Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin
Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin; drawing by David Levine


Myths are notoriously hardy. They can flourish, subside, and flourish again. One of the hardiest myths in modern American history is associated with the Yalta conference toward the end of World War II. It originally arose during the Truman administration, when Yalta was made into a code word for treason. The Republican party’s platform of 1952 went so far as to denounce the Yalta agreements on the ground that they had secretly aided “Communist enslavements.” That there was nothing secret about them after the full text was published in March 1947 and that they were intended to prevent Communist enslavements made no difference to the platform writers. The guilt for this treasonable sellout of Eastern Europe was attributed to one man, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and through him to the Democratic party in particular and to liberals in general. The accusation envenomed American politics throughout the McCarthy period but seemed to be spent by the late 1950s.

Now it has returned. It has just been put forward in one form or another not once but three times by three different writers in the pages of the November 1985 issue of Commentary, its fortieth anniversary issue. A related version has also come to the surface in the recently published diaries of John Colville, Churchill’s wartime private secretary and a contributor to the September 1985 issue of Commentary. I came across these rein-carnations in casual reading; no doubt more intensive research would turn up others, but these are enough to indicate a resurgence of an ominous mythology.

This phenomenon is worth examining for its own sake, because a nation should know its own past, and because Yalta-and-Roosevelt baiting is a form of retro-active politics that tells us something about the present.

The first specimen in the November 1985 Commentary was contributed by Lionel Abel, whose recent book was aptly entitled The Intellectual Follies. He based himself on a single article by Colville in the following way:

And Roosevelt was personally responsible for terrible foreign-policy decisions (described in these pages only two months ago by John Colville in his article, “How the West Lost the Peace in 1945”) which gave the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe.

Colville in turn had placed the giveaway at Yalta in February 1945 and had specifically named Poland as the victim:

After long discussions and much argument [at Yalta] it was agreed that some non-Communist Poles should be invited to join the [Polish] government—though they would be but a minority—and that “free and unfettered elections,” in which all except the fascist parties should be allowed to put forward candidates, would be held within a few months. The British delegation was not content with the vagueness of the Soviet promises or the design of the proposed Polish government; but since the Soviets and Americans were in agreement, Churchill and Eden had to give way, though they knew there would be trouble in the House of Commons.

Here we have two enduring elements of the Yalta myth—that vague Soviet promises, rather than the breach of not-so-vague promises, were responsible for the subsequent fate of Poland, and that the Americans, not the British, bear the burden of guilt. Colville does not hold Roosevelt “personally responsible” and does not use any such crass expression as that Roosevelt “gave the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe.” Abel’s embellishment of Colville’s version is a good example of how these stories can go from bad to worse in the telling.

The next appearance of another form of the myth comes from a more serious source, Ambassador and now again Professor Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. Yalta was where it was decided to give the Soviet Union three votes in the General Assembly of the future United Nations. In the November Commentary Kirkpatrick deals with it this way:

Founding the UN also required falsifying the relations between the Soviet Union and those two “autonomous Soviet Socialist republics,” the Ukraine and Byelorussia. The Charter required that members be independent states. The Ukraine and Byelorussia were neither autonomous nor republics. Why did the United States and its democratic allies accept this falsification? Presumably, the reason was that they could not bear to face the fact that even after this most recent, most terrible war, there remained a powerful, repressive, expansionist dictatorship to cope with.

Nothing in the Soviet past justified optimism concerning its future behavior. Winston Churchill knew this, Franklin D. Roosevelt should have.

Kirkpatrick’s sense of history here is—to be charitable—defective. The decision on the Ukraine and Byelorussia memberships was made before there was a UN and before it had a charter. The reason for the decision could not have had anything to do with whatever remained after “this most recent, most terrible war.” The war was not yet over; fighting remained even against Germany; the last hard phase of the battle against Japan, with the possible entrance of the Soviet Union into the Far Eastern war, was still ahead; the atomic bomb had not even been tested; American military planners were still counting on a “most terrible war” to come. One must try to put one-self back into the real world of Churchill and Roosevelt at the time of Yalta before judging either of them so loftily.


