(part of) You Are Here: Explorations in Search of Current Reality

If some of these writings seem less than coherent, I am so far just trying to find my way. If you see signs of potential, then check in from time to time - I expect to be making more sense as I go along.
See also Tales of the Early Republic, a resource for trying to make some sense of early nineteenth century America


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Some Background for Grappling with the Question "What was the Cold War?"

All I can hope to present here is really the barest sketch.

A sketch conveys something about a complex scenario or event, while having only a miniscule fraction of the complexity of its subject.

e.g. http://markrabo.com/blog/time-and-struggle/picasso-woman/ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E94BFivA4tA&feature=related

Picasso's realistic but minimal line drawings give an impressive illustration that such a thing may be possible. One can look at the line drawing, compare it to a photograph, and get a sense of something complex being beautifully invoked by something with a thousanth of the complexity of the photography, let alone the original subject. Still, photograph and sketch are somehow comparable.

In representing a major historical event, we can *only* present the sketch. To go over the corresponding "photograph" a piece at a time would take hundreds or thousands of lifetimes.

The "sketch-artist", or historian can never even have *seen* the whole that he or she tries to portray. At best, one hopes to have examined a balanced sample. But in the study of history, it is very possible to, even after after a lifetime of study, discover that the whole thing can be seen to have hinged on one small detail that was overlooked or hidden.


One of the by products of World War I was the sudden collapse, or loss of legitimacy, of several regimes in Germany and to the East, especially in Russia. The primary reason was, I believe the extreme, inhuman and seemingly bottomless demands of the World War.

Russia was very different from Western Europe. It was several times larger than any nation to its west, and lacked natural boundaries between it and its most vigorous rivals. The Urals formed a boundary between European Russia and Siberia, but that was breached in the 17th century and thereafter, controlled Siberia, and kept going -- in fact Alaska was Russian territory until 1867. Russia's vast expanses of thinly populated land, the flatness of terrain, and legal attachment of people to the land through serfdom may have made it suitable for the centralized and militarized rule it developed and retained right up to the 1917 revolution. The only decentralization was a dispersed landed Aristocracy which was highly dependent on the center.

Russia's serfdom, which by the 19th century was the closest thing in most of the "old world" to new world chattel slavery, was finally abolished in 1861, coincidentally as the Civil War was ending American slavery. By releasing millions from attachment to the land, this, for the first time, provided fodder for an industrial revolution.

After the Napoleonic wars, many Russian soldiers were employed for the occupation and pacification of France. This lead to a broader exposure to liberal Western ideas, to an enduring francophilia among the Russian upper classes, and to a major attempt in 1825 to overthrow and modernize the government. This, in turn, led to an unprecedented police bureaucracy which spied on and terrorized dissidents (this was greatly surpassed by the Soviet Union of course).

Both the modernizing impulses (by intellectuals and the lower classes), and the official response to these impulses remained extreme and violent from this period up the the Revolution. An incremental path to a free and democratic society seemed to remote a possibility to stimulate any powerful movement. The extreme backwardness of the countryside combined with the sudden opening up of the country's vast spaces and creation of urban masses due to an influx of foreign technology led to the tossing together of very disparate cultures and subcultures with no time to work out ways to accomodate eachother.

The reforms of Alexander II, including abolition of serfdom, could not move fast enough to assuage bitter and desparate sentiments. Alexander was himself assassinated in 1881, and succeded by the very backward looking Alexander III (1881-1894).

... (much more to cover)

In summary, there was extreme alienation and almost no possibility of convergence between the liberal yearnings of the Russian Intelligencia, and the underground radical movements. The movement that would untimately come out on top was the Bolshevik wing of the Social Democrats (both branches of the SD were desciples of Marx, with different interpretations). The Bolsheviks were led by the extremely domineering and hard Lenin, who in his youth, saw his brother hanged for conspiracy against the government. Lenin was a ruthless leader, and perhaps (until near the end of his life?) *infatuated with the power of ruthlessness*. He did, however, often show a keen grasp of reality, and did not totally lose sight of the idea that his often bloody means would be mere senseless violence if they did not bring about a better state of society than the present, and if he did not have such a distopian view of where capitalism was headed.

