A broad consensus agrees that the period of cold war lasted from the end of World War II until the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1989, although some historians maintain that the seeds of conflict were discernible in the Western response to the Russian Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
The cold war was a strategic and ideological conflict between the Western powers led by the United States and the Communist bloc dominated by Soviet Union. The conflict was driven by each side’s deep suspicion of the other and by an extreme and often exaggerated perception of the threat their actions posed to geopolitical stability.
An apparent reluctance to engage in open conflict on a global scale meant that both sides sought to advance their cause through other means, including diplomatic noncooperation, strategic alliance, economic sanction, espionage, propaganda, and arms proliferation.
Another common strategy as the conflict escalated was the resort to “proxy” intervention, in which the larger opposition between East and West was played out on distant battlefields in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Broadly speaking, the conflict was premised on entrenched differences of ideology, principle, and perception between the Communist states and the capitalist, democratic West. For this reason, the huge military, diplomatic, and industrial efforts were necessarily underscored by a vast “struggle for the minds and wills of men” throughout the cold war.
The basic ideological antipathy between East and West during the early or “high–cold war” era was articulated in a wide range of texts, from high profile addresses by successive U.S. presidents and their political and cultural representatives, to confidential policy papers and strategic directives (Crockatt).
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The cumulative effect of this huge mass of public and private utterance was the establishment in the United States of a pervasive discourse of conspiracy and threat in which the Soviet Union was commonly characterized as aggressive and expansionist in its foreign policy and repressive and totalitarian at home.
While we now know beyond doubt that much of this was indeed the case— Stalin’s brutal regime with its endemic purges and gulags was the very opposite of a democracy—it is also clear that the volatile state of international relations was intensified by U.S. anticommunist propaganda at home and intervention abroad.
Together with parallel efforts by the Communist Information Bureau (COMINFORM) in the Soviet Union, U.S. propaganda and counterrevolutionary techniques tended to rule out the possibility of negotiation and had the effect of increasing international tension to a level of perpetual crisis.
The Origins and Conduct of U.S. Foreign Policy during the “High Cold War”
The policies of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations during the high–cold war period—roughly from 1945 until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960—effectively mapped out the strategic direction of, and also legitimated, the discursive climate in which successive presidents from Kennedy to Reagan would operate for the next three decades.
It was, however, the British wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, who most succinctly delineated the new world order and the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union when he declared at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946, that Soviet imperialism had drawn “an iron curtain” across the continent of Europe. In identifying not only the political and ideological, but also the spiritual dimensions of the threat facing the West, Churchill gave voice to a refrain that would soon resound through the corridors of power in the West.
The top echelons of U.S. foreign policy—from Secretary of State James Byrnes; his successor Dean Acheson; key Foreign Service officers stationed in the Soviet Union like Ambassador Averell Harriman and his successor George Kennan; and all the way up to President Truman himself— began to perceive their former ally in the East as a direct “challenge and peril to Christian civilization.”
If one single document may be credited with instituting the cold war worldview in U.S. political life, as well as with the introduction of the apocalyptic vocabulary that would soon characterize all utterances across the range of foreign and domestic policy, it was the so-called Long Telegram sent by Kennan from his post in Moscow to Secretary Byrnes in Washington on 22 February 1946.
Many prominent commentators in the United States and Western Europe, including Kennan himself, had long stressed the incompatibility of Soviet communism and Western capitalism. Now Kennan’s telegram provided an apparently definitive explanation, identifying the czarist legacy of imperialism in Russia and its apotheosis in Stalin’s drive for world domination.
It was clear from the huge volume of contemporary references to Kennan’s most inflammatory conclusions, that a “new orthodoxy” was about to grip the Washington establishment (Walker). According to this new orthodoxy, all Soviet efforts on “an international plane” would henceforth be perceived as “negative and destructive in character, designed to tear down sources of strength beyond Soviet control” (Kennan).