If Kirkpatrick’s history is bad, her attribution of motives is worse. Her differentiation between Churchill and Roosevelt is, as we shall see, as wrongheaded as can be. The mystery is how is former UN ambassador could get the whole story topsy-turvy.

But she is not the only one who has the allocation of three Soviet seats in the UN all wrong. Another is John Colville in his recently published book, The Fringes of Power, made up largely of his wartime diaries. Colville was not at Yalta; the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, was. In an entry dated February 19, 1945, Colville tells about a conversation with Eden:

The PM had been very persuasive about the Dumbarton Oaks compromise (voting in the Security Council) and the Russians would have been quite happy to agree to none of their constituent states belonging to the Assembly, had not the Americans foolishly acquiesced. Finally the Americans had been very weak.1

Since this is apparently attributed to Eden, there is no telling what Colville knew. Nevertheless, Colville should have known—or learned—by the time his diaries were prepared for publication that there was no truth to this story. Colville’s book has footnotes in which he frequently explains or comments on the text; he has no footnote on this one and this would lead the reader to believe that his source is trustworthy.

In any case, Kirkpatrick and Colville have put into circulation the same fable—that Churchill and the British opposed the allocation of Soviet seats in the United Nations, while Roosevelt and the Americans for reasons of undue optimism or weakness were responsible for it. Kirkpatrick writes so loosely that she first accuses “the United States and its democratic allies,” which would include Great Britain, of accepting the falsification and then suggests that Churchill knew better than Roosevelt. Either way, she completely muddles what actually happened.

The third exhibit from Commentary, by Professor Robert Nisbet, shows how closely interwoven is the past and present in anti-Roosevelt, pro-Churchill retrospection. He does not mention Yalta specifically, but it would be the prime test of his indictment of Roosevelt. His starting point is in the past:

The recently published correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt must make for bitter reading in some quarters. All that we had known in a general sort of way about Roosevelt’s strong disposition to trust Stalin, even over Churchill’s cautionary advice, is detailed richly in these letters. Roosevelt’s credulity toward Stalin and his sometimes rather pathetic ignorance of political history and geopolitics were joined unfortunately to a complacent certainty that Stalin wanted only one thing out of the war: world peace and democracy.

Nisbet then moves into the present:

In many walks of life do we find alive and well the institutionalization of Roosevelt’s unwavering faith in the Soviet Union.

There is nothing—I repeat nothing—in the recently published correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt that shows Roosevelt’s strong disposition to trust Stalin, or his credulity toward Stalin, or his complacent certainty about the only thing that Stalin wanted, or his unwavering faith in the Soviet Union, or that Churchill gave Roosevelt “cautionary advice” about not trusting Stalin. I have read and reread this correspondence without finding any of these things. All these charges against Roosevelt have been invented by Nisbet; they are not in the correspondence. Thus for the third time in this little anti-Roosevelt anthology, Churchill is played off against Roosevelt in order to make Roosevelt appear to be an “unwavering” stooge of the Soviet Union.

If such misrepresentation is still possible in 1985, forty years after Yalta, it is time to set the record straight again. But there would be no urgent need for such an effort if history were not again being made to serve current political extremism. Did Roosevelt personally give the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe? Why were three seats in the United Nations allotted to the Soviet Union? Did Churchill know so much better than Roosevelt? Before turning to the present political climate in which these questions have been raised, we need to clear up the past.


Franklin D. Roosevelt did not give the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe; the Red Army did. By the time of Yalta, when the last diplomatic effort was made to stave off total control, the Red Army occupied most of Poland and Eastern Europe. But diplomacy can rarely save what is lost by force of arms. Both Churchill and Roosevelt failed not because they did not want to succeed but for lack of force at the right place at the right time. To accuse one of them, Roosevelt, of in effect doing whatever Stalin wanted him to do is grotesquely false.


