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CNN's Cold War


ANNOUNCER: Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is thebiggest challenge of the new century, which is why ADM promotessatellite technology to help the American farmer be even moreproductive. ADM, supermarket to the world. Additional funding isprovided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, theLynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith RichardsonFoundation.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. CNN has produced amassive 24-hour documentary television account of the history of theCold War. It has been praised, it has been criticized, no surprise. The battles over the causes and meaning of that epic period are farfrom over, and for good reason. Own the past, shape the future. Joining Think Tank to sort through the conflict and consensus are aRonald Radosh of George Washington University's Center forCommunitarian Policy Studies and the co-author of The Rosenberg File: Telling the Truth About the Cold War; and Lloyd Gardner, professorof history at Rutgers University and author of Pay Any Price: LyndonJohnson and the Wars for Vietnam; and Bruce Cumings, professor ofhistory at the University of Chicago, and author of War andTelevision: Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. The topic before thehouse, the Cold War what we know, this week on Think Tank.

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MR. WATTENBERG: The history of the Cold War is being written andrewritten, does the CNN series get it right? Some critics havecomplained that the CNN programs suffer from moral equivalents, thatis, it depicts the United States and Soviet Union as moral equals,both of them guilty of paranoia and both guilty of actions that wereboth excessive and wrongful. Others say the series is flawed inbecause it depicts Cold War history as an open and shut settled case,good guys battling bad guys, good guys win. They complain it leavesvery little of the history open to a different interpretation. Whatwill the judgment of history be about the Cold War? The answers tothese and other questions will impact how the future unfolds. Ownthe past, shape the future. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Professor Cumings, thank you for flying in from Chicago while ill. We appreciate you being here. Let's go around room quickly and get atake on the CNN film, to begin. Several of you have argued this inprint in the New York Times. Ron, why don't you just given to usquickly, and start.

MR. RADOSH: Well, its ambitious project. The best part about itwas their spectacular, riveting footage that helped people,especially people who didn't live through it, capture some of theemotion and power of the era. They have done tremendous filmarchival work and have to have credit for that. I tend to agree withthose who feel the great flaw in the series was, as you put it, moralequivalence between the United States and Soviet Union. Now, theproblem with the series is that different people wrote differentepisodes. Some of the episodes are wonderful. If you look them all,take all 24 hours together, you don't get a sense that they make apoint of moral equivalence. There is very clearly delineated basicdifference between the system of totalitarianism established inStalin's era and continuing in Eastern Europe, the so-called people'sdemocracies, and the general culture and civil society of the West. But certain episodes do depart from that and make some egregiouserrors.


MR. GARDNER: Well, I think it is, as Ron says, a very ambitiouseffort. But even if you take 24 hours on a subject like the ColdWar, you're not going to be able to cover all the subjects, and frommy point of view some of the problems with it have to do with thebalance of the coverage. There is not nearly enough, it seems to me,on Asia; not nearly enough on the Third World in general. There aresome episodes.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is there a tilt toward moral equivalence?

MR. GARDNER: I'm sorry?

MR. WATTENBERG: Is there a tilt in the CNN series toward moralequivalence? Moral equivalence was this great buzz phrase that theconservatives damned the liberals with, saying that's what theythought about the Soviet Union and United States during these yearsof the Cold War.

MR. GARDNER: Both conservatives and liberals can have a lot tocomplain about in this series. For example, the overall narrative isgiven to the scriptwriters. Historians never appear in the series todiscuss these things. So that a statement can go unchallenged byeither a leader of the East or a leader of the West.


MR. CUMINGS: Well, I don't really think I accept the idea ofmoral equivalence as being a problem of the documentary, or really aproblem for our studies of the Cold War in this country. It's veryhard for me to think of a single historian who would think thatJoseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt are moral equivalents. The ideathat the Cold War consisted of choosing between Roosevelt and --

MR. WATTENBERG: But, there are historians who would tend toconflate Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

MR. CUMINGS: There might be, but I think Ronald Reagan andMikhail Gorbachev came very late in Cold War and the basic Cold Warnarrative was never one of moral equivalence. In my view, it was onein which United States was holding itself to standards that theUnited States had established. For example, in the persecution ofpeople during the McCarthy period, it isn't a question of was itworse here than in the Soviet Union, clearly lessened. But, did thatperiod uphold the ideals and First Amendment freedoms that Americanspride themselves on, and I think didn't. And it's that sense, Ithink, that the Cold War pulled the United States into actions,persecuting its own citizens is just one example, but many others inactivities abroad that really took United States out of its ownframework of morality.

