Ira Chernus  


How do cold wars begin? As U.S. - China tensions grow, the question has become more than academic. In hindsight, it is easy to assume that the U.S. -Soviet rivalry was inevitable. If the public now believes that the U.S. had no choice in the 1940s, it may be easier to slip into another cold war.

In fact, cold war enmity was not forced upon us. The U.S. (like the Soviets and other nations) did have, and make, a series of choices after World War II, which historians can reconstruct. The striking parallels between that postwar era and our turn-of-the-millennium era should remind us that this nation has, and must make, choices once again.

Now, as in 1945, the U.S. is by far the most powerful nation in the world. Now, as then, only one nation seems to have the potential to rival U.S. power. China, like the Soviet Union of 1945, is a one-party communist state whose policies are ambivalent. It wants to engage in world affairs as a major power and benefit from the global economic system. Yet it wants to keep itself aloof, insulated from the shocks the global system may suffer. No one in the West knows for sure what its future policies may be.

Therefore, as in 1945, U.S. policymakers are hotly debating their own policy. The result will determine whether or not the possible rival becomes a real enemy. Some urge an all-out effort to contain it right away. Others want to avert rivalry by cultivating the partnership that already exists. The most immediate issue is the rising power’s bid for political control over territory adjacent to it. Is this ideologically-motivated aggression, or merely asserting old geopolitical claims, as any nation might do? Washington insiders are split over that one. Those who fear the worst, and counsel a prudent show of force, seem once again to have the upper hand.

Now, as then, average Americans hear about this debate, but they hardly put it at the top of their list of concerns. They worry far more about the unpredictable economy. And many fear that rapid change is undermining traditional social values. As in 1945, there is a new president who has yet to show strong control. He scores points at home for his "middle America" values and his show of gritty determination to assert U.S. interests, wherever they are challenged. Millions seem to feel reassured by his firm words, despite the dangers that cold war can bring.

To back up his words, the president has a new generation of military technology just becoming available. But he has to make major decisions about that technology. Those decisions will inevitably be intertwined with his decisions about the rising rival nation. He may be tempted to use military rivalry to boost his public approval rating and fend off political challenges.

Of course there are major differences between 1945 and today. Today's new technology is not atomic bombs; it is computers, satellites, laser beams, and "mini-nukes." Today, promoters of the new weapons face no loud chorus of voices calling for major cuts in military spending, as they did in 1945. U.S. global power is taken for granted across most of the political spectrum. 45 years of cold war gave Americans a powerful model of how to exercise national power—a model so familiar it may almost feel too easy, like slipping on a well-worn pair of shoes again.

The most crucial parallel between present and past is that now, as then, the nation is choosing whether or not to label another nation "the enemy." When we slip, step by step, into cold war, it is a product of free, conscious choices. If most of the U.S. public let others make the choices for them in the 1940s, that too was a free choice. And it would be again.

The most crucial difference is that today we know what a cold war is and what consequences it can bring: a renewed arms race (this time in space), diversion of valuable resources to military uses, a rising federal debt that weakens the economy, the endless tension of living "on the brink," the risk of another Vietnam. This time around, we know what the stakes are.

History never repeats itself. Another cold war may turn out differently, one way—or the other. But one fact never changes. History is the product of human choices. We should ponder the parallels of past and present as we choose our policy toward China. They warn us not to slip into another cold war without carefully considering our choices. If most Americans really think a cold war with China would be worth the enormous price, then let us have cold war. But let historians never say of any cold war that we had no choice.