Lenin directed the Bolsheviks from exile, mostly in Switzerland. His group printed revolutionary materials to be smuggled into Russia, and tried to coordinate the activities of those in the country. These included attempts to build up ties with workers, and sometimes quite bloody bank and stagecoach robberies to raise funds to keep the Bolsheviks in operation.

Stalin, who would shape the USSR for nearly 30 years, was prominent in these types of operations. Thanks to the recent opening of Russia (while it lasted?) Simon Sebag Montefiore read unpublished memoirs and diaries and spoke to those who knew the stories or were direct witnesses (one was a 109 year old relative of one of his wives). According to this portrait Stalin reveled in conspiratorial violence, and took charge of sniffing out and eliminating those in the movement suspected of disloyalty.

Let me stop and consider what point might be served by this examination of this especially catastrophic revolutionary transformation of one society.

Nothing drives people into the arms of those who tyrranize or prey on them like fear and hatred of the real or imaginary viciousness of some other group. The envisioned "Road to Serfdom" described in books like Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and by the Reader's Digest caricature of Hayek's book "The Road to Serfdom" (condoned by him but really very different from the book he wrote) are unlike any real transition to tyrrany I have run across in the study of many such catastrophic transitions.

One really abbreviated version of Road to Serfdom with comic book style illustrations states:

"Most national planners are well-meaning idealists, balk at any use of force"

I can find no real example of a totalitarian revolution evolving out of a movement of gentle minded idealists. Rather, all seem to have been brought about by fanatics through the inspiring and feeding hatred with lurid pictures of the "enemies of the people", whether these real or imagined enemies are Jews, Fascists, Communists, or some "intellectual elite" as in the case of Cambodia and China's Cultural Revolution.

All such movements that I have observed were responses to catastrophically bad governments under the greatest strain, or power vacuums caused by the disappearance of a previous totalitarian system (as in the Warsaw pact countries formed soon after Stalin's forces displaced the Nazis).


[In the course of 20 years (through the late 1930s), the Bolshevik party was purged of idealists; anyone with any sort of internal compass affecting their actions, and these were replaced by people willing to be tools of Stalin, and to live under his terror, making themselves believe whatever Stalin said was correct.]


The fear of democracy leading to a "tyranny of the masses" stripping people of property at least some of which was earned by their own hard work -- is at least a couple hundred years old. I suspect much of the fear and loathing of the USSR over the decades was more a fear of what the USSR *claimed* to be than of what it actually was, and fear that they would actually succede in establishing a nation of economic equals.

North Korea is, I think, a reminder of what a state ruled by almost universal terror can accomplish. While people starve, and the country is deeply isolated, they continued to make stunning technological accomplishments for their size and poverty.

I think much the same thing happened under Stalin, when the USSR went from a mostly agrarian society to a highly technological and competent one, *in matters pertaining to military strength*, though neglecting nearly all other areas (Education in science and technology was an absolute necessity for keeping up military strength, though it could be turned to other purposes).

While rule by terror must necessarily destroy some potential contributers to a nation's goals, it did in fact terrorized nearly everyone into working very hard, in contrast to the joke about Brezhnev's USSR "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work".

Over the years after Stalin's death, the USSR became more static, predictable and a *highly* class-based society. The privileged shopped at special stores and were first in line for apartments and such cars as were available. Still, the myth was repeated ad nauseum that the purpose of the CP and USSR Over the years after Stalin's death, the USSR became more static, predictable and a *highly* class-based society. The privileged shopped at special stores and were first in line for apartments and such cars as were available. Still, the myth was repeated ad nauseum that the purpose of the CP and USSR was its commitment to the perfection of human society.

Why did the change take place? On Stalin's death, a clique of top leaders faced eachother, and rather than fight to the death for the top leadership, as happenned during Stalin's ascent, they opted for a predictable level of comfort, and so called a truce for all but Beria, the bloody chief of secret police. As usual throughout Soviet history, the transition was presented as the vanquishing of a diabolical group of traitors -- in this case called the "Anti-Party Group". Under Stalin, the secret police trumped the Communist Party, and Stalin's no longer wanted to live that way. While they must have thought of it in more positive terms, what they wanted, and got, was a more or less comfortable oligarchy. Except for Beria, the losers in the power struggle would simply be demoted or at worst kept under house arrest, as Khrushchev was once he lost power.

