The Age of Illusions

How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory

by Andrew Bacevich


The Age of Illusions

How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory

by Andrew Bacevich

Back to Book Description



Donald Trump was born in June 1946, the son of a wealthy New York real estate developer. I was born thirteen months later in Normal, Illinois. My parents, both World War II veterans, were anything but wealthy. At the time of my birth, my father was attending college on the GI Bill, with my mother, a former army nurse, working to keep our family afloat. In most respects, Trump and I had (and have) almost nothing in common.

Yet however the particulars may have differed, he and I were, in another sense, born in the same place, governed by certain identifiable propositions. Just then beginning to assume concrete form, those propositions informed post–World War II America. They described a way of life and defined what it meant to be an American. They conferred prerogatives and apportioned benefits. And not least of all, they situated the United States in the stream of history. Metaphysically, even though we have never met, Trump and I are kin—white heterosexual males who came of age at a time when white heterosexual males were granted first claim on all the privileges heralded by an American Century just then hitting its stride.

At the time of his birth and mine, ordinary Americans, whatever their race, gender, or sexual orientation, wanted nothing more than to move past the trials of the recent past, and the sooner the better. Mobilizing the nation for total war, a process directed from Washington, had taken years to accomplish. Demobilization, driven from the bottom up, occurred virtually overnight as the armed forces of the United States all but disintegrated. In the wake of Japan’s surrender in September 1945, an eruption of civil disobedience unlike any in U.S. history swept through the ranks of the armed forces, an event all the more remarkable in that it was without structure or leaders. America’s citizen soldiers were done with war and done with taking orders. With millions of GIs demanding to shed their uniforms and their loved ones echoing those demands, authorities in Washington had no option but to comply.1

Ever so briefly, the meaning of postwar freedom centered on getting out of the service and returning home. For vets, home meant the possibility of normalcy restored. While readjusting to civilian life might pose challenges, these could be overcome. The movie that dominated the Oscars in the year of Trump’s birth offered assurances on that score.

Directed by William Wyler and written by Robert Sherwood, The Best Years of Our Lives tells the story of three veterans—Al, Fred, and Homer—back from overseas just as the sweet taste of victory is beginning to give way to the vexations of everyday life. All three are eager to return to life in “Boone City” while simultaneously wary of what awaits them there. All three are white, their ethnic identity or religious affiliation indeterminate. All three bear the scars of war, whether physical or psychological. Yet they exude a decency that asks for little apart from a fair shake. They are three ordinary men who have surmounted extraordinary challenges: one a small-time banker returning from combat as an infantry platoon sergeant in the Pacific; the second, a soda jerk elevated to the rank of captain who served as a B-17 bombardier flying missions over Nazi Germany; the third, a young enlisted sailor who lost both hands due to a shipboard fire.

In the course of the film, each of the three protagonists encounters severe trials, which he surmounts through grit and determination (along with the help of a good woman). Implicit in the film’s gratifying message is this subtext: The hopes and dreams of these modest men are themselves modest. In the Middle America represented by Boone City, freedom isn’t gaudy. It does not put on airs or bridle against received norms. Freedom imparts direction and confers purpose.

In an immediate sense, Al, Fred, and Homer expect no more than what they believe they have earned. As Fred, the soda-jerk-turned-airman, puts it, “All I want is a good job, a mild future, a little house big enough for me and my wife—give me that and I’ll be rehabilitated all right.”2 But Wyler looks beyond whether or not returning vets can land a good job and afford a little house that’s big enough. His story’s several threads focus on this shared concern: whether intimate relationships shelved or torn asunder by war can be restored or, if not restored, replaced. Ultimately, he answers that question in the affirmative. By the time the film reaches its final scene, life’s “best years” may still lie ahead, an outcome that validates the political, cultural, and moral framework to which the movie itself testifies.

The point here is neither to denigrate nor to idealize that framework, merely to acknowledge its appeal. The Best Years of Our Lives depicts postwar American freedom at its point of origin, when verities still retained a semblance of permanence. That upon returning from a war that has turned their world upside down Al, Fred, and Homer should want things put back in place, returned to what they had been when they went away, is hardly surprising. Neither is their yearning for stability, predictability, and normalcy.

