Geopolitical Rivalry: Great for Princes, Bad for Paupers

17 July 2022, 2030 EDT

If you’ve spent any amount of time in Washington, there’s a good chance you’ve internalized a rosier narrative of the Cold War than the actual history warrants (I certainly had). 

To correct that, I have an essay out in Foreign Affairs with Michael Brenes, arguing that the bipartisan cheerleading for great-power rivalry today is based on a jaundiced reading of Cold War history. The popular image of the Cold War—as a historical moment that brought out America’s productive energies and made us step up our democracy game—has a basis in truth but obscures more than it reveals. Here’s our key point:

The failure to see the Cold War for what it was has left the United States unprepared to manage the risks that great-power competition poses to democratic society today. The Biden administration thinks this rivalry will benefit the American middle class and the world, yet it is already poisoning U.S. politics, aiding Chinese President Xi Jinping, and accumulating avoidable strategic risks along the way.

Everyone vaguely acknowledges at least a few of the sixty-plus U.S. attempts at regime change overseas. Everyone knows about a nuclear arms-race to nowhere and the risks of nuclear war we courted along the way. And everyone concedes McCarthyism was bad, though if you press people on what McCarthyism was their awareness tends to be dimly focused on the dude (McCarthy) rather than the red scare that ripped through society. But not only do those things tend to shrink or disappear entirely in popular representations of what the Cold War was; they weren’t the half of the price we paid to wage it. 

There is a lot of International Relations research indicating that rivalries can have a distorting effect on foreign policy and are therefore pregnant with risks. The Cold War not only generated a lot of evidence confirming as much; many of its costs and consequences were realized at home, which is a blind spot in a rivalries literature that focuses on geopolitical rather than internal costs and consequences. More importantly, the Cold War was something of a crucial case for today given the prominence of the Cold War analogy in wrongheaded ideas of “great-power competition” as a source of democratic renewal.

Rather than recapitulate what Brenes and I already argue in Foreign Affairs, I thought it would be worth sharing some of the original research that informs our understanding of why Cold War rivalry was a raw deal for workers, racial equality, the feminist movement, and democracy itself. 

If you’re looking for an alternative to conventional readings that more or less celebrate the Cold War and its makers, you could do worse than the bibliography below to update your priors. All of it is top-notch history, yet most of it doesn’t appear in the “great man” versions of the Cold War.

Landon Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left

By design, the red scare under McCarthyism (the nation’s second red scare…) was the beginning of the end of the New Deal. This book compiles a series of deep profiles of women, blacks, Jews, socialists—basically anyone with progressive sympathies—whose lives were ruined and/or were purged from public service because of the red scare. Sometimes their disenfranchisement simply owed to their identity category; sometimes it was because they were constructing and implementing programs in government that furthered equal rights and economic equality. But it’s worth remembering that once upon a time the technocracy had been inclusive of people who weren’t liberals and we were a better country for it.

Michael Brenes, For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy

It’s no accident that this book is by my Foreign Affairs co-author. Introducing me to the phrase “military Keynesianism,” Brenes goes to great lengths to trace the post-1964 bipartisan political coalitions that built a national economy around the military-industrial complex…explicitly at the expense of programs of inequality and poverty reduction. This bargain abandoned the New Deal economic order, gradually gutted the welfare state, and created an opening for neoliberal orthodoxy to take over both parties.

Michael Dennis, The Full-Employment Horizon in 20th-Century America: The Movement for Economic Democracy

The concept of economic democracy stresses that political equality and multiracial democracy has material requirements. Political rights are a starting point for realizing democracy, not the horizon. Once upon a time, economic democracy was a major focal point for organizing and theorizing in the progressive movement. Cold War liberalism weaponized anti-communism against it, leading to generations of thinking about civil and political rights as something entirely independent of economic well-being, which is messed up.

Lindsey O’Rourke, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War

Of the 60-some attempts at regime change the United States was involved in during the Cold War (!), more than half found the United States taking the side of autocracy. All of it was justified on the grounds of opposing not just the Soviets but political movements associated with the left. Gross. O’Rourke’s book is the only security studies title on this list. It reveals a darker side of our own conduct abroad.

Vincent Bevins, The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anti-Communist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World

Speaking of the darker side of our own conduct abroad, this book will force you to do some serious soul-searching. Bevins documents how the United States facilitated the Indonesian government’s mass slaughter of more than a million people in 1965, an approach to anti-communism and regime consolidation Bevins calls the Jakarta Method. This book will nauseate you if you have a soul, not only because of American complicity in mass murder in the name of geopolitical rivalry, but also because the United States exported the Jakarta Method of mass-murder anti-communist partnerships to Latin America subsequently.

Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy

Dudziak offers what some might consider a “second-image reversed” explanation of civil rights—pressure on American policymakers to realize some form of political equality was heightened by the need to maintain a democratic reputation in competition with the Soviets. But that is not precisely what Dudziak argues. The Johnson administration pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the shadow of Soviet rivalry, but Dudziak traces how the concern with public image made it far less ambitious and narrower than earlier demands and campaigns for equality (among other things, stressing political over economic democracy). The greater pressure for civil rights, moreover, was not from geopolitical rivalry but from mass protests and civil disobedience from below. 

Elizabeth Hinton, “’A War Within Our Own Boundaries’: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Rise of the Carceral State,” Journal of American History Vol. 102, no. 1 (2015), pp. 100-112.

This is the only must-read on the list that’s a journal article rather than a book. Hinton documents how the anti-poverty programs in LBJ’s great society legislation quickly merged with anti-crime programs, becoming the basis for America’s gargantuan and structurally racist carceral state. The black uprisings spanning the United States in 1964 and 1965 had been a reaction against discriminatory economic policies and police violence in black communities, but the media metabolized them as “riots.” Accordingly, the government responded not with attempts to resolve the root causes of injustice but rather by disciplining blacks as unruly surplus labor in what would come to be known as the “prison-industrial complex.”

Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era

The campaign for gender equality was intertwined with the movement for racial equality and economic democracy before the Cold War started to sever them from one another. Tyler May captures how Cold War containment of the Soviet Union encouraged an analog domestically, of reinforcing within-family patriarchies that subordinated the role of women in society to home work—an unseen, uncompensated work force without which the Fordist political economy would have been impossible. When today’s post-liberal “new right” reactionaries argue for a particular nostalgic version of working class politics, they fail to own up to the historical fact that their version of a society structured around hard-hat, lunch-pail working (white) men who help American industry take on commies required the subordination of women. The working class politics of the right are incompatible with the equal treatment of women, but romantizing the Cold War can make it seem otherwise.

Many other books deserve a mention here. Curt Caldwell’s NSC-68 and the Political Economy of the Early Cold War diminishes the importance of military competition as part of the Cold War. Gabriel Winant’s The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Healthcare in Rust-Belt America documents, among other things, how hierarchical social relations domestically were essential to—not incidental to—Cold War political economy. Lily Geismer’s Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality shows how Democrats became champions of neoliberalism and abandoned organized labor in favor of suburban voters and “yuppies.”

But this list collectively delivers a radically different sense of what US-Soviet rivalry entailed, foregrounding rather than erasing its deleterious effects on all forms of equality and multiracial democracy, at home and abroad.