By Ronald Radosh
The New York Times, January 9, 1999
Ted Turner and the producers Jeremy Isaacs and Pat Mitchell have managed to produce an often riveting and generally comprehensive account of the Cold War that will probably become the source most used to acquaint young generations with its history.
Anyone who doubts that there was a fundamental struggle between the forces of democracy based in the West with its thriving civil society and those of the totalitarian camp led by Stalin and his successors will find stark and powerful evidence of what it meant to try to lead a normal life in the so-called socialist camp.
Watching clips of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, one can't help being moved by the courage and commitment of the first generation of Soviet bloc dissidents. As one of them says, the Soviets had to suppress them; they were afraid of their "becoming an organized political force." It was, another says, a system that "produced only evil."
The final episode gives the last word to President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, who says that Communism simply was an affront to the normal desires of human beings just moments after we see Fidel Castro reaffirming his commitment to the Communist ideology. The moral difference is starkly presented for those who doubt that the long conflict was simply an unnecessary fight between two imperial superpowers vying for hegemony.
It is more unforgivable then that this message has been undermined by some abhorrent episodes, which suggest a moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and its satellites and the democratic Western allies. To me, the single worst episode was "Reds" (the sixth of the 24 programs, which appeared on Nov. 1), because it compares the epoch of Stalinism and the gulag to that of McCarthyism in the United States.
In both countries, the narrator, Kenneth Branagh, states: "The Cold War was fought by fear. . . . Both sides turned their fear inwards against their own people. They hunted the enemy within." The millions killed by Stalin are somehow to be equated with the few who were blacklisted or lost teaching jobs.
The ideological bias in these episodes is usually implied by selectively using facts and combining them in a one-sided way. Although the most recent evidence has proved that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy for decades, for instance, he is presented as a noble figure hounded by an evil Richard Nixon.
"Hiss," we are told, "firmly denied that he had betrayed his country. Richard Nixon, an ambitious young Republican, was convinced that Hiss was lying. Hiss was jailed for perjury. Nixon's name was made." The documentary does not say that Hiss was guilty, suggesting that Nixon unfairly did him in.
As for Julius Rosenberg, who the latest evidence shows was a Soviet agent who put together a network of spies, viewers are left with the impression -- after hearing the grisly details of the execution -- that just as Stalin killed his dissenters, America killed its own.
"The spirit of McCarthyism, the smearing of dissent as Communist treason," Branagh says, "stained American democracy for decades. In the Soviet Union, all dissent was suppressed." But Hiss and Rosenberg were not arrested and found guilty for dissent. They were Soviet agents.
There is also an overly sympathetic slant when it comes to Central America and the Caribbean. Unlike the last episode, these episodes present the United States as the oppressor, while Fidel Castro is presented as a hero