MR. WATTENBERG: You've got Ronald Radosh stirring here, andplease feel free to talk amongst you.

MR. RADOSH: I think the worst episode in the entire CNN serieswas numbers six, Reds, about the domestic United States during theso-called McCarthy period. It did exactly what you just said it didnot do, which is claim that there was equal repression, suppressionof dissenters and dissidents on both sides. Now, in fact, it did nottell you that Alger Hiss, as all the most recent information found inthe Moscow archives and the KGB files that historian Alan Weinsteinhas found, show that Alger Hiss was in fact a Soviet spy. What youhave is a narration that depicts Alger Hiss as a victim of themenacing Richard Nixon. It does not tell you, until the 15thepisode, that Julius Rosenberg was not arrested and eventuallyexecuted because he was dissenter, he was arrested because he was, asalmost recent evidence proves without a shadow of a doubt, he was alife-long Soviet agent. And you have, in fact, had writers -- thefamous journalist Carl Bernstein refers in his book to the witch huntperiod in America as the American Gulag. That is an example of moralequivalence, and I think this CNN series did the same thing.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now we've got the other side energized andactivated.

MR. GARDNER: First of all, I think the assumption that they hadspies and we didn't have spies seems to becoming out here in Ron'srhetoric. And that it is that somehow we weren't guilty of espionagein the Cold War. We weren't tried to do essentially the same thing--

MR. WATTENBERG: Of course we had spies, that's not the point. The point is that a lot of people in United States made a politicalcause out of saying Alger Hiss was not a spy, and that the Sovietsdid not have spies.

MR. RADOSH: And the Rosenbergs were innocent.

MR. WATTENBERG: That's a distinction with a difference.

MR. GARDNER: Right in the sense that, and only in the sense thatthey became public issues in United States.

MR. WATTENBERG: With public constituencies.

MR. GARDNER: Yes, but because we had a very harsh period ofreorientation toward Cold War, between 1945 and 1950, and a greatmany people who are not Hiss and who were not Rosenberg, also gotcaught up in this kind of false charges and false accusations, and soon.

MR. WATTENBERG: I wanted to go to two things. One is, the ColdWar is over, symbolically at least, with a fall of the Berlin Wall,10 years now. What do we know now that we didn't know then? A lotof material has come out from Soviet archives, some has come out fromAmerican memoirs and archives. Just, in brief, what do we know nowthat we didn't know?

MR. CUMINGS: I think there are many things that have come out inthe last 10 years that changed or shaded our judgments about the ColdWar, but I don't think there's been a single revelation in last 10years that wasn't anticipated in things that people had written atthe time. This is historical material that is being extracted fromarchives that aren't fully open to historians. Furthermore, much ofthe material is -- it falls on both sides of the debate over theorigins of the Cold War. Those who thought that Stalin was notinterested in world domination, but rather a more limited and shrewdMachiavellian leader can find --

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think Stalin was interested in worlddomination?

MR. CUMINGS: No, I don't, but I just wanted to --

MR. WATTENBERG: I'll come back. Did you think Stalin wasinterested in world domination?

MR. GARDNER: I don't think Stalin had world ambitions.

MR. RADOSH: I think Stalin was interested in expanding the SovietUnion to be the central power throughout Europe, including Centraland Western Europe, if he could, and that was a dire threat to thenational security of world.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's go back to --

MR. CUMINGS: I just wanted to finish that one point.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yes, just finish bat and then we'll go to Lloyd.

MR. CUMINGS: It's clear now that Stalin didn't think the Greekguerrillas in the Greek Civil War, which is so important to theTruman Doctrine in 1947 and '48, he wasn't supporting the guerrillas. That was something that experts on the situation thought to be truethat was validated in the archives. On the other hand, in the caseof the Korean War, we gave more help to the North Koreans than peoplehad thought. But, it doesn't change the basic character of eitherthe Korean War or the Greek Civil War in my view.

MR. GARDNER: I want a comeback to what we don't know still. Thatis, aside from what Bruce says about the selectivity of what we knowout of the various archives, we don't have anything like the opennessin the American archives. But, the point is we don't have archivesfrom very many key players. We don't have North Korean archives. Wedon't have South Korean archives in any great extent. We have somefrom Eastern Europe, but we do not have nearly what need to create awhole picture out of the Cold War yet. So I would stress that, too,when talking about it.

