The colossus and the tigers
NIALL Ferguson is a colossus. He bestrides History – like the golden idol of Helios by Rhodes’ waters edge – not only physically by virtue of his sizeable frame, but due to the reputation which precedes him. And, like that fabled statue, he acts as a link, a bond between the two flanks of academia: the accessible, public intellectuals; and the savants who swoop about the dark corridors of our great institutions.
Prof. Ferguson has spent most of his recent years working out of the United States, as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard. Working in a climate of greater academic and personal freedom has enabled him to further develop his ideas on the politics and economics of the Cold War. Now, he has returned to our shores to share with us his findings, as the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at the LSE.
His first, extremely well-attended lecture, entitled “The Political Economy of the Cold War”, was constructed in two acts. He opened by proposing one of those unanswerable historical questions of inevitability: “was it a foregone conclusion that the Soviet Union would fall behind the United States.” Conventional wisdom today argues for this motion, primarily, Ferguson asserts, because of the benefit of hindsight.
Having acknowledged this though, he did not go on to repudiate this orthodoxy. It was apparent from the quality and availability of consumer goods during the postwar period that the Soviet Union’s economic superstructure was not built to last. There was a total absence of investment in infrastructure (making a Chernobyl-type disaster inescapable), and as such they could never have kept up with the pace of development in the West.
His statistical evidence appeared to support this claim. The Soviet Union enjoyed robust growth in the 1950s and 60s, but by the 1980s parts of the empire such as the Central Asian republics had fallen into negative growth. Soviet GDP was but 36pc of the levels enjoyed by the United States in 1990, up from only 27pc in 1945. Taking his cue from Stephen Kotkin, Ferguson concluded that only the oil price spike, which occurred in the 1970s, kept the Soviet economy going.
For the sake of argument though, it should be noted that despite this evidence of economic slowdown, the United States believed, almost until the very end, that the Soviet Union was and would remain an economic superpower and threat to the West. Such a belief was not unreasonable at the time: well into the 1980s, the Russians continued to spent vast sums of money on armaments (14pc of GDP in 1990); aid allied regimes fiscally and military; and were reasserting their presence in neighbouring Afghanistan. There were no external signals that – in spite of the grey and miserable lives the people of the East lived during this period – the whole empire would collapse in such swift and undramatic fashion.
Though the central thesis holds, for in a command economic structure such as that the Soviets maintained from the days of Stalin to the dissolution of the empire, there is no room for dynamism and innovation. Therefore it was perhaps inevitable – to use that dreaded word – that the Soviet Union would slip into a position where they would be forced to perpetually play catch-up to the West, in order to meet the true aspirations of the people.
Ferguson’s second act though was perhaps more challenging to the Eurocentric historian. He attempted through statistical manipulation to debunk the idea of the postwar economic miracle, and instead highlighted the “failure of the social democratic model” in the 1970s. Inflation hit double digits during this period, as high as 25pc in the United Kingdom. And, in fact, thanks to the oil boom in part, Soviet growth overtook that of the United States in the later part of that decade.
The real miracle in fact came in East Asia, for Western European reindustrialisation was not remarkable, when compared to the manner in which the ‘tiger economies’ outperformed all other nations during the Cold War. Under the protection of the United States’ security umbrella, Asian share of global GDP increased from 14pc to 34pc in the space of forty-five years. Japan was able to become the world’s premier export economy, and overcame its previously feudal mode of land ownership.
On the surface this in an intriguing premise, but there are signs that indicate that this was not per se a miracle. For the most part, the types of countries Ferguson noted – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore – are examples of territorial microstates that were able to conjure explosive growth through specialisation in banking, international finance or otherwise, and attract foreign investment through lenient tax policy. In this respect, their story is no different to that of say Liechtenstein or Monaco. The only remarkable element is the speed with which the growth was achieved.