If Stalin had any reason to believe that he could take Eastern Europe with impunity, he owed it in the first place to Churchill. Churchill had made a preliminary deal with Stalin in May 1944; they agreed that the Soviet Union would “take the lead” in Romania in return for letting the British “take the lead” in Greece.2 At a meeting in Moscow in October 1944, Churchill proposed a more far-reaching arrangement: a division of power in percentages—for the Soviets, 90 percent in Romania, 75 percent in Bulgaria, 50 percent in Hungary and Yugoslavia, in exchange for 90 percent for Great Britain in Greece. These figures implied that Churchill envisaged a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe in exchange for a British sphere of influence in the Mediterranean area. When Churchill had reported “the system of percentage” to his colleagues in London, he had tried to pass it off as a way for both the British and Soviet governments to “reveal their minds to each c her.” Stalin had revealed his mind by immediately accepting the deal.3

This was far more than a mind-revealing exercise. It is less well known that the two foreign ministers, Eden and Molotov, haggled over the percentages the following day. Molotov wanted 75 percent in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, then 90 percent in Bulgaria and 50 percent in Yugoslavia. Eden agreed to 75 percent for the Soviets in Hungary, 80 percent in Bulgaria, 50 percent in Yugoslavia. The two haggled some more the next day. Churchill described the percentages as a “guide” for the British and Soviet governments.4 In fact, they guided Churchill’s diplomacy right through and after Yalta. Churchill, as Eden’s latest biographer has noted, “remained convinced that the British should try to hold the Soviets to the ‘percentages’ arrangements of the previous October even at the cost of condoning Stalin’s breaches of the Yalta Declaration in the Soviet sphere-of-influence.”5

There would be no need to rake up these old embarrassments if Churchill were not now being held up as the one who knew better what Roosevelt should have known. At this late stage of the war, Roosevelt had nothing to do with this open invitation to Stalin to take over most of Eastern Europe. No doubt Churchill had not counted on the brutality with which the Soviets would impose their “predominance”—another word that Churchill used—in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. But then Churchill cannot be held up as a model for Roosevelt.

Poland was a special case, though it is hard to believe that it could have stayed out of the Soviet sphere if the rest of Eastern Europe went the way of the Churchill–Stalin deal. If Professor Nisbet were right, Roosevelt should have shown a “strong disposition to trust Stalin” and an “unwavering faith in the Soviet Union” precisely on the issue of Poland. Roosevelt did nothing of the kind.

The trouble in Poland was that the Soviets had already installed a puppet provisional government in Lublin, while the British and Americans had previously recognized another Polish provisional government in London. Roosevelt had tried before Yalta to get Stalin to postpone Soviet recognition of the Lublin Poles until they could meet and discuss the problem. Stalin refused. Roosevelt replied that he was “disturbed and deeply disappointed” by Stalin’s action.6 So far, no trust and no faith.

The Polish issue took up more time than anything else at Yalta. At no point did Churchill or Roosevelt agree to the Soviet plan to put the “Lublin Government” in power. With the Red Army in most of Poland, they had few cards to play, the only one of consequence being their refusal to rubber-stamp the Soviet design. If words had counted, they did not do at all badly. They arrived at a declaration on Poland which, while not foolproof, would have been satisfactory if the Soviets had lived up to it. It provided for a “new government” to be formed by reorganizing the Soviet-sponsored provisional government “with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad.” The new government was pledged “to the holding of free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot.” Stalin had said that this election could be held in no more than a month, in which case the new provisional government would have been short-lived.7

On paper, neither side had its own way. Roosevelt was willing to fudge the issue of the new provisional government; Stalin was willing to concede the matter of early free elections. The combination might have extricated Poland if Stalin had seen it to be in his interests to make it work. In the end, words hardly mattered. The Soviets ignored both the promised reorganization of the provisional government and the commitment to free elections. Yalta was a dividing line, not because of what happened at the meeting there but because of what happened after it. Brute power decided, not fair words. The trouble with the argument over Yalta is that it is too much about words and not enough about power.

