Online version of: Nissani, M. (1992). Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991.


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History tells us that freedom cannot be taken for granted: to remain free, a democratic society must be willing and able to defend itself. History also tells us that cold wars--especially when accompanied by conflicting ideologies, huge standing armies, and feverish arms races--have an alarming tendency of erupting, sooner or later, into full-scale wars. From 1945 through 1991, these two lessons from the past confronted the West with a seemingly hopeless dilemma: if it unilaterally laid down its arms, it faced the prospect of totalitarianism; if it did not, it faced the prospect of the arms race and nuclear war. Thousands of books and articles treat one or another aspect of this historical dilemma, but no published work known to me integrates all its aspects into a self-contained whole. This book attempts to close this surprising gap.

Such an integrated approach is rarely encountered, and for excellent reasons. Most historians are not in a position to carry out the extensive preparatory work which this approach requires. For the most part, interdisciplinary studies are forced to rely on secondary, and sometimes unreliable and outdated, sources of information. Because they compress many facts and ideas into a single volume, they require greater concentration on the reader's part. Because they are aimed at a large audience of specialists and laymen, they must eschew technical language, thereby inviting the scorn of those who do not know the difference between clarity and fatuity.

These shortcomings are counterbalanced, in part, by the potential contributions of integrative reviews to scholarship. Reality is a web, not a collection of parallel lines. Those who fail to see the interconnections run the risk of one-dimensional vision. Thus, broad reviews hold a greater promise of bringing us closer to complex truths than the many important but one-sided studies upon which they are based.

My second justification for skipping across traditional disciplines is practical. Its essence is captured in Plato's cave fable, in which the inmates mistake shadows for the realities of the sunny world above. In some way or another, we are all tethered in a cave of political illiteracy. To begin seeing the light, we must question some of our most fundamental assumptions. We must then dig up facts in thousands of informative, but limited, articles and books. We must also, as we go along, transform the myriad of new images into one coherent whole. But life is short; even those who already question basic political premises are not often in a position to sift through and assemble the pieces of the political jigsaw puzzle. Somehow, they must grope for a realistic world view on the basis of partial and fragmentary evidence. The record of both ancient and modern democracies is unequivocal: all too often their citizens vote and act against their convictions and interests. Such gaps can only be closed by means of shortcuts: the information that emerges from the vast specialized literature must be integrated and convincingly presented in a single book.

My own record, I am afraid, is no exception. Twenty years ago I felt that the United States stood for democracy and justice. Had the opportunity presented itself, and much as I hated guns and regimentation, I would have gone to Vietnam. I had little patience with the people who would have us betray the cause of freedom by building fewer missiles and bombs. I have had since then the rare opportunity of researching the subject on a full-time basis for over six years, free from the obligations of teaching or making a living. Although these years of study and contemplation detracted nothing from my commitment to liberty, they forced me to drastically revise my views of Cold War America.

These years have also convinced me that the voyage into a better future must begin with a careful study of the past. The Soviet Union is no more, but others could readily take its place as Chief Enemy of the Republic. The Cold War is at a low ebb now, but the forces which created and sustained it are still commanding the dikes. If we wish to avoid another half a century of racing with Russia, Japan, or some other nation, if we wish to avoid another half a century of crimes against nature and our fellow passengers to the grave, if humanity is to realize the age-old dream of continual progress, these forces must be contained. The containment manual can only be culled from the pages of history, and, especially, from the pages of Cold War America.

A few words are in order about the general organization of this book. From 1945 through 1991, American policy makers explained the arms race in something like the following terms. We have been forced, they said, to choose between two unpleasant alternatives: a sure totalitarian takeover of the free world or life in the shadows of the arms race and nuclear war. Chapters 1-3 show that both totalitarianism and the arms race are indeed highly objectionable. Following a brief introduction to the weapons of this period (Chapter 4), the book goes on to examine the claim that the United States and its democratic allies had to choose between the arms race and totalitarianism (Chapters 5-8). The book does so by reviewing (5) the ideas that have allegedly guided our military policies, (6) the Soviet-American military balance, (7) the history of the Cold War, and (8) American policies in the Third World. Taken together, these four chapters show that the dilemma between the arms race and totalitarianism has been strictly imaginary. In the real world, the West could have lived in peace and freedom. The book then goes on to examine the causes of collective misbehavior in military affairs, environmental issues, and other areas (Chapter 9). The book concludes by sketching a simple new road into a safer, freer, more prosperous and just, future (Chapter 10).

Readers who know little about the Cold War and American politics, as well as readers who wish to closely follow the central argument of this book, may choose to read it from cover to cover. Others may prefer to view this book as a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. For instance, historians of the Soviet-American military balance may be interested in my unconventional treatment of this issue. Likewise, environmentalists and social reformers with no interest in military affairs might still wish to look up Chapters 2, 3, 9, and 10. Finally, the unusually broad scope of this book allows it, on occasion, to place familiar subjects in a new light. Specialists might therefore go quickly through well-worn material and slow down when they come across unfamiliar reflections.

At one stage or another, this book benefited from the comments of Jerry Bails, Peter H. Burr, Nathalie Marshall-Nadel, James B. Michels, Christina W. O'Bryan, Alvin M. Saperstein, William A. Schwartz, George Ziegler, and members of my immediate family. I can only hope that this book justifies, in some small measure, the many sacrifices that Donna, Eric, Ethan, and Helen were asked to make on its behalf. All four have my love and heartfelt thanks.

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