Stalinism in the White House

Finishing up John Lewis Gaddis’ The Cold War: A New History, a passage on the Marshall Plan resonated with me, in chilling fashion.

Gaddis observes (pp. 103-104) that the exhausted Soviet Union could never have competed with the Americans in resuscitating European economies after the Second World War:

The Americans had another advantage, however, that had nothing to do with their material capabilities: it was their pragmatic reliance on spontaneity. . . . They were impatient with hierarchy, at ease with flexibility, and profoundly distrustful of the notion that theory should determine practice rather than the other way around.

It did not unduly disturb Truman and his advisors, therefore, when the American military authorities in Germany and Japan reqrote their directives for the occupation of those countries to accommodate the realities that confronted them. . . . Nor, staunch capitalists though they were, did Washington officials object to working with European socialists to contain European communists. Results were more important than ideological consistency.

The next time some neoconservative starts comparing George W. Bush with Harry Truman, keep this passage in mind. One could describe the current White House in many ways, but “pragmatically focused”, “results over ideology”, and “accommodating to realities on the ground” would not be the phrases that come to mind.

But Gaddis does present something that does raise the shock of recognition:

The Soviet Union under Stalin, in striking contrast, suppressed spontaneity wherever it appeared, lest it challenge the basis for his rule. But that meant accepting the proposition that Stalin himself was the font of all wisdom and common sense, claims his acolytes made frequently. . . So this was what the aspirations of Marx and the ambitions of Lenin had come down to: a sytem that perverted reason, smothered trust, and functioned by fear.

No, George W. Bush is not Stalin. But the insistence on secrecy and centralized control, perfected by his Imperial Vice President, the claim that it is always right, the assault on science and professionalism, and the demand for untrammeled power resting on absolute trust, bears a frightening resemblance to regimes past.

The issue here isn’t whether the current administration will destroy our democracy: I don’t think it will, partially because of last year’s elections. Rather, recall the Gaddis’ point is that the Soviet Union could not compete internationally with its ideological adversary precisely because of its ideological inflexibility. The facts did not conform to the theory, and were thus disposed of.

Radical Islam is not the ideological threat that fascism was, but it is a serious threat nonetheless. It competes with us throughout the 1 billion-strong Muslim world (and thus large portions of Europe as well). And the rigidity of the Bush Administration–its insistence on pursuing torture even when it doesn’t work and alienates our allies, its conflation of different threats, its inability to come up with ways to attack radicalism outside of military force–is making it stronger and stronger.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.