MR. CUMINGS: I want to stress one other thing which is, I thinkthis is a very good documentary, I don't want us say it's a lousydocumentary at all. There are some wonderful episodes in it. But,the underlying histomology of it seems to be that we didn't knowreally anything before 1989, and now we've had this flood of newpeople and new documents and new footage, and now we've really solvedall sorts of problems in the Cold War. What I think, it's justanother phase.

MR. WATTENBERG: That is not surprising from a journalisticenterprise, where everything has got to be hung on new.

MR. CUMINGS: I have great respect for the people who made thisdocumentary.

MR. WATTENBERG: I understand and I have knowledge of howjournalism works, and you've got to hang it on what's new. That'sjust a way of works.

MR. GARDNER: The team that worked on this, Jeremy Isaacs (sp) andothers, have done some of the best documentaries ever made, like TheWorld at War about World War II. It's more a matter of thehistorians, I think, who advised them, encourage them to think thatthey were just dealing in completely 100 percent new stuff that hadnever been heard before.

MR. RADOSH: Well, I think to take Bruce's own area, which isKorea, and here, I'm, as you might have guessed, in strenuousdisagreement with him, we did not have evidence until the past fiveor six years that, in fact, Stalin gave the green light for theinvasion of South Korea by North Korea, and that Mao was involved inthis is well. This has all come out from recent archives. Themasterful book by John Gattis (sp), called We Now Know, shows thatvery clearly, and uses this evidence in his discussion. And I thinkthis is new. The proof at the invasion of South Korea was done withStalin's support and backing, to the extent which Stalin even said,if this results in and atomic war, sobeit, we have to go ahead. Thisis very important --

MR. CUMINGS: That's not quite true, and it's also nothing new. That was the Truman administration's official position, was thatStalin gave the green light.

MR. RADOSH: Yes, but those on the left, like you and others, havealways said that it isn't true. In fact, years ago the journalistI.F. Stone, hero of America's left establishment, argued that therewas a South Korean invasion of North Korea, and that North Korea wasthe victim. And if you look at Stephen Ambrose's first volume of hisforeign policy book, he even quotes and I.F. Stone about this.

MR. CUMINGS: I.F. Stone never said anything like that.

MR. WATTENBERG: I was involved in a public dialogue with Sovietofficials in, I guess, the mid-1980s, where they claimed in front ofa full audience that the Berlin Wall was built as a defense againstWestern aggression. That was, they built the wall to keep theAmerican tanks out of Berlin. I mean, this is the sort of thing theyhave been saying. I mean, you don't believe that?

MR. CUMINGS: Of course not. And I think one of the things thatis unfortunate about the series is its Eurocentrism, as Lloyd said. In a sense, the Cold War is almost a put-up game if you just look atEurope, because almost every regime in Eastern Europe was imposed bythe Soviet Union. These were not indigenous revolutions with thepossible exception of Yugoslavia, where there was exception. Whereas, elsewhere during the Cold War, in China, in Vietnam, inKorea, in Guatemala, in Cuba, and a variety of other places, you hadtwo sides that were far more difficult to separate in terms of eithermorality or their popular support. And Cold War was generally foughtin those places, it wasn't really a war that was fought in CentralEurope. The wars occurred in Korea and Vietnam, and smaller warsaround world. So, it's very important to understand that was a real-- those were the sides that --

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, they were fought also in Washington andMoscow. I mean that's where the war was being fought. These wereall ancillary aspects of what was going on those two capitals.

MR. CUMINGS: True, but people made choices in the context wherethey might be being led by some guy who had served the Italianfascists on one side, and they had a Communist resistor on the other,and choosing between them is a lot more difficult than choosingbetween Roosevelt and Stalin.

MR. GARDNER: What I want to come back to is the Korean War, andwhat we now know and what we didn't know. For example, it's not truethat we didn't know that Russia had a very big stake in this. Khrushchev's memoirs a long time ago said this, that he was there atsome meetings where Stalin discussed this sort of situation. But,what the series also doesn't deal with is the fact that the UnitedStates was unilaterally writing a peace treaty with Japan, it wasestablishing atomic bases on Okinawa, that Sigmund Rei (sp) himself,and discussions with John Foster Dulles' aide out in 1950, just onthe edge of the Korean War, told John Foster Dulles, and he was anewspaper man, Matthews from Arizona, he told him, I'm going to uniteKorea by force. So the point is that we don't --

MR. WATTENBERG: This is what Sigmund Rei said. This is whatSigmund Rei said?

