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  • The Fifty-Year Wound: The True Price of America’s Cold War Victory
  • Seyom Brown
Derek Leebaert , The Fifty-Year Wound:The True Price of America’s Cold War Victory. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 2002. 750 pp. $29.95.

It is easy to misinterpret Derek's Leebaert's argument. The fault lies in the book's virtues—its rich rendering of myriad episodes, its amusing asides on the personal idiosyncrasies of the political leaders who waged the Cold War, and its rapid shifts of focus like an omniscient novelist exploring what was in the minds of these leaders, what was on the minds of ordinary people, and what is now understood by scholarly observers to have been the true story. Even Leebaert's bottom line on all of this is subject to misinterpretation, again because of the book's virtues in balancing so many different kinds of costs and benefits—lives lost and saved, money invested and wasted, intellectual and moral energies mobilized and dissipated, and imminent dangers (sometimes exaggerated) warded off by mortgaging the future.

After being mesmerized by the breathtaking scope and details of the book, sometimes outraged by Leebaert's revelations of incompetence or mendacity in high places, and, above all, entertained (Leebaert is a superb raconteur), the reader needs to close the book and ask: So, was the Cold War victory worth the price?

I interpret Leebaert as saying yes. Yes, but. Yes, but the wound suffered by the United States was deeper than conventional accounts of the Cold War have acknowledged. Moreover, the wound was excessive, not in relation to the fruits of victory or to the disastrous outcomes that were averted. Nuclear war did not break out, and the Soviet Union and its allies were prevented from imposing their brutal system on the world. But the wound was excessive in that the opportunity costs of U.S. Cold War policies and their unintended consequences might have been less under wiser and steadier leadership.

In Leebaert's assessment, these opportunity costs and unintended consequences over the fifty years starting in 1945 resulted in a diversion of material and creative human resources from efforts to relieve the condition of the country's poor, to develop improved food strains, to build a modern and efficient national transportation system, and perhaps to provide more generous development assistance to post-colonial Third World countries (instead of military aid to Cold War allies like the Afghani mujahadeen, some of whom later formed the Taliban and gave succor to Al Qaeda terrorists). His assessment is an amplified echo of Lyndon Johnson's well-known complaint that the "bitch Vietnam" seduced him away from his true love, the Great Society. [End Page 145]

The wound, in Leebaert's view, was more than material. It took the shape of paranoid secrecy, the discouragement of dissent, and the elevation of overbearing, power-oriented Cold Warriors to the most prestigious positions of authority—all in all, an over-politicization of spheres of life (journalism, the arts, science, higher education) that Americans traditionally have preferred to keep autonomous. "Not too long after the start," Leebaert writes, "almost everyone involved—politicians, intellocrats, professors, mandarins of various sorts who frequently enjoyed the self-promotion that comes from maintaining the mystery of high policy—was winging it amid a clamor of faddish policies and 'crisis management' styles of governance" (pp.640-641).

What, then, would Leebaert have done differently if he were directing Cold War policies?

He properly refrains from detailed after-the-fact policy prescriptions. But after reading his broadside critique, one might have expected him to offer, retrospectively, an alternative grand strategy. Should the United States have allocated substantially fewer resources to the maintenance of an advantageous balance of military power against the Soviet Union? Should Americans have been taxed more to contribute to international economic development and to the winning of "hearts and minds" in the Third World? Should alliances with dictators who were willing to be part of the "free world" coalition against the Communists have been forgone?

We are provided few solid clues about how Leebaert would answer these larger questions, though readers of his complex and rich narrative can make...


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pp. 145-146
Launched on MUSE
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