Arnold Beichman: Why I Miss the Cold War

Roundup: Historians' Take

Arnold Beichman, writing in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 28, 2003) (subscribers only):

Am I being wholly rational when I say that I miss the Cold War?

There was a time, say a decade ago, when I wouldn't have hesitated for a minute to answer that I most certainly do not miss the Cold War. But as I pull my shoes back on at Sea-Tac airport, rebuckle by belt, repack my laptop, mourn the confiscation of my metal money clip (with a tiny, hidden knife blade) and watch female airport security agents pass their wands over the bras of female passengers, I have a curious thought: In the worst days of the Cold War, even during the Cuban missile crisis, you simply showed your ticket and marched onto the plane. And if your plane was hijacked to Cuba, it might only mean a short delay for refueling and back home without a scratch.


To put it simply, I never thought I'd look back on the Cold War with a rash of rather kindly, if awkward, memories. Admittedly, most people who live in Russia, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and the Baltic states wouldn't feel quite the same way. Yet today, even these liberated countries have to worry about Islamist terrorism because they all have Western embassies in their midst. The Cold War world of the 20th century is not the world of the 21st. To amend Hobbes's "Leviathan": It is a condition of war of some against all, a universal vulnerability. We have gone from a world of bipolar quasi-stability to a world of bipolar anarchy. That transformation has affected our quality of life as the Cold War never did to those of us fortunate enough to have lived beyond the Iron Curtain and outside the Berlin Wall.

Totalitarian Russia in the Stalin-Khrushchev-Brezhnev-Andropov era was a horrifying example of socialism at work. The Cold War had many frightening moments -- the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and even the aberrant Soviet shootdown of Korean Flight 007 on Sept. 1, 1983 -- but we never had to worry about anybody else's shoes. Despite the ferocity of Soviet diplomacy, the West still engaged in cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union. And we managed to carve out with it a Helsinki agreement on human rights. Can it be that the Kremlin was more civilized outside its own borders than Osama bin Laden is outside his mosque?....

Soviet history is replete with courageous opponents among its own people: Sakharov, Solzhenytsin, Bukovsky, Ginsberg, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Zoshchenko and others. Where is the anti-Osama opposition in the Islamic world?

The story is far different with bin Laden and his single-minded followers. All one need do is read the mosque sermons. The Islamist jihadists have no immediate desire to convert the West to Islam. They are not interested in WHAM'ing ("winning the hearts and minds," as it used to be called in the days of the Vietnam War). They are not interested in negotiations, summit meetings, detente agreements, cultural exchanges or non-aggression pacts, as we all were during the Cold War. As an ultra-state, ultra-government, ultra-treasury, ultra-supreme court legitimized, in its own eyes, by the Koran, al Qaeda decides who lives and who dies.

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