After Yalta, however, a difference emerged between Churchill and Roosevelt. It is hard to tell what Nisbet has in mind, but if there were any truth in the story of Roosevelt’s trust and faith in Stalin, it should have come out during their disagreement. Between February 23 and March 8, 1945, an Anglo-American-Soviet commission met to put the Polish agreement into effect. Only then did it become clear to Churchill that the Soviets were determined to have their own way in Poland, in violation of both the letter and the spirit of the agreement. On March 8, Churchill sent Roosevelt a message of alarm and proposed that both countries should send a protest to Stalin.

This cable has been described by Professor Warren F. Kimball, the editor of the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence, as marking “a British reversal on Eastern Europe.” It was a reversal in the sense that Churchill had publicly expressed more confidence in Stalin’s good faith than Roosevelt had ever done.8 Churchill, as Professor Kimball puts it, “was playing a tricky game” of pressing Roosevelt to protest over Poland, while Churchill himself was rebuking Eden for wanting to protest the Soviets’ oppressive behavior in Romania.9 Romania was different, because Churchill’s deal with Stalin had made British interests in Greece depend on giving the Soviets a free hand in Romania. One of the reasons Churchill resented being “defrauded” by Stalin on Poland was, as he informed Roosevelt, that he had “advised critics of the Yalta settlement to trust Stalin.”10 If Roosevelt had permitted himself to be “defrauded,” Churchill could not claim to have been any the wiser. In effect, Churchill, having invited the Soviets to predominate in much of Eastern Europe, was appalled at the prospect as soon as the Red Army began to turn it into a reality.

Roosevelt held back. Now was the time, according to the myth makers, when Roosevelt should have shown his trust and faith in Stalin. But he disagreed with Churchill on altogether different grounds. On March 11, 1945, a month after Yalta, Roosevelt wrote to Churchill: “I can assure you that our objectives are identical, namely, to bring about a cessation on the part of the Lublin Poles of the measures directed against their political opponents in Poland.” The difference between himself and Churchill was tactical. Roosevelt thought that they should recommend “a general political truce” between the Lublin Poles and their opponents instead of complaining immediately to the Soviet government. As Professor Kimball sums up the situation, “Roosevelt and his advisers avoided making an appeal to Stalin lest the Soviet Premier give the wrong answer and thus force a confrontation or a retreat.”

That was the rub—the British and Americans had nothing more than words to back up a confrontation. Again and again Roosevelt assured Churchill that the difference was over tactics, not policy. With this view Churchill agreed. In any case, the tactical difference was over by the end of March. Both Churchill and Roosevelt addressed strong, coordinated protests to Stalin, Roosevelt on April 1, 1945, Churchill immediately afterward.11 Roosevelt died twelve days later.

During this entire period, when it was most likely to have happened, Churchill never cautioned Roosevelt not to trust Stalin. There is no such Churchillian “cautionary advice” in the entire correspondence. One begins to wonder whether Nisbet really read the correspondence as carefully as he pretends to have done.

The Western allies did not give away anything at Yalta that they actually had; they did get some promissory notes which they could not cash in once Stalin decided to stop payment. They still hoped against hope—Churchill as well as Roosevelt—to find some way to coexist peacefully, a hope that nourished illusions and compromises. But illusions and compromises were not born at Yalta; they had been fostered thoroughout the war in both liberal and conservative circles; they helped to sustain morale, when the British-American forces, even after the establishment of the second front on the Continent, were engaging only one third of the total German forces. Little or nothing would have changed if the break with the Soviet Union had come at Yalta instead of soon afterward; as long as the Western allies could not contest Soviet power on the ground in Eastern Europe, they could do no more than get paper Promises and respond with paper protests. It is easy enough now to scoff at the Yalta illusions; it was not so easy to give them up then. The illusions, moreover, were about the Soviet Union, not about the merit—at least as far as the plain meaning of the words—of the Yalta agreements.12

If Roosevelt and Churchill were wrong to hope for postwar cooperation with the Soviet Union, they had a lot of company. How hard it was to give up wishful thinking can be seen from the case of John Foster Dulles, no liberal, no Democrat, no trusting soul. In a speech on March 17, 1945, at this very juncture, he said:

