Norman Podhoretz

The Present Danger: Soviet Imperialism

VTR Date: October 7, 1980

Guest: Podhoretz, Norman


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Norman Podhoretz
Title: “The Present Danger: Soviet Imperialism”
VTR: 10/7/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. 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.

Norman, thanks for joining me again on THE OPEN MIND. And in thinking the about The Present Danger, and asking you about it, how do you connect what you call ”thinking the unthinkable” with The Present Danger?

PODHORETZ: Thinking the unthinkable is intimately connected with any consideration of the Soviet/American conflict. The unthinkable, of course, is nuclear war. There was a time when thinking about the unthinkable was considered immoral on the theory that to think about the possibility of nuclear war was to make nuclear war more thinkable. That is to say, more easily brought into actual being. As a matter of fact, when Herman Kahn, who wrote a book called Thinking about the Unthinkable, and wrote on thermonuclear war, sort of the Klausovitz of the nuclear age, one of the reviewers said he was ashamed to inhabit the same planet as this monster who could coolly discuss what a nuclear war might look like. Now, this view of the matter has, I think, remained at least subliminally in the minds of a great many people. On the other hand, as the great Yugoslav dissident, Milo von Gielasz has pointed out, it’s the kind of preoccupation that only figures politically in the free societies of the West. Gielasz says that in the communist countries, despite the fact that the leadership when it addresses itself to Western audiences talks about the horrors and unthinkability of nuclear war, despite that fact, the people in those countries are not subjected to this kind of talk. And the military planners in the Soviet Union have operated on the assumption that a nuclear war is all too thinkable, and they have build their forces with a view toward winning such a war if it should ever break out. Not that they want it to. They would like to win without a war, and that is the major reason in the view of some of us that they have pursued this strategic superiority in order to be able to intimidate a West to which the idea of nuclear war is unthinkable. The paradox of this whole horrible subject is that the side which finds nuclear war thinkable is more likely to win it without having to fight it than the side which disadvantages itself by regarding the whole thing as not lonely unthinkable but out of the realm of human possibility.

HEFFNER: So that your feeling obviously is that our refusal to think the unthinkable has hastened and increased the present danger.

PODHORETZ: Yes. It’s one of the elements. I would not say it’s the major element, but it’s one of the factors that has led the United States from a position of vast strategic superiority to the Soviet Union to a position that is perhaps one of parity, equality with the Soviet Union, and very possibly one of inferiority. Or, if we’re not in an inferior position now, if present trends continue, as I think all the experts agree, we will be in a very short time.

HEFFNER: I’m interested, Norman, that you say you don’t think that it is the most important consideration. And yet, I’ve had the feeling over the years, in reading you, that your concern was that our concern about the unthinkable, about nuclear war, was the primary reason why we had tied our own hands, why we were more illy equipped, less well equipped to participate in this conflict with the Soviet Union on a peacetime basis.

PODHORETZ: Well, no, I don’t think it’s the single most important element. It’s very difficult to rank these factors. I would certainly list it as one of the factors, but there have been other forces at work in the last few years in the political culture of this country which have weakened us in relation to the Soviet Union. Many of them stem out of the defeat in Vietnam. And those particular factors have not had very much to do with the issue of nuclear war. They’ve had a great deal to do with the issue of war in general, conventional wars, the use of force in international disputes, that is force short of nuclear weapons. We emerged from Vietnam with a very powerful revulsion in this political culture against the whole idea of war – not just nuclear war – any kind of war. Understandably. In The Present Danger I compare the reaction of Americans to Vietnam to the reaction of the British to their experience of World War I. Because eve though they were technically the victors in World War I, they lost so many people that they experienced that war as a defeat. And the result of that trauma for the British was the development of what, for all practices was a pacifist attitude, an idea that nothing is worth fighting for, that no war is ever justified. And this took hold particularly among the advantaged – as we would say – young, to the point where, in the 1930s, thousands of undergraduates in British universities signed what was called The Oxford Pledge, never to fight for king and country. When you remind yourself that The Oxford Pledge was signed by all these young people in the face of a rising menace from Nazi Germany which today seems to us self-evidently an evil worth fighting against, you get a measure of how powerful this pacifist tide was. And I think something similar happened to this country in the wake of Vietnam. You’ve seen signs of it recently in the flaunting of a banner at a demonstration against draft registration at Princeton. A young man walked with a sign saying, “Nothing is worth dying for”, or, “We don’t die for Exxon”, which is a way of saying “We will not fight for king and country”, and that there is nothing worth defending in this society.

