Norman Podhoretz

The Future Danger: Totalitarianism

VTR Date: March 24, 1981

Guest: Podhoretz, Norman


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Podhoretz
Title: “The Future Danger: Totalitarianism”
VTR: 3/24/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Last year I began what turned out for me to be one of the most intriguing of my OPEN MIND programs by reading the following: “A Year ago, a press release about our television series announced that there had been an intriguing mix of new conservatives and old liberals, American style, in the battle over the Strategic Arms Limitations talks, and that on THE OPEN MIND I would talk with old socialist turned neoconservative, Norman Podhoretz, about the ideological twists and turns that lay behind SALT. But now my friend Podhoretz, the provocative editor of Commentary magazine, is back again with a new book on what for him is an old theme: The Present Danger. And I want to talk with him about what he writes about thinking the unthinkable, the culture of appeasement, the new nationalism, and the new isolationism”.

Well, we did talk about those matters on that program, with Podhoretz in fine mettle. No wonder then that a promotional bend around The Present Danger later proclaimed, “I urge all Americans to read this critically important book”. Signed, Ronald Reagan. Even so, it has been reported that in a recent interview, Podhoretz suggested that the president’s mind is not the kind generally admired by intellectuals, which I happen to take as a neoconservative compliment to the president. And I wonder on this day late in March, 1981, as we videotape this program, whether a somewhat m ore elaborate Podhoretz review of the first couple of months of the Reagan administration is equally complimentary. And, Mr. Podhoretz, Norman, let me ask you that question. Are you complimentary in these two months gone past?

PODHORETZ: Well, I’m in the unaccustomed position of feeling inclined to defend an administration in power for the first time that I can remember. I think that the, certainly from my point of view, the first two months of the Reagan administration have been very promising indeed, and surprisingly so to many people, even a bit to me, because I must admit that, like so may other people, I underestimated the extent to which Ronald Reagan really meant the things he’s been saying. We’re so used to politicians, including politicians who become presidents, who adopt rhetorical hyperbole, who say things that don’t exactly (to put it politely) correspond to the policies they later follow, or even that the policies they intend to follow. Reagan, it seems very clear, is not such a politician. What you see rhetorically, or what you hear rhetorically, is what you get in the realm of policy. This has been true of his domestic program, and it’s been true so far as we can make it out at this early date of his foreign policy. He is attempting to carry out the view of the world that he has enunciated for the last several years, both in the appointments he’s made and in the kinds of things he himself has said about the crucial issues of international affairs.

HEFFNER: And you share with him, of course, that view of the world?

PODHORETZ: On the whole, yes. And I’m encouraged by the extent to which he seems serious in acting on the basis of that view of the view that some of his critics and some of his enemies, ideological and political enemies, regard as simplistic, but which I regard as truthful, accurate, realistic.

HEFFNER: Norman, why then do I understand that in the April edition of Commentary you have another long, not novel, but book-length article, no longer entitled “The Present Danger”, but “The Future Danger”? Isn’t your mind relieved so that there is no future danger? What do you mean by it?

PODHORETZ: Well, the future danger that I refer to in that article is stage two of the process that I think the country is engaged in or that the Reagan administration is engaged in. The present danger, as I defined it in my earlier book, was the threat of the change in the balance of powers between the Soviet Union and the United States. The danger that, with the rise of Soviet power and the relative decline of American power, the Soviet Union would be in the position, mainly through a strategy aimed at controlling the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, to impose its will upon the West and upon the United States in particular. Now, that danger the Reagan administration is addressing, and it is addressing that danger with exactly the degree of urgency that is called for. In other words, the president has exempted defense spending from the cuts in the budget that apply to almost every other category of the federal budget. He is asking for serious increased in defense spending, which is the first necessary minimum step that has to be taken in the face of the present danger. The second thing the president has done is to announce his intention of stationing American ground forces in the Persian Gulf to act as a deterrent against a direct Soviet move on the oil fields, and also as a tripwire; in other words, to fulfill the same function that our troops have fulfilled in Europe since, roughly since the end of the Second World War. The third thing he has done is to take a very strong stand against Soviet expansionism or imperialism, as I prefer to call it, in the Caribbean. And I fully agree with the policy largely enunciated by Secretary of State Haig in relation to the threat to El Salvador and to that region generally. These are three of the main steps that were taken in the first few weeks of the Reagan administration. And they’re all directed against what I and others have seen as the present danger, that is the threat of Soviet imperialism.

