Book Notes Liberal State on Trial: Cold War & American Politics

Liberal State on Trial: Cold War & American Politics Hot

Nelson Lichtenstein writes in a review:

    "Jonathan Bell has written a breakthrough book. Bell has done tremendous archival work to unravel the political meaning of state and local races across at least four election cycles: 1946, 1948, 1950, and 1952. Bell's enormous research and insightful feel for the politics of the first postwar decade give him the authority to recast for our time the essential insight that foreign policy--and in particular the liberal anti-communist internationalism that eventually came to dominate both parties--was a weapon used not only against external enemies but against that generation of social reformers who had sought to use the power of the modern state to organize the working class, ameliorate inequality, eliminate Jim Crow, and build a European-style welfare state. These were the stakes in 1948 and 1950, and they remain the stakes today, which is why Bell's book will have a wide audience and an enthusiastic reception. I cannot think of any book in the last decade that does more to explain the domestic side of the Cold War."


Jonathan Bell writes in his book The Liberal State on Trial: The Cold War and American Politics in the Truman Years:

    In 1945 many congressional Democrats and their supporters in pressure groups such as the Union for Democratic Action were promoting an agenda in some respects very similar to that of the Labour government in Great Britain, which was seen as something of a model for the American left. A UDA memorandum in November 1946 noted American liberals’ “keen and sympathetic interest [in] this brave attempt to establish democratic socialism in war-weary and war-ravished [sic] England.”

    Yet any transatlantic social democratic consensus rested on shaky ground. American liberals in the late 1940s embraced not only quasi-Keynesian growth politics in their desire to validate progressive ideas in an age of prosperity; they also embraced anti-leftism in a manner which shifted the boundaries of liberal political discourse away from social democratic values and toward a politics that promoted individual freedom at home and abroad, anticipating the civil rights liberalism of the 1960s.

    Part of the impact of the Cold War on American politics was to reorient the language of American liberalism away from ideas of achieving greater equality of opportunity through federal intervention in the economy and toward a politics of civil rights. In part this was a result of a powerful revival of anti-statist sentiment in American politics to which liberals had to respond. In part, however, the growth of Cold War liberalism was a consequence of a political logic that sought to distance American political discourse from anything perceived as totalitarian.

    This study aims to show that what Alan Brinkley has termed “the end of reform” was a result not only of political pressures from the right and from private enterprise, nor simply because the liberal movement had embraced market economics and the corporate welfare state, but also because the Cold War helped to reorient the terms of liberal political thought to preclude popular front alliances across the left of the political spectrum that had formed the mainstay of northern Democratic political power since the late 1930s. ...

    The end of America’s relationship with the Soviet Union after the war helped to redefine the political language of liberalism to render it less amenable to social democratic ideas. In addition, the Cold War played a role in the revitalization and reconfiguration of long-standing anti-statist sentiment in the Republican Party. Right-wing antipathy toward New Deal liberalism took at least two distinct forms, one of which took priority over the other as anti-Soviet feeling increased. In the early twentieth century opponents of statist measures denied the effectiveness of governmental action to achieve goals such as the equalization of economic and social opportunity. Many followers of free market thought argued that governmental action in fields such as economic and welfare policy tended to aggravate social inequality, harm business confidence, and was in general less effective than nongovernmental forms of economic and social management.

    But there had always been another, more abstract, kind of anti-statism in the United States that gained added potency from the Cold War. John Foster Dulles argued in 1949 that politicians “should consider not merely whether the professed end is good, but what the process of getting there will do to people’s character....[We] too, have come to believe, with Stalin, that material things are primary and spiritual things secondary.”

    Dulles’s words suggest that images that drew strength from the anti-communist thrust of U.S. foreign policy invigorated an abstract ideology of anti-statism that attracted many political groups previously amenable to a limited extension of government. Cold War anti-statism also pushed many on the right previously wary of the possible consequences of an assertive foreign policy into reluctant support of the new policy of militant anti-communist internationalism. Those who had been suspicious of the state all along could use a growing popular fear of the state derived in part from Cold War images of otherness abroad to reinforce their critique of domestic reform proposals.

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