Legacies of Cold War Liberalism

Legacies of Cold War Liberalism

To think boldly today about education, economics, and politics demands a break with the anxieties that drove U.S. politics during the Cold War.

President-elect John F. Kennedy with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on January 9, 1960 (Bettmann via Getty Images)

If war is a force that gives us meaning, as Chris Hedges famously wrote, what purpose remains when the ultimate battle has been won? This question plagued many American intellectuals after the end of the Cold War, when the United States assumed an unrivaled geopolitical position.

For some who had been in the ideological trenches far too long, it was impossible to let go. They were skeptical of the notion that challenges to the United States could be resolved through technocratic adjustments, and found it hard to believe that all would now be safe and well. For three decades, these figures have remained ready to sound the tocsin against new enemies on the horizon. That bellicose posture is one significant legacy of Cold War liberalism—a politics whose definition remains contested, even if the historical conditions that gave rise to it are clear.

Before the First World War, to be a liberal typically meant defending universal values and rationalism. Liberals had an optimistic view of human nature and believed in historical progress. But the rise of fascist regimes, and the mobilization of global military forces required to stamp out Nazism, dealt a blow to this view. In the aftermath of the Second World War, new threats emerged in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and later Castro’s Cuba. If liberalism had any chance of surviving, it would need to become more aggressive in its defense of freedom against the specter of communist totalitarianism. To Cold War intellectuals, both inside and outside of the academy, liberal democracy was not predestined to succeed. It was fragile and in need of vigilant protection.

Intellectuals and policymakers such as W.W. Rostow, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Isaiah Berlin believed that the security of all peoples rested on the willingness of the American state to project democratic ideals—and flex its military power—abroad. Historian and John F. Kennedy acolyte Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in 1950 that Americans must embrace “the necessity of protracted and indefinite responsibilities and involvements abroad” as the result of the “new historic position of the U.S. as the leading power in the free world.”

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. The fight against communism abroad also led to recognition of the problem posed by racial inequality at home. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson argued in 1947, “discrimination against minority groups in this country has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries.” 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 nat...