For several years it wasn't clear who was in charge, until Khrushchev came out on top for a few years.

The overview of the USSR is nowhere near complete; still I'd like to shift gears, focusing for on Cold War related events and perceptions in the US, and the "western world" generally.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw waves of immigration to the US especially of Italians and East Europeans (many of the latter being Jewish). Such people had to have been motivated to take drastic actions to leave their homelands, and many had been oppressed, or associated with radical movements, or both. This millieu helped bring about a strong current of labour movements, as well as expressions of anarchism and socialism.

One of key resulting events was the Chicago Haymarket Riot of May 1886 where dynamite was thrown at the police killing 7 police and 4 others. The riot and dynamiting were blamed on an anarchist conspiracy. Americans were reminded of the "anarchist menace" in 1901 when President McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. February 1919 saw a huge and very well organized general strike, probably more associated with socialists than anarchists, with some materials exhorting workers to follow the example of Russia. In April 30 bombs were sent through the mail to prominent people, causing much panic but little damage, and in June came a wave of more powerful bombs, including one very powerful one targeting the home of U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, which lead to heavy repressive measures including the Palmer Raids, and a general panic known as the Red Scare.

Such domestic events, expressing the power of strong and disciplined radical movements, or simply nihilistically violent, reinforced the harshness of new Russian regime, and the waves of revolution and attempted revolution in the rest of war-devastated Europe, helping to produce a first impression of Russia and its international revolutionary asperations.

In the U.S., the World War was followed by a relatively short but deep depression putting many ex-soldiers and others in desperate straits. Whittaker Chambers, who became a Communist for two decades, and then a famous anti-communist, describes what this was like in his memoir _Witness_.

The poor performance of status quo institutions in the U.S. and catastrophic failure of institutions abroad (starvation swept much of Europe) became a powerful recruiting tool for revolutionary movements, and the now Soviet-backed Communist International grew to be one of the strongest such movements, and almost certainly the best funded. The core soviet leadership, at this time, believed fervently in world revolution, and that their own survival depended on it. Years later, when Stalin announced the doctrine of "Socialism in One Country", it seemed like folly and shocking heresy to many Bolsheviks.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Empathy for the Devil

One obnoxious talking point, or verbal trick, of the "right" these days is the way they often characterize any attempt to understand our international antagonists, such as Muslim extremists, or the USSR in the old days, or "problem" members of society e.g. drug addicts and criminals of various sorts.  Such efforts are often indiscriminately characterized as "being soft", or coddling covered with scorn and ridicule.

On a hunch long ago, googling empathy and "martial arts".  Today I do that and get over 6 million hits (I have concluded from experience that hit counts on google have become meaningless, except maybe for distinguishing "very big" and "very small" numbers).  One early and prominent one is a very short article by a martial artist that stated:

I have found that empathy gives one a clear advantage in martial arts ...

Combat situations are so fast that thinking has to switch into alternate modalities. Reflexed are trained to react to situations and one must be creative and in the moment to deal. Since I was a kid, I was able to better anticipate attacks. It wasn't like mind reading or anything like that, it was more like feelings of what state that person was in. If someone was going to plan to fake you out, you can sense a deceptive vibe. If they were going to try to draw you into attacking in order to counter your moves (a good tactic) you can sense this too. You can especially sense if the person is just going to come at you aggressively. (source: http://empaths.tribe.net/thread/1374bf8b-da65-4ef6-bae1-12a7664b1d7b).
 Understanding the other, and even having empathy, are important tools of the well trained interrogator, and the field CIA agent.

If Neville Chamberlain had had some understanding of Adolph Hitler (through close study of his writings, speeches, and actions), rather than approaching him like any other head of state, the twentieth century might have turned out differently.

