WASHINGTON--For years now we have been hearing Bill Clinton and other Democratic luminaries (most recently, Bill Bradley) tell us how difficult the world is today compared with Cold War days when things were easy. Easy because communism was evil, and we knew it, and thus our decisions about how to act in the world were informed by the moral imperative to oppose it.
It is a nice little fable. In reality, anti-communism was not the lodestar that guided us all--liberal and conservative--during the Cold War. Almost every anti-communist initiative championed by conservatives in the last two decades of the Cold War--from the Reagan arms buildup to aiding the Nicaraguan contras--met strenuous liberal opposition.
The Cold War has been the subject of the most frantic rewriting of history since the days of the Soviet Union itself--the only place, it was once noted, where it was impossible to predict the past.
Which is why the Elian Gonzalez case is so instructive. It is a Cold War struggle occurring 10 years late. And being such an anachronism, it serves as a time capsule, illuminating perfectly who stood where during the Cold War.
Elian's case is difficult. On the one hand, there is power to the argument that a 6-year-old boy not be sent back to spend his life in the island prison from which his mother died trying to escape. On the other hand, there are obviously other values at stake: family values or, more precisely, paternal rights.
This is what makes the case hard, even for those who despise communism. For the left, however, the choice is easy. Parental bond trumps political freedom. No question. (It was only yesterday that it took a village to raise a child. Now a father will do.) The vehemence with which those on the left, such as Rep. Maxine Waters and the National Council of Churches, have insisted on Elian's return--their contempt for the very notion that there might be something problematic about returning him to a country whose constitution states that parents' rights exist ''only as long as their influence does not go against the political objectives of the State''--shows us how little anti-communism figures in their moral universe.
And so it was during the Cold War. Was anti-communism their lodestar? Hardly. There were always other values to be found more important.
Opposing dictatorship, for example. The left vehemently opposed our friendship with the Philippines (under Marcos) and Chile (under Pinochet), allies in opposing communism. (The Philippines, for example, supplied us with Subic Bay and Clark Air Base during the Vietnam War.) Indeed, Bill Clinton went to Africa last year and apologized for America's support of anti-communist dictators (like Mobutu) during the Cold War.
If anti-communism was the norm, why did the Democratic Congress cut off aid to South Vietnam? Because it was corrupt? What Third World country, communist or capitalist, was not?
Undemocratic? Certainly, but it was infinitely more democratic and free than North Vietnam. Yet congressional opposition to corruption and dictatorship trumped anti-communism--and helped bring on catastrophe: genocide in Cambodia, re-education camps in South Vietnam, boat people in the South China Sea.
And if it wasn't human rights or clean government (a supposed virtue of communists like Ho and Mao), there was always one value to trump anti-communism: peace. The arms buildup, the deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles to counter the Soviet SS-20s, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Reagan Doctrine of supporting anti-communist guerrillas around the world--these were all opposed by the left (and by a large majority of the Democratic Party) in the name of peace. In fact, the movement--the anti-anti-communist movement--appropriated the very word for itself. It was the ''peace movement.'' The anti-communists, led by Ronald Reagan, were risking war in slavish adherence to ideology.
Yes, human rights and clean government and peace are all important values. Which is what made some of these decisions so difficult. But for those on the right, the fight against communism was paramount because the evil it represented was so total. Those on the left, on the other hand, always found some other value more salient, some other cause more worthy.
They did then, with Vietnam and Nicaragua, with the Pershing missiles and the nuclear freeze. They do it now, with Elian. They always do.
The Elian case, however you may feel about it, has one virtue: It exposes the myth that the Cold War was anti-communists all vs. the Evil Empire. In fact, it was a great struggle at home between anti-communists and anti-anti-communists. The anti-communists won. Which is why we are so profoundly at peace today.
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