The autumn of 1994 I spent at Messiah College, in Grantham, PA. My family were moving at the time, both the business and the residence, and it seemed better for me to be near to home at such a time. One of my three roommates that semester was a Korean who had been adopted by a Texas family, spoke with a bit of an accent, wore cowboy boots, and chewed tobacco. He was also greatly enamored of the foreign policy writings of George Kennan, considered one of the architects of the policy of containment. This fondness provided fodder for the occasional conversation, and my expression of reservations concerning the judgment of a man who came to perceive in the specific character of American opposition to communism and the Soviet Union a greater threat to the commonweal than the often dissembling anti-anticommunism. Kennan feared the release of the simplifying, reductive passions of a nationalism that would, far from grasping the profounder, historical, geopolitical, and yes, spiritual dimensions of the standoff, construe it as a confrontation of rival ideologies. The Cold War was not merely a matter of geopolitical wrangling and foreign policy; it was a test of national character.
This, in my youth - I was but twenty years old at the time - I did not perceive. I had not yet learned to discriminate between the various tendencies and strands of the American character, to winnow the noble from the base, the prescient from the purblind, the prudent from the foolhardy. And so I thought that anticommunism was anticommunism, and that the imperative thing was that one have opposed communism, that specter of a godless, totalitarian collectivism, stamping on a human face in the name of the future.
In retrospect, however, George Kennan was correct in his prophetic fears, if you will. The long 'twilight struggle' of the Cold War slowly and inexorably ideologized the American consciousness, and, what is more damning, American conservatism. What went awry? Consider the following, written in 1960:
No, the source of the poison of Communist totalitarianism is our era's social crisis as a whole, which has now spread to also to the colored peoples; it is the disintegration of the social structure and its spiritual and moral foundations. Communism thrives wherever the humus of a well-founded social order and true community has been removed by proletarianization, social erosion, and the disappearance of the bourgeois and peasant classes; it thrives where men, and intellectuals above all, have lost their roots and solidity and have been pried loose from the social fabric of the family, the succession of generations, neighborliness, and other true communities. Communism finds the most fertile soil of all wherever these processes of social disintegration are associated with religious decline, as first in China and now in the Moslem world and in Japan. (Do remember that these words were written in 1960.)
(All emphases mine.) Totalitarianism gains ground exactly to the extent that the human victims of this process of disintegration suffer from frustration and non-fulfillment of their life as a whole because they have lost the true, non-material conditions of human happiness. For this reason it is certain that the decisive battle between Communism and the free world will have to be fought, not so much on the field of material living conditions, where the victory of the West would be beyond doubt, but on the field of spiritual and moral values. Communism prospers more on empty souls than on empty stomachs. The free world will prevail only if it succeeds in filling the emptiness of the soul in its own manner and with its own values, and not with electric razors. What the free world has to set against Communism is not the cult of the standard of living and productivity or some contrary hysteria, ideology, or myth This would be borrowing Communism's own weapons. What we need is to bethink ourselves soberly of truth, freedom, justice, human dignity, and respect of human life and the ultimate values. For these we must set our course unerringly; we must cherish and strengthen the spiritual and moral foundations of these values and vital goods and try to create and preserve for mankind such forms of life as are appropriate to human nature and support and protect its conditions.
Wilhelm Ropke (sorry, my old computer doesn't do umlauts..) would go on to argue that material prosperity for the masses could not be the absolute standard of opposition to Communism, and that the heedless, reductive pursuit of this prosperity undermined the traditional forms of thought and life which alone could resist the crisis of the age. The Humane Economy, now nearing its fiftieth anniversary since first publication, remains eminently worth reading.
The post-Cold War period of American history evinces nothing so firmly as that America had unleashed those destructive, simplifying passions Kennan so feared, and that Ropke recognized as evasions of the deeper sources of the modern crisis. To the Communist juggernaut, America increasingly came to oppose, not something so subtle and profound as the truth of man's spiritual nature, ever in tension in the in-between of being, but just that cult of prosperity: the superior productivity and material comfort of democratic capitalist 'civilization', also conceived, in a mirroring of the Communist dogma, as at once the telos of history and the engine of its unfolding. These spiritual depths were not altogether forgotten, but it seems fair to judge that it was left to the Church and the Poles to uphold them. To the Communist collectivism, with its command economy, America opposed the corporation, and then the multinational corporation, as somehow embodying and exemplifying freedom and liberation, which were thus identified, largely, with the crapulence of consumer society and a life of consummate material ease. America swallowed many myths about the Cold War epoch, but none have been so self-serving, and so destructive, as that the denoument of the Cold War somehow vindicated the American system, and justified its export to the world as a template for emulation. The failure of an adversary is not a proof of one's virtue; and 'better than Communism!' is justification of nothing when the spiritual soil of Western civilization has been turned and sowed with salt, as much by the disorders of materialism and ruthless luxury as by moral decadence. 'Creative destruction' still carries the capacity to undermine social order and to deracinate men, the danger in which is not - now - that they will become Communists, but that, in their blind flight from the truth of themselves, they will bring down civilization with them.
American conservatism has been complicit in this degradation, not aloof from it as though it were the work of some distant establishment. American conservatives have joined in the hymning of the American system, often as though it were a deliverance from Sinai, ideologizing that system and its constituent parts, all the more so after radicals of the New Left began to assail it for its regimentation and bureaucratization as much as for its failure to realize the dream of equality and fraternity. We might flesh out the argument by indicting the pointlessness of the old fusionism, which essentially invoked traditionalism in order to justify the corporate, managerial capitalism which has been its inveterate foe; but the character of contemporary conservatism will have to stand as the first count of the indictment. That conservatism has celebrated uncritically and reflexively the American economic system, and has regarded democratic capitalism as a universal template, souring on the administration which sought to export it by force of arms largely on account of its domestic bungling. And it has demonized critics as anti-American and unpatriotic, because they have had the temerity to view America as an historic, bounded nation - a nation we love not because she is the universal nation, but because she is ours.
George Kennan was right. It was the manner in which America came to oppose the Soviet threat that ultimately mattered, and mattered in a way which, recent history shows, led us to become spoiled and hubristic. Dubious means corrupt even worthy ends.