Proceeding from the conclusions of the Long Telegram, the policymaking machinery of the executive branch swung into action. Within only twelve months, Congress released $400 million to shore up the vulnerable Greek and Turkish economies against the apparent danger of those countries falling to Communist coups d’état like their neighbors in Eastern Europe.
This unprecedented, preemptive move, which reversed decades of cherished U.S. “isolationism,” was premised on President Truman’s belief that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” and revealed very clearly just how pervasive had been the influence of Kennan’s uncompromising interpretation of Soviet foreign policy. Events in Europe, Asia, and the Far East served to confirm Americans’ worst fears.
Between 1946 and 1950, repressive Communist regimes came to power in Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia, thus bringing those countries within the Soviet “sphere of influence,” and powerful domestic Left movements came to prominence in Greece, France, and Italy.
Accordingly, the “loss” of China to Mao Tse-tung’s Communist insurgents—a “loss” that was blamed on treacherous leftist elements within the U.S. State Department’s Far East office by McCarthy and others—and the Soviet blockade of West Berlin were met with a relentless hardening of U.S. foreign policy.
The increasing firmness of the U.S. response can be charted in initiatives ranging from Secretary of State George Marshall’s plan for economic recovery in Europe (announced in June 1947)—a program that Stalin viewed, with some justice, as a conspiratorial means of flooding the wartorn continent with U.S. capital—to the establishment of what would soon become vitally important weapons in the U.S. cold war arsenal such as the CIA, the National Security Council (NSC), and the U.S.-dominated North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO; all 1947).
Perhaps most far-reaching of all was the eventual acceptance by Congress and executive branches alike of the conclusions of NSC memorandum no. 68 (NSC-68; 1950), which one historian of the period describes as “the supreme documentary symbol of the cold war” (Lucas).
In NSC-68 the principle of “containment”—another Kennan coinage—became the justification both for the “stockpiling” of a huge nuclear deterrent and for the pursuit of a so-called arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union under the terms of which many billions of dollars were committed by both sides to the development of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology, atomic weapons, and the space program.
It was in defense of the United States’ selfappointed “responsibility of world leadership,” (NSC-68) and of a repressive, unrepresentative, but crucially noncommunist regime that South Korea became the first of many U.S. theaters of “proxy” conflict with the Soviet Union in the summer of 1950. As Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles implied in their aggressive campaign rhetoric of “rolling back” the Soviet and Chinese advance, U.S. intervention in Korea signaled the institutionalization of the cold war as a “system of international control” (Walker).
“Red Menace” and the Rhetoric of Conspiracy
Crucial to U.S. prosecution of the cold war was the strategic deployment of the findings of certain key policy-documents—including the Long Telegram, the text of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NSC-68—which became statements of apparently unarguable truth in an atmosphere otherwise characterized by fear, uncertainty, global confrontation, and propaganda.
The language of these documents made recurrent use of an elaborate repertoire of vocabulary and metaphor to which elected and independent representatives alike had frequent recourse in their public pronouncements and utterances.
Thus, in this oppressive discursive climate—and lent weight by the domestic anticommunist crusade—the “fundamental design” of the Kremlin’s “grim oligarchy” was inevitably portrayed as being bent on “the ultimate elimination of any effective opposition to their authority,” while the “fundamental purpose” of the United States was always in transparent defense of “the idea of freedom” and democracy (NSC-68, 1950).
Both camps soon came to view the enemy as not just antipathetic to, but in league against them. In effect, this self-perpetuating and wholly enclosing discursive system represented the elevation of widespread conspiracy theorizing to an unprecedented level of political legitimacy.
Certainly, this pan-social susceptibility to conspiratorial interpretation during the cold war helps account for the extraordinary celebrity enjoyed by rabid anticommunists like Senator Joseph McCarthy, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Vice-President Richard Nixon, and star witnesses such as Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley.