Many do not like the sample of reality which Yalta produced. But that is because the collaborators are themselves imperfect. Their defects will not be removed by breaking up the collaboration. On the contrary, that would intensify the defects.13

At a press conference on November 24, 1953, he remarked that, at the end of the war, “those in charge of our foreign policy at the time seemed to have assumed—many of us did—that we were entering into an era of lasting peace and that the Soviet Union would not be a threat” (emphasis added).14 And toward the end of the 1950s, Dulles confided to Andrew H. Berding, then assistant secretary of state for public affairs:

The general impression is that the Yalta agreement was a mistake. I don’t feel so categorical about this. In 1945 we still had the hope that the Russians would cooperate with us. Furthermore, since the Russians were already in occupation of the Balkans, all we could hope for was their promise that the peoples of the Eastern European countries could have governments of their own choosing.15

Not so long ago, Professor Kirkpatrick herself defended the Yalta agreements from the charge of having sold out Eastern Europe and Poland.16 When an old Republican like Dulles and a new Republican like Kirkpatrick could see the rationale of Roosevelt’s actions at Yalta, the defamatory fury of others requires an extrahistorical explanation. The reason must have less to do with the past than with the present.

Ironically, Stalin succeeded in scoring a double triumph after Yalta. First, he took over Poland without a new, reorganized provisional government and without “free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot.” Then he managed to get the blame shifted from himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt. For the second half of his triumph he needed the collaboration of Americans, some of whom knew no better and some of whom should by now know better.


There is something peculiarly shameful about the idea that Roosevelt gave away Eastern Europe. But putting the blame on him for the three Soviet seats in the United Nations is merely ludicrous. Again, it is Churchill who is being mistaken for Roosevelt.

The subject of membership in the future United Nations first came up at the Dumbarton Oaks conference in August 1944. The Soviets unexpectedly proposed that the sixteen individual Soviet “republics” be made full members of the UN. The demand was not as outrageous as it may seem today. It was explained by Ambassador Charles E. Bohlen, the wartime interpreter and adviser: “The Soviets knew they would be virtually alone in the United Nations, that their ideological system provided little common ground with other countries.” Times have changed; it is again necessary to try to put oneself back into a very different period. The Americans flatly opposed the Soviet request. “President Roosevelt went so far as to tell members of Congress that if the Russians persisted in this proposal, he would counter with a demand that the forty-eight states of the United States be members.” 17

The dispute was resolved at Yalta. The Soviets decided to cut down the number from sixteen to two or three, eventually two more, the Ukraine and Byelorussia. Roosevelt initially objected even to this number. But Churchill for his own reasons made an eloquent plea in support of the Soviet request.18 With some reluctance, Roosevelt went along with Stalin and Churchill, though he later regretted that the Soviet Union would get three votes in the General Assembly, Great Britain with its dominions six votes, and the United States only one. Roosevelt soon changed his mind and actually wrote Stalin and Churchill requesting three votes for the United States, to which they agreed. When the story was leaked to the papers, it was subjected to such ridicule that the idea was dropped. Since substantive decisions could only be made in the Security Council, in which each of the three powers had a veto, the votes in the General Assembly were not considered all that important.

Why was Churchill so willing to let the Soviets have their way? He explained the reason in a contemporary letter to Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee:

For us to have four or five members, six if India is included, when Russia has only one is asking a great deal of an Assembly of this kind. In view of other important concessions by them which are achieved or pending I should like to be able to make a friendly gesture to Russia in this matter. That they should have two besides their chief is not much to ask, and we will be in a strong position, in my judgment, because we shall not be the only multiple voter in the field.19

Thus Kirkpatrick and Colville have the whole story upside down. Churchill, not Roosevelt, made possible the deal that gave the Soviets three members in the United Nations. There was no “falsification” which the United States and its democratic allies accepted, as Kirkpatrick alleges. Above all, her presumption of why they were parties to a “falsification” is itself most presumptuous. The reason had nothing to do with their being unable to face the fact that there remained a powerful, repressive, expansionist dictatorship to cope with. It had nothing to do with whether Churchill knew and Roosevelt should have known that nothing in the Soviet past justified optimism concerning its future behavior. The reason had everything to do with a temporary coincidence of interests on the part of both Stalin and Churchill to get more than one vote in the nascent UN.