HEFFNER: Did you ever think that?

PODHORETZ: Did I myself ever think it? No, I never believed that. I’m not a passive…I never was tempted by pacifism, which has always seemed to me, on the one hand, utopian, and on the other hand, based on an exaggerated, paradoxically exaggerated idea of the role of violence in human affairs.

HEFFNER: Would you explain that?

PODHORETZ: Well, the obsession with violence that pacifists have, I think, has always been suspect. It points to a great tendency toward violence in that and the people who hold those views.

HEFFNER: Do you mean the rejection points to an absorption?

PODHORETZ: No. The absolute rejections, under any circumstances, points to an exaggerated fear of violence.

HEFFNER: But how can you exaggerate the fear of war?

PODHORETZ: Well, you can always exaggerate the fear of war, but if you think that there is nothing worth fighting for, nothing worth dying for, then obviously you put yourself you put yourself into a position where those who have other views are going to be able to tyrannize over you. Nietze said that the idea that nothing is worth dying for is the mark of the slave. And he was right. To make survival the absolute overriding value, certainly for a political community to do this, is to invite the aggressor to take you over, because…And it’s, in any case, certainly alien to all the traditional ideas about liberty and the loyalty to the values of the political community in which one lives. Nobody wants to die. Nobody wants to die in war, but most civilized peoples have believed that there were things worth fighting for, worth risking one’s life for, among them, freedom, independence. And certainly we re the heirs of a heritage of that view. Jefferson said, “The tree of Liberty is watered by the blood of martyrs”. We’re a country that was forged in revolution. We lived as a country though an enormous and very, very bloody civil war, fought at least in part for the cause of abolishing slavery, and in order to maintain the unity of the country.

HEFFNER: But now you yourself have drawn a parallel between the situation in England after World War I and our situation after Vietnam. And you suggest that the energies, the vitality, the will to fight for those themes on the part of the British have been sapped by the experience in the war. Do you think that has been true here too to the extent that we will respond, or would respond, to a threat the way the British did, turning their backs to it until it was almost too late?

PODHORETZ: Well, I think we have been responding to the Soviet threat in precisely that way until very, very recently. And I think that the analogy I try to draw in The Present Danger is with 1937-8-9. Churchill, who was a lone voice crying out against the dangers of these policies of appeasement and against the menace of Nazi expansionism under Hitler in the 30s, later said that World War II was an unnecessary war, but which he meant that Hitler might have been stopped short of war if the British and the French had rearmed in time, if the culture of appeasement had not prevailed for so long. And that’s what some of us are trying to say now about the present danger which stems from an equally vicious and even more powerful totalitarian foe, namely the Soviet Union. The present danger, as I see it, is that the Soviet Union will soon be in a position to seize control of the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, either directly or indirectly through surrogates. If the Soviet Union should succeed in seizing control of the oil fields in the Persian Gulf, it would be in a position to dictate political, economic terms to the West Europeans and the Japanese, who are almost entirely dependent on that oil, and I think also to us, even though we’re less dependent. This is the condition that’s come to be known as “Finlandization”. That is, subordination to superior Soviet power short of occupation by Soviet troops or short of satellization. If that should happen, we would lose our liberties. I think that goes without saying. Our prosperity would disintegrate. And a new age of political cultural barbarism would descent upon the earth. I believe that we in this generation have, whether we like it or not, found ourselves charged with the responsibility to try to prevent that from happening, and that if we fail in that responsibility we will not only lose our own liberties, but we will forfeit a heritage for our children and grandchildren who will curse us for not standing up and discharging the responsibilities that history has imposed upon us.

