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What We Lost When We Won the Cold War

We defeated tyranny, but did we abandon liberty?
July 7, 2021
What We Lost When We Won the Cold War
(Photos: GettyImages)

Almost exactly 60 years ago, the newly appointed Chadian ambassador to the United States, Adam Malick Sow, was heading south on Maryland’s Route 40 toward Washington, D.C. Feeling a headache coming on and figuring a coffee would ease it, Sow instructed his driver to pull into a diner near Edgewood. Sow entered the Bonnie Brae diner and asked for a menu. The owner, Mrs. Leroy Merritt sneered “We don’t serve n*****s here,” and threw him out.

The same thing happened to other African diplomats at other Maryland establishments, and it became an international embarrassment. President Kennedy worried that this treatment of diplomats from Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Congo, and other newly independent African nations would harm U.S. efforts to limit Soviet influence in Africa. And so the White House and State Department worked with local Maryland officials to curtail overt racism on Route 40—at least toward diplomats from other nations.

The tale has an other-worldly feel now. These events pre-dated the Civil Rights Act by three years—which partially explains the Kennedy administration’s gingerly approach. And Route 40 was supplanted as a major north/south artery by I-95 in 1963. But the story, recounted in Ted Johnson’s exploration of race and history, When the Stars Begin to Fall, illustrates something that’s worth pondering: How much did Cold War competition spur us toward fulfilling our national ideals?

Johnson notes that the steps toward integration following the “Route 40 Incident” did not go entirely smoothly. Several restaurants locked their doors and turned off their lights when African officials attempted to enter. Others “demanded to see credentials before proffering meal service . . . loudly apologizing to white customers who had to endure eating alongside black diplomats. Even with these slights, the incomplete victory of Route 40 was sufficient to meet the United States’ diplomatic objectives.” And, of course, it would be several more years before African Americans could expect the same service as African ambassadors.

The Cold War was the reason that Americans could be embarrassed by what had been routine for centuries. We were engaged in a contest with the communist world that was about everything. It was a great power rivalry for influence and resources. It was a military competition for supremacy. It was a religious war about belief in God versus atheism. And it was an ideological conflict about how to organize society and how to live. As such, everything we did, everything we were, was viewed through the lens of how our enemies and allies would see it.

The broad outlines of the east/west conflict are well known: The Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the opening to China, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Tienanmen Square, Reykjavik, and so on. But that doesn’t begin to capture the degree to which the Cold War shaped our perceptions, our imaginations, and even our sense of national identity and purpose.

When arrayed against an ideological foe that rejected individual rights, trampled on religious liberty, murdered millions, and enslaved even more—all in the name of a supposedly morally superior system—we had a clear sense of who we were. We were for freedom, both economic and political. We were for religious rights. We were for an independent judiciary and a non-political military. We were for individuality, not coerced collectivism. And we were for strivers and dreamers who wanted to share the blessings of liberty.

The Soviets couldn’t build a car that functioned or stock their markets with food, but, prodigious liars, they were skilled at propaganda. No, the CIA did not invent HIV as part of a biological warfare program. No, the United States did not start the Korean War. No, the CIA did not kill John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. No, the United States was not behind the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and on and on.

Perhaps even more maddening than the lies they told about us were the truths they concealed about themselves: the Gulag, the terror famine in Ukraine, the mass deportations, the mass executions, the anti-Semitism, the censorship, the Hitler/Stalin pact, the war on peasants, the empty shelves, the “psychiatric hospitals” full of dissidents, the crushing of liberty in other nations, and too many other crimes to list. Not to mention the luxuries enjoyed by the communist elite.

But the Soviets didn’t always have to invent lies to discredit us. The case of the Scottsboro boys became a fixture in Soviet textbooks, and Communist Party members in the United States did play a prominent role in campaigning for civil rights (if only in this country). When American cities went up in flames after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Soviet outlets made sure the world saw this as proving our hypocrisy on human rights. That they were insincere in their concern for blacks (as some African Americans who emigrated to the USSR discovered) did not invalidate their criticism of us. We were hypocrites, and many Americans were ashamed of it.

Concern about how our treatment of African Americans made us look abroad was one rationale for the Truman administration’s decision to file an amicus brief in Brown v. Board of Education. The argument was explicit:

The United States is trying to prove to the people of the world of every nationality, race and color, that a free democracy is the most civilized and most secure form of government yet devised by man. . . The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.

In that sense, our enemies did us a favor by pointing to our flaws, because it played a role in spurring us to be better.

Today, we still have enemies, but we no longer have the morally organizing idea of liberty versus tyranny that shaped our self-concept during the Cold War. We no longer see the need to sell our way of life to others around the globe. Many Americans shrug at the prospect of the Chinese government crushing freedom in Hong Kong, or Eastern European countries closing universities and independent media. We don’t see ourselves as leading Team Liberty. And even though in most respects we won the Cold War, that is a real loss.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].