MR. GARDNER: This is what Sigmund Rei said to William Matthews.

MR. CUMINGS: He said that North Korea beat him by the punch, evenif he wanted to do that North Korea decided to unify by force firstto create a communist Korea.

MR. GARDNER: Right. That's exactly my point, that there is asituation here in which to local regimes are struggling, and theyhave involved --

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me move on for moment now. Let us posit formoment that I just fell off the turnip truck, and I just arrived herein Washington, and I hear this story about the Cold War. There werethese bad guys who didn't believe in freedom who took over a bunch ofcountries and dominated them as an empire for many years. There werethe good guys in the United States who believed in democratic valuesand thought this was, particularly coming after a totalitarian surgein the '30s and '40s with the Nazis, felt that this was a threat tothe very values by which we live. Do you buy that?

MR. CUMINGS: I think the United States allied itself withcountries that had had democratic traditions, or were in the processof making a transition to democracy, and supported those countries,Italy, West Germany, France, and that there the policies that wefollowed work very well, and they were welcomed by the people there. In the case of many Third World countries were constantly at oddswith the very people we're supposed to be supporting. South Vietnam,was that a government that defended freedom in your view?

MR. WATTENBERG: More so than North Vietnam.

MR. CUMINGS: How would you know that?

MR. WATTENBERG: I would know that --

MR. RADOSH: There were trade unions there functioning, there wascivil opposition --

MR. CUMINGS: Come on, trade unions in South Vietnam, give me abreak.

MR. RADOSH: Before the Vietnamese War, Ho Chi Min murderedthousands of Trotskyists.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hang on. Are you saying that after World War II,the Pols, the Hungarians, and the Czechs to name three, and would nothave liked to have had their own government, but preferred to haveStalin in there saying --

MR. CUMINGS: Absolutely, they would have preferred their owngovernment.

MR. WATTENBERG: So they were occupied, in effect?

MR. CUMINGS: There were occupied. I think that one of thesignificant differences between the U.S. and a Soviet Union is theSoviet Union had to keep troops on the ground in one country afteranother, the 360,000 Red Army troops in East Germany when the BerlinWall collapsed. It's the countries where the U.S. had to keep troopson ground, like South Korea, where we still have 37,000 troops, thattell you where we've had problems with the local population.

MR. WATTENBERG: Was this at root a struggle of the good guyagainst the evil empire?

MR. GARDNER: This was --

MR. WATTENBERG: That's a simple enough question, isn't it? Now,you're laughing.

MR. CUMINGS: I'm laughing because, if you say, you know, if youpose the question context of a country like France or Czechoslovakia,which had a democratic tradition, that's fine. If you pose thequestion in the light of the Dominican Republic, where one of themost venal dictators in the 20th-Century held sway with our supportfor long-time, Trujillo (sp), then the question is, you have nomiddle-class there, you have no possibility --

MR. RADOSH: So you're saying the alternative is the ultimateauthoritarian dictatorship to a totalitarian dictatorship.

MR. CUMINGS: No, I'm saying it depends on what part of the worldwe're talking about. The reason the U.S. got in to so much troublein Cold War was by extending the doctrine of containment to placeswhere it didn't belong. And this is not my idea, it's GeorgeKennen's (sp) idea.

MR. WATTENBERG: Again, you've sort of not answered.

MR. CUMINGS: I'm not going to answer the question in theabstract.

MR. WATTENBERG: No, let me put it quite specific, because it'ssomething that all guys off the turnip truck can understand. Was theSoviet Union an evil empire? Then if it was not evil empire, was itbecause it was not evil or because it was not an empire? Can we getan answer to that?

MR. CUMINGS: The Soviet Union wasn't empire of much more like aCzarist Russia than it was an evil empire. In other words, itexpanded in its near reaches, it was fundamentally weak. It had tokeep tens of thousands of troops in the countries in its nearreaches, and when it tried to expand its power abroad, most of thetime it failed.

MR. WATTENBERG: But no comment on it's evilness?

MR. CUMINGS: Well, I think it's very hard to say that an entireexperiment of 70 years was evil. One of the things the CNNdocumentary does fairly well is to show you people who actuallybelieved in the system. So it's not just set up, good guys againstthe bad guys, it's a more complex human experience.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hitler believed in his system and he was evil.