Furthermore, the stories of postwar Japan and West Germany are in fact quite similar. Both states prior to 1941 had economies geared toward heavy industry with respect to total war. What is more, they were each blitzed in the closing months of combat (for the Japanese of course, there was annihilation by way of Little Boy and Fat Man). Reconstruction in West Germany and Japan was achieved rapidly, under allied occupation, along capitalist lines with an emphasis on exports, and, importantly, with democratic regimes in Bonn and Tokyo. It seems incongruous and therefore ahistorical then, to choose to label Japan a miracle and Germany not, merely because it suits Ferguson to trash the European story as a means to giving gravitas to his new East Asian theory.
Primarily it should be stated though, that whilst Ferguson’s new line of inquiry does signal the emergence of an intriguing new approach to Cold War studies, the success stories of Japan, South Korea and others do not in fact add much, if anything, to the war’s overall narrative. Ultimately, while being within the United States’ sphere of influence, those states were rather peripheral to postwar high history. The centres of power, interest and conflict remain the European front, and the various battlefields on which the United States and Soviet Union staged conflict by proxy. As Ferguson alluded to, the Asian chapter of the Cold War in truth opens with the rise of Red China, and comes to a head with the escalation of the wars in Korea and Indochina.
Thus while Prof. Ferguson’s lecture was of tremendous interest – he spoke eloquently and vividly for a good hour or so, holding the audience captive – his new interpretation of the Cold War narrative is one that in truth only adds colour to our pre-existing understanding. It does not and factually can not whitewash over the dominant Eurocentric story.
Through his literature and essays, over the course of the past sixty years Gore Vidal has held up a mirror to American society and demanded that it stare pointedly at the ugly thing it has become. In The City and the Pillar and Myra Breckinridge, Vidal challenged conventional attitudes towards sexuality; the United States he created in Duluth was but a gaudy, poorly-plotted soap opera.
Politically Vidal has always been somewhat of an enigma. Superficially he would appear to be a liberal – in the American sense of the word – to the left of even the most progressive elements of the Democratic Party: “The United States has nothing to teach Cuba”, he declared flippantly in 2009. In 1987, Vidal suggested that as a means to combating the rise of China and Japan, the time had come ‘for the United States to make cause with the Soviet Union’.
On the other hand, Vidal has a nasty isolationist streak in the tradition of Charles Lindbergh. He has long stated to anyone who would listen that he believes Roosevelt both knew of the attack on Pearl Harbour in advance of the event, and that he incited it through provocative acts toward the Japanese: “They deliberately cut off Japan’s oil supplies, then refused to sell them scrap metal, and so on.” Moreover, he has openly questioned the necessity of the United States’ involvement in the Second World War, particularly on the European front.
The bastardised synergy of these two extreme ideological wants is Vidal’s idea of the American Empire. Truth be told, such a concept is not strictly his, however he has proven to be its most vocal proponent since the obliteration of Hiroshima. To summarise, the choice of President Truman to intervene in Korea marked the cementation of the United States’ transition from republic to empire. Each conflict since from Vietnam to Kosovo and into Iraq has been an example of imperialist adventure: “the Republic ended in 1950. Since then we have had an imperial system.”
That Vidal has developed the concept of America as empire ought not to be a great surprise. It is in the nature of great minds to view their respective nations in a state of constant decline from cradle to grave. Moreover, for Vidal the notion of an era of American imperialism after 1950 is an extension of the tendency of older egos to look back upon their youth as a golden age of civilisation. The needless, pointless glorification of the 1960s by embittered baby boomers exemplifies this point entirely.
Vidal’s cantankerousness toward his Motherland has only gotten worse in the past ten years, since the advent of September 11 and the incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq. On the former, he argues that the United States was ‘probably’ in on it, though he has no evidence whatsoever for this. When it comes to Afghanistan, Vidal asserts that it is all a matter of natural resources: “[The United States] wanted stability in Afghanistan to build the pipeline. The Taliban did not give them stability, so they decided to overthrow them”. The ever-more bombastic and incoherent nature of his sentences seems to be coupled with an unavoidable age-induced decline in his mental capacity.
