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Cold War Dissent Revisited
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Whether one’s interest is primarily the discourse of dissent or Cold War history, revisiting a period of political turmoil marked by repression and resistance provides an opportunity to reassess a number of contrastive features that have defined the national experience, including the ideological divide between left and right, the distinction between state domination and citizen protest, and the separation of politics from culture. The pursuit of a just and democratic society is a complicated affair not readily reduced to easy distinctions, fixed features, or a single venue of political activity. Neither the rhetoric nor the history of Cold War dissent—to whatever degree they can be separated—turns on a simple narrative of protagonists and antagonists locked in a struggle of good against evil. Nor is the outcome of the struggle ever as definitive as it may be remembered. The confluence and confounding of political power is the rule rather than the exception. Knowing what can be counted as dissent and recognizing when dissent is co-opted are difficult matters of judgment. False starts and hard landings are endemic to protest. Perhaps, as it turns out, tactical maneuvers and persistence in the face of recurring setbacks are dissent’s greatest democratic virtues.

Five books cannot retell the whole story of Cold War dissent, but together they can suggest the difficulty and importance of strengthening democratic culture. Each book examines a different dimension of that challenge to shed light on the central issue of democracy’s prospect in the pursuit of social justice. Reading these studies of dissent in the long war on communism, rather than an exercise in disinterested curiosity, is an investment in what Kenneth Burke would call equipment for wise living in the present long war on terrorism. Some rhetorical situations are all too recurrent to leave unnamed and critically unengaged if we are to size up and come to terms with democracy’s complications in our times.

Containing Dissent

Domestic dissent and international diplomacy converged in 1968 to damage the prospect of democracy. For two decades, the Cold War status quo and its menacing balance of power, premised on nuclear deterrence, had frustrated rising expectations for social change across the globe. The ensuing eruption of domestic protest undercut the authority of governing elites worldwide. Stripped of legitimacy, and no longer able to lead by consent or persuasion, governments from the United States and Western Europe to the Soviet bloc increasingly relied on coercion and repression. In the United States, the Vietnam War catalyzed protest, and the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. discredited nonviolent advocacy.

As the language of revolution supplanted the rhetoric of reform, and political authorities escalated the use of force to maintain domestic order and suppress social movements, a corresponding relaxation of tensions between East and West allowed the besieged leaders of the great powers to police their own unruly nations. “The promise of détente became the stick with which to beat domestic critics,” observes Jeremi Suri. Despite ideological differences, Richard Nixon, Willy Brandt, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mao Zedong “colluded to stabilize their societies and preserve their authority” (261). Détente favored stability over political change and economic reform. Governments became more centralized and secretive, less concerned with building popular consensus, and more dependent on the use of force to maintain order at home. The conservative backlash to Cold War protest ultimately sustained the rule of elites.

Suri paints a bleak picture, but he makes a good case and issues a sobering warning that containing dissent to achieve political stability at the cost of liberty fuels anger and resentment by divesting politics of popular meaning and collective engagement. Contemporary America has inherited a toxic mixture of public disaffection and state suppression. Today’s democratic deficit, Suri cautions, is the paradoxical legacy of social upheaval in the 1960s. Politics remain frozen, publics continue to be alienated, and the nation is left unable to meet the challenges of the post-9/11 world.

The global disruption of 1968 entailed an international language of protest against state power. Even as this language—expressed by the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Wu Han, and Herbert Marcuse—raised political consciousness, it rendered dissent too heretical...



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