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Cagney & the Cold War

In response to:

Who Started the Cold War? An Exchange from the March 20, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

As the ball being batted around, permit me a few words on the Cagney-Schlesinger exchange [NYR, March 20]. I do not know Mr. Cagney and I do not move in Mr. Schlesinger’s circles.

I was at one time a scratch golfer, and I suggest that the game offers a useful idiom in this situation. There are two strategies for winning at serious golf. One is to play the people (the leader board). The other is to play the course. You can get psyched up by watching the leader board, but you can only defeat the leaders by beating the course. Here I suggest that Cagney has the better of it because he is playing the course rather than the leader board.

Consider one important part of the course that can be examined by any interested readers. National Security Document No. 68, approved by President Harry S Truman on April 14, 1950, offers a candid and extended (if somewhat convoluted) statement of the outlook and proposals of American leaders. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s account of the document in Present at the Creation provides a customary second source. I suggest that readers note these particular points in making their own evaluations.

First. NSC-68 is grounded in NSC 20/4 of November 24, 1948, which called for a build-up of power to create divisions within Soviet society and “bring about a basic change in the conduct” of the Kremlin. The guts of NSC 20/4 are provided in NSC-68.

Second. NSC-68 begins with a review of the breakdown of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century world order and then says: “Even if there were no Soviet Union we would face the great problem…[that] the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable.”

Third. Russian capabilities “are inferior to those of our Allies and to our own”; and the ability of the United States to deliver a serious nuclear blow provides adequate power “to deter the Kremlin from a deliberate direct military attack against ourselves or other free peoples.”

Fourth. Even so, a massive military build-up is required to “foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system.” As for tactics, “any means, covert or overt, violent or nonviolent,” are appropriate.

But play the course yourself.

William Appleman Williams

Waldport, Oregon

Jr. Arthur Schlesinger replies:

Professor Williams would be less than generous if he did not support Mr. Cagney, who provided in his letter a more measured and thoughtful statement of the Williams case than Williams has ever made for himself. But he lets his ally down. The Cagney letter denied that Williams believes that the United States imposed the Cold War on the hapless Russians. Mr. Williams’s heavy emphasis on NSC-68 (which, inevitably, he misquotes* ) would appear to undermine that denial.

I note that Mr. Williams no longer urges his old argument that the United States started the Cold War because of its lust for all those markets in Eastern Europe. Perhaps he has abandoned that game—evidently for golf. I am a tennis player myself.

  1. *

    The misquotation, though in this case venial rather than mortal, is typical of the general sloppiness of Williams’s scholarship. The quote about tactics actually reads: “The integrity of our system will not be jeopardized by any measures, covert or overt, violent or nonviolent, which serve the purposes of frustrating the Kremlin design…provided only they are appropriately calculated to that end and are not so excessive or misdirected as to make us enemies of the people instead of the evil men who have enslaved them.” Actually NSC-68 was a great grab-bag of Cold War thinking. A historian of another persuasion could extract from it the statement, for example, that “an immediate objective of United States policy” must be “to create a situation which will induce the Soviet Union to accommodate itself, with or without the conscious abandonment of its design, to coexistence on tolerable terms with the non-Soviet world…. It is essential to the successful conduct of a policy of ‘containment’ that we always leave open the possibility of negotiation with the USSR. A diplomatic freeze—and we are in one now—tends to defeat the very purposes of ‘containment.’… The free countries must always, therefore, be prepared to negotiate and must be ready to take the initiative at times in seeking negotiation.”