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Revisiting the Cold War in CNN’s weekly series


When we arrived in Mannheim, Germany, in January 1956 as brand new second lieutenants in the 67th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion (Automated Weapons, Self-Propelled) to “play our part on the NATO team,” our commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Gershon, took us aside for some motivational words. His analysis of a number of crucial factors -- the weather, the condition of the harvest and so on -- made it highly probable that this was the season Russia was going to attack.

My job when the alert sounded was to lead the four tanks (really a tank body with a revolving twin 40-mm. gun in its turret) and four half-tracks armed with 50 caliber machine guns out the gate and down to a bridge over the Rhine River and save that bridge from the Russians -- either shoot them down if they flew in low or mow them down if they attacked on land.

But after a while we didn’t have to be strategic geniuses to realize that our part on this “team” was basically symbolic. We were a tripwire, holding the enemy for whatever time it took for the big missiles with the nuclear warheads to float through the stratosphere and reduce both us and them to radioactive dust.

For anyone old enough to remember President Franklin Roosevelt’s return from Yalta and who, as either an observer or participant, has lived through the events portrayed in CNN’s controversial 24-part documentary on the history of the Cold War, the weekly series -- now in its second half, to run through April 4 -- is a chance to relive some of the best and worst moments of our time.

For all those born later, for whom the Cuban missile crisis is but a page in the history book and the Vietnam War is a psychological or moral burden that his or her Vietnam veteran father carries silently through the day until it awakens him at night, the series is a unique chance for today’s college generation to enter the life histories of its parents and grandparents.

Some episodes drag. Others should chill the bones of anyone who allows the images and words to have their effect. A Russian veteran of the Afghanistan invasion says: “We rounded up women and children, poured kerosene on them and set them on fire. It was cruel. We did it. But we had to. They had been torturing our wounded soldiers with knives.” And: “A young soldier might kill just to test his gun, or to see what the insides of a human being look like. ... It’s like being drunk on blood.”

A CIA operative who directed our gun shipments to the Afghanistan Islamic radicals, who were anti-communist, says without blinking an eye, “It was our goals and their blood.”

Five years ago, Ted Turner, perhaps moved by the same spirit that led him to establish the Good Will Games when the Americans boycotted the Moscow Olympics to protest Russia’s Afghanistan invasion, reached out to Sir Jeremy Isaacs to do a documentary on the Cold War -- with a sense of urgency, before the participants were dead. Isaacs had produced the great TV documentary on World War II, “The World at War,” narrated by Laurence Olivier.

But what point of view would inform the documentary? A creator can achieve his purpose with a variety of editorial decisions: careful editing of file footage, selecting the participants to be interviewed, voice-over narration, scholarly “talking heads” who explain the significance of what we have just seen.

The Turner-Isaacs team determined that this story would: (l) be evenhanded, rather than the story of a victory from the “victors’ “ point of view; (2) although Olivier protege Kenneth Branagh would narrate a script by about a half-dozen writers, they would tell the story from the bottom up, through participants -- famous and unknown -- on both sides. No talking heads to explain what the pictures meant.

When the main characters are still alive -- or even, like Clark Clifford, at the brink of death, or old but still quick, like George F. Kennan -- we hear directly from them. So, too, we hear from all the living ex-presidents, except Reagan. We hear from Robert McNamara, who sees more rational genius than insanity in the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD); Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin; North Vietnamese military mastermind Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap; and Czech President-playwright Václav Havel.

And, inevitably, there is Henry Kissinger -- who, among other things, engineered several of the least moral strategies the U.S. employed, including the overthrow of the democratically elected Salvador Allende government in Chile and the U.S. carpet bombing of Hanoi. Bombs fell not so much to force Hanoi to the conference table, as the script says, but to mollify South Vietnam’s Premier Thieu, who feared -- correctly -- that the U.S. would abandon him.

But we are moved less by the great men than by the scores -- sometimes millions -- of men and women we never heard of before but who endured the Cold War’s hardships or witnessed its slaughters.

During the Berlin Air Lift, a hungry and grateful teenager cheers on an American pilot by telling the pilot he cares more for his freedom than for food. As the East Germans wall off East from West Berlin, the camera lingers on an East German border guard. Suddenly he turns, runs toward the camera, and leaps over the barbed wire separating him from the West.

When Soviet tanks roll into Lithuania, one nearly crushes a young woman protester under its treads. Isaacs’ researchers found both the guard and the girl for interviews.

In the opening episode, when U.S. troops first meet the Russian army face-to-face at the Elbe River in the last days of the War in Europe, an American G.I., who has never seen a Russian before, discovers that they look like anyone else: “They could have been Americans.”

If CNN had interviewed this Cold War vet, I would have recalled freezing nights on maneuvers along the Czech border in 1956, as we listened to the news during the Hungarian uprising. With our tanks and half-tracks, we thought, we had just the weapons to save the “freedom fighters” from the Russians. Maybe we would be going in.

American political conservatives do not like this series. Jacob Heilbrun in the New Republic (Nov. 9, 1998), syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer in the New York Daily News (Nov. 2, 1998, and Jan. 4), and Ronald Radosh in The New York Times (Jan. 9), blast what they consider its “moral equivalence” approach, as if the Cold War had not been a struggle between good and evil but between two world powers somehow equally responsible for its crimes.

Criticisms focus on the episode “Reds,” where, Branagh says, “Both sides turned their fear inwards against their own people. They hunted the enemy within.” In America, this fear expressed itself in McCarthyism; in Russia, the Gulag.

The script says Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury without adding that the most recent scholarship says he was a spy. For me, the two stories fit awkwardly in the same hour. But in no way does CNN imply that America’s pursuit of internal communism was morally equal to Stalin’s sending 6 million suspected dissenters to prison camps.

Indeed it is hard for me to see how anyone who actually watched the whole 24 hours could conclude anything but that Stalin and, to varying degrees, most of his successors, were ruthless, sometimes bloodthirsty, monsters. And that communism as a system failed not because we outgunned it but because it was rotten at the core -- because it had a false understanding of human nature. It did not see what the boy in Berlin saw, that freedom was worth more than bread.

Longer than this little debate, I hope we will remember the images. Above all the jubilant faces on the crowds of East Berliners who poured through the gate and destroyed the Wall when Mikhail Gorbachev -- if anyone, the true hero of this sorry time -- decided the Soviet Union would not use force to stop the Russian satellites yearning to breathe free.

And I hope we remember the corpses: 2 million killed by our bombings of North Korea; those machine-gunned on the steps of the Cathedral in San Salvador; Archbishop Oscar Romero in his coffin; nuns raped, killed and buried by Salvadoran military; 70 naked Romanians executed and displayed.

Today, if the Cold War is “dead,” we can still wonder about what will take its place in defining America’s national purpose.

“Deterrence kept the peace,” says CNN, “by keeping us in a permanent state of alarm.” Against whom will we arm ourselves, if that’s what it takes to maintain our military-industrial “way of life”? Internally, against Central American immigrants and welfare mothers? Internationally, Fidel Castro, Arab terrorists we initially armed in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein have replaced Stalin and Mao Zedong. Our government is proud that we may have killed 1,600 Republican Guards in the recent bombings.

We have killed so many people -- “for good reasons” -- that a corpse, unless he or she represents someone’s vested interest, is no longer a human being, at most a statistic and an anonymous picture in a documentary.

At the end of the 24 hours of the “Cold War,” one question persists: Will we ever have a leader who can inspire us by our hopes rather than our fears?

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College Rose Hill.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999