‘Containment’ again emerges as a dominant theme

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The coronavirus is spreading around the world, and a world-wide effort is underway to contain it. In the second half of the Twentieth Century containment was also a major theme. It’s useful to compare the two.

The dominant theme in international relations in the second half of the Twentieth Century was the struggle between Western capitalism and Soviet-style communism, and the leading Western approach to defeating communism was the “containment” strategy, articulated by the American diplomat George F. Kennan. The theory, in short, was the liberal capitalist West needed to contain the Soviet-style communism from spreading around the world, notably in places like Korea and Vietnam. If the West could defeat the Soviets in these small battlegrounds, then the politico-economic disease of communism could be contained.

A dominant theme of domestic policy in the United States — and many Western democracies — during this same period concerned the struggle between the people and organizations that had the power and wealth and those who sought liberation and equality. Those in control, to grossly oversimplify, were white males who controlled industry and politics, while those who sought liberation and equality were led by women and African-Americans in the Women’s Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, but as the Twentieth Century evolved they came to include the LGBTQ community and citizens, generally, who fought to save the planet.

The economically well-off and politically powerful white males were accused of “containing” women and blacks in the United States, even as they were credited by many with containing the Soviet Union — many, but certainly not all, since there were dissenters in the United States, especially the most liberal, even radical, segments of America’s youth. Indeed, the youth who marched and protested against the war in Vietnam were against the “System,” which was seen as suppressing women and blacks even as it promoted a morally depraved form of capitalism abroad via a brutal and useless war in Vietnam.

There is an obvious parallel today with the capitalist Kennan-style effort to contain the spread of communism, which was regarded as a political-economic disease, one which was harmful to human beings and needed to be eradicated from the earth. COVID-19 has to date infected more than 600,000 Americans, although that figure is “confirmed” cases, and experts say the number infected could be five or ten times higher. It has killed over 25,000. COVID-19 is an actual physical illness, is definitely harmful and — in some cases, anywhere from 1 to 15 percent depending on your age and health — can kill you.

An animating theme of the liberal West’s effort to terminate communism, an effort that took 45 years, was international cooperation and coordination. No one country could contain communism on its own, although the United States led the way. Still, we needed the support and cooperation of England, France, then West Germany, the rest of free Europe, Canada and Japan to achieve victory. A go-it-alone mentality would not have worked, and the Cold War ultimately ended when the teamwork put together by the United States and our allies won the war against the Soviets, who were imploding on their own and were being guided toward dissolving their empire by Premier Gorbachev.

As the Berlin Wall fell, women and blacks in the United States, and environmentalists and the advocates for the LGBTQ movement were breaking down the walls of containment at home. Tens of millions of women had walked beyond the walls of their kitchens and laundry rooms into American industry and politics and American economic life in general; and American blacks, with less success but still notable achievements, had thrown off the economic chains that constrained them and entered mainstream American political and social life.

The power held by economically and politically powerful white males, according to those they subjugated, was similar to a disease that, from their point of view, needed to be contained and ultimately eliminated. Thus those being contained fought back and tried to contain their oppressors.

The great liberation movements remind us that the struggle for human freedom is a struggle often between those who see their adversaries as sources of evil. This evil is what philosophers have called “moral evil,” by which they mean evil based on free will. Philosophers use the term “natural evil” to refer to pain, hardship and death brought about by natural forces, like tornadoes, hurricanes, and pandemic viruses. Some argue that natural disasters like hurricanes and pandemic viruses can be made more serious if human beings — leaders and citizens alike — do not act in a morally responsible way. Thus the distinction between natural and moral evil is not clear cut.

The extent of the coronavirus pandemic, though it has its roots in natural as opposed to human causes, does rest in many ways in the hands of political leaders, industry and technology, the medical profession, and citizens ourselves. It will probably be with us for at least several years, certainly until a vaccine is obtained and widely distributed. Brutal as it is, we do well to try to understand the challenges in the context of American and world history.

It is not necessary or desirable to separate this crisis from all previous crises and massive problems and declare it unique. Now is a time to integrate this phenomenon and the challenges it gives us into our national self-consciousness — with previous crises and the challenges they gave us, even those which are not rooted in natural causes.

In the end, we will be stronger to the extent that we understand the crises and problems we have faced, the mistakes we have made, the successes we’ve had and the opportunities we have before us to change the world for the better.

Dave Anderson is the editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework” (Springer, 2014). He is also the author of “Youth04: Young Voters, the Internet, and Political Power” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) and co-editor of “The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). He has taught at George Washington University, the University of Cincinnati, and Johns Hopkins University. He was a candidate in the 2016 Democratic Primary in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Contact him at dmamaryland@gmail.com.

Tags Anti-war Civil rights movement Cold War Communism Containment Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Soviet Union–United States relations women's movement

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