In Wyler’s Boone City, preexisting norms, not least of all those determining individual status, merit respect. “Freedom from” takes precedence over “freedom to.” Almost of necessity, access to this unpretentious Eden is therefore limited, with women allowed only auxiliary membership and people of color all but excluded. Despite such restrictions—or perhaps because of them—this cinematic portrait of postwar America in its very first days resonated with those willing to spend two bits for a ticket.

And why not? The film was a mirror, a depiction of place and people that conformed to what large numbers of ordinary Americans wished to see as they left behind one period of history and embarked upon another. It offered assurances that, despite the recent upheavals, nothing essential had changed. The satisfactions of life centered on a stable marriage, an intact family, and honest work remained readily available, especially to those with the good fortune to have been born white, male, and heterosexual. As the critic Robert Warshaw, writing at the time in Partisan Review, put it, The Best Years of Our Lives offered a message of reassurance, “impressing the spectator with the dignity and meaningfulness of ‘typical’ American experience (his own experience) and making him feel a certain confidence that the problems of American life (his own problems) can be solved by the operation of ‘simple’ and ‘American’ virtues.”3

From our present-day vantage point, we may doubt that the America depicted in The Best Years of Our Lives ever actually existed. Yet those flocking to see the movie when it was first released believed otherwise. Through the ensuing decades of the postwar era, the real-life equivalents of Al, Fred, and Homer, including my own parents, if not perhaps Donald Trump’s, persisted in that belief. World War II—the Good War, even before that phrase came into common usage—remained a fixed point of reference, a lodestar. To preserve what the nation had won constituted a categorical imperative.

Foster and Henry Weigh In

Yet preservation was likely to require effort. Members of the policy elite were already insisting that the United States could ill afford to rest on its laurels. Just ahead lay new dangers that Americans dared not ignore. In the very week of Donald Trump’s birth, for example, Life magazine, then at the height of its influence, featured a lengthy essay by John Foster Dulles, offering his “Thoughts on Soviet Foreign Policy and What to Do About It.”4 Here was a sign that Boone City’s modest aspirations would not suffice.

Already exuding the authority of the secretary of state he was to become, Foster, as he was known to friends and colleagues, was a paragon of the Eastern foreign policy establishment. Less than a year before, World War II’s triumphal conclusion had brought to fruition that establishment’s fondest dreams, thrusting the United States into a position of global preeminence. Even so, Dulles’s perspective was unrelentingly grim. Although Nazi Germany was gone and Imperial Japan vanquished, the United States faced another comparable threat. The Kremlin, he charged, was already pressing to create a vast “Pax Sovietica.” Russia and America were on a collision course, with Soviet ambitions directly threatening all that Americans stood for and cherished. It was therefore incumbent upon the United States “to resist all expansive manifestations of Soviet policy.” Failure to do so invited the ultimate disaster. “Assume that Soviet leaders cannot be brought to change their program,” Dulles wrote. The inevitable result would be a “drift into surrender or war.”

“If the past is any guide,” he added, “it will be war.” Averting such a terrible prospect was going to require concerted action or, as Dulles put it, “an affirmative demonstration that our society of freedom still has the qualities needed for survival.” Here, a mere nine months after V-J Day, was a blunt articulation of the theme employed with notable success over the next several decades to keep the rabble in line: Dark forces abroad posed an imminent threat to freedom’s very survival.

Dulles called upon Americans to confront this new peril head-on, making it “clear beyond peradventure that they are prepared to accept personal sacrifice to help keep freedom alive in the world.” The real-life counterparts of Al, Fred, and Homer might think that their work was done. John Foster Dulles held to another view: The struggle for freedom was only just beginning. Sustaining that struggle required the United States to take the lead in opposing Soviet totalitarianism.

A devout if dour Presbyterian, Dulles framed the task at hand in spiritual terms. To overcome godless adversaries would require that Americans remain a God-fearing people. Unless disciplined by faith, he warned, freedom becomes little more than an excuse for “self-gratification,” a temptation to which he suggested his countrymen were notably susceptible. “Under such circumstances,” Dulles cautioned, “freedom is dangerous.” Only by tempering the exercise of freedom could Americans ensure its preservation.

Yet the magazine in which Dulles’s sermon appeared preached quite a different gospel. Life was all about self-gratification. Dulles might urge his fellow citizens to submit to God’s will (and, by extension, Washington’s authority). For their part, the editors who assembled Life each week under the direction of publisher Henry Luce encouraged readers to do something else: grab with both hands all the happiness within reach now that the nation had survived both prolonged economic distress and global war. The issue dated June 10, 1946, containing Dulles’s prescription for foreign policy, was no exception.