HEFFNER: Do you – and this may not be a particularly fair question – not do you, but are you sanguine about our, not our innate capacity, but about what we will do in terms of meeting this challenge?

PODHORETZ: Well, I’ve begun to be sanguine in the last year or two because I see the growth of a new cultural force which I call “The new nationalism”, that seems to me to be engaged in a, well, a literally titanic, fateful historic struggle with the culture of appeasement and its twin, the new isolationism. The new nationalism consists most broadly in a feeling that large numbers of people in this country now express anxiety and concern over the decline of American power, over the rise of Soviet power. There is an enormous upsurge of demand that something be done about this; at the very minimum that increases in defense spending be mandated and that a new attitude toward the use of force to defend vital American interests, if that should be necessary, should be developed in the country. This is the new nationalism. More positively it bases itself on the feeling that this country is basically sound, good, represents something good in international affairs, that it has suffered abuse for too long, and that we want a leadership that will no longer allow itself, as people will say, to be pushed around, kicked around. Now, that force, the new nationalism,, which certainly is pervasive statistically, if we believe the public opinion polls, is in contention with this other force, the culture of appeasement, which I think has fewer devotees if you count heads, but which has a great deal of influence in the world of ideas, world of attitudes in the foreign policy establishment. It’s not clear which of these two forces are going to prevail in our political culture. But the answer to the question, “Which one will prevail?” will determine what the future of liberty is, not just in the United States, but I believe in the world as whole for perhaps the next century and more.

HEFFNER: I daresay that if I were to go back and read Podhoretz of some years back, I would find a slightly more jaundiced point of view about nationalism. Are you concerned at all that the new nationalism may turn out to be as unpleasant, as counterproductive as you yourself felt the old nationalism was?

PODHORETZ: Well, I’m not concerned about that at this moment, because we’re starting from very low down. It’s one thing to be skeptical about nationalism at a time when nationalism is complacent and verging on xenophobia. It’s another thing to see nationalism as a healthy force at a time when self-hatred has been the prevailing spirit. I think that there are two opposite diseases, pathologies in this particular area. One of them is excessive chauvinism or xenophobia, which is rather like narcissism or self-adulation in an individual.

HEFFNER: You don’t think we have to worry about that?

PODHORETZ: Not at the moment, no. There have been times in American history when that was a possibility. I don’t think it is at this moment. But the opposite pathology, which is at least as serious, and I think probably more dangerous politically, is self-hatred in nations as well as individuals. And I think that the disease that we have to worry about at the moment is self-hatred, the kind that stemmed form the defeat in Vietnam. So that I will worry about the excesses of nationalism when I see a degree of nationalism that seems to be healthy developing. One does not yet see that happening. There are signs, there are possibilities.

HEFFNER: Norman, you talk about self-hatred. How do you delineate that? How do you point it out? What do you mean by self-hatred?

PODHORETZ: Well, I’m talking about the attitude which was much m ore common some years ago that it is today, or at least much more candid, that saw this country as basically oppressive, evil in itself, and a force for evil in international affairs, was the attitude that at one extreme expressed itself in spelling the name of the country with a K as though there were no distinction between the United Sates and Nazi Germany. The idea that the treatment of minorities, blacks, poor, in this system was proof that the system was evil or radically flawed and that it could never be redeemed by gradual improvements or reforms; only a revolution could save it. And the attitude that the United States was the terror of other peoples in the world, that we had set ourselves against the aspirations of the vast majority of the peoples, particularly in the poor countries, and that everything we did in international affairs was somehow calculated to increase misery and unhappiness. This is what I mean by American self-hatred. Now that attitude has declined in intensity, unquestionably, even under some of the people who held it a few years ago, but in subtler, more graduated forms we still see it expressed all over the place. And it’s by no means disappeared.

HEFFNER: Isn’t there a third force, another alternative, and that is what you identify in part in The Present Danger as a new isolationism, a withdrawal?

