Documentation: The Gods That Failed—Looking Backward on a Parade of Socialist Folly and Delusion

The novelist Saul Bellow once wrote that “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” For the past half-century, leading American politicians, academics, clergy, and journalists have celebrated the achievements of the Soviet Union and her Communist allies while depreciating the record of liberal democracies in the West. Moreover, they have recommended policies of toleration and appeasement toward Eastern bloc regimes on the grounds that Western disarmament would accelerate peace and progress on human rights.

But now Communist and socialist systems appear to be collapsing across the globe, and with the spotty exception of a few Islamic fiefdoms, everyone seems to be adopting the principles of Western liberal democracy. The Soviet bloc is undergoing a laborious and painful process of reconsideration, and in most cases second thoughts are leading nations to abandon longstanding orthodoxies. Curiously, however, in America those who sympathize with the East bloc experiment go about their business as usual, sometimes expressing grumpy bewilderment at the implosion of Marxism, but generally not engaged in serious self-criticism or the reexamination of cherished convictions.

This is a moment of both great frustration and also great opportunity. By taking stock of how the recommendations of prominent Americans have measured up against the political developments of recent years, and the evident lessons of those developments, American society has a chance to come to terms with past challenges so as to be better equipped to take on the future. Compiled by the editors of Crisis, the following catalogue of statements and policy recommendations from a powerful segment of the American elite may prove a helpful catalyst for this process.

Birds of a Feather

Might there not be a convergence between the great bureaucratic organizations of capitalism and those of the socialist world? I concluded that there was such a convergence. The modern large Western corporation and the modern apparatus of socialist planning are variant accommodations to the same need.

John Kenneth Galbraith The New Industrial State (1985)

Manpower Utilization

That the Soviet system has made great material strides in recent years… is evident both from the statistics and from the general urban scene. One sees it in the appearance of solid well-being of the people on the streets and the general aspect of restaurants, theaters and shops. Partly the Russian system succeeds because, in contrast with the Western economies, it makes full use of its manpower.

John Kenneth Galbraith, 1984 Cited by Norman Podhoretz in “Inquest on Communism,” Encounter, July-August 1990

Moscow’s Welfare State

In America… we have, say, no comprehensive system of medical insurance. Medical care is extraordinarily expensive. With you it is otherwise. Perhaps your medical care is not the best quality but it is free for the entire society! In other words, you have created a vast “universal welfare state.”

Stephen Cohen of Princeton University in Kommunist, May 1989

Let Them Eat Caviar

The meals I had are among the best I have eaten. In the United States you have to be a millionaire to have caviar, but I had caviar with almost every meal.

Billy Graham in “Graham Offers Positive View of Religion in Soviet Union” from New York Times, May 12, 1982

Guilty as Charged

All evidence indicates that the Reagan administration has abandoned both containment and détente for a very different objective: destroying the Soviet Union as a world power and possibly even its Communist system. That, surely, is the meaning of Reagan’s persistent talk about “destabilizing” and “prevailing over” the “evil empire.” It means a rejection of nuclear parity and… a potentially fatal form of Sovietophobia. The only cure for Sovietophobia is to recognize it as a pathological rather than a healthy response to the Soviet Union.

Stephen Cohen in “Sovieticus,” The Nation, April 9, 1983

Reagan vs. Humanity

In the nuclear era, based on the record from which we must make educated guesses before we can vote, Reagan is the most dangerous person ever to come this close to the presidency, and if elected he would be the most dangerous leader so far in history. At Reagan’s age, with his ideas, in this era, he is a menace to the human race.

The Nation, November 1, 1980

Adolf’s Back

Just as the German people must bear the responsibility for Hitler, so must Americans be accountable for Reagan.

The Village Voice, March 13, 1985

Back to the Nazis

You have to go back to the Nazis to find expressions of thuggish intent so laced with ignorance and mendacity as those made by Reagan and George Schultz.

Alexander Cockburn in The Nation, March 9, 1985

Inordinate Fear

Being confident of our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism.

President Jimmy Carter, Commencement Address, University of Notre Dame, May 22, 1977

Ronald and Muammar

For most Americans, comparing Reagan to Khaddafi is a form of blasphemy. And yet for all of Reagan’s macho charm, the parallels are unavoidable. And spooky. For example, it seems certain that Khaddafi has funded terrorism beyond his own borders, perhaps planned it, possibly ordered specific acts, all in the name of a fuzzy-headed political ideology. But so has Reagan. Khaddafi thinks he is right in most matters, expressing in his words and deeds the true feelings of the people he rules; so does Reagan. Khaddafi reduces most political thinking to dumb slogans; Reagan grins and says, “I’m a contra too.” Khaddafi is often described with accuracy as a religious fanatic, but some people think the same of Reagan—and for good reasons. The American president regularly presents his most batty ideas (the Evil Empire etc.) to groups of American fundamentalist mullahs.