MR. CUMINGS: I don't think that the Soviet Union, even if we sayit's evil, is on the same --

MR. RADOSH: That's the crux of the situation. Stalin killed asmany people, if not more than Hitler. To say that the Soviet Unionwas not evil is palpably absurd. Stalin created one of the mostevil, monstrous regimes in history, and I'm delighted that in thisissue there is no moral equivalence. The last word is given toVaclav Havel, who says that this was an inhumane system, thatdestroyed.

MR. CUMINGS: It was an inhumane system.

MR. RADOSH: And that it was an evil system.

MR. WATTENBERG: We have a man in the middle here, on the evilargument.

MR. GARDNER: There's no question that Stalinist Russia was anevil system. There's no question that it blighted an entiregeneration of Russian leaders who tried to escape from, in some ways,the Stalinist heritage, and left them unable to function.

MR. WATTENBERG: Was the Soviet Union, until its demise, an evilempire?

MR. GARDNER: The Soviet Union evolved, too. I mean, as itevolved, it produced not only a Stalin, but in the end it finallyproduced somebody like Gorbachev and Shevardnadze. When Shevardnadzeand Gorbachev talked in 1985, Shevardnadze said everything is rotten,I mean, that was the premise that they had to begin with, thateverything was rotten, and that they had to begin to change. Thesewere people who had seen the outside world, for the most part. AndMargaret Thatcher herself, of course, told Ronald Reagan, this is a man that we can deal with. And so, in other words, when we say 'evilempire,' we have to say it when wasn't evil, what kind of evil wasit, and so on. Stalin was a terrible man, a terrible, insecure,paranoid, however you wanted put it, all of those things.

MR. CUMINGS: The reason you couldn't get me to say it was an evilsystem is that if you declare it to be evil, then 70 years of historyand 40 years of interaction with United States and our allies ismeaningless to students. They won't be interested in it. It's muchmore interesting to figure out why millions of people would haveadhered to that system, in some cases voluntarily. Why Stalinism, atthe end of World War II, had a tremendous attraction as an industrialstrategy of showing how you can take an underdeveloped country anddevelop it overnight into an industrial power, which Stalin did withextraordinary brutality. Nonetheless, there is no question thatthere was a wave of extraordinary passion on behalf of the SovietUnion after World War II. If you think it's just purely evil, you'renever going to be able to explain how that happened to students, andyou're going to miss a view toward the future in which this historyof the 20th Century can be used to inform us about the 21st Century.

MR. WATTENBERG: By your lights, what should that experienceinform us of?

MR. CUMINGS: Well, I think among other things that our system ofeconomics, capitalism, had a history in the 1930s in which itfundamentally broke down, yielding a variety of solutions around aworld to the problem of a world economy that wouldn't work, one ofwhich was Stalinism, and that it could happen again. And we've had afinancial crisis for two years now the world economy. I don't thinkit's going to happen again, but it could. And, in that circumstanceof a breakdown of the world economy, people are going to go forextreme solutions.

MR. WATTENBERG: The question is, what is the appropriate lessonfor the United States from the Cold War? It's got to the brief, one,two, three.

MR. RADOSH: I think the appropriate lesson of the Cold War is,the United States should stand firmly for democracy, for tried toadvance and export democracy where it can throughout the world. Itshould not give in to would-be totalitarian dictators, or regimesthat pose a major threat to the national security of the West.

MR. GARDNER: I think the major lesson is that one cannot becomeinvolved all over the world, because you see a particular threat at aparticular time, and then involving all the other countries in theworld, and because in the end it undoes your consensus and yourforeign policy.

MR. CUMINGS: I think the lesson of the Cold War is when the U.S.sticks to its own ideals and acts according to them in wins, and whenit violates those ideals it gets in involved in morasses like theVietnam War.

MR. WATTENBERG: The Vietnam War, that's the one we didn't touch. And I have -- we'll talk about it after the show. Thank you verymuch, Lloyd Gardner, Ron Radosh, and Bruce Cumings. And thank you,for Think Tank I'm Ben Wattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our showbetter. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media,1150 Seventeenth Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20036, or emailus at To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBSOnline at And please let us know where you watch ThinkTank. This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content. Brought to you in part by ADM, feeding the world is thebiggest challenge of the new century, which is why ADM promotessatellite technology to help the American farmer be even moreproductive. ADM, supermarket to the world. Additional funding isprovided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, theLynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith RichardsonFoundation.

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