Such an atmosphere also goes some way toward explaining the enormous commercial success of exaggerated, allegorical depictions of the “red menace” in popular contemporary movies and fictions such as I Married a Communist (Dir. Jack Gross, 1949), Invaders from Mars (Dir. William Menzies, 1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Dir. Don Siegel, 1956), and Richard Condon’s novel, The Manchurian Candidate (1959).
As a matter of course, vocabulary and methods developed in the geopolitical sphere were vigorously—and profitably—reapplied on the home front; likewise the vital importance of the domestic anticommunist campaign was constantly reinforced by events on the global stage. This reciprocal process has been likened by some cultural historians to a kind of “feedback loop,” and by others to a species of modern “hysterical epidemic” (Showalter).
The U.S. Government in Conspiracy during the Later Years of the Cold War
The fervent pitch of political discourse during the early cold war years was undoubtedly conducive to popular fears of a Communist conspiracy on the home front, in former strongholds of New Deal progressivism such as the trade union movement and the Hollywood movie industry, and abroad in the actions of seemingly inscrutable cultures like the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and North Vietnam. In this climate it is hardly surprising that for the first fifteen years after World War II there was very little public dissent from the prevailing consensus of support for U.S. anticommunism in the public sphere.
This is not to say, however, that there was no resistance. Both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations faced intense criticism from what remained of the U.S. Left, which continued to argue from a largely prewar perspective. For these conspiracy theorists of the “Old Left,” blame for the cold war lay squarely with the forces of militarism and imperialism in Washington, whose interests were directly antagonistic to those of the working masses.
It is interesting to note that this basic proposition, stripped of its Marxist agenda, lies at the root of a good deal of contemporary conspiracy-thinking— both popular and scholarly, in print and on the Internet—so much of which starts from a basic suspicion of the U.S. establishment.
It took several years and a complex series of developments for large numbers of Americans to begin to turn away from the external conspiracy posited during the cold war and to focus instead on the responsibility borne by their own leaders at home. Among these developments were, ironically, the grim predictions of an outgoing president, the inauguration of the young and apparently radical figure of John F. Kennedy in his place, and the latter’s subsequent tragic death.
Gradually, a popular and dynamic opposition movement peopled by civil rights activists, “New Leftists,” pacifists, and countercultural gurus began to rediscover the writings of their predecessors, and to point an accusing finger at the dangerously unchecked power and converging interests of their own ruling elite.
For all his professed commitment to a new era of global harmony and the partial success of his gestures toward diplomacy between the superpowers, President Kennedy was, in the final analysis, no less dedicated a cold warrior than Truman or Eisenhower had been.
As conspiracy-minded critics on the Left like Norman Mailer and Corliss Lamont recognized at the time, Kennedy’s deployment of the forces of U.S. intelligence and covert operations against socialist regimes in Cuba and elsewhere relied upon a further expansion of the already extensive mandate of largely unaccountable branches of the “invisible government,” such as the CIA and military intelligence. Predictably, the rhetoric used by Kennedy and his new team of advisors to justify this policy invoked the ever-present threat of Communist expansion.
This time, however, the rhetoric was more strident, the desire to roll back communism, particularly in the Third World, more urgent than ever. Potent symbols of this increased intensity were the construction of the Berlin Wall—that most concrete embodiment of the intractable opposition between East and West—in 1961, and the tense brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year.
The obsessive cold war worldview of Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, found expression in his rapid escalation of U.S. commitment of air power and troops in Southeast Asia. Like its precursor in Korea, the Vietnam War reminded many that the underlying assumption and overriding priority of U.S. foreign policy during the 1960s remained the prevention of the onward march of Communist expansion.
However, the disastrous adventures in Vietnam and other Asian states also ushered in an era of unprecedented popular revolt against these guiding assumptions. As both Johnson and his successor, Richard Nixon, later acknowledged, it became quite clear during the late 1960s and early 1970s that the ruling elite could no longer command society-wide support for their policies and for the conspiratorial interpretation of the Communist threat on which they were based.