Pete Hamill in Village Voice, April 29, 1986

Saint Khomeini

Andrew Young, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, predicted February 7 that “Khomeini will be somewhat of a saint when we get over the panic.”

Facts on File, February 16, 1979

Khomeini’s Social Justice

To suppose that Ayatollah Khomeini is dissembling seems almost beyond belief. The depiction of him as a fanatical reactionary and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false. What is also encouraging is that his entourage of close advisers is uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals…. In Iran, the Shiite tradition is flexible in its approach to the Koran and evolves interpretations that correspond to the changing needs and experience of the people. What is distinctive, perhaps, about this religious orientation is its concern with resisting oppression and promoting social justice…. Despite the turbulence, many non-religious Iranians talk of this period as “Islam’s finest hour.” Iran may yet provide us with a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third world country.

Richard Falk of Princeton University in New York Times, February 16, 1979

Superpower Games

Simply put, the cost of the Grenada invasion is loss of the moral high ground; a reverberating demonstration to the world that America has no more respect for laws and borders, for the codes of civilization, than the Soviet Union. To much of the world, the invasion appears no different than the Soviet suppression of Poland or the occupation of Afghanistan.

Editorial from New York Times, October 30, 1983

Against the American People

The war in Grenada was waged much more effectively against the American people than against the worldwide Communist conspiracy the Reagan administration claimed to be challenging.

Hodding Carter in Wall Street Journal, November 3, 1983

Poles and Grenadans

I don’t want the people in this latitude to think about us in the same way the Poles think about the Soviet Union.

Senator Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.), Responding to U.S. action in Grenada, UPI Report, November 20, 1983

Moral Equivalence

There is no way of distinguishing what we are doing in Grenada and what the Soviets are doing in Afghanistan. In ordering the invasion of Grenada, Ronald Reagan has adopted the tactic of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as the new American standard of behavior.

Congressman Ted Weiss (D., NY), Congressional Record, October 26, 1983

Rest in Peace

The greatest gift our country can give to the Cambodian people is not guns but peace. And the best way to accomplish that goal is by ending military aid now.

Representative Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.), Congressional Record, March 12, 1975

What Bloodbath?

The evidence is that in Cambodia the much-heralded bloodbath that was supposed to follow the fall of Phnom Penh has not taken place. As for Vietnam, reports from Saigon indicate exemplary behavior, considering the situation. The most authoritative information leads to the conclusion that the American people were propagandized about the menace of unrestrained slaughter in Indochina. The revolutionaries in both countries seem to have acted responsibly, perhaps more so in Vietnam because their revolution is a more mature one, its leaders seasoned by experience and historical perspective.

Editorial, The Nation, June 14, 1975

From the Frying Pan…

Some will find the whole bloodbath debate unreal. What future possibility could be more terrible than the reality of what is happening to Cambodia now?

Anthony Lewis, New York Times, March 17, 1975

Grin and Bear It


Headline, New York Times, April 13, 1975

Small Price to Pay

We are the last ones who should speak of a bloodbath. Rarely has there been such an example of a moral disaster resulting from radically flawed policies. Hanoi is one of several among the poorest nations that have tried to create a collectivist society, based on principles that are repugnant to us, yet likely to produce greater welfare and security for its people.

Stanley Hoffman, The New Republic, May 3, 1975

The Enemy of My Enemy…

What’s bad for the Somozas, surely is good for Nicaragua.

Walter Goodman, New Leader, September 25, 1978

Food for Thought…

The government offers political education through its newspaper and radio stations, but mainly through the Sandinista Defense Committees which are neighborhood political organizations that direct emergency food distribution and clean-up and reconstruction projects.

Richard Meislin, New York Times, August 20, 1979

The Sandinistas as Democrats

Although many members of the Sandinista guerrillas are Marxist, they have frequently said that socialism could not come immediately to Nicaragua and that a return to democracy is their aim.

Alan Riding, New York Times, August 25, 1978

Beyond Bourgeois Democracy

The ruling revolutionary junta put into effect today a bill of rights that provides for almost all the basic rights guaranteed in the United States and promises social programs that go beyond those available in many Western democracies.

Charles Krause, Washington Post, August 22, 1979

Tourists, Not Refugees

One wonders why there has been no mass exodus from Nicaragua since the revolution.

