Denouncing “Cold War Liberalism” has recently become a cottage industry on the academic left. Examples of this proliferating genre include a 2021 essay in Dissent, “Legacies of Cold War Liberalism,” by Michael Brenes of Yale and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins of Wesleyan, and a recent book, Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times, by Samuel Moyn. A fellow historian of Brenes’s at Yale with a joint appointment at the law school, Moyn pronounces his stark judgment early on in his book: “Cold War liberalism was a betrayal of liberalism itself.”
It is legitimate to criticize those today who claim to have inherited the mantle of midcentury liberals. These would-be successors position themselves as defenders of liberal democracy against totalitarianism in various new guises, some internal, like wokeness or Trump-style populism, and some foreign, like Russian and Chinese revanchism. But the sins of the children—literal children, in the case of Irving Kristol’s son Bill—shouldn’t be visited upon the parents.
The very term “Cold War liberal” deserves the scare quotes I have given it, because it was coined as an insult by detractors. I was personally acquainted with a number of the “Cold War liberals,” including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Samuel Huntington, and I never heard any of them describe themselves that way. Several described themselves to me as “paleoliberals.” Most thought of themselves simply as liberals or, if a qualifier was needed, as anticommunist liberals.
Between the 1940s and the 1980s, anticommunist liberals sought to define a third way—Schlesinger’s “vital center”—between leftist totalitarianism and reactionary capitalism and racism. They promoted center-left social reform in the United States and, when conditions permitted, around the world. According to Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins, however, anticommunist liberals were cynical militarists who only pretended to support the welfare state and desegregation because these policies indirectly helped US military strategy in the Cold War. Not genuine idealism, but “political realism led liberals to embrace efforts to redress racism through the recognition of civil rights for black Americans, push to strengthen trade unions, and advocate for full employment through the mechanisms of the national-security state.”
In a New York Times op-ed based on his book, meanwhile, Moyn blames the anticommunist liberals for cashiering the liberal tradition’s bigger and better ambitions in favor of a pinched, gloomy vision defined by foreign-policy hawkism and aversion to radical emancipation:
Before the Cold War, President Franklin Roosevelt had demanded the renovation of liberalism in response to the Great Depression, emphasizing that economic turmoil was at the root of tyranny’s appeal. His administration capped more than a century in which liberalism had been promising to unshackle humanity after millenniums of hierarchy— dismantling feudal structures, creating greater opportunities for economic and social mobility (at least for men), and breaking down barriers based on religion and tradition, even if all of these achievements were haunted by racial disparities. At its most visionary, liberalism implied that government’s duty was to help people overcome oppression for the sake of a better future.
The expulsion from this visionary liberal Eden, we are supposed to believe, took place under Roosevelt’s Democratic successors, beginning with Harry Truman: “Just a few years later, Cold War liberalism emerged as a rejection of the optimism that flourished before the mid-20th century’s crises.”
There are a number of problems with this chronology. For one thing, it was the sainted FDR himself who dumped the naively pro-Soviet Henry Wallace from the vice-presidential slot in 1944 in favor of Truman and refused to share atomic secrets with his wartime ally Stalin, who used espionage to obtain them. On succeeding to the presidency, Truman proposed universal health care—something FDR never had the nerve to do—and FDR protégé Lyndon Johnson pushed Medicare and Medicaid through Congress.
Moreover, the “Cold War liberals” who are supposed to have betrayed the idealism of FDR were far more progressive in their civil-rights policies than FDR had been. Truman desegregated the armed forces and fractured the Democrats by backing the efforts of anticommunist liberals like Hubert Humphrey to include a civil-rights plank in the 1948 party platform. Johnson presided over the complete dismantling of Jim Crow in what amounted to a Second Reconstruction.
Clearly, anticommunist liberals after 1945 didn’t reject the belief that “government’s duty was to help people overcome oppression for the sake of a better future.” Yes, they at times argued that desegregation would help Washington win over postcolonial nations in the Cold War competition with the Soviets. But those arguments were intended to sway conservatives and moderates to support antiracist policies that anticommunist liberals themselves supported out of principle.
Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins write: “Cold War liberals put their faith in the military, and depended on spending related to it to deliver social benefits—employment, economic growth, civic purpose—in the absence of a broader welfare state.” This is the opposite of the truth. In the case of full employment, a central element of LBJ’s Great Society was the Job Corps, a public-employment program for poor young people established in 1965 and modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal, a version of which is still administered by the Department of Labor. The Works Progress Administration, meanwhile, inspired the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act passed by the Democratic Congress in 1973 to help low-income Americans work in public service; a modified version was abolished under Bill Clinton.
In 1982, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY)—a harsh critic of the Soviet Union and pro-Soviet regimes during his time as US ambassador to the United Nations under Richard Nixon—cosponsored failed legislation to create a new version of the CCC administered by the Department of the Interior. The AmeriCorps program was established by Democrats in 1993. All of these federal civilian jobs programs were influenced by the New Deal, and none of them had anything to do with the US military or the security apparatus. Nor did any of the social-insurance programs enacted by Roosevelt’s successors have anything to do with the military—unlike the GI Bill, passed into law under—guess who?—Franklin Roosevelt.
How, then, did Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins arrive at the idea that anticommunist liberals after 1945 used the military “to deliver social benefits—employment, economic growth, civic purpose—in the absence of a broader welfare state”? I fear that they have made this gross mistake by uncritically recycling one of the clichés of left-wing anti-Cold War literature.
The 1967 satirical tract Report from Iron Mountain, by Leonard C. Lewin, purported to be a secret government document arguing that a perpetual Cold War was necessary to keep the economy going (the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith was in on the joke and gave the spoof a serious review in the Washington Post under a pseudonym). Many on the left and the conspiracy-mongering right were fooled into thinking it was a genuine report, and the claim that the US economy depended upon high levels of defense spending was promoted by some left-wing opponents of the Cold War, such as Columbia University engineering professor Seymour Melman, among others. Then the Cold War ended, US defense spending was slashed—and the economy failed to collapse.
What about the supposed militarism of the anticommunist liberals who succeeded FDR? Even as residual US occupation forces remained in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere, from 1945 to 1950, the Truman administration carried out rapid postwar demobilization and cuts in military spending, which is hard to explain if Truman and his liberal allies were intent on militarizing society. Between Sept. 1, 1945, and June 30, 1947, the US Army plummeted to 648,000 troops, down from 8 million. The Truman administration’s plans for combining a small peacetime military with a universal military service failed. Instead, Congress enacted the even more limited Selective Service System. It was only after the invasion of South Korea by North Korea—approved in advance by Stalin, armed and supplied by the Kremlin, and with Soviet pilots and later Chinese troops taking part in the fighting—that America and its allies rearmed on a large scale.
Turning to recent history, Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins blame the legacy of “Cold War liberalism” for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and other forever wars. I participated in the debates at the time as an opponent of that misadventure, and I don’t recall any prominent supporters of the Iraq War invoking the Cold War as a precedent, for the obvious reason that Iraq hawks opposed a Cold-War style US strategy of patient containment combined with arms-control inspections and diplomacy. Instead, they invoked World War II symbols like Munich, routinely compared Saddam and bin Laden to Hitler, and spoke of “Islamofascism,” not “Islamocommunism.”
In any event, the second-wave neocons of the 1990s and 2000s—figures like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan—were standard-issue conservative hawks, not “paleoliberals” like most of the first-wave neocons of the 1970s. The price of their admission to the inner circles of the Bush-era GOP was the renunciation of older anticommunist liberal commitments to organized labor, universal social insurance, and international law.
The older generation of anticommunist liberals disagreed among themselves about the course that US foreign policy should take following the end of the Cold War. Moynihan argued that it was time to revive international law, opposed Reagan’s proxy war with the Soviet bloc in Nicaragua, called for the abolition of the CIA, and voted against the Gulf War in 1991. In 1990, Jeane Kirkpatrick published an essay in the National Interest titled “A Normal Country in a Normal Time,” in which she called on the United States “to give up the dubious benefits of superpower status and become again an unusually successful, open American republic.” To draw a direct line from the vital-center liberals of the 1940s to the “paleoliberal” neocons of the late Cold War and onward to the Bush-Cheney administration is to torture the historical record until it gives the preferred answer.
