Lessons of Conquest

It’s more than a quarter-century since the Berlin Wall came down. We now take it for granted that it happened, assume it was inevitable that it would happen, and forget that some people helped bring about victory in the Cold War while others sought to impede their efforts.

As Joseph Bottum explains elsewhere in this issue, the late Robert Conquest was decidedly in the first category. He told the truth about the Soviet Union when doing so wasn’t fashionable. He helped educate and guide two politicians who weren’t afraid of the derision of their supposed intellectual and cultural betters, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. When a second edition of his 1968 classic, The Great Terror, was to be issued in 1990, his publisher asked him to come up with a new title. His friend Kingsley Amis is reputed to have suggested I Told You So, You F—ing Fools.

There were lots of Cold War fools. Some were senators, like Joe Biden and John Kerry. Some were students and community organizers, like Barack Obama. They did not come to power in time to lose the Cold War. They did come to power in time to lose the Iraq war and preside over an extraordinary diminution of U.S. power and stature in the post-9/11 world.

In 1992, Conquest wrote that the lessons of the 20th century “have not yet been learned, or not adequately so.” Nor have they been learned since. Conquest lamented the “massive reality denial” that prevented many from having a clear-eyed view of Soviet communism. But the denial of reality embodied in the Iran deal is the latter-day cousin of the denial of reality with respect to the Soviet Union.

It’s all there, after all—the wishful thinking, the belief that accommodation on the part of the West is all that is needed to make the world safer and that appeasement on the part of the West will produce peace. The resort to the same dishonest rhetoric is also there—the claim that to be tough-minded is to be a warmonger and that to insist on moral clarity and military strength is to beat the drums of war. Having chosen to remember nothing of the Cold War, especially nothing that would dent their amour propre, John Kerry and Barack Obama have learned nothing from the Cold War years. Conquest wouldn’t have expected them to.

But we are not simply putty in the hands of Barack Obama and John Kerry. We have a Congress that can act. In 1979, congressional opposition, led by men educated and inspired by Robert Conquest, doomed a bad arms-control deal with the Soviet Union and laid the groundwork for the election of Ronald Reagan, who reversed America’s course. Congress has an opportunity to follow in their footsteps today. It would be a fitting posthumous tribute to Robert Conquest.


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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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