Christopher Hitchens, The Nation, August 20, 1983

Special Needs

At first the revolution in Nicaragua was welcomed by leaders of this country. But when the Nicaraguan leaders looked beyond the American style of democracy, to establish a unique, indigenous form of government tailored to accommodate the needs of that nation, the revolution was declared as having been lost to Soviet ideology and subsequently targeted for U.S.-supported subversion and terrorism. I say this perception is wrong. Revolutions take time to mature.

Congressman Robert Martinez (D., NY), February 9, 1984, Statement to House of Representatives

Blame America First

I came back from Nicaragua far more ashamed of my country than at any time since the Vietnam war. The Nicaraguans want to make a truly democratic revolution and it is we who subvert their decency.

Michael Harrington in New York Times, July 16, 1981

Don’t Push for Elections

Should the United States feel impelled to meddle once again in Nicaragua, the result will certainly be self-defeating. The process of developing a unified democracy in Nicaragua will be a slow one. However, if we attempt to artificially speed it up, we will only end up killing democracy once again.

Congressman Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), Statement to the House of Representatives, June 26, 1979

Popular Front

If we are interested in stable and humanitarian allies, the Nicaraguan government, one of the few in Central America with the enthusiastic support of its people, is a good candidate.

Tom Frieden in The Nation, December 17, 1983

Inconvenient Facts

It seems imprudent for a progressive interpreter of Central America to dwell on the deficiencies of the Nicaraguan revolution.

Richard Falk in The Nation, July 20, 1985

It’s in Writing!

Mr. President, I share with this body the aide memoir which was presented to us by President Ortega. He emphasizes a guarantee of respect for non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, a respect for the principle of self-determination, guarantee of the non-use of force or threat of force in relations with other countries, and the requirement of non-cooperation with individuals who seek to overthrow other governments. Here, Mr. President, in writing, is a guarantee of the security interests of the United States.

Senator John Kerry (D., Mass.), Congressional Record, April 23, 1985

A Refusal to Export

Nicaragua’s ability to “export revolution” is a fiction invented by those who want Ortega to say “uncle.”

Mary McGrory, Washington Post, October 22, 1985

God’s Kingdom

Nicaragua is gradually becoming a free nation where people have a chance to share in the wealth and the resources of the nation.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, “MacNeil-Lehrer New Hour,” March 4, 1986

Nicaragua 1, United States 0

By every major democratic criterion, Nicaragua comes off looking better than the United States.

Michael Parenti, Covert Action, Summer 1986, Alleged Social Difficulties

La Prensa was shut down not because it criticized the government, but because it printed lies about potential shortages and alleged social difficulties that sapped the people’s morale.

Ed Asner, Speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on July 19, 1986

Lenin’s Practicality

Lenin has a cool, far-sighted reasoned sense of realities. He is willing to put aside what experience has shown to be impracticable theories and devote himself to building Russia on a new and solid foundation.

Walter Duranty, New York Times, October 6, 1921


The somewhat professorial-looking Andropov likes theater and the arts and has written extensively on ideological matters. The 15 years he spent as head of the K.G.B. security police have probably made him the most informed man in the country. In that post he was, in a way, both foreign and interior minister in charge of a vast organization with foreign and domestic responsibilities.

Dusko Doder, Washington Post, November 20, 1982

Disarmament Hypothesis

Just suppose we disarmed? What would [the Russians] do with us? Why would they want to assume responsibility for so huge, complex and problematical a society as ours? And in English yet! How can they fight when there is no enemy? The hypothetical enemy has been magically replaced by 200-million smiling, strong, peaceful Americans. [If America disarms] the Soviet people will probably displace their warlike leaders and transform their Union of Soviet Socialist Republics into a truly democratic union.

Leonard Bernstein in New York Times, June 10, 1980

Democratic Socialism

It is high time to return to basic principles, to tell fashionable sophists who link freedom with the market that there can be no genuine democracy without socialism because you cannot put a sign of equality between individuals, social groups or classes that are socially unequal. The reverse, however, is equally true. There can be no socialism without the fullest democracy.

Daniel Singer in The Nation, August 21, 1989

Socialism Is Dead, Long Live Socialism

Those who take the occasion to celebrate the funeral of socialism show their ignorance of its principles. Those who would dig the grave for socialism have one valid point: that its identification with Stalinism and then with imported revolution has largely discredited the idea. To be resurrected, socialism may have to be partially reinvented. Two centuries after the French Revolution, there are plenty of Bastilles to be stormed.

Editorial, The Nation, December 4, 1989

Socialist Salvation

As to the medium to long-run, I am convinced that socialism has exactly the same chance of surviving and realizing its potential as does the human species. Obviously socialism would be no guarantee of salvation. But if socialism means the use of human intelligence to satisfy human needs, as Marx thought it would, then there is just as obviously no other possibility of salvation.

Paul Sweezy, The Nation, February 26, 1990

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