Since the 1970s, it has been an article of faith on the Boomer left that the United States would have become a version of social-democratic Sweden in a peaceful post-Cold War world if only LBJ hadn’t tragically escalated the Vietnam War. This dubious belief influences the current critique of anticommunist liberals. As Moyn put it, “liberals of the 1960s did advance on the early Cold War outlooks, but the civil-rights revolution and the ‘great society’ came together with the Vietnam War, which destroyed the conditions for opening a new era of liberalism that might have transcended Cold War limits.”
So intent is Moyn on prosecuting his subjects that he contrasts “Cold War liberalism” unfavorably with the “liberal” empires of 19th-century Europe:
Whereas the liberal imperialists of the 19th century had at least promised to spread freedom and equality across the globe, early Cold War liberalism gave up any global designs in order to preserve the West as a refuge for liberty in a world of tyranny … Liberals have not yet figured out how to spread freedom without empire. The forlorn Cold War liberals counseled them not to try.
But the alternative to “liberal” European empires offered by “the forlorn Cold War liberals” and their fellow liberal internationalists was and remains the participation of postcolonial nation-states in the UN General Assembly and various transnational agencies, along with security alliances and bilateral or multilateral trade pacts. Instead of serving as resource colonies controlled at gunpoint by a European metropole, postcolonial countries would take part in a new, integrated world economy. Moyn caricatures Walt Rostow’s theory of economic modernization as an “authoritarian and violent” attempt at “reclaimed futurism,” and he is equally contemptuous of the rival school of free market neoliberalism. It would be helpful if Moyn would tell us what kind of economic development model the West should have promoted in postcolonial countries often riven by ethnic conflict and ruled by autocrats.
Having opened the book with the declaration that Cold War liberals tragically rejected the idea of liberalism as “the agent of an unfolding plan to produce a better and more fulfilled humanity,” Moyn might be expected to provide some details of the alternative. Instead, he merely tells us that a new and superior liberalism “would have to reincorporate some of the 19th-century impulses purged and left behind in the Cold War years, in particular its commitment to the emancipation of our powers, the creation of the new as the highest life, and the acquisition of both in a story that connects our past and our future.”
These are fine sounding ideas, but what policies are to be derived from them? How would a Hegelian liberal in the White House in the late 1940s have dealt with congressional opposition to universal health care? If an Enlightenment utopian had occupied the Oval Office in 1950, how would he have responded to the Soviet consolidation of control over Eastern Europe and the Soviet-orchestrated North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950? Given the veto power of Southern segregationists in the Senate for a generation following 1945 and violent resistance to integration in the South, what would a liberal president devoted to the tradition of Constant, Mill, and Tocqueville have done differently from that supposed betrayer of true liberalism, Lyndon Johnson, in pursuit of civil rights?
Like a Marxist who says practical questions about social organization must be postponed until after the revolution, Moyn concludes his book by telling us that it is impossible to know what a new and better liberalism would look like, because it has not yet been invented. “The task for liberals in our time is to imagine a form of liberalism that is altogether original. If they don’t, it does not seem likely that they will see their creed survive—and anyway, survival is not good enough.”
If Moyn and Brenes and Steinmetz-Jenkins are the best witnesses the prosecution can offer in this Cadaver Synod, the charges against the exhumed defendants should be dismissed. In reality, anticommunist liberals during the Cold War never believed that, in Moyn’s words, “demanding anything more from liberalism” than the defense of individual freedom “is likely to lead to tyranny.” Far from abandoning collective social reform, anticommunist liberals from the 1940s to the 1960s supported universal health care and organized labor and the outlawing of racial segregation at home. Beyond America’s borders, Truman’s Point Four program and John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress and the developmentalist school actively sought to help postcolonial nations to industrialize and to create mixed economies inspired by New Deal America and social-democratic Europe, so they could escape the traps of both communist totalitarianism and unreconstructed capitalism and rural oligarchy.
Vital-center liberals during the Cold War made mistakes and often failed or suffered defeat. Still, rejecting both right-wing reaction and totalitarian revolution in favor of reform at home and abroad, they were hardly gloomy, misanthropic defeatists. Oscar Wilde remarked that “biography lends to death a new terror.” To judge from the work of contemporary critics of “Cold War liberalism,” posthumous mischaracterization by left-wing academic intellectual historians has added yet another terror to death.