HEFFNER: What then, is the future danger?

PODHORETZ: The future danger is that, to define the struggle that we are engaged in – and I think we are engaged in a titanic struggle, a struggle of apocalyptic historic proportions – as one confined to the problem of the Soviet imperialism, if we define it in those terms, I fear that the political support that would be necessary in this country in order to sustain the kinds of efforts and sacrifices that will be required to meet that danger will not be forthcoming. In other words, I think that the danger goes beyond the ambitions of the Soviet Union conceived in conventional terms as a superpower or an ambitious nation state, say similar to Germany in the pre-World War I period. I think there is an ideological dimension to this struggle which resembles the struggle not between the democracies in pre-World War I Germany, but between the democracies in pre-World War II Germany, Nazi Germany; that is, a struggle between an expansionist, totalitarian system and countries led in this instance by the United Sates which stand for a wholly different idea about how to organize human life on this earth, politically, economically, socially. This is the true nature of the struggle given the fact that the American people have shown themselves, for better or worse – I think for better; some people think for worse. Nevertheless – have shown themselves to be capable or willing, really, to sacrifice and even to go to war if necessary only for the sake of some larger value, some transcended ideal, and not merely for the sake of national interests narrowly confined, or in order to establish a balance of power, or for some geopolitical or geostrategic maneuver. Given that national characteristic, I think it is necessary for the administration to begin defining the struggle in these larger ideological terms, that is as a struggle between totalitarian communism, which happens to be represented more powerfully but not exclusively by the Soviet Union, and the nations of what I would persist in calling, or in calling again, the free world, led by the United States.

HEFFNER: Is the future danger then, in your estimation, related to your concern that we will not see this struggle in these ideological terms?

PODHORETZ: That’s right. And the tendency in recent years has been to underplay, even to pooh-pooh the whole idea of the ideological struggle, both as a principle of international relations generally, and more specifically as a relevant consideration in the Soviet/American conflict. Most people in this country now, as they, I think, demonstrated quite clearly in the 1980 election, do understand that there is a threat coming at us from the buildup of Soviet power and the relative decline of American power. And most people of this country, there is a national consensus, I think it’s fair to say, behind the view that something has to be done about this imbalance. Specifically, that we have to spend a lot more money to rebuild our armed forces and to increase their quality and their readiness as well as their quantitative scale.

HEFFNER: If that’s the case, why are you concerned that they don’t raise this to an ideological level?

PODHORETZ: Because the necessary long-range sacrifices and determination that have to be brought into play for this struggle, I think, can only be sustained, mobilized on the basis of a vision which I happen to believe corresponds to the realities. This is not merely a political gimmick. I think we’re talking about what is a truthful description of the actual case.

HEFFNER: A crusade?

PODHORETZ: Well, that word has been used in a pejorative sense in the past. If you insist on using it, I won’t object too strenuously.

HEFFNER: No. I mean, it certainly has been historically too without pejorative connotation.

PODHORETZ: Yeah, yeah. Well, the American people, as I said earlier, do seem to be so constituted because of certain national traditions and national characteristics as to be reluctant to maintain what used to be called standing armies, for example, in peacetime merely for the sake of preserving the national interests defined in the usual materialistic terms of territory and trade.

HEFFNER: Norman, how do we possibly meet the future danger? How do we possibly raise to the level of ideology the acceptance of conflict, realistic, real politic of the time?

PODHORETZ: Yeah. Well, I believe that President Reagan himself shares this view of the conflict.

HEFFNER: And he’s expressed it?