We are now in a better position to assess the latter-day glorification of Churchill and denigration of Roosevelt. The wonder is not that they sometimes disagreed but that they worked together so well for so long, given the different traditions and interests of their countries. They were both giants in their time, whatever their shortcomings. I am inclined to think that Churchill was right about Roosevelt’s “truce plan” in the period of their disagreement after Yalta, but the issue itself came up too late and would have changed too little to count for much. What is unforgivable is the ignorance and effrontery of those who now accuse one of them of virtual betrayal or outright falsification.


What in the present has provoked this abuse of the past?

The main source, I suspect, is the influence of the so-called neoconservative ideology. The latest pronunciamento from that front on American foreign policy has made “liberal internationalism” the enemy. In this view, the era of liberal internationalism is fortunately coming to an end. No one represents this era more conspicuously than Franklin D. Roosevelt, who inaugurated it in our time. For this reason he is being belittled and his reputation besmirched.

“Global unilateralism” has been presented by Irving Kristol, the reputed “godfather” and “standard-bearer” of the new creed, as the neoconservative alternative to “liberal internationalism.” His new order would require a total break with all our allies and the abandonment by the United States of NATO, the United Nations, and the Organization of American States. He wants to get rid of allies, because they are “very effective hindrances to American action.”20 This is another myth; the United States has not been hindered by NATO or the UN from doing anything it really wanted to do—not in Korea, not in Vietnam or Grenada or Central America or anywhere. Others have also had reservations about NATO’s strategy and the UN’s behavior. There is no law that says these organizations may not be modified or reformed to reflect the conditions of today rather than those in existence immediately after World War II. But Kristol is engaged in a throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bath-water operation. It is so extreme that even his friend Jeane Kirkpatrick cannot go along with it.21 If the Soviet Union has one governing objective in Europe it is the destruction of NATO. “Global unilateralism” is another way of doing it.

The world according to Kristol is a world in the grip of a “conflict of ideologies.” The ideologies, however, do not seem to be in very good shape for a final conflict. They were in Kristol’s view better off after 1945, when they were clearly identifiable as “liberal internationalism and Marxism-Leninism.” But now both are said to be “floundering,” each in its own way.

The “liberal internationalism” of the United States was allegedly “mortally wounded” in Vietnam. There is now, in Kristol’s opinion, only “a tentative, tumbling search” for a new American ideology. Just what is taking its place is far from clear. Unfortunately, the “natural and instinctive attitude” of most Americans is said to be some version of isolationism. A liberal-capitalist ideology which aspires to be “universal” would seem to have the wrong people as its chosen instrument. But there is also better news. The same American people, in their post-Vietnam phase, wish the United States to “reassert its proprietary claim to the future.” One might imagine from this that the future is a piece of property which should belong exclusively to the United States. If so, the ideological conflict may be not only with the Soviet Union but with any country that is selfish enough to want a piece of the future for and by itself.

The Soviet ideology is supposedly floundering for a different reason. We are assured that Marxism-Leninism is dead in the Soviet Union and in every other communist nation. We are also told that the Soviet system “works” in foreign affairs only because it rests on Soviet military power and that this power alone legitimates the Soviet system abroad. Without such military power, “the Soviet leadership is under threat of being de-legitimated.” Nevertheless, despite the internal bankruptcy of Marxism-Leninism and its total dependence abroad on military power, Soviet ideology is still “messianic.”

