Wounds and Ironies
IMPERIAL ROME lasted nearly 500 years. The British Empire flourished for more than a hundred. In 1947 Harry Truman urged that "the whole world should adopt the American system." His country spent something like a trillion dollars one way or another to encourage just that. But the American century, so boldly sought, lasted only a decade and a half. That period, moreover, will go down in history not as a triumph but as the time of a thoroughly ambiguous enterprise known as the cold war.
Revisionist gunslingers have already riddled the old folk heroes of that war, especially Harry Truman himself. Their extreme view—that the U.S. deliberately started the cold war and the arms race mainly for economic reasons—is neither accurate nor widely shared.
The exact effects of American strategy overseas may never be completely known. World War III—which 74% of Americans once believed would inevitably occur within a decade after 1947—has not occurred. But who can say for sure if that was the result of courageous U.S. policy, Russian prudence or sheer chance? What the cold war did to the U.S. can be more easily measured, especially since the partisanship that once labeled as un-American any evenhanded inquiry into the subject has now faded.
Author Carl Solberg, a former associate editor of TIME and a teacher of history and journalism at Columbia, has written the first concise history of the U.S. roughly from 1947 to 1967. He deals to some extent with the textures of everyday living—the rush to the suburbs and the rise of the barbecue pit, James Dean fan clubs and bomb shelters. But his main aim is to describe the enormous effect of the cold war on American life.
Solberg could be described as a post-revisionist. He well recalls the sigh of relief when American soldiers came home in 1945. The U.S. had, he contends, two deep-seated fears: another Great Depression and another sneak attack like Pearl Harbor. Then came the shocking news that "Uncle Joe" Stalin's Russia was a lot more like Adolf Hitler's Germany than it ought to have been. Sound and statesmanlike steps were taken, among them the Marshall Plan. So were some domestically dangerous ripostes to Russian provocations, like the 1948 passage of a peacetime draft. Thereafter, fear, a weakness for overstatement and the twists of history took over.
Loyalty Checkups. What interests Solberg most are the interlocked ironies of cause and unexpected effect, so maddening for a people encouraged to believe that brave acts and sensible policies guarantee happy endings. As everyone is now aware, all those freestanding, suburban one-family houses (an American dream come true) were livable only if the owners had cars, and so helped bring on nightmarish traffic jams, the decay of the cities and the decline of public transport. Solberg also considers such a thing as the G.I. Bill a marvelous benefit to youth and society.
It helped establish a new precedent: the belief that everyone should (and could) go to college, an idea that resulted in the creation of a continuing class of students, semidetached from their society and their parents. Twenty years later, under different circumstances, that group was heard from at Berkeley, Kent State and Columbia.
Double ironies set in when the U.S. did what seemed to be the right thing for wrong reasons. In the late '50s, for the first time in history, long-needed federal aid to education began—but only to create scientists in the wake of the Sputnik scare. The byproduct was the multiversity, which slighted teaching in favor of research and Government contracts and produced campuses with budgets largely dependent upon Washington. Under Truman, fear of Russian spying led to hot loyalty checkups and eventually to the extremes of McCarthyism. To protect the threatened rights of his Government people, Eisenhower then invoked Executive privilege, but set a precedent that years later the U.S. has had acute reason to regret.
Solberg has to move fast to cover so much ground. Some of his material has been so much publicized already that a new popular synthesis seems unnecessary—especially, for example, a discussion of the cause and course of the civil rights movement. Yet his thumbnail re-etching of the rise of that old dragon, "the military-industrial complex," and how Eisenhower named it, then tried and failed to control it, manages to be fresh and fearful. Solberg is best at recreating the absurdities of U.S. public discourse. The late A.J. Liebling, who so mercilessly documented foot-in-mouth disease in his Wayward Press columns, could not have improved on Solberg's recollection of the reactions to Sputnik. They began with the Chief of Naval Research's description of the Soviets' first earth-orbiting device as just "a hunk of iron anybody could launch" and ended in almost psychotic national gloom.
Solberg probes the rise of crusading rhetoric, the appeal to public fear, the distortion of facts and the equation of dissent with treason that evolved from the need to encourage a tired and lately isolationist people toward new global responsibilities. Whence, at last, not only the credibility gaps of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon but a persistent reluctance to see that the international anti-Christian Communist monolith was perhaps becoming less monolithic.
The evidence was there, says Solberg, as early as Tito's 1948 defection. It be came conclusive in 1963 after Nikita Khrushchev was faced down over Cuba, refused to give atomic weapons to China and was attacked bitterly by Mao.
Yet for more than a decade, American rhetoric still insisted on concerted international conspiracy, and the invocation of imminent danger to the national security was freely used to justify all manner of expensive ventures and duplicities.