Cold War, Hot Debate

Monday, October 30, 2000


nyone who was breathing easier because he thought the Cold War was over may want to reconsider. As far as CNN goes, the Cold War is here to stay. On and on it drones on Ted Turner’s network, in the form of the 24-part television series first inflicted upon the world last year. Flip channels on any given evening, and you will likely at some point come upon Kenneth Branagh’s ominous intonations about the Berlin Wall or the evils of Joseph McCarthy. Indeed, by now these programs have become as familiar as the interminable PBS Nature features, which invariably begin, “Winter comes early to Yellowstone,” or “As a species, sharks are much misunderstood.” The latter always makes one suspicious that the producers must have been under the influence of proshark propagandists.

Equally, what seems to be CNN’s not-so-subtle exercise in national brainwashing ought to arouse suspicions. Not only are CNN viewers (both here and abroad, by the way) condemned to a purgatory of endless reruns, Mr. Turner has also arranged to have both the series and the book that accompanies it distributed in American schools as teaching materials. Considering how little history Americans in general manage to absorb, one wonders if uncritical acceptance of the Cold War according to Ted Turner isn’t a danger here. After all, this was the man who extended his hand in friendship to the Soviets with the creation of the Goodwill Games and who later married no less than “Hanoi Jane” Fonda.

It may be recalled that Cold War caused a good deal of controversy when it was first broadcast, this despite having names of real substance involved in its production: Sir Jeremy Isaacs of the BBC, who previously produced The World at War, an outstanding panorama of World War II, and John Lewis Gaddis, who served as consultant to Cold War and is one of the preeminent historians of the period.

As politically divisive as the Cold War was, it was destined to produce divisive historical analysis as well.

From Jacob Heilbrunn in the New Republic to Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post to Arnold Beichman in the Washington Times and the Weekly Standard, the series was roundly criticized as an exercise in historical distortion and moral equivalence. As politically divisive a period in recent history as the Cold War was, of course, it was destined to produce divisive historical analysis as well. Before Mr. Turner succeeds in permeating the national psyche with his perspective, it is therefore of the greatest importance that counterbalancing arguments be given due attention.

Many of these articles can now be found in the best antidote there is to Turnerized world history: the volume CNN’s Cold War Documentary: Issues and Controversy, edited by Mr. Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. It ought to accompany every set of Mr. Turner’s 24 tapes that goes into American classrooms.

Mr. Beichman writes: “I hope that our book will be read by school boards, school principals, teachers, especially high school teachers, as demonstrating that the Cold War was not merely a struggle between a pair of equally demented gorillas whose snarls and wild swings endangered world peace. In the Cold War, the enemy of freedom was communism, despite its propaganda claims to be idealism in action, a claim that the Turner-Isaacs documentary and textbook appear at times to accept as valid.”

In the interest of fairness, the editor has afforded space to both Mr. Issacs and Mr. Gaddis to defend their handiwork. Particularly interesting is Mr. Gaddis’s account of the only set of instructions the creators of Cold War ever received from Mr. Turner: “that Cold War tell its story from an international, not just an American perspective, and that its tone not be triumphalist.” At first blush, there’s nothing unremarkable about these injunctions. But imagine World War II fit to the same directives, and the fallacy is immediately apparent. Just imagine the Nazi leadership given equal time—as the Soviet leadership is given here. Just imagine producers deliberately staying clear of “triumphalism” as Europe is freed by the Allies and the concentration camps liberated. Most would find the result singularly offensive. To treat communism, whose ultimate death toll far exceeded that of Nazism, with kid gloves is no less than that.

The contributions of polemicists here are all-important in exposing the series’ specific problem areas. However, the most important—because they lend the book greater intellectual heft—are undoubtedly those of Hoover historian Robert Conquest and Harvard historian Richard Pipes, foremost among experts on the Soviet Union.

The death toll under communism far exceeded that under Nazism. To treat communism with kid gloves is singularly offensive.

Particularly where stunning and compelling documentary footage is on display—and admittedly it is there—viewers do need the commentary of competent historians. Mr. Pipes writes, “It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, which may be true as far as conveying impressions goes, but understanding requires a different approach.”

Mr. Pipes concludes, “Just as it did matter that the Athenians defeated the Persians, so it mattered that the West defeated the East in the Cold War.” This is the most important lesson of the twentieth century, whether Mr. Turner likes it or not.