History Commons Groups

January 11, 2009

Review: ‘U.S. Vs. Them’

U.S. Vs. Them, J. Peter Scoblic, 2008 Viking Press

When I checked out Scoblic’s U.S. vs. Them, I envisioned an interesting read and a few dozen entries or augments to existing entries. Instead, I ended up creating several scores of entries, particularly from the Carter and Reagan years, and almost all in the US International Relations project.

I grew up during the tumultuous years of the Cold War, and was taught in class what to do in case of the “big flash”–a nuclear holocaust. (Basically, they had us get under our desks and wait for the world to end. On the recess ground, we passed around our own version of nuclear survival strategies: bend over, put your head between your knees, and kiss your *ss goodbye. Dark humor for elementary school children, but there you go.) The book focuses primarily on the nuclear policies of three administrations: Carter, Reagan, and Bush II. Scoblic covers the nuclear armament and disarmament policies of all three with a clear-eyed, relatively unbiased view that acknowledges their strengths and failures.

Carter came in strong but, like so many Democrats, lacked the spine to “stay the course” and instead let events and incessant conservative carping steer him onto a course of unprecedentedly large military buildups (and abandoning the SALT II treaty even after he and the Soviets signed off on it). Then, like so many Democrats before and after him, he allowed the Republicans to paint him as “soft on defense” during the 1980 elections even in light of his huge increases in military spending.

On the flip side, Ronald Reagan did not lack the courage of his convictions: he came into office believing that the USSR was Evil Personified, and the only way to handle them was to challenge them head-on, practicing the best kind of nuclear brinksmanship and essentially daring them to “step over this line.” Very reminiscent of the kind of diplomacy practiced by the Bush administration. But unlike Bush, Reagan came to understand that confrontation was less effective than negotiation and building relationships. Reagan, who entered office with a visceral horror of nuclear holocaust that most people did not recognize, changed course midstream and began offering sincere olive branches to the Soviets, both rhetorically (no more “evil empire” talk) and in real terms (offering dramatic reductions in nuclear arms). Many people buy into the idea that Reagan remained set in his confrontational ways throughout his two terms, but Scoblic emphasizes the fact that Reagan became much more of a moderate and a pragmatist during his time in office — and was vilified by conservatives for it. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall did conservatives decide to reinvent Reagan and revise history, canonizing him as the patron saint of their belief system and ignoring the fact that Reagan turned his back on their ideology. Reagan’s biggest vulnerability was not his interest in containing the Soviets, nor his horror of nuclear war, but his profound and crippling ignorance on the details of the two nations’ nuclear arsenals and war planning, which made him eternally vulnerable to manipulation both by his Soviet opponents and his own advisers.

Probably the most eye-opening material in this section of the book (at least for those who aren’t Cold War scholars) is how much Reagan’s conservative officials — most notably Richard Perle — undermined and sabotaged the government’s nuclear negotations with the USSR, even stooping to lying to Reagan himself. Reading this, I asked myself (again) if the hardline conservatives are so innately correct in their beliefs, why do they have to lie and misrepresent those beliefs to have them implemented?

The book skips right past the Bush I and Clinton years (the subtitle is, after all, “How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security” and goes straight into Bush II. Here we have no moderation, no rethinking, no horror of confrontation, just “The Decider” and his fellows charging forward down an ideologically rigid path straight towards catastrophe on all fronts. I haven’t finished processing this section yet, so I can’t report on Scoblic’s nuances and details for this time period. Judging from the material I and others have done in the two Iraq projects, the US International Relations project, the A.Q. Khan project, the torture project, the civil liberties project, and others, I don’t see a lot of ground where Scoblic can introduce nuance and moderation. Bush II was what he was: a rigid, dangerously ignorant ideologue in whose administration hardliners were always welcome and always free to implement the worst of their visions of “freedom” and “democracy.”

As with most books of this kind, Scoblic’s last section contains his musings about the future and his recommendations for the US’s nuclear policies in the next administration (he completed the book well before Obama won the 2008 election, so he does not write with that administration in mind). This is less useful for the Commons, but an integral part of the book, and a solemn warning: trust conservative ideology to protect and advance American national security at your peril. “Conservatism, unfortunately, is not an ideology of leadership,” he writes, “it is an ideology of domination or isolation. The conservative belief that our actions occur in a vacuum and that we cannot affect the interests or perceived interests of others is not only solipsistic, it is defeatist.” We can only hope that Obama and his officials keep this in mind as they embark on the long, Herculean task of repairing America’s foreign policies, shoring up its relations with its neighbors, and battling terrorism without feeding the Constitution or common sense into the fire in the process.


  1. I read all the stuff you wrote about this. I have to confess I knew very little about it beforehand, especially that there was a period when Reagan was being battered by the Neocons.

    Comment by kevinfenton — January 14, 2009 @ 2:23 am | Reply

  2. I lived through it, but I have to admit that, in large part, my political blinders were firmly in place. I didn’t know some of this, either. (I’ve got about 20-30 more entries on this topic to post, then it’s on to more timely material.)

    Comment by Max — January 14, 2009 @ 9:41 pm | Reply

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