Yet for some decades now, novelists and movie makers have supplied, and their consumers have en masse tended to demand "thrillers" in which the protagonist is a sort of black box of pure evil.  The phrase "serial killer" has become box-office and book selling magic.

The great TV series The Wire portrayed high powered criminals as human beings with intensely human motivations, but nonetheless ruthless criminals.  The police in the series worked hard to understand them.  Tremendous sympathy was shown for many low level "punks" -- it was evident both in the way they were portrayed for the viewer, and in many of the police, who nevertheless mostly aimed at finding some way to make them betray one another so as to get the worst people off the street.  A handful could be saved; most could not, and neither the viewer nor the cops were given any illusion about that.

A primary difficulty of human nature, especially troublesome in a democracy is our tendency to paint in black and white.  When the US needed Stalin as an ally to defeat Nazi Germany (and the cold fact is it would have been impossible without that ally), much of the American leadership and people lost our critical judgment regarding Stalin and the USSR.

[to be continued]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Illustrated ("comic book" in fact) Road to Serfdom

Apparently published by LOOK magazine, then redistributed by General Motors as a pamphlet.
See http://mises.org/books/TRTS/

Also see "Hayek on Social Insurance".
in Ezra Klein's Blog.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why Did the Cold War End, in a Nutshell

Michael Gorbachev, starting very soon after he became General Secretary of the Communist Party (the defacto head of state) in 1985, set out to establish democracy and freedom of speech "with all deliberate speed" -- i.e. as quickly as he could accomplish it without losing power or throwing the USSR into chaos.

Why did such a man get to the top of the USSR? I think part of the answer is hypocrisy. The Soviet Communist Party, like the corrupt church of the Middle Ages, preached ideals very different from their practice. Soviet children were brought up on the idea that they were on a crusade to make the world better and freer. While the doctrine was no doubt encrusted with rationalizations of the current practice, a deep thinker might go to the root of things and realize that the most central ideal is to make the world a better place, whereas in fact, they had a class of people, just like the old aristocracy, running the nation for their own benefit at the expense of the vast majority of people. Similarly Martin Luther saw a contradiction between what Jesus preached and the selling of indulgences -- essentially tickets to heaven in his time which among other practices was making the Holy See obscenely rich.

Even a leader who came up under Stalin, like Nikita Khrushchev was apt to find the gory history of the party too much at odds with some basic pull toward decency. In 1956, he gave a speech about the insane excesses of party purges under Stalin, and other inhuman policies, with the hope that the party would turn its back on that sort of thing. He allowed Alexander Solzhenitsyn to publish A Day in the Life of Alexander Denisovich, a short novel describing life in the prison camps or Gulags, and even permitted a movie to be made from it. Gorbachev was among those who, going to school at the time, found hope in the new developments. One of the problems with understanding the dynamics of a nation like the Soviet Union is the oversimplified image of a static dictatorship. Dictators such as Stalin, Mao, Saddam Hussein, and Hitler, seem to me from my reading, to have held and consolidated power only through deft orchestration of crises. They require demonic enemies out to crush the nation at the moment when extreme discipline is dropped. They have to foment the sort of hysteria that justifies trying and executing not just anyone, but people close to the top -- those who might engineer a coup against the dictator.

In the case of Stalin, he was able to keep redefining the ideology so as to marginalize whoever threatened him most at a given time. Khrushchev was playing somewhat by the same rules, but did not have Stalin's extreme lack of scruples to just execute anyone for convenience sake. The people who lost power under Khrushchev just went into obscurity; some of them outlived him. Nevertheless, Khrushchev combined Liberalization with the ejecting of his main competitors from power, and this provided for a while the sort of disorientation among the party that helped Stalin and Mao maintain one man rule.. Had he been more like them, he would probably have, as things began to stabilize and people began to feel more safe, generated a new anti-liberal hysteria and ridden that for a while.

Instead, events took on a life of their own. Rumors and excitement over liberalization spread to the Warsaw Pact nations which lead to an embarrassing degree of liberalization in Poland, and outright revolt in Hungary. Khrushchev did not have sufficient sway to survive the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, so the pendulum started swinging the other way, and the brakes were put on liberalization. Still, there had been an awakening, and many people, like Gorbachev, never forgot it.

