Liberalism and anticommunism

GOSH, those Democrats are doing it again: another hopelessly liberal ticket. Or is it? Hopeless, that is. Polls show Michael Dukakis beating George Bush despite the governor's liberal background and the inevitable leftward input Jesse Jackson will have in directing the party platform and appointments. But those of us on the left who consider ourselves more progressive with a small ``p'' than upper-case Democratic may wish to keep the White House Republican.

Without claiming an airtight analogy, consider what happened after Ike. A young, ``liberal'' President squeaked into office seemingly intent on proving just one thing: that he was not soft on communism abroad (or socialism at home, for that matter). Lacking sufficient courage to sign off on a right-wing plan to overthrow Fidel Castro, John F. Kennedy gave us the Bay of Pigs, followed by the much scarier Cuban missile crisis. Proved soft on communism despite himself, Kennedy sought other venues to prove his hardness and stuck our nose so far into Vietnam that we eventually had to leave without it.

Likewise, leftward domestic legislation on civil rights and poverty were just too explosive for Kennedy to touch and had to wait for LBJ; he duly compensated for socialism at home by stepping up the slaughter of socialists abroad. Lyndon Johnson made certain that, whatever else historians had to say about him, it would not be that he was soft on communism. Just count the bodies.

Soft-on-communism is a specter that has haunted American liberalism with a particular vengeance since World War II. It is the nominal left's special manifestation of the national pathology about communism which has driven American postwar foreign policy. This phobia brought us the restoration of the Shah of Iran, the coup against the Arbenz reform government in Guatemala, attempts to spike Castro's cigars with LSD, the rogue Central Intelligence Agency of the '70s, the rogue CIA of the '80s, Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, and other sorrows too numerous to list, much less describe, in a single article.

The first to take Republicans to task for this compulsive behavior, Democrats have proved crazily vulnerable to it whenever returned to office. It should not surprise us to learn that only the Reagan administration has come close to launching the number of covert operations that Kennedy undertook.

Indeed, the ``soft-on-communism'' charge has proved such an effective hobble in foreign affairs that, should the unlikely notion strike him at all, only a rightist president has been able to move policy forward in that sensitive area. Only Dwight D. Eisenhower could negotiate the Test Ban Treaty. Only Richard Nixon could go to China. Jimmy Carter couldn't get SALT II approved to save the farm, but Ronald Reagan will get elimination of intermediate-range nuclear forces and perhaps more. It is now gospel that only Republican presidents can deal with the commies.

Given that, and the absolute necessity of dealing or dying in the far advanced nuclear era, we have reason to be wary of another ``liberal'' Democratic president.

Baby-boomers who got burned on Vietnam and now constitute a large percentage of voters may on the whole have a more rational attitude about communism. However, progressive types should not be lulled into thinking our national phobia is somehow a thing of the past. There are still plenty of Americans whose political sensibilities atrophied with VE Day; for whom every commie is a Hitler in disguise, a bogyman poised under the bed and lusting to eat Texas the very minute Americans show an ounce of human feeling or an inkling of intelligence.

The rabid right, convinced now that the commies finally even got to Ronald Reagan, will be cultivating their computer mailing lists, watching and waiting. Chances are still very good that any future Democratic president, even given a Democratic Congress, will be falling all over himself (and anyone else unlucky enough to get in his way) to prove his anticommunist credentials. ``Protesting too much,'' he could, like his predecessors, spend a great deal of time and treasure proving that his particular shade of pink isn't red. The costs for indulging this juvenile obsession would, as in the past, be painful to behold.

Until we grow up, it just might be better to have a Republican in the harness of a hostile legislature than some phony liberal out to prove he's a channel for the ghost of John Foster Dulles.

Travis Charbeneau is a free-lance writer and futurist based in Richmond, Va.

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