On the cover, the young actress Donna Reed posed at her most fetching. Inside was Life’s usual mix of stories, running the gamut from natural disasters (flash floods along the Susquehanna) and lurid crime (a murderer on the loose in Texarkana) to oddities (a photographic essay of university students engaged in an experiment “to test their kisses for germs”) and vivid updates on the latest in fashion, fun, and politics.

The big spread of that week celebrated the postwar boom already transforming California into “the land of golden sunshine and golden opportunity.” Vets were flocking to the state through which so many had passed during the war years. Bustle and promise were everywhere, Life reported. “Walnut groves and peach orchards are being grubbed out to make way for housing projects, movie theaters, [and] drive-ins.” Fortune favored those with the moxie to seize it, including contractors converting abandoned streetcars into makeshift apartments rented out for $25 per week. The future of the golden state glittered—or at least it did for the white ex-servicemen whose entrepreneurial élan Life chose to highlight.

All of this was standard Life boosterism, as was the advertising copy that enlivened almost every page and reinforced the message of material plenty available to all. Bracketing Dulles’s call to arms were ads for facial soap, shampoo, hair oil, mouthwash, cosmetics, deodorant, cologne, and other personal products. For those nursing complaints, there were remedies for headache, constipation, sunburn, and athlete’s foot.

Other ads touted the latest in nylon stockings, women’s undergarments, swimwear, and men’s shirts that were “handkerchief-soft” while “richly masculine.” For would-be sophisticates, Life offered whiskey favored by the “Men who Plan beyond Tomorrow.” For the harried, there were cigarettes, one ad depicting an agitated mother confronting her misbehaving teenager. “When junior’s fighting rates a scold,” the copy read, “Why be irritated? Light an Old Gold.”

Woven throughout was the promise of science providing Americans with longer, better, and more fulfilling lives. Thanks to “Eugenics in a Cornfield,” the Jolly Green Giant now guaranteed uniformity in each can of corn. With every kernel “bred right [and] grown right,” it was, according to the copywriters, “Planned Parenthood” applied to agriculture.

Offering further fulfillment of that promise were the latest in household gadgets, which touted ease, convenience, and an end to drudgery. Kitchen appliances meant a “new kind of freedom.” For diversion, Life promoted an array of radios, phonographs, and that novelty called television. For now, however, the automobile remained king—hence, the junked streetcars available for repurposing. A full-page ad in brilliant color proclaimed Packard’s Clipper sedan “America’s No. 1 Glamour Car!”

Elsewhere in the world, wartime exigencies had imposed rationing destined to continue for years. Life assured its readers that in America rationing was gone for good. John Foster Dulles might summon his fellow citizens to gird themselves for sacrifice, while choosing God above Mammon. At least implicitly, Life countered that sacrifice was becoming un-American. As for forgoing the delights of this world in order to gain entry into the next, that choice could be postponed or even finessed altogether.

William Wyler, John Foster Dulles, and the pages of Henry Luce’s Life represented three very different and arguably irreconcilable notions of what postwar American freedom entailed or allowed. The Boone City version, a Norman Rockwell painting on celluloid, centered on safeguarding hard-won gains. Its rendering of freedom was tied to an idealized past. Dulles conceived of freedom in terms of impending ideological struggle. Preserving it—an iffy proposition at best—was going to require fresh exertions on a sustained basis. For the editors and advertisers of Life, in contrast, freedom was material, finding expression in the cornucopia of goods flooding the American marketplace now that the war had ended. Freedom centered on satisfying a continually evolving array of appetites and desires.

From our present-day vantage point, we may find fault with all three of these conceptions. None gave more than scant attention to what subsequently emerged as the two most troubling moral issues of the era, namely, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Americans had experienced World War II as a Manichean event pitting all that was good against all that was evil. Now that Hitler had been removed from the scene and with the United States, however briefly, enjoying a nuclear monopoly, they were disinclined to entertain second thoughts about the war’s origins, conduct, or legacy. What mattered most was its outcome.

These postwar versions of freedom fell short in other respects as well. In each, race, gender, and sexuality figured as the barest afterthought or not at all. None of them gave serious attention to environmental concerns or human rights, as we understand such matters today. As for diversity, inclusiveness, or multiculturalism—issues now at the forefront of American politics—even the terms were then alien.

Copyright © 2020 by Andrew Bacevich