How we might have stopped Communism
On September 16, 1920, a bomb containing 100 pounds of dynamite and several hundred pounds of steel exploded in front of J. P. Morgan and company on Wall Street, killing 38 people and injuring about 400. A nearby leaflet demanded the release of "political prisoners"and claimed responsibility on behalf of "the Anarchist fighters." It is quite likely that the bomb was a reaction to the detention of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts the preceding May for two murders in South Braintree, Massachusetts, the subject of one of my books.
When the bomb went off the lame-duck President, Woodrow Wilson, was gravely ill, and the presidential campaign between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox of Ohio was in progress. But suppose a President of a different type had been in office--how might he have handled the situation?
"The attack on Wall Street," he might have said, "is an attack on the lives and properties of Americans on behalf of a dangerous foreign ideology that today threatens much of the globe in the wake of the World War. That ideology takes many forms--anarchism in southern Europe and here in the United States, Communism in Russia, and other forms of extreme socialism elsewhere. Yet all share the same contempt for property, law, and religion. We can tolerate neither these vicious killers nor those who harbor them. We must stamp out the movement they represent to keep the way to worldwide progress open.
"Amidst all the dangers posed by these movements, the greatest by far is the Bolshevik regime in Russia, which has abolished private property and is establishing itself through a bloody civil war. Russia is a large and established nation with great potential power, reaching intot he heart of Europe. Should the Bolsheviks succeed, revolution will undoubtedly spread through more of Europe, and we shall eventually face it here at home. Should it fail, we will be able to look forward to the further spread of free institutions and a free economy. The choice is clear, and we must not leave it to our children and grandchildren.
"Tomorrow the United States will begin recalling soldiers to arms and working with foreign governments to mount an expeditionary force sufficient to deal effectively with the Bolshevik regime in Russia. The interventions which we have already mounted have provided some safe havens for anti-Communist forces, but they are not enough. We must not remain on the defensive; we must go on the offense, as we did against the German autocrats who unleashed the late war. We must not attempt to restore the Russian Empire; its policies led to its own demise because it failed to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of its people. But we are confident that the Russian people fundamentally desire the freedom and rights that move all peoples, all over the world, and to which the United States is committed, not only for ourselves, but for others who wish to excercise the blessings granted them by the Almighty."
I do not think that such an analysis would have been inferior strategically to the decision to conquer and reshape Iraq because 25 Al Queda activists had perpetrated an extraordinary act of terror within the United States. Would it have worked?
A President calling for such a policy probably could have convinced the Congress to undertake such an expedition--although few European nations, exhausted by war and including many large and powerful socialist parties themselves, would have joined wholeheartedly. It is in my opinion most unlikely that such an intervention would actually have stopped Communism in Russia, although it would undoubtedly have increased the sufferings of the Russian people even further. It might have partitioned the Russian empire; it might have created a longer period of chaos. Neither of those outcomes would necessarily have served the interests of the United States. Indeed, had National Socialism come into power in Germany under such circumstances, Hitler would have stood a much better chance of achieving his aims, since a powerful Soviet state would not have stood in his way.
Instead, the United States, while refusing until 1933 to recognize the Soviet Union, made no attempt to overthrow it. In the 1940s, during a critical war, the Soviets were allies without whom victory would have been very difficult, perhaps even impossible. They became adversaries at the end of the war, but as time goes on and the world order of the second half of the twentieth century continues to disintegrate, I suspect we shall see more and more clearly how the Soviets, along with the United States, actually ran a relatively peaceful, if frightening and imperfect, world, during that time. Nor has their eventual disappearance paved the way for any kind of democratic paradise in the former Soviet Union, least of all in Russia.
The critical difference between the United States in 1920 and the United States in 2001, over and above the difference in Presidential leadership, was that we had not yet fallen in love with the idea that it was our destiny to rule the world, to succour the helpless, and to free the enslaved--especially if they occupied a critical strategic or economic region. And sadly, nearly six years after September 11, we have seen almost no fundamental re-evaluation of those views. Nearly everyone except the President, the Vice President and a few remaining acolytes realize that war in Iraq has been disastrous, but no one seems to be facing the fact (and that is what it is) that no available strategy will create a Middle East in our own image, that we are making it more hostile every day, and that we will have to live with that hostility, as the Europeans did in the early modern period, for generations to come. Instead, the Republican Party is continuing to use the debate on Iraq to try to divide America between those who heroically want to go on fighting a vague Islamist enemy all over the world with all available means, and those cowards who hate America, won't support our troops, and want us to lose. (The same accusation is still against those who predicted, rightly, the Communist victories in China in 1949 and in Vietnam in 1975. When American hubris gets us into trouble, neoconservatives know who to blame: the people who foresaw the trouble in the first place.)
We still live in a world of sovereign states with different values. The interests of the United States will not advance if we keep proclaiming that whatever we want must be right and everyone else has a duty to help make it happen. We are confronted once again--as, really, we have always been--with the need to live amongst peoples and regimes who do not share our beliefs. This is not an insurmountable task by any means; in fact, from 1947 until 2001 we built and sustained large bureaucracies who did the job quite well when they were given a chance to do so. We can still return to that tradition, but time is running short. And I honestly do not think that we can do so until some political leadership is willing to confront our hubris, and the impossibility of achieving the goals that our government has set for us.