PODHORETZ: And he tends to express it. He uses language that suggests such a view of the conflict. But President Reagan is not the only element in the picture, not even in his own administration. You have a State Department, you have people in Congress, you have an academic establishment, all of which are hostile to this idea. All of which are suspicious of it, afraid of appeals, for example, to anti-communism, which is one of the elements that would be called for in an ideological understanding. That is one of the sentiments that would be evoked by a leadership that was intent on defining the struggle in these terms. To be specific, concrete, for example, from the perspective of an ideological struggle, it would not be necessary to demonstrate, as the State Department has convincingly done, that the Soviet Union acting through surrogates and clients, Cuba and Nicaragua, is involved in the fighting and the insurgency in El Salvador. The Soviet Union is involved. And to take a stand against the insurgency in El Salvador, for the United States to take such a stand, falls within the imperatives of containing Soviet imperialism. And there is, as I said, a national consensus, I think, behind that policy, that is meeting the present danger. This is an example of the present danger in our own backyard. But from the perspective that I am talking about, it would not be necessary to demonstrate Soviet involvement in order to oppose the establishment of a communist regime in El Salvador. We would oppose it because we regarded it as in itself bad for us and bad for the people of that country. And we would not necessarily have to connect it with the spread of Soviet imperial ambitions.

HEFFNER: Would it be fair to say that you don’t want us to wait to see a smoking gun before we mount this campaign, this crusade? That’s not such a bad word. Dwight Eisenhower used it quite positively about World War II.

PODHORETZ: Sure, sure. He talked of a crusade in Europe. That’s right. Well, the idea got discredited in our own political culture as a result of Vietnam. And people said it was anti-communism that got us into Vietnam. Vietnam was a disaster. Therefore, anti-communism is dangerous. It also had unfortunate domestic consequences in the form of McCarthyism and so for both of those reasons people are reluctant to talk about it, to think about it. But I believe that without thinking about communism, totalitarian communism, we can’t get a true grasp on the issue that is confronting us and the danger that confronts us.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that the Soviets, understanding what you have described as sour reluctance to be involved in what traditionally have been called crusades, might withdraw those smoking guns and leave us where we have very much been since the end of the Second World War, innocently waiting for someone to take the first potshot at us?

PODHORETZ: Well, the Soviets have not exactly been sitting around waiting. The Soviets have been extremely active, especially since the balance of power has been shifting in their favor. I mean, specifically since 1975, the Soviets haven not only been involved politically in insurgencies all over the world and very far from their own borders, they have also been engaged militarily, first through surrogates in Angola, for example, and in South Yemen, Cuban troops, east German troops, and finally the use of their own troops in Afghanistan. They are engaged in the same kind of activity in the Caribbean at this moment.

HEFFNER: But you’re suggesting that we have finally put our guard up in the presence of these smoking guns…


HEFFNER: …and you’re suggesting too, it seems to me, a fear or concern that we’ll let our guard down. What would be the circumstances?

PODHORETZ: Well, yeah. Well, that’s exactly right. I’m afraid that we will let our guard down if we begin to accept the view that the only problem that faces us is a traditional struggle for power and influence with another nation state traditionally conceived kind of interstate rivalry for power and influence, because if that were the case, if the Soviet Union were merely another nation state, even governed by a political system that we found repellant, let’s imagine that the Czarist Russia were confronting us rather than Soviet or communist Russia, we might very well take the view that the spread of its influence say in Western Europe or in the Persian gulf was of no particular threat or concern to us; that we could live with /Russian hegemony, let us say, in the Persian Gulf just as easily as we can with Saudi Arabia. And if we had to buy oil from such a Russia, well, it might be an even more reliable supplier than the Arabs. Why risk a war, why spend a lot of money on defense, why go through the agonies and the anxieties that put ourselves through in the face of what seems to us a large threat, if all that’s involved is who is going to run the show in areas that are distant from our own territory? I think that would be the natural response, particularly in a nuclear age. The difficulty is that we’re dealing here not with such a Russia. We’re dealing with a country that has, not only has a political system that is repugnant to us, but that also is driven by an inner, internal and I think, inexorable, irrevocable imperative to spread its influence and rule over a much of the world as it possibly can.

HEFFNER: Is that why you use the term “apocalyptic”?


HEFFNER: Then you anticipate conflict on a pretty large scale?

