March 21 2017
Not long after the Cold War ended, many Americans became nostalgic for it. In a November 1999 speech at Tufts University, for example, then–Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley declared: “Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we were sure about one thing: We knew where we stood on foreign policy.”
At the time, the Washington Post editorial board dismissed Bradley’s statement as “a pleasant fiction.” Alas, it has proven a durable and popular fiction—even among certain Post editorialists.
Take Ruth Marcus. On March 7, when Season 5 of The Americans—a Cold War spy drama about deep-cover Soviet agents living in the D.C. suburbs during the early 1980s—premiered on FX, Marcus tweeted: “So excited to be watching The Americans, throwback to a simpler time when everyone considered Russia the enemy. Even the president.”
Whether or not you like her Trump joke, it’s depressing to think that a columnist and deputy editorial-page editor at our capital city’s “newspaper of record” could write something so ahistorical.
Contra Ruth Marcus, the early 1980s were among the most complex and dangerous periods of the entire Cold War, as The Americans properly reminds us. And if “everyone” back then “considered Russia the enemy,” plenty of them had a funny way of showing it.
Indeed, the American Left fiercely condemned President Reagan for his anti-Soviet rhetoric, his military buildup, his missile-defense program, his support for anti-Communist governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, his support for anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua, and other Cold War policies.
In March 1983, after Reagan delivered his famous “evil empire” speech, then–New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis denounced the speech as “primitive,” “crude,” “outrageous,” and “dangerous.” Lewis certainly did not imagine the Cold War to be a simple time of Manichean, black-and-white morality. Instead, he castigated Reagan for applying “a simplistic theology” to “the most difficult human problem”—the problem of the nuclear-arms race. “The terrible irony of that race,” he wrote, “is that the United States has led the way on virtually every major new development over the last 30 years, only to find itself met by the Soviet Union.”
It’s easy to forget just how concerned Americans were about nuclear war during the era in which Lewis published that column. In June 1982, the nuclear-freeze movement organized a rally in and around Manhattan’s Central Park that attracted anywhere from 700,000 to a million people. According to the New York Times, it was “the largest political demonstration in American history.” Its purpose, said the organizers (an umbrella group known as the June twelfth Rally Committee), was “to support the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament and to call for a freeze and reduction of all nuclear weapons and a transfer of military budgets to human needs.” Contemporaneous accounts noted that some of the placards and buttons displayed by the protestors said things such as, “Reagan Is A Bomb—Both Should Be Banned,” “End the Arms Race, Not the Human Race,” “Freeze or Burn,” and “Glow Spiritually, Not Radioactively.”
As the latter three messages indicate, the Left routinely used apocalyptic language to criticize Reagan’s policies. In February 1983, for example, the Democratic National Committee approved the following resolution: “We see the Reagan administration making war on its own chosen personnel in arms control agencies while the United States and the Soviet Union rush headlong down a dangerous path of nuclear arms competition that threatens to end life on this planet as we know it through mankind’s final war.”
Of course, we now know that Reagan ultimately helped secure a happy, peaceful ending to the Cold War. In fairness to the Left, however, there was genuine reason to fear that, at the height of superpower tensions, a single misinterpretation by either Washington or Moscow could have led to disaster. Most people assume the most dangerous moment of the Cold War came in October 1962, after the Soviets moved nuclear missiles into Cuba. Yet arguably the most dangerous moment of the post-1962 period came in November 1983. Here’s how the “dean of Cold War historians,” Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis, has described it:
The United States and its NATO allies had for years carried out fall military exercises, but the ones that took place in November —designated “Able Archer 83”—involved a higher level of leadership participation than was usual. The Soviet intelligence agencies kept a close watch on these maneuvers, and their reports caused [Soviet General Secretary] Andropov and his top aides to conclude—briefly—that a nuclear attack was imminent. It was probably the most dangerous moment since the Cuban missile crisis, and yet no one in Washington knew of it until a well-placed spy in the K.G.B.’s London headquarters alerted British intelligence, which passed the information along to the Americans.
The world of Able Archer 83’ should not be romanticized. Contrary to what Ruth Marcus and others would have us believe, the early 1980s did not represent a “simpler time” in foreign affairs or U.S. domestic politics. While the superpower conflict lent a certain degree of coherence to American strategy, the world was always one miscalculation away from nuclear catastrophe, and Republicans and Democrats fought bitterly over issues ranging from defense spending and arms control to Communist expansion in Central America.
Misremembering the Cold War—pretending that Americans were more unified than we actually were and/or that the conflict was less dangerous than it actually was—does a disservice to history. It also distorts our perspective on present-day challenges. While the current Russian government is unquestionably a murderous dictatorship, the threat it poses to U.S. interests is orders of magnitude different from the threat once posed by the Soviet Union. Likewise, the difficulties of combating the global jihadist movement, deterring Chinese aggression, stopping the Iranian nuclear drive, and dealing with the lunacy of North Korea should not make us wistful for the days of Brezhnev and Andropov.
Amid the ongoing frenzy over Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, it was perhaps inevitable that The Americans would become enmeshed in the debate. But that’s no reason to start rewriting history.