The Thaw

There is a cord which is strung from the winter of 1948 until now, and along it hang the politics, the events, and the personalities of one long cold season of history. The length of span is far less than an epoch and still greater than a generation, and one day the period may seem to be not much more than a journalistic conception: the “Cold War decades.” But now people have been seized with the sense (it is as vague as that) that the strands have come together and the cord is somehow complete. It is only when such periods end that we can begin to describe them (and much later to define them), for only in their endings do their beginnings make sense. For Czechoslovakia, the sending-down of Novotny seems to complete a course which began with the throwing-out of Masaryk twenty years before, even if what will follow remains unclear. For the US, there is stark symmetry between the election of Truman and the abdication of Johnson; the formation of the Cold War coalition in the Democratic Party in 1948 gains an essential clarity of relief against its dissolution in 1968.

The events of these weeks hardly constitute a revolution, but they do seem to follow Lenin’s description of a revolutionary time in which things fall rapidly out of place and historical space is compressed. The motive force, of course, has been the war in Vietnam, and the prime movers are the guerrillas of the South and the armies of the North. Their Têt offensive, despite its limited military accomplishments (and objectives), had the power to wrench the vision of Americans—and others to the extent that America touches them—from one perspective of the world to another. The realities of the war were not much changed; troop ratios, supply lines, areas of control, and the distribution of firepower are not significantly different today from what they were in late November when the Johnson Administration’s great optimism campaign began. What has changed radically is the way the war is perceived and it is from that new expectation that a new politics has developed.

The expectation that the expedition in Vietnam was doomed destroyed worldwide confidence in the ability of America to solve its monetary problems, and led directly to the gold crisis (really a dollar crisis). That set the teeth of the American corporate and financial establishment on edge; both the money managers and the industrial directors yearned for retreat. Reinforcing their misery, profits declined in some of the biggest, most highly technologized defense industries. The war turned out to be a bear. Crucial confirmation was supplied by The Wall Street Journal, which in an editorial on February 23, advised its readers to “prepare for defeat,” and be more or less grateful for it. Not only the professional anti-war students and protesters had seen what was coming. Business magazines and investment newsletters had been as full of protest, in their own ways, as any liberal journal. But those who…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.