- - Friday, November 29, 2019

The hardest job for a critic is reviewing a flawed but enjoyable book. It’s like trying to praise a play with lots of clever, catchy dialogue but a hopeless plot.

Leafing through Brian Brown’s “Someone Is Out to Get Us” – an engaging popular history of the Cold War – I happened to catch sight of a small object perched by my desk, a glow-in-the-dark figurine of St. Isidore of Seville, sometimes jokingly referred to as the Patron Saint of the Internet. I keep him there as a  reminder of how fragile the dividing line between fact and fiction can be. St. Isidore (circa 560-636 AD) was a scholarly pillar of the church in medieval Spain. A learned man, in his 20-volume “Etymologiae” he tried to compile all the conventional wisdom of his era, a sort of medieval Wikipedia.

The problem was that much of the conventional wisdom he drew upon was misguided, hopelessly skewed and more than a little barmy. As Alison Jones rather gently puts it in “The Wordsworth Dictionary of Saints,” although the “Etymologiae” was popular throughout the Middle Ages, it was “perhaps more ambitious than strictly accurate.” The same could be said for “Someone Is Out to Get Us.”

The book’s governing assumption is that at the close of World War II, the U.S. “had all but silenced external threats and was about to embark on a stunning era of prosperity. It wasn’t hyperbole to say that Americans were in position to rule the world.” Enter the sinister specter of anti-communism.

“[F]rom 1946 to 1989, from the conclusion of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall, we feared fear itself, even though this condition was counterfactual. Our forty-plus-year Cold War with the Soviet Union, a second-rate foe, was quickly entrenched and often defied logic, saddling what was the world’s richest and most secure nation with a costly fortress mentality … With the gift of hindsight, we can now say that the Cold War appears to have been a mind-boggling waste of money and lives to wage an inherently lopsided contest with a preordained outcome.”

Hmmm. To begin with, unless you’re a Calvinist – which Mr. Brown is not – nothing is “preordained” until it happens. Nor is it possible to govern in the present with future hindsight. The United States did, indeed, stumble into some wasteful, distracting Cold War sideshows. Most notable was the tragic mess in Vietnam, initiated by JFK with his open-ended boast that we would “go anywhere” and “pay any price” in the crusade against communism. 

The Cold War had actually started at the end of World War I, not World War II, as the Soviet Union, first under Lenin and then under Stalin, declared and conducted an aggressive policy of world revolution, subverting and subjugating unwilling victims from the Baltic to the Crimea, later adding most of Eastern Europe and a big, brutal franchise operation in China. The rise of Fascism had led to a brief hiatus in this fundamental East-West confrontation with Stalin plundering Poland side by side with Hitler until the latter turned on him in one of history’s greatest falling out of thieves.

Mr. Brown’s take on the Cold War bears an eerie resemblance to the rationale used by peace advocates in England and America after the fall of France in 1940: Hitler has won on the Continent. He’s happy to leave the rest of the world to an Anglo-American condominium. So let’s make a deal. If such a deal had been cut, and Nazi domination of Western Europe had lasted as long as Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, how many more would have died before the system slowly expired under its own weight?

Fortunately, the surviving democracies didn’t kiss and make up with Hitler in 1940. Nor did the NATO democracies make nice with Stalin when Russia, having acquired its satellite states through brute force and terror tactics, tried to impose Soviet-controlled, Communist Party governments in Greece, Italy, France and other Western nations.

By replacing pre-war appeasement of Nazi Germany with vigorous post-war push-back against further Soviet aggression, the democracies of the West made the price of further Soviet expansion unaffordable. Innocent millions paid the price behind the Iron Curtain, but a firm line had been drawn and Western leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II would help bring down the Iron Curtain for good.

Brian Brown is a talented writer whose work is a pleasure to read. But he is a seriously flawed historian.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •


By Brian T. Brown

Twelve (Hachette Publishing Group),

$30, 512 pages

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