Journalists often claim to write the first draft of history, but that statement raises the question when a story turns from current events into history. The Vietnam War now stands closer to World War II than 2017. A formative experience for the baby boom generation, those who came of age after 1990 see Vietnam as an episode in history. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns captures the immediacy of the conflict in the ten episode series The Vietnam War airing on PBS. The series also raises larger questions about American foreign policy that resonate today.
One of the most inspiring yet least known stories of resistance to communism during the Cold War is that of Poland’s Tomasz Stańko. Stańko, 74, is a jazz trumpeter whose beautiful, minimalistic and meditative style of playing is considered by many to be one of the great treasures of modern music. His new release, December Avenue, is a strong effort in what has been a remarkable series of albums over the last 15 years for the great German jazz label ECM. December Avenue is enjoyable on its own simply as a sublime record, but it takes on a dimension of historical…
Spying Through a Glass Darkly: American Espionage against the Soviet Union, 1945-1946 is about a little-known intelligence unit whose continued activity after World War II invalidates the conventional wisdom that the wartime Office of Strategic Services had been disbanded upon the victory of the Allies. The authors construct a heroic portrait of this short-lived Strategic Services Unit (SSU), arguing that it managed to provide vital assistance in the face of great obstacles—one being the calling home of embedded agents after Germany surrendered, and the other a bureaucratic power struggle with the FBI, which refused to step into the intelligence-collection void unless it was made supreme over all U.S. intelligence.
Spy novels and movies of the last 50 years have relied upon certain conventions—the foggy, wind-swept streets, trench-coated figures leaning against lamp posts, and knife fights in alleys. During the Cold War, Berlin was certainly uber-noir, its spookiness symbolized by a Berlin Wall decorated with barb-wire and patrolled by gorilla-faced guards.
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies does not neglect any of these old reliables. Everyman Tom Hanks, playing the real-life lawyer and World War II intelligence veteran James Donovan, bears witness to escapees being machine-gunned, walks dark alleys where he is being tracked by the CIA or the Stasi, or both. Here cynicism reigns, and Hanks, channeling Jimmy Stewart as the Caprasque patriotic go-it-alone hero, is regarded as a naïve “boy scout” by a heartlessly pragmatic CIA.
Having written before in this space about venturesome Americans and their actions on the international stage, I am moved to return to the subject. Some new books—Karen Paget’s Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism, Gregg Herken’s The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington, and Richard Norton Smith’s new biography of Nelson Rockefeller—yield insight into the “global meliorism” that has defined American policy for a long time and the American character for even longer. What they also do is offer a picture of the genesis of the national security establishment that we know today.