How an ideology can be “messianic,” if no one within the Soviet Union believes in it anymore, and it is carried abroad solely with guns, is a mystery that Kristol never clears up. A “messianic” ideology without true believers is something new under the sun. The present-day Soviet Union is far more imperialistic than messianic; the proportion of sheer imperialism has increased as the messianic veneer has worn thinner and thinner. It may well be that Marxism-Leninism or whatever passes for it in such advanced proletarian nations as Ethiopia and South Yemen possesses an attractiveness of its own for military dictatorships that wish to pass themselves off as “progressive” or “revolutionary,” but Soviet messianism has little to do with it. Kristol seems to need a Soviet messianism in order to convert the United States to a corresponding capitalist messianism.

There surely are ideological elements in the Soviet-American conflict, but they are precisely those elements that could be pursued most peacefully. Kristol and cohorts have something more in mind. Their version of ideological conflict shades into a real, ordinary, bloodletting war—anything up to nuclear devastation, which is the only concession Kristol makes to stopping short of mutual catastrophe. We are instructed to be “not at all risk-averse.” We are also assured that “in the years ahead, the United States will be far less inhibited in its use of military power.” If the Soviet Union does not convert “its secular, political messianism into a stable orthodoxy,” whatever the latter may mean, global conflict will likely be “political, economic, and military, though always short of nuclear war,” as if an impenetrable barrier could be built between nuclear and other types of war. In any case Kristol’s “war of ideology” is not likely to be purely ideological.

This neoconservatism is not merely a hopeless muddle; it is also misnamed. We are probably stuck with the term, but it has little or nothing to do with traditional conservatism, particularly in foreign policy; it is a new concoction, much closer to other types of political extremism. We have had isolationists; we have had interventionists; we have never had isolationists who were also interventionists. This abnormal crossbreeding of isolationism and interventionism has produced the new species of “global unilateralists.” They are global in their interventionism and unilateral in the way they wish to go about it. In the past, isolationists did not want us to intervene and interventionists did not want us to be isolated.

Though the enemy is ostensibly communism and the Soviet Union, what really stirs the “neo” to a sort of holy wrath is anything that can be blamed on liberals. There is not much he can do about getting at the Soviet Union, but home-grown liberals are readily available as targets of his rancor. It is de rigueur for a “neo” who was formerly a liberal to be particularly unforgiving in his anathemas upon liberals. Against this enemy the “neo” goes into battle as if in a civil war, with more than a hint that those who differ are really serving the enemy. A disagreement over policy comes to resemble a quasi-religious war rather than a legitimate secular dispute. Indeed, Kristol wishes us to believe that “in our own era, the distinction between religious ideas and political ideas is blurred.”

The remaking of history plays a large part in this apocalyptic drama of good and evil because the older “neo” has repented and recanted transgressions that he committed as a liberal or leftist. No one raises his blood pressure more than the liberal with whom he once shared the same views—about the Vietnam War, for example—but who has stubbornly refused to admit grievous error and recant publicly. The present frustrates “neos” because it resists their unconstrained adventurism; only in historical reinterpretations can they indulge themselves in ideological imperatives and infallible hindsights. Thus their treatment of history is peculiarly guilt ridden, with the guilt often displaced on to others.

Foreign policy is actually not the best place to distinguish between American liberals and conservatives. The line between them can be drawn more clearly in domestic policy—and then not always. In the past, there have been interventionist conservatives and interventionist liberals, isolationist conservatives and isolationist liberals. In foreign policy, presidents have not been liberal or conservative so much as isolationist or interventionist. Presidents have sacrificed their liberal domestic policies for the sake of foreign interventionism. Lyndon Johnson was such a case; he did not intervene in Vietnam on such a large scale because he was a liberal; liberals and Democrats were on both sides of the war. Johnson also knew that the Republicans would have pilloried him if he could have been accused of “giving away Vietnam,” just as Truman and Acheson had been pilloried for “giving away China,” and as Roosevelt even to this day is being pilloried for having “given away Eastern Europe.”

The irony in all this is that, if it were not for “liberal internationalism,” Nazi Germany would in all probability still be astride all of Europe, and the United States would now have no credible ideology for trying to prevent the Soviet Union from doing the same thing.

This Issue

January 16, 1986