Indeed, for many groups and individuals, including the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panther Party (BPP), Eldridge Cleaver, Carl Oglesby, and Jerry Rubin, all of whom rose to prominence as critics of the government in this period, it was no longer “alien” external forces who were in league against them, but the very establishment of government itself. From that point forward, virtually every U.S. foreign policy initiative with discernible origins in the high–cold war era met with resistance from a vocal protest movement at home.
For these dissenters the conspiratorial hand of the “military-industrial complex” and big business was discernible behind everything from the bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia, through revelations of institutional foul play during the Watergate investigations, to the massive nuclear rearmament program and “Reagan Doctrine” of the 1980s. (Indeed, the latter drew selfconsciously on the precedent set by the Truman administration to sanction intervention on the side of anticommunist forces in Nicaragua, Grenada, Afghanistan, and Angola.)
Many of these dire suspicions have since been borne out by legal and scholarly investigation into scandals like the covert CIA funding of Nicaraguan drug-runners, Panamanian dictators, and General Pinochet’s corrupt and repressive regime in Chile.
The Cold War as a Source of Contemporary Conspiracy Culture
The huge upsurge in conspiracy-thinking over the past twenty to thirty years has been indebted to veterans of that pioneering generation of social critics who came to the fore during the 1960s, including Noam Chomsky, Herbert Marcuse, Norman Mailer, Tom Hayden, and Black Power leaders like Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael.
Many of these theorists began their careers exposing the activities of a Washington elite of planners, advisors, and policymakers in the State and Defense Departments, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), NSC, CIA, and FBI for their lack of accountability and for the dramatic failure of U.S. domestic policy and foreign interventions in Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
The work of these critics, and of others at the further fringes of the late-1960s counterculture may now be seen to have set in motion conspiratorial interpretations of a whole panoply of postwar policies and developments. Nowadays, conspiratorial interpretations of the cold war period incorporate everything from the dryly political to the frankly bizarre.
These range from the counterculture’s generalized challenge to cold war norms of thought and behavior, through the Black Panthers’ exposure of the conspiracy of white supremacy and radical feminism’s critique of institutionalized and domestic chauvinism, to recurrent suspicions of the sinister interconnections between Washington and the international “shadow government” like the Bilderberg group and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and of the more baroque techniques allegedly used during the cold war such as assassination plots, psychological warfare, mind-control experiments, and investigations into possible UFO landings.
Fears of the conspiratorial power and influence wielded by a shady “deep political” elite during the cold war were partially borne out by the findings of the Select Committee on Intelligence Activities in 1976, and more recently by the opening of archives related to the various intelligence agencies.
What these disclosures made clear was something longsuspected by opponents of the U.S. government, which is to say that U.S. foreign policy in the early postwar period was dominated by an inner caucus of dedicated and virtually omnipotent cold warriors.
The huge extent of this group’s power and their continuing resistance to public scrutiny undoubtedly validates claims made by conspiracy theorists like Peter Dale Scott, Anthony Summers, and John Newman who discern the outlines of a system that “habitually resorts to decision-making and enforcement procedures outside as well as inside those publicly sanctioned by law and society” (Scott).
If the many heterogeneous manifestations of contemporary U.S. conspiracy culture have any single feature in common, it is that they all seek to confront, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, previously held “truths” developed by the “power elite” during the cold war.
In this way, the original McCarthyite premise that the United States was besieged by “aliens” without and subversives within has been inverted so that the very forces mobilized in the name of the cold war crusade—forces that were quickly naturalized as vital and integral components of that campaign—have come to represent the greatest threat both to the domestic order and to geopolitical stability.
It now seems most likely, as Richard Powers and Daniel Moynihan argue in Secrecy: The American Experience (1998), that the U.S cold war campaign was driven by an all-powerful bureaucracy within the CIA and other organizations who had a vested interest in systematically overestimating the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its agents to the United States, and in maintaining a veneer of secrecy that vastly increased the sense of public unease and propensity to conspiratorial interpretations of the outside world.