Conservatives such as Buckley and Robert Novak criticized the first Bush administration for rewarding Chinese behavior with most favored trade nation status.   What Diggins is characterizing as conservative are tendencies conservatives shun.

When he writes of the "East European forces of freedom that took to the streets to overthrow communism"-- in particular the Polish Solidarity movement -- Diggins conveniently forgets that it was Ronald Reagan who provided vital financial aid to the movement in the 1980s (an action praised by Carl Bernstein, who is hardly a Republican) and that Lech Walesa cites Reagan as the man who won the Cold War.  Indeed, if it is American liberals who won
the Cold War, as Diggins claims, why are there no monuments or streets named after Franklin Roosevelt in Russia today as there are for Reagan?  Those on the front lines of the Cold War had a different view of which Americans aided them than Diggins.

Diggins has a well-documented habit of countering facts with sweeping rhetoric.  In previous works, Diggins presented no arguments to bolster his assertions that Thomas Jefferson didn't really believe in individual rights (when presented with evidence in the Jefferson-authored Declaration of Independence, Diggins dismissed it as "just rhetorical finery") or that Bill Clinton was not part of the 60s generation (Clinton was from Arkansas, Diggins argued, and Arkansans were not hippies, but the people who beat Jack Nicholson to death in Easy Rider).   The same process is at work in his rewriting of the Cold War.  For Diggins, conservatives are one indistinguishable mass; they number among their ranks such pragmatists and appeasers as Dwight Eisenhower and Henry Kissinger and that makes it easier to dismiss them with so much rhetorical finery.

Diggins' history lesson has present concerns.  His rewriting of the Cold War is merely the latest attempt by liberals to claim victory for their side and thus take away the moral authority of the Bush administration to wage war against terrorism.


Ron Capshaw has written for Partisan Review and Front Page Magazine.  He is currently working on a biography of Alger Hiss.

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