How the U.S. resembles the U.S.S.R.

When I was young, the world’s great problem was all black and white because little in history had been less ambiguous than the Cold War that consumed my wonderfully righteous country. Good vs. bad, honesty and decency vs. deceit and immorality, the Land of the Free vs. the Evil Empire. Although Whitaker Chambers wasn’t my favorite interpreter of the era, his view of Communism and Freedom as “the two irreconcilable faiths of our time” was spot on for 99 percent of Americans, including me before Moscow residence tinted my vision with some grey. But was the clarity of the super-overwhelming majority of my countrymen less in the lay of the political land than in our perception of it? And is a kind of convergence taking place between contemporary America and the last decades of the U.S.S.R.? That’s not to suggest anything remotely like equivalence. Even after taking two steps forward, one back under Nikita Khrushchev and later, the Soviet Union (S.U.) was a dictatorship. And despite the dismaying retreats from the rule of law under George W. Bush and money’s chilling corruption of its governments, the United States (U.S.) remains a democracy of sorts. But I’m going to ask here, with genuine hope to be challenged, whether the two are more alike than we like to think. Not the same, I hasten to shout in repetition, but with more similarities than we’re willing to acknowledge.

That unwanted suspicion struck me during Bush’s presidency, when America got rich in jokes about him (while we were growing poorer in infrastructure, education, restraint of greed, ethical behavior in general and other aspects of a civilized society). Holy smokes, that smacked of the Soviet Union, where I laughed when I wasn’t complaining because 10 minutes with my friends, members of the working intelligentsia, rarely passed without side-splitting satire of Soviet words and ways. Apparently the same was true in Nazi Germany, where jokes were all the more riotous because they could bring more severe punishment than in post-Stalinist Soviet Union or post 9/11 America, gripped by fear as it is. Humor’s your weapon when you’re powerless to change conditions that deeply upset.

Powerless? Yes, and the inability of my likes to do the slightest anything to stop the invasion of Iraq and other national developments I abhorred taught me a good deal I’d known but hadn’t really felt about my Russian friends, whose political potency stopped at spoofing Brezhnev and sappy Soviet slogans. How naive I was, how ignorant and trusting, when I began meeting them in the 1950s and 1960s! While my American friends and I sneered or raged about Kremlin domination of Soviet letters and history, the CIA was secretly subsidizing some of our own intellectual life, probably including my fellowship, the money for which was channeled through a prestigious academic organization. The fellowship was for graduate work in Soviet studies at Columbia University. The FBI officers who one day knocked at the door of my nearby digs promised I’d never get a job in American academia or journalism, much less government. That was in response to my refusal to give them the names of Soviet citizens with whom I was corresponding—names they very well knew because, as we later learned, they were steaming open the envelopes of mail to the U.S.S.R. What they really wanted was to hook me into collaboration, which was also the goal of the KGB officer who tried to recruit me in Moscow. (Although the FBI agents weren’t appreciably less repugnant than the KGB man, my would-be CIA recruiter took me to his Yale Club and behaved like a gentleman.)

Ah, but our cause was good and theirs was evil, wasn’t that the difference that justified subterfuge and deception on the part of the defenders against Soviet determination to rule the world? American propaganda, which was much less crude and relentless than Soviet— therefore often more effective—made that threat the dominant reality of most of the U.S.A. I knew. Bankrolled or not by our government, our commentary, television shows and movies the likes of “Red Dawn” about a Soviet invasion to enslave virtuous America was doing a job on us. When I was in the navy prior to my graduate work, the perfidious doings of the Soviet submarines we were trying to track down (once successfully by my destroyer) angered the crew. We had not the slightest idea that American submarines were doing far naughtier things to the Soviet Union, much less that while Washington was lecturing the world about the glory of American democracy and justice, the CIA was overthrowing democratically elected governments—of Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, Congo’s Patrice Lumumba in 1960, etc.—and assassinating some of their leaders.

Surely I’m now ignorant of all sorts of illegal and no doubt shameful things my government is currently up to. Maybe they’ll be revealed in time for my children or grandchildren to know. Meanwhile, isn’t what we do know enough not to dismiss my suggestion that the U.S.A. shares many of the characteristics of the late U.S.S.R., in kind if not degree? It was no kook who disapproved of a standing army in peacetime because it might “overawe the public sentiment” but Thomas Jefferson, in 1799. The America that was founded in wariness of the military has become, as the Soviet Union almost always was, profoundly militaristic in that we have a huge military establishment that we use, not surprisingly, for all but constant warfare. Although the figures are difficult to establish because no country tells the truth about such things, the U.S. probably spends more on arms than the next 18 countries combined; some economists say the rest of the world combined.

We operate some 761 military bases, some very small but others huge. They include those on which we maintain roughly 350,000 soldiers in 150 countries abroad, and if that doesn’t make an empire I don’t know what does, although ours of course isn’t for our benefit, heaven forbid, but chiefly to protect other countries, right? Although President Obama has changed our rhetoric, our reliance on weapons remains virtually unchanged, and if it’s just a coincidence that we’re fighting in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires that bogged down Soviet armies a quarter of a century ago, it’s not a happy one. We won’t collapse, as the Soviet Union did shortly after it withdrew in 1989, but we won’t prosper as a civilization either.

Meanwhile, too, American flags fly everywhere in appeal to nationalism I saw only in the Soviet Union, although Nazi Germany may have surpassed both of us in that too. That while our government becomes more and more of and for the rich, as the government of the U.S.S.R. was more and more of and for the nomenklatura, and our cherished privacy, not to mention our liberties, is increasingly under attack. Although the Obama administration has also changed the tone of governmental trespass into what used to be our personal lives and stopped some of the most egregious excesses, the Patriot Act and other legislation that enables the government to exercise direct censorship and a kind of prior restraint on intellectual activities remain the law of the land. (A Nobel prize-winning scientist at Cornell University is convinced that fear of government intrusion was chiefly responsible for the plummet of 40 labs to two within 24 months of enactment of the Patriot Act.) Not only may the FBI inspect computer files and library and research records in our citadel of freedom; it also reports about their deviation from patriotic political ideology. And that’s not to ask how carefully our telephone and electronic communications are being monitored because the full scope of the warrantless wiretapping is secret. What is known is that Americans, watched far more closely than ever, have begun forgetting the rights of privacy they used to enjoy.

Of course that was worse in the Soviet Union, but not everything was, at least during its final decades. Some of the American planes that overflew our unscrupulous adversary for surveillance inevitably had mechanical trouble. The American intelligence personnel who feared the hateful KGB would torment the downed pilots with water-boarding and other hideous devices seethed in vain because that never happened. It was we who resorted to that torture, which our government, employing sophistry that would have enraged us if it had come from Moscow, claimed was nothing of the kind when administered by the CIA.

Don’t get me wrong, American society remains far freer and more admirable in general. If I’d been asked whether I wanted to live permanently here or there, my choice would have been here without an instant’s hesitation. But don’t tell me the U.S., too much like the S.U., isn’t mired in self-admiring, self-righteous, often obscurantist ideology while Europe advances toward greater pragmatism and humanism. Don’t tell me we didn’t use and aren’t using some of the S.U.’s ugliest practices, nor that the urge for that use doesn’t come chiefly from the same source as it did for the bad guys: fear of enemies and insecurity about our ourselves beneath our sanctimonious bragging. Chest-thumping about being the world’s best, chosen to tell everyone else how to live, no more assuages our inner doubts about ourselves or our ignorance of other cultures than it did for the Soviets.

No, do tell me if I’m mistaken.

George Feifer is the author of Moscow Farewell and The Battle of Okinawa

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