Contrasting Views of Totalitarianism During the Cold War

Totalitarianism: The Inner History of The Cold War

By Abbott Gleason

Oxford University Press, 307 pp., $25

The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectual and Foreign Affairs 1945-1994

By John Ehrman

Yale University Press, 241 pp., $27.50

For anyone who grew up immersed in the cold war, its miraculous end offers a chance to go beyond specific events and examine the fears, traumas, myths, and legends on which Soviet-American tensions fed. Of course, understanding the events matters. But no less important is analyzing what French historians refer to as "mentalities," the subtle, interacting emotions which shape our consciousness.

These unpretentious intellectual histories fit that need. They offer brisk, authoritative, and comprehensive guidance to a general audience that seeks clarity and brevity.

Abbott Gleason of Brown University digs deeper in "Totalitarianism," showing how different generations have grappled with the fearsome concept that underlay so much of our cold-war thinking. Gleason experienced that thinking through his father, S. Everett Gleason, a historian turned White House official, for whom the Soviets were simply red Fascists, inheritors from Nazism of the totalitarian mantle.

Not so, his son contends. He moves from the birth of totalitarianism in fascist Italy during the 1920s; through Western attempts to understand Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia; and to the cold war, with American fears of "brainwashing" and the "evil empire." Now Russian scholars themselves use the term totalitarianism to try to explain the Soviet system, even as Western scholars have moved on.

For fascists, totalitarianism was a bracing antidote to the frustrations of Italy's corrupt parliamentary state. For Nazis, it was the essential precondition for expansion by a unified, militarized Germany. By 1940, totalitarianism - with Stalin's purged Russia as Hitler's ally - seemed poised for global domination. Totalitarianism signified an unrestrained state apparatus that would destroy parliaments, exterminate entire social groups, and create a godlike Big Brother.

This great fear helped mobilize the democratic world, first against Hitler, and then against cold-war communism. George Orwell's "1984," Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," and Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism," roused a whole generation of Americans, who postulated a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, freedom and dictatorship, the children of light and those of darkness.

But the 1960s brought doubts from their own children. Were Krushchev and his successors the same as Stalin? If totalitarianism was all-powerful, what of the revolts in East Berlin, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia? And what did the horrendous Vietnam War signify regarding American democracy?

The young Abbott Gleason was hardly alone in raising these questions at the dinner table. My wife put them to her father, a senior official in the Commerce Department, for whom America's responsibility in defending Western civilization against the evils of Communist totalitarianism was an obvious truth. Inevitably, he saw the Vietnam War demonstrators invited by his daughter to sleep in his basement as enemies within the gates.

The growing academic rejection of totalitarianism as anything other than a vague intellectual construct collided head-on with the "evil empire" vision of the late 1970s, as John Ehrman of George Washington University demonstrates calmly and dispassionately in "The Rise of Neoconservatism." The subject is unique in American history; how a few vigorously anticommunist intellectuals - spearheaded by Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz, and especially Daniel Patrick Moynihan - abandoned Democratic liberalism after the Vietnam debacle to postulate a virtual second cold war early in the Reagan era.

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, proxy conflicts wracked Africa and Central America, and the detente accepted by Republicans from Nixon to Kissinger was under fire. Ideology had returned to the foreign policy arena, passionately articulated by neoconservatives, and Ehrman is good at assessing its content, its underlying strategy, and its ultimate ambition: America as No. 1.

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