Two of my classes have been discussing the Cold War recently. To be perfectly honest, I have never been terribly interested in it. I have always preferred the nineteenth century to the twentieth. There are a few reasons for this, but at least one of my reasons is similar to my predilection for underdog stories. The U.S. is so strong by the time the Allies defeat Germany and Japan that there’s not a whole lot of mystery left in the story – aside from the possibility of total nuclear annihilation, that is. The U.S. in the nineteenth century, especially the early nineteenth century, was still a minor player on the world stage trying to figure out how to run a rapidly expanding country and keep itself united. Call me a presentist, but I don’t think there was any question that we could at least match the Soviets in technology and commitment between 1945 and 1989. The same really wasn’t true in reference to the French military or British fleet in the nineteenth century.
But I digress. The point I want to make is that I am finding the Cold War much more interesting than I used to because of these two classes. Today we talked about the most vehement anticommunists: former communists. Though good ol’ Joe McCarthy usually gets the “anticommunist extraordinaire” badge, the former communists raged with such vitriol against their old ideology and the people who ran the communist party that it’s hard to see how they don’t steal pride of place from McCarthy. This led me to speculate it there was something of a “jilted lover” effect in this situation and others of its ilk. I’m thinking especially of ex-Mormons, who seem to be particularly committed to condemning their former beliefs. It seems like disillusionment has the potential to breed intense contempt.
The other thing that has been striking me in talking about the Cold War is the pervasive, nay oppressive, influence of “Tailgunner” Joe McCarthy. I must admit that he had a point – there was a certain amount of communist infiltration that hadn’t been caught – but his methods torpedoed the careers of lots of able and loyal civil servants as well. What I have been noticing most is how he managed to change the entire tone of the political establishment by completely obliterating nuance. During the reign of McCarthyism any leftist was a potential communist. Any person who supported Chairman Mao over Chiang Kai-Shek (or even expressed the opinion that Mao might win) deserved to be investigated. McCarthy’s rhetoric closed off wide avenues of political speech and demanded adherence to an inflexible anticommunism that quite frankly did damage to America’s reputation abroad. Or at least that’s how it’s seems to me.