Post-9/11 reverse hysteria aside, the perception of America as empire is not without grounding, particularly with reference to nineteenth century interventions, in the Philippines most famously. Mark Twain declared that ‘we have gone there to conquer, not to redeem’; the United States held onto the territory for a sizeable chunk of the twentieth century.
But when it comes to the postwar settlement, the period on which Vidal pontificates and occasionally bloviates, the whole interpretation is far-fetched, verging on ahistorical. It is embarrassing that such a great mind and polymath has the audacity to suggest that the United States forced the Cold War upon the Soviet Union has a means to creating a perpetual war, solidifying the role of the military-industrial complex at the heart of the American economy.
The United States’ use of force in the latter half of the torrid twentieth century has been at its best moments liberating. On occasions there has been unnecessary meddling under the guise of containment or the protection of national interests, but certainly since the collapse of the ‘evil empire’ America has been the protector of democracy and enemy of the dictator and oppressor. See Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq for evidence.
Gore Vidal’s constant harping and sniping at the land that gave him everything in the autumn of his years is an unfortunate blight and stain on the record of America’s greatest novelist and chronicler. His later years are scarred by the release of tawdry collections of half-baked essays, where the concept of the American Empire is laboured upon and stretched beyond the point of breakage. “I am ashamed to be an American”, he told David Frost in 2008.
He has few years, perhaps months, left. When the eulogies are written, may the decline be set aside and the drivel forgotten. Vidal was at his best when clasping that mirror. Let his novels, both historical and fantastical, be his legacy.
The twentieth century can best be characterised as a one-hundred year-long debate – punctuated frequently by fissures and eruptions of violent conflict – over the relationship between the state, society and the individual. To that extent, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four must be the core of the anti-totalitarian argument. Christopher Hitchens triumphantly asserts in Why Orwell Matters that on the three great questions of the era – imperialism, fascism, communism – Orwell was right, and certainly his masterful critique of the unchecked power of the state remains unsurpassed.
Evidently, and as Orwell freely admits, Nineteen Eighty-Four draws heavily on previous tomes of the dystopian genre: parallels can be drawn between Orwell’s monolithic étate and Huxley’s World State of Brave New World and Zamyatin’s One State of We. However, for its clarity of thought, elegance of prose, astute analysis and socio-political prescience, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the superior work. Orwell had never visited the Soviet Union or any other Stalinist state; that he was able to capture the texture of communistic society so deftly is remarkable. He could not have seen first-hand the chronic nature of shortages, or the crummy nature of goods manufactured and distributed by the state: coffee made from chicory and tea derived from blackberry leaves. Nor would he have witnessed the appalling condition of state housing, and yet he is able to conjure up evocative images of corridors rotten with the smell of boiled cabbage, and of decaying buildings rife with burst pipes and flaking plaster.
Nineteen Eighty-Four also displays a remarkable level of historical foresight, though not as some attempt to claim that Orwell predicted the Britain of CCTV cameras and ID cards. Rather, Orwell was able to outline the direction in which the socialist states of Eastern Europe and Asia would eventually tumble. It is impossible to read the scenes in the novel’s final act – of imprisonment and interrogation, physical and psychological torture – and not draw comparisons to the Stasi and Hohenschönhausen. Moreover, there is a remarkable similarity between the Two Minute Hate and the Ossie television programme The Black Channel – as detailed by Anna Funder in Stasiland – in that they both display bursts of spewed, directed vitriol toward their enemies. North Korea presently is as near to Orwell’s Airstrip One as is visible in contemporary society: the ever-present Dear Leader, who Koreans must praise eternal for the little they have received in their fruitless existences, as they parade about their barren, hopeless land, faces grey, dull and listless.
Orwell’s magnum opus, then, is not by any means a relic, an anachronism of a by-gone age when dictators and one-party states perched on the doorstep of democratic Europe. Rather, as the most outstanding literary condemnation of totalitarianism, it is a warning from history from an author who always strove to tell the truth. Striking, dramatic, shocking, significant and awe-inspiring, Nineteen Eighty-Four must be considered the greatest work of the twentieth-century.
As published online by Penguin Classics, July 1 2010, available here.