THE LIMITS OF MODERATION

Two recent sets of readings have set me thinking about sane, moderate politics.

During the 1960s and 1970s, two very different attitudes towards the Soviet Union prevailed in the United States. Extremists advocated flat-out opposition and confrontation, on the basis that the system was so rotten that it would collapse if seriously challenged. However counter-intuitive this might appear, destroying the Soviet system was in truth the path to a peaceful world.

Intelligent centrists and liberals claimed to know better, and preached moderation and restraint. One advocate of this school – and anything but a liberal! – was Henry Kissinger, who saw the two superpowers balancing each other for the foreseeable future in a bipolar world. Neither system could claim any moral advantage, and all serious observers knew to take propaganda statements with a large pinch of salt: Realpolitik ruled all. Moderates also knew that their Rightist foes were dangerous cowboys who would lead the world into nuclear holocaust: just think Dr. Strangelove. Overwhelmingly, the leaders of the mainline churches favored the “moderate” stance, mocking the pervasive Rightist propaganda about alleged Communist evils. Sensible scholars likewise knew better than to echo talk of “totalitarian” regimes. Such language derived from Rightist propaganda, and was aimed at painting Communist states in the same colors as their Nazi/fascist states predecessors. In reality, they asked, were the Iron Curtain regimes  that much different from ours?

One representative of this moderate school was Kissinger’s aide Helmut (Hal) Sonnenfeldt, whose obituary appeared recently. Sonnenfeldt devoted many years of service to the public good, and I have no wish to trivialize this achievement. In 1975, though, he was quoted as making an alarming foreign policy doctrine, that took the “moderate” stance to its outer limits: “So it must be our policy to strive for an evolution that makes the relationship between the Eastern Europeans and the Soviet Union an organic one.” This absolute concession of Eastern Europe to the Soviets became known as the “Sonnenfeldt doctrine.”

The other item I have been reading recently is Anne Applebaum’s deeply impressive historical study, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. I won’t dare to summarize this vast and brilliant book here, except to say that virtually every one of its pages confirms the grimmest and most hostile anti-Communist statements made throughout the Cold War. At no point did Euro-American Rightists exaggerate when they painted Soviet rule in the grimmest colors of oppression, intimidation, and mass murder. As she writes, ” ‘Totalitarianism’ remains a useful and necessary empirical description. It is long overdue for a revival.” The persecution of religion really was absolutely as bloody as Westerners said it was, and Soviet attempts to suppress faith were as brutal as any in recorded history. Soviet rule in Eastern Europe was, in short, savage tyranny – an evil empire. It is ludicrous and insulting to compare the crushing Soviet oppression of Eastern Europe with anything occurring in the contemporary United States or its Western allies.

In other words, anyone who believed in a moral equivalence between the two systems can be described, charitably, as an idiot. Anyone who advocated a further “organic” relationship between Eastern Europe and its Soviet occupiers was, well, ignoring some crucial facts. And as events proved, those who believed that the Soviets could successfully be confronted in countries like Poland were reading the situation exactly right.

On occasion, liberals and conservatives can claim to be have read situations correctly, as can those labeled moderates and extremists. In this occasion, though, there is no argument. The moderates were absolutely, lethally, wrong.

 

 


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