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The Fifty-Year Wound: the True Price of America's Cold War Victory. (Political booknotes: bad company).

THE FIFTY-YEAR WOUND: The True Price of America's Cold War Victory by Derek Leebaert Little, Brown & Co., $29.95

FEW THINGS ARE MORE COMFORTing to historians than neatly dividing up eras. "Russia, 1917-1991" or "Germany, 1815-71" fits snugly into a course catalogue. The problem with this approach, of course, is that real life isn't that tidy. History is a messy business, filled with characters whose beliefs have been shaped in one era, but emerge to influence the next. Did Konrad Adenauer, age 73 when he became Germany chancellor in 1949, represent something new or continuity with a past that predated Nazism? More recently, did Osama bin Laden and his followers signal an entirely new era--or did they have their origins in earlier U.S. policies in the Middle East and elsewhere?

These musings are prompted by Derek Leebaert's The Fifty-Year Wound. Leebaert, who teaches at Georgetown University, has written a history of the Cold War that continues up to September 11. Though he doesn't say so explicitly, he does see a connection between the Cold War and the new war on terrorism. His book is an attempt to assess the efforts the U.S. made in nation-building, peacekeeping, and fighting terrorism. Above all, Leebaert focuses on the role that the CIA played during the Cold War. His account of the CIA is riveting and offers much new information about its hapless record. At a moment when the CIA has attained new importance, funds, and powers, Leebaert provides sound reasons for skepticism about its ability to fight terrorism.

Leebaert quite rightly begins by emphasizing how episodic America's attention to foreign events has been. After World War II, the U.S. demobilized as quickly as it could, even as the Soviet Union's tactics and policies became progressively more threatening to the welfare and freedom of western Europe. British foreign minister Ernest Bevin noted that "If the Americans are to be made conscious of anything, they have to be shocked into consciousness." CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow made much the same point in writing to an English friend: "It seems the only way to induce action in this country is through the creation of fear and hysteria." No doubt this sense of urgency prompted Harry S. Truman to seek to frighten the American people when he announced the Truman Doctrine in 1947. Leebaert does not say so, but perhaps it was this sense of urgency that led Truman and his associates to create the CIA. Nothing could be more effective than a government agency that was not subject to real oversight and could operate fullbore, with elite Ivy League graduates to boot. Thus we Find the terminally morbid George F. Kennan, always pessimistic about the condition of his countrymen, particularly keen to sponsor covert action. Once they had secured the backing of the National Security Council, Leebaert observes, "Kennan and friends cobbled together a variety of catastrophic paramilitary operations" behind the rapidly descending Iron Curtain. Indeed, Leebaert quite convincingly says that "adventurous men at the newly established CIA were becoming accustomed to working in a sealed universe removed from healthy oversight."

Other bad things were happening, too, in the name of resisting subversion. The McCarran Internal Security Act, passed against Truman's veto, meant that the State Department had to enforce a 50,000-name "lookout book" that was a political-speech test at the country's borders. Security threats such as Charlie Chaplin, Yves Montand, and Arthur Koestler were kept at bay. "For sheer self-destructiveness," says Leebaert, "the U.S. security bureaucracy was unsurpassed." Leebaert notes the idea of homosexuals in government drove the security types wild. So did foreigners. Pentagon consultant Qian Xuesen was repatriated to China--where he promptly turned his talents to developing his native country's missile force.

Things didn't get better with the Kennedy administration; they got worse. JFK saw a "global civil war" in which the CIA and Green Berets should take the leading parts. According to Leebaert, "fit young commandos would regularly be invited to Hyannisport for weekends of games and exercise with the extended family. The president studied the training manuals and supervised the selection of new equipment." Leebaert reveals that "within ten days of his taking office, Kennedy had urged the CIA to launch guerrilla operations against North Vietnam." The problem was that Americans remained oblivious to the cultures they were dealing with, whether it was in Vietnam or Cuba. The CIA analysis of its failure at the Bay of Pigs noted, "none of the officers involved spoke Spanish or had much experience in Latin America."

It was a pattern that would repeat itself again and again. The temptation, after reading Leebaert, is to conclude that the U.S. did not so much win the Cold War as avoid losing it. Once again, it is the CIA at the frontlines of the Cold War that comes in for the most severe criticism from Leebaert. New rot set in during the Vietnam War, when station chiefs in Saigon began to demand a minimum of 300 intelligence reports per month. Case officers were evaluated and promoted based solely on the number of agents they claimed to have recruited. In a passage that could have been lifted straight out of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, Leebaert writes, "By the time CIA director James Woolsey vainly urged a semblance of quality consciousness after the Cold War, there had been a series of scandals in which top-producing case officers were discovered to have invented agents and intelligence reports." Today's CIA, led by the politically savvy George Tenet, is virtually reform-proof because the 10 percent of people who clambered to the top are the best products of this environment.

There is much more to Leebaert's splendid book than the new information he supplies about the CIA's activities. There are penetrating passages on everyone from John Foster Dulles to Ronald Reagan. But Leebaert's focus on the netherworld of intelligence activities is valuable because it suggests that the new war on terrorism may not be so new after all.

JACOB HEILBRUNN is a member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board.
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Author:Heilbrunn, Jacob
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2002
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