PODHORETZ: Well, oddly enough, I believe that the outlook for the first time, despite the short-run dangers and fears that I and any other rational person must entertain looking at the situation, I believe that the long-range outlook, provided we do the right things, is reasonably optimistic, because I think that if we can prevent the Soviet Union from using expansion as a diversion from its internal problems, if we can return to a firm policy of containment such as we followed in that earlier period of the post-war ear, we will force the internal pressures that we now see bubbling up within the Soviet empire without doing much else of anything, that we will help generate greater steam behind those pressures. The pressures I’m talking about are such phenomena as the rebellion in Poland, the resistance in Afghanistan, the continuing resistance in a Soviet colony in Africa like Angola.

HEFFNER: But Norman, what about the rebellion in our own camp, where, when Richard Pipes indicates insights very similar to your won and gives expression to them, there is a lot of nervous-making going on, not just in the Congress, but in the administration too?

PODHORETZ: Yeah. Well, I don’t know exactly what Pipes said. I doubt that he was correctly quoted, but the quotation that was the source of the trouble that you’re referring to indicated a belief that the Soviet Union had a choice between the domestic reforms and war. Now, I don’t think these are the choices. In the first place, I don’t believe that the Soviet Union will choose the path of domestic reform, not do I think Pipes thinks so. There are too many reasons we don’t have time to go into that militate against any such possibility. But I don’t think that war is the only other alternative. The alternative for them would be the classical imperial technique of expansion to divert attention from internal problems and to score successes externally to compensate for internal failures. Now, if we deny the Soviet Union that outlet, we will, I think, be in a position to witness the breakup of that empire from within, not because we are going to invade them or confront them directly. On the contrary, this is a situation that would hold out minimum risk of direct confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. There would be tremendous risks if that empire began to break up, others might get sucked into the maelstrom. But I think the dangers on the other side are much greater. The dangers being what I and others have called the Finlandization of the West. And I think those are the two prospects that confront us. In order for us, however, to pursue the kinds of policies that are necessary, I think we have to begin once again to understand what is at stake and why we are required to do the difficult things that we’re called upon to do.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s take that insight. In the past, when we’ve spoken here on THE OPEN MIND and when I’ve read you again and again, I recognize that your concern has been with attitudinal problems, not so much with how many billions do we put here and how many billions do we put there. And you’ve always pointed to the academic establishment, perhaps the press, as the means by which we fail to deal appropriately attitudinally with the problem ahead of us. To what extent to you think we can possibly do what you think we need to do, change an attitude, in the face of continuing hostility toward that point of view?

PODHORETZ: Well, that’s a difficult problem, and it’s why I speak of a danger. Those of us who are trying very hard through rational argument, through exhortation, through the citation of evidence, through using every possible outlet to try to make our point of view more persuasive, feel that we’ve made a great deal of progress. I mean, people who share the views that I’m expressing here never dreamed five years ago that we would win as many Americans over to that point of view as we in fact have. And even though the second stage in this debate is now only beginning, that is the first stage having been to establish that the Soviet Union was in fact engaged in a great military buildup and that this did pose a threat to the United States, both of those propositions were denied for a long time. Now, although there are a lot of people who continue to deny them, in the court of American public opinion, the argument was settled in the November 1980 election in favor of the view espoused by Reagan that this was a fact, that it is a danger. And the Reagan administration is moving to meet that danger. The second stage in the argument which is the effort to clarify, not in an academic sense, merely for the sake of understanding, but because of the way in which understanding energizes activity and policy, to clarify the true nature of this danger, this threat, is the struggle, the ideological, intellectual struggle that I personally and others will be engaged in in the coming year or two or three.

HEFFNER: Norman, in three-quarters of a minute, you’re an activist, you’re a pamphleteer as well as a scholar and a writer. In the quiet of the night, when you look into that crystal ball, are your optimistic thoughts prevalent, or are you more concerned?

PODHORETZ: I am more concerned. But I am sufficiently optimistic to think that there is a very good chance that the truth on this issue will prevail.

HEFFNER: A better chance than when we spoke last time?

PODHORETZ: A better chance than when we spoke last time, yes.

HEFFNER: I suppose that’s as good a way as any as bringing a program to a close. Thanks very much for joining me today, Norman. And I guess the point is to ask you to come back in half a year or so and reexamine the same concerns and fears and anticipations.

PODHORETZ: Be glad to.

HEFFNER: Thanks again. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you too will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.