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The Age of Illusions
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered its Cold War Victory
by Andrew Bacevich
(Metropolitan Books, 2020)
When Joe Biden was elected president, I wrote to him and suggested Andrew Bacevich for Secretary of Defense. Of course, that suggestion went nowhere, but I remain convinced that Bacevich should be more involved in steering our country.
Andrew Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. That sounds stuffy and scholarly, but Andrew Bacevich writes with clarity, and his insights are profound. He is a graduate of both West Point and Princeton, a Vietnam veteran, he spent twenty-three years in the army and retired as a colonel. Again, he sounds stuffy, but trust me on this one. He has emerged as one of the most prominent critics of the "war on terror." Bacevich describes himself as a conservative, but he is equally adept at skewering both Republicans and Democrats. "Americans deserve choices that go beyond Trump vs. Clinton or Republicans vs. Democrats or what currently passes for conservative vs. what gets labeled progressive," he writes near the conclusion of the book, but perhaps I am ahead of myself.
The Age of Illusions is a history and analysis of America since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Bacevich begins with a brief look at our country's social history in the years following World War II, using the movie The Best Years of Our Lives and its depiction of three WWII veterans as a basis for his examination. Al, Fred, and Homer show up throughout the book, returned vets whose "sweet taste of victory is beginning to give way to the vexations of everyday life." Their expectations are not extravagant. They are looking for a good job, peace surrounding a little house big enough for a wife and family, and the movie shows them relentlessly striving to achieve stability, predictability, and normalcy they had known before the war. Sound familiar?
Ahh, but "members of the policy elite were already insisting that the United States could ill afford to rest on its laurels." Bacevich rightly assigns blame to John Foster Dulles for creating the unnecessary Cold War and fashioning a hometown America that discreetly inhibited the establishment of real peace and prosperity by adopting an antagonism against Communism, especially as practiced by the Soviet Union, and an ideology and economy based upon militarism and war. President Eisenhower bought into the fear-mongering, ignoring the fact that the Soviets had lost 26 million in World War II, and had played a very major role in defeating Hitler. That the Soviets might not want another war was never considered! Preparations for war were good for business, and all Americans should accept their patriotic duty to oppose godless communism wherever it might occur. This path of thinking, of course, ran parallel to the comfortable life we accepted as "normal" until our comforts were disturbed by Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin, Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. Many of us lived through the turbulent sixties and seventies and came home from our individual wars and struggles hoping to achieve stability, predictability, and normalcy as we raised our children in the glow of television sets. Barry Goldwater's run for the presidency had been solidly defeated in 1964, and America had resisted the strange phenomenon known as conservatism. Ronald Reagan saw America as a "city upon a hill," casting its light upon all creation. The "Great Communicator" assured (white, heterosexual) Americans that prosperity was their birthright. Bacevich admits to "playing a bit part in the US Army's efforts to shed various afflictions picked up in Vietnam." "I voted for him twice," he says. "So did most other soldiers." In 1987, Donald Trump spent $100,000 to buy full-page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe. Addressed "To the American People," Trump suggested we should "Make Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others pay for the protection we extend as allies." Times were not yet ripe for his message.
Reagan was succeeded by his vice president, George H.W. Bush, a former head of the CIA. "We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth," he declared. Bacevich does not make much of the Savings and Loan Crisis that highlighted Bush's efforts to make a certain group of his well-heeled friends "more prosperous," and which probably led to his failure to be re-elected. Certainly, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 was the more important historic event of the Bush presidency. "Leading members of (the baby boom) generation did not doubt America's destiny to bring freedom closer to perfection, even as the nation accrued still more power and wealth." Another movie, Vietnam veteran Oliver Stoner's Wall Street, declared that "greed is good." Donald Trump delighted in playing the role.
Young people in Berlin destroyed the iconic wall with sledgehammers. The Cold War was over! America was at a crossroads. Bacevich quotes Francis Fukuyama as observing, "In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history."
"I don't believe a word of it," wrote Irving Kristol, founding father of neoconservatism. Saddam Hussein chose this moment to invade Kuwait, and America shook off any vestiges of "Vietnam syndrome" and invaded Iraq. Bush's approval rating hit 89 percent, an accomplishment that seems incredible today. He sent troops to Panama and deposed strongman, and long-time ally, Manuel Noriega. Still, George H.W. Bush prophesied about a "new world order" but seemed dazed and unable to chart a path forward for the United States. When election time rolled around, America chose Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
At this point, Andrew Bacevich is at page 52 of his 236-page book. The story he tells will remind you of people and events that seemed hugely important at the time, but have slipped from view in the glare of all the history that has happened. Of course, Donald Trump has never slipped away from the spotlight, and hence the title of this book. Illusions have been central to American politics in recent years, and none so clever or deceitful as the tricks played by Trump. The Age of Illusions is not a thick book, but if I might borrow an old sixties term, it is "heavy." The writing is accessible, and the explanation of history is illuminating. How did we come to this point in history that we see today? Perhaps, if we can understand how we got here, we might gain some insight into where we are going. Or, we might even be able to nudge our country in another direction. I highly recommend you become familiar with Andrew Bacevich, his views of history and his outlook for our future. This book is a great place to start!
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of two critically-acclaimed books about Vietnam, ?and a hard rain fell and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.