Joseph R.


September 14, 1999


Some people like to say that photographs of President George Bush and other high US officials taken while the Berlin Wall was coming down and Eastern Europe liberating itself (with no real heroics and bloodshed from the likes of NATO, thank you) reveal much unhappiness on the part of men who had given "the whole of their lives" to the high cause of the Cold War. (Their apparent emotion – dismay at the good fortune of others – was thus somewhat the opposite of German notion of Schadenfreude, or joy at others' misfortune.) At the very least, they looked rather stunned, like the Dead Parrot in the Monty Python sketch. After all, what purpose could life hold, now that the Permanent Enemy, the Evil Empire, had so rudely imploded?

Cynics began cruelly chuckling that the CIA, which is indeed central and an agency, might have mentioned something to its employers about an impending Soviet collapse. The laughter got so bad that a couple of academics had to write an essay arguing that the CIA "did too" know that something was up. (Did so. Did not.) I think we can leave this question aside, as it is hardly the most important one raised by the Soviets' downfall.


More important, from the standpoint of those running US foreign policy, was what to do, now that the most plausible reason for global intervention has so ungraciously vanished? Give up world-meddling? That was not a very appealing option. No, what was needed was some new threat, some new, believable foe, big enough to head off any fundamental rethinking of US foreign policy and the accompanying downsizing of military budgets and government generally. Colombian and other Latin drug dealers were briefly auditioned as the new global enemy, but proved to be an inadequate justification for such a large defense establishment and had to be filed away with other, lesser threats. Saddam Hussein, who thought the US did not care deeply about his dispute with Kuwait, briefly served as another justification, and still makes an occasional appearance as villain of the week. (Some of his people get bombed, however lightly, about once a day.)

Some there were who spoke up, saying that "instability" might call for almost as much intervention as dealing with an evil empire had. Instability was so much worse now that the Cold War was over, what with all those nationalists, fascists, and ethno-fanatics grabbing for the spoils in those smaller post-Soviet states. This notion is even now being set in stone, but ten short years ago it did not yet greatly impress the American public. Certainly, a really big totalitarian state with a repellent ideology seemed more of a threat to us, to the market economy, or to Western Civilization (if I am allowed to mention the last item these days) than the absence of that state. Many Americans wondered, quite rightly in my view, just what difference it makes to the liberty, safety, and prosperity of the American people, or even to world capitalism or Western Civilization, if political violence breaks out on Penguin Island or in Pogo Pogo?

A couple of generations ago, many Americans would have said that, well, it doesn't make any great difference at all to us, if the Penguin Island Freedom Party is killing off the Penguin Island National Party or the other way around. Some might even have endorsed what I call my First Law, which states that there is almost no situation anywhere in the world that can't be made worse by US intervention. I say "almost" because there is no point in being dogmatic since history and politics are not predictive sciences like physics, or even economics. I cannot doubt that, given enough time, we might find a bad situation which is merely kept bad by US involvement.


Now, the Cold War was a wonderful device for overcoming the narrow, "isolationist," and "selfish" instincts of the American people. In early 1947, Senator Arthur Vandenberg urged President Truman to "scare hell out of the American people" to rally support for the Greek-Turkish aid package, the opening shot of the Cold War. And so he did. He brought us peacetime conscription, bases all over the world, potential involvement in any Penguin Island and Pogo Pogo whose current rulers signed affidavits that they were menaced by communism, and so on. This was all on a rather shaky footing until the Korean War, which Truman also got for us, nailed down the apparent necessity for mobilization-in-permanence and war-in-peace.

Those of us who lived through much of the Cold War can remember how everything under the sun came within that framework. We weren't doing as many push-ups as those dangerously fit Russians, Ivan could read and Johnny couldn't, and we just weren't turning out as many physicists, engineers, and rocket scientists as they were. Clearly, a federal takeover of US education was required. (And now Johnny genuinely can't read, but those responsible aren't in Moscow; and the engineering students are all Chinese. Go figure.) Every conceivable liberal and progressive social engineering project was thrown in the hopper as an essential tool for winning the Cold War, rather than debated on its merits. Interstate highways? Sure thing. Gotta move troops rapidly when the Soviet tanks appear at Pismo Beach. Better racial policies? Gotta impress those Nonaligned Nations. Free Frisbees for the elderly? The Soviets certainly have them. Jazz concerts for Arab potentates? Yes, before the Bolshoi Ballet shows up! Some of us, by sheer accident of geography, escaped those absurd duck-and-cover nuclear war drills in which your school desk was going to protect you from Soviet H-bombs. (Of course, our schools were so backward in those pre-federalized days.) I do remember looking north towards Tampa once or twice during JFK's bit of grandstanding to see if those wily Cubans could hit a military target with their new missiles.

