Lawrence Freedman defends the BBC's Cold War series against charges from American conservatives of "moral equivalence" between the two superpowers.by Lawrence Freedman / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
The 24-part BBC 2 series The Cold War, which has now drawn to a close, has been greeted respectfully, even enthusiastically, by critics and academics in Britain. There was a time when academics steered clear of such ventures, fearing for their scholarly reputations. But I am happy to say, as a historical consultant to the series, that most historians now recognise the professionalism of our best documentary makers and the importance of film to the historical record. The combination of archive footage and interviews with participants in the events of the period was considered too traditional by some and the pace too slow by others, but few in Britain have doubted the seriousness of Jeremy Isaacs’s team.
Not so in the US, where the series has been broadcast by CNN. There it has been subjected to withering criticism, mainly from neo-conservative journals such as Commentary. For them, attempts to present the Soviet point of view or draw attention to the less admirable aspects of US conduct is to indulge in “moral equivalence,” suggesting that the two superpowers were equally to blame for the cold war breaking out in the first place and persisting for as long as it did.
This basic charge is made by Jacob Heilbrunn in the New Republic. There are two ways to view the cold war, he claims: either as “a justifiable (if sometimes excessive) American struggle to contain, and ultimately defeat, a monstrous system that was intent on global expansion”; or as “a morally unintelligible contest between two equally dangerous superpowers, whose fear of each other threatened to plunge a world full of innocent bystanders into nuclear holocaust.”
The rottenness and ultimate failure of the communist system is a matter of record. Nobody is going to come away from watching The Cold War thinking it a shame that the confrontation was not declared a draw. My own position during the cold war was never revisionist. I was convinced that communism was a malign ideology, rendered more dangerous by the backing of Soviet power, and that this required a determined response from liberal democracies. This did not mean that I lost all sense of proportion when considering Soviet policy. We can now look back with some detachment; pick up on the misperceptions of the period; and acknowledge moments of great danger when the world really was on the edge of catastrophe.
The neo-conservative perspective was never very strong in Europe during the cold war itself. For Europeans the confrontation was, at one level, much more real. On this divided continent Soviet power exercised a palpable influence. Europe’s stability depended on the close involvement of the US in its affairs. This was never easy. The Americans were asked to take substantial risks on behalf of allies who did not always show gratitude. Europeans found dependence uncomfortable, and worried constantly that they would be abandoned or dragged into an unnecessary conflagration through American recklessness.
They were made particularly nervous by those militant views which came to be associated with the neo-conservatives. Anxiety levels could always be raised in Europe by suggesting that a way could be found to win a nuclear war. Neo-conservative claims that the Moscow gerontocracy was still bent on world domination, or that the presence of communist sympathisers in a central American nationalist movement justified making common cause with vicious forms of repression, did enormous damage to America’s image, especially during the early years of the Reagan administration, when their influence was at its height.
It is therefore not surprising that they now denounce a series which fails to give them what they consider to be their due in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet empire. The burden of military rivalry, which they did their utmost to intensify, was clearly one reason why the Soviet state failed. But the most important reason was the constant demonstration that in terms of prosperity as well as freedom the western system was superior. This was reinforced by many of the east-west contacts undertaken in the name of d?tente, usually deplored by neo-conservatives.
Despite Commentary’s headline-“Twenty four Lies About the Cold War”-the producers were scrupulous in their effort to get their facts right. There are unavoidable issues of balance and interpretation. A programme which has to deal with McCarthyism and the Gulag may create an impression of equivalence-but only for someone who ignores the commentary and the evidence presented. Elsewhere, images of accidents at Soviet factories or KGB interrogations brought home the brutal nature of the system.
One of the achievements of the series was to gain access to stunning Soviet film archives as well as interviews with former Soviet officials. If this opportunity had not been taken it might have been lost forever, given the recent deterioration in the west’s relations with Russia. Critics object to giving old apparatchiks the chance to explain themselves. Yet the authenticity of their voices remains beyond doubt, and to hear them can make sense of actions that would otherwise appear inexplicable.
The problems with any series such as this tend to result not from bias, but from the limitations of the medium. Television can do things that the written word cannot, by conveying the humanity of the participants and the images and sounds of the past. But they are dependent on those stories that are either well-told by interviewees or well-covered by film archives. They need to hold the attention of viewers who can always switch over. So good stories told badly, or events unrecorded, get passed by. Most of all, time is limited. A television script is a fraction of the length of a modest academic article. Points are made starkly, with little scope for nuance. For all these reasons, The Cold War is not the final word on the cold war. Few of those involved would agree with every word. Moreover, historians are still working their way through the archives. But the series has provided a coherent record of events that shaped our world.