I suspect Khrushchev was never again so confident as to how far he could go in transforming the USSR, and this in part led to a need for various sorts of posturing such as the famous shoe pounding at the U.N. He was also barely literate and uncouth which did not serve him well on the world stage and had to be a disadvantage at home as well.

A coup was engineered by Brezhnev and others in 1964, which led to Brezhnev's rule until 1982. I think it is safe to say that Brezhnev stayed in power so long largely by staying in the center of the ideas and attitudes of the ruling class, and under him, party members lost much of their sense of insecurity, and lived a fairly comfortable life while the rest of the country scraped by. Tension with the West, in my opinion, helped maintain solid and consistent structure of the Soviet state in that period. It is often called the "period of stagnation". Peoples lives remained about as miserable as they had been, but I suspect there was a subtle change over time. The USSR "lost" the space race. Memories of the "Great Patriotic War", or World War II (in which approx one tenth of the population died in a war on their own territory) faded, and by the end of the Brezhnev era, the population seemed burnt out and cynical, and this attitude, and envy of the West's consumer culture extended into high levels of leadership - especially among those who got to travel abroad. For a few years after Brezhnev's death, there may have been a low key struggle between the "old guard" and the many people who thought that something needed to change, and there was a series of octogenarian successors.

The choice of Gorbachev signaled a strong movement of sentiment towards change. Though it is hard to say who wanted how much change, Gorbachev's ability to stay in power for several years suggests he was not so radically out of touch with the mood of the country. According to a recent Gorbachev interview, he went around to the Warsaw Pact governments and told them not to expect Russian troops to keep them in power, suggesting they had better go with the times.

In my estimation, for too long Gorbachev's principled attempts to steer his country into normalcy and modernity and away from being a police state, were treated, in much of the West, as symptoms of weakness, or some kind of ploy, certainly not as a potentially epochal change. Rather than offer help in getting through a dangerous period of change, the US mostly "kept up the pressure".

There is a lot to say about the various crises. As in 1956-7, the mood of change was seen by various ethnic groups as an opportunity to try to break free -- this time the USSR was affected while the Warsaw Pact nations were simply allowed to be what they had always pretended to be - independent nations. By 1990, there were free multiparty elections in which Gorbachev was elected the first President of the USSR, and a transition away from remote control of the government by the Communist party was in full swing if not completed.

In October 1991 some coalition of the KGB and the military tried to overthrow Gorbachev, holding him captive in his vacation dacha. Gorbachev managed to somehow face them down as demonstrations went on in Moscow lead by Boris Yeltsin, and it became clear that the highest officers of the military could not command the troops to put the demonstrations down. Gorbachev was soon released, but the facade of solidity of the USSR was shattered, and Yeltsin and others quickly engineered a splitting up of the USSR into its constituent "republics".

The end of the USSR was seen by the US at least as the end of the Cold War. In fact there was no more Cold War once Gorbachev showed his willingness to democratize the USSR and allow the Warsaw Pact nations to go their separate ways. In my opinion if the US and other Western nations had supported Gorbachev's prestige, and embraced a new era of cooperation with the USSR, and a need to help the USSR come back from the brink of mass poverty, the USSR would not have broken up, or might have partly broken up in a more orderly way, but democracy and freedom of the press would have been maintained. As it is, democracy and freedom steadily deteriated. Russia is very weak except that it has the ability to destroy civilization. Not much to cheer about in my opinion. Certainly the idea that we "won" the Cold War seems like a foolish illusion.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Whittaker Chambers on Ayn Rand

Whittaker Chambers spent a long time in the American Communist party and came to regret it, writing a book called Witness, about his experiences, and also serving as star witness against Alger Hiss in his perjury trial when Hiss denied his association with Chambers in the Communist underground in the mid 1930s (My impression, impressionistic as it is, is that Hiss did perjure himself, though this does not necessarily make him Stalin's man in the White House, nor make the United Nations a Stalinist plot -- the conclusion that some, I think, jumped to). The case remains controversial, but Hiss was sentenced and spent 3-4 years in prison. The Hiss case also helped launch Richard Nixon's career as he played a leading role in getting Hiss convicted.