The Cold War, whose necessity is, frankly, subject to some doubt, was a dandy excuse for anything the people in power wanted to do anyway. They were not the least bit shy about wielding it. Hence the cold chill that ran through the US political-academic-industrial complex just after 1989.


With the Soviet Empire unraveling, the US foreign policy and defense establishments found themselves set upon by unsympathetic Congressmen, publicists, and ordinary citizens who were saying that now, at last, it would be possible to cut back, save money, and retrench. People began to envision the return of US troops from Europe and elsewhere. There was much talk (for a season) of a "peace dividend." All over America, special-interest groups lined up for their share, since in today's political climate it was assumed that the money had to be spent by government on something (rather than left to the taxpayers in the form of a real tax cut). But it was not to be.

Meanwhile, the New Right, which grew up with the Cold War, split, with some right-wingers taking the position that they had signed on for Big Government only to fight the Cold War, which was now at an end. Others, more influential for the moment, saw a need for retargeting, so to speak, but spurned calls for retrenchment and minding our own business (as traditionally understood) as "neo-isolationism" and abandonment of "national greatness." Big sticks and TR were sometimes mentioned.

The academics got into the act, expressing the establishment's fear that a more modest foreign policy – should we be lucky enough to ever have one – would make government less important in the lives of the American people. Essays bemoaning this terrible fate threatened, for a while, to become the most important new form of American literature. My favorite example is an essay by political scientists Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry1, who waxed eloquent about all the state-strengthening consequences of American wars, especially the Cold one. During the Cold War, they write, the feds heroically undertook to "manage" American economic life, built much-needed infrastructure (those interstate highways again), constructed a "social bargain," brought wonderful new industries into being ("atomic energy, aeronautics, and space"), improved American education by taking it over (I think the results are in on this one), and much more. All this, under the aegis of a presidency which had "gained an almost monarchical aura." Even better, the South and West (those sinks of backwardness and individualism) were dragged into "the national society and economy," and can look forward, one supposes, to scaling the heights already achieved in several northeastern metropolises I need not name here. (Can such a debt ever be repaid?)

Now, of course, it was mainly the "emergency" of 1939-1989 that allowed big old, progressive government to roll up its sleeves and overcome such characteristically American failings as individualism, a Constitution intended to keep government modest in size, and a fairly free-market economy. To put it another way, these gentlemen are saying that the Cold War gave the social engineers and state-strengtheners their chance to hoodwink, sandbag, and con the American people. Thus, the consensus in favor of big government, centralization, and the "social bargain" rested on shaky ground precisely because so few of these things were argued on their actual worth. These socialist measures, adopted in the name of defending "free enterprise" from Soviet communism, could hardly have sailed under their real name, anyway. (Imagine the awkwardness of a propaganda campaign which had to pit Mild Socialism with Meaningless Elections against the other brand?)


Our sample political scientists hold views typical of their class. (I mention class only because they bring it up so much.) They more or less concede the falsity of the Cold War consensus on domestic policy. Absent that handy smokescreen, they fear that we shall soon witness the erosion of presidential power, the waning of central power within the federal system, and diminished central-state management of economic life (it's been working so well, too). I ask, can we get front row tickets to see this show?

They're right-on about the connections between war – including war-in-peace – and the health of the state. From the other side, they are making precisely the point the Old Right tried to make until they were run over by the patriotic stampede of the 1950s. I hope they are right about the long-run trends. If they are, let everyone who welcomes those trends buy them a beer to drown their sorrows.

Meanwhile, be prepared to see a lot of creativity on the part of those who just can't give up world-saving ("Stop me, before I intervene again!"), whether for reasons of institutional or economic self-interest or ideology. The ideological dimension is looming larger these days. There's probably some mileage left in bombing for human rights and referring to military campaigns as "peacekeeping." Of course, this does not mean that there won't be crass, mercantilist considerations lurking behind most of these interventions. On the other hand, we can't expect the policy-makers to say, "Look, we just want to control Inner Peripheristan because there are wonderful coprolites there, but mostly because we want our favorite US corporations to make really big bucks there, which they couldn't make without our help." Truth in advertising legislation only applies to the wicked private sector.

[1] Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, "After the Long War," Foreign Policy, 94 (Spring 1994), 21-35.

Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Tuesday on

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