PODHORETZ: Well, the new isolationism I think was related to the growth of American self-hatred because it followed from the idea that we were a force for evil in international affairs. It followed that the best thing we could do for the world and for ourselves was to get out of the way of these revolutionary forces that we were presumably frustrating so that, although people who subscribe to this new isolationism ideology very often talked as thought what they were mainly concerned about was the preservation of American interests in the world. And although some of them undoubtedly really were concerned about the preservation of American interests, there were others who joined this bandwagon really out of the feeling that the United States was in effect an unworthy participant in world affairs. That was the difference between the new isolationism of the 60s and 70s and the traditional, old American isolationism. The old American isolationism was we were too good to get mixed up in the affairs of a corrupt world. The new isolationism said we weren’t good enough to intervene in the affairs of the world.

HEFFNER: I wonder, as we find the alternative of self-hate too distasteful, we can’t accommodate it anymore and remain sane, whether that kind of “We’re too good for them”, that a mixture of the old and the new isolationism may not come to prevail rather than the kind of responsible participation in the world outside that you suggest.

PODHORETZ: Well, I don’t see how it’s possible for the old isolationism to come back. One thing everybody now understands is that, for better or worse, whether you like it or not, our fate, in the most concrete way, from day to day is tied to things that happen far away. At the moment, most dramatically, vividly in the Persian Gulf. There was a time when Americans could imagine that by withdrawing from the world, nothing much would happen. We were more or less self-sufficient economically. We could imagine ourselves living quite happily behind the cover of two oceans and simply producing what we needed, more than we needed, trading if it suited our convenience, or not trading if it did not suit our convenience. Now this idea is no longer even remotely within the realm of possibility. And so everybody understands that we are inescapably mixed up in the affairs of the world. At this very moment, the fate of almost everybody in this country, and again, I mean, the amount of money you pay for those things you buy, the inflation, the unemployment rate, all this is tied intimately to what goes on in the Persian Gulf, who controls that oil, at what price it is made available, whether it will be made available at a price we can afford, not just an economic price, but a political price. So that whether we think we’re too good or too bad to intervene, we have really very little choice. Or, that is to say, our only choice is to sit back and tremble helplessly while others determine our fate. I don’t think the American people are so pathological as to be willing to do that.

HEFFNER: Well, you describe it as pathology. I daresay there are those who feel that it may well be that there will be a resurgence of that old kind of isolationism. I know you don’t agree. Let me come back to another question with two or three minutes remaining. How capable are you of thinking the unthinkable?

PODHORETZ: Well, I believe that the way to make the unthinkable impossible is by maintaining a proper balance of strategic forces. That is, the only sure guarantee that there will be no nuclear war is deterrence. And that means that the Soviet Union has to be prevented from achieving a first-strike capability, that is to say, the ability to knock out our land-based missiles or even conceivably our air-based or sea-based legs of the strategic triad, which would tempt them into a first strike. We have to do something to make that impossible. It is now becoming possible for them. We have to make certain that there is no conceivable advantage to the Soviet Union in the threat of, let alone the unleashing of a nuclear war. We are reaching the position where the Soviet Union could well imagine that there is an advantage, at least in the threat of a nuclear war. So that it’s only by thinking about the unthinkable that one can make the unthinkable truly impossible.

HEFFNER: You’re talking again about containing the Soviet Union and its potential for striking first?

PODHORETZ: Yes. Well, containment is what I think we need to return to. And I should hasten to say that containment involves not merely a strategic balance. It involves for us the need to build up our conventional forces as well, because the Soviets enjoy a huge superiority in most categories of conventional force. We’ve allowed ourselves, our forces to deteriorate to the point where we don’t have the means to protect some of our vital interests, short of the threat of a nuclear war. That is an unacceptable position.

HEFFNER: Containment, too, then, is a psychological phenomenon?

PODHORETZ: Well, there’s a large element of psychology in containment, but it has to be backed up by both hardware and the will to use that hardware when necessary.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Norman Podhoretz, for joining me today to discuss The Present Danger, and your quote, “Do we have the will to reverse the decline of American power?”

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