For a while, Chambers wrote for William F. Buckley's National Review magazine, and while there (in 1957) wrote an extremely negative review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which is available online (Big Sister is Watching You by Whittaker Chambers -- It was at http://old.nationalreview.com/flashback/flashback200501050715.asp but that link has been removed and the "New" NR-ers are doing their best to explain/refute Chanbers). Rand's books have become extremely popular in the last few years, and much of what Chambers says about Atlas Shrugged would apply to quite a lot of today's political writting and commentary.

He described the book as "The War between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. ... Both sides of it are caricatures". The Children of Darkness at least "are caricatures of something identifiable. Their architypes are Left-Liberals, New Dealers, Welfare Statists, One Worlders or, at any rate such ogreish semblances of these as may stalk th4e nightmares of those who think little about people as people, but tend to think a great deal in labels and effigies. ... In Atlas Shrugged, all this debased inhuman riffraff is lumped as "looters." ... "Looters" loot because they believe in Robin Hood, and have got a lot of other people believing in him, too. Robin Hood is the author's image of absolute evil — robbing the strong (and hence good) to give to the weak (and hence no good). All "looters" are base, envious, twisted, malignant minds, motivated wholly by greed for power, combined with the lust of the weak to tear down the strong, out of a deepseated hatred of life and secret longing for destruction and death. There happens to be a tiny (repeat: tiny) seed of truth in this. The full clinical diagnosis can be read in the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche. (Here I must break in with an aside. Miss Rand acknowledges a grudging debt to one, and only one, earlier philosopher: Aristotle. I submit that she is indebted, and much more heavily, to Nietzsche. Just as her operatic businessmen are, in fact, Nietzschean supermen, so her ulcerous leftists are Nietzsche's "last men," both deformed in a way to sicken the fastidious recluse of Sils Maria [referring I think to Nietzsche]. And much else comes, consciously or not, from the same source.)

So the Children of Light win handily by declaring a general strike of brains, of which they have a monopoly, letting the world go, literally, to smash.

"When she calls "productive achievement" man's noblest activity," she means, almost exclusively, technological achievement, supervised by a managerial political bureau.... this can only head into a dictatorship, however benign, living and acting beyond good and evil, a law unto itself ... and feeling any restraint on itself as, in practice, criminal, and, in morals, vicious (as Miss Rand clearly feels it to be). Of course, Miss Rand nowhere calls for a dictatorship. I take her to be calling for an aristocracy of talents."

"Something of this implication is fixed in the book's dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked."

Chambers, whether generally admirable or not, was a fine writer who among other things translated the German book Bambi, which was made into a Walt Disney movie (probably not a good way to judge its literary merits). I read  Witness, which seemed to me to criticize Communism largely for "Godlessness" and consequent hubris on behalf of the human race. It was a bestseller and book of the month club selection and I think an obvious subject for exploration of the development of major ways in which Communism was construed during the Cold War.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Korean War

The Korean War lasted from July 1950 to the armistice of July 27, 1953, the last years of the Truman administration, and the first months of the Eisenhower administration. It took place against a background of consolidation of mainland China under Mao Tse Tung and growing awareness by most people that the "Nationalist" government of Chiang-Kai Shek did not stand a chance against the mainland. The mainland consolidation was considered essentially complete by 1949, and much finger-pointing ensued over "Who lost China". From my reading, the answer seems to be that Chiang's government was weak, corrupt, and inept, and the Maoist forces, whatever one thinks of their ideology, had grown into a formidable apparatus while carrying on a disciplined fight against the Japanese occupation, and maintained good relations with the populations among which they lived, and after the Japanese left, there wasn't much that could be done about it. Some of this may be mythology, but just looking at the hundreds of thousands of effective troops they were able to throw into Korea.

It was also the final years of the Soviet dictator Stalin, who died March 5, 1953, a few months before the armistice, and between the Soviet failure to liberate the nations it traversed on its way to Germany, and this apparent united Communist empire over most of Europe and Asia, there was plenty of reason for the west to be alarmed. It would later transpire that China and Russia's still nationalist impulses, and distrust of eachother would not permit such a unified Communist empire, but if both nations had been true to Communism's "One World" pretensions, there would indeed have been such a Communist collosus. So some of the alarm, not for the first or last time, was due to a mistaken belief that Communists were totally driven by their ideology. Perhaps the communist footsoldier was, but at the highest levels, Communist leaders were much like other national leaders of a particularly unconstrained and brutal type, and between Mao and Stalin, and the later Kremlin leaders, neither was about to yield to the other, and over time they came to criticize eachothers actions and ideology.

At the end of WWII, Korea, which had been occupied by Japan since 1910, came under joint control by the U.S. and the USSR, with the US controlling territory below the 38th parallel and the USSR controlling territory to the north of that line, which bordered on the USSR (though it had a much longer border with China).

Many of the core leaders and soldiers of the North Korean army had fought alongside the highly effective Maoist army, and they showed themselves to be ready for action when the war commenced. The South seemed to have no such advantages of discipline and morale. The North and South Korean leaders, Kim Il-sung and Syngman Rhee both wished to unite Korea on their terms. It appears that Kim might well have succeeded had the Koreans been left to their own devices.

[to be continued]

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What Kind of Project is This?

It is very difficult to get a real sense of any major episode of history. If you approach any such episode with no knowledge, skillful writers with their own strong senses of what it represents can probably convince you of any of a number of contradictory "lessons of history".

In trying to make sense of the transformations of America that happenned in the early decades of the 1800s, I adopted a scheme of delaying the big picture, and looking at one tiny event, or person, or place at a time and trying to relate to that. An early taste of where that lead can be seen in Jacksonian Miscellanies - Highlights of First 24 Issues. At history conferences I used to attend, historians who drew very different conclusions about a subject listened to and learned from eachother. Sometimes there was heated debate, but respect was also present.

While I may have read a few dozen books related to the Cold War, there is very little about which I can give a coherent satisfactory explanation, whereas many Americans, having read a lot less, won't hesitate to sumarize the whole thing in 25 words or less. One of the problems is the way that belief systems and our (social) identity become almost impossible to separate. "I and other right-thinking people know that this: ... is how and why it happenned. Others, whose identity is often summed up in some pejoritive way, make this ridiculous claim: ...".

The email newsletter Jacksonian Miscellanies consisted of roughly chapter sized excerpts from real period documents, with maybe 20% context and interpretation added. My general approach was to try to surprise myself, shifting from time to time based on the question "What have I not been paying attention to?". When I was trying to get a handle on (printed) source material from the 1820s-1840s, it seemed, at least, finite. I felt like one of the blind men with the elephant at least, not like a blind ant crawling on an elephant, but with the Cold War I feel more like the ant, and what, anyway, are "original source materials" on the Cold War? I am trying to understand simultaneously both major happenings, like the Berlin Air Lift, or the Korean War, or the first visit to America by a Soviet leader, and major initiatives taken by various entities to tell us what it all meant at the time it was happenning, whether it was by ex-Communists like Whittaker Chambers, people in Eisenhower's or Kennedy's White House, the founder of the John Birch Society, or influential members of the "new left".

One surprise I have had already is that Catholics seemed to have had an unusually large part in the early days of the formation of anti-Communist views of the USSR. Also that even earlier, the alarm was sounded to a large part by left-leaning Europeans who might have been initially attracted to the USSR, but saw what was really going on there, and went around the world and across the U.S. trying to get us over our war propaganda inspired illusions about "Uncle Joe" Stalin. See Dr. America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927-1961 (Culture, Politics, and the Cold War)

I will mostly stick to one narrow subject at a time, so anyone following this blog will take a long time getting any idea of a "big picture". But for people willing to be exposed to surprising aspects of Cold War thought, even aspects you would have tended to stay away from out of repugnance for one point of view or another, I am hoping to provide something of interest. Hopefully, by focusing on undeniably influential (in one war or another) sources, even a "learning-on-the-job" historian can succeed to some extent, as I seemed to do with Jacksonian Miscellanies, which for a while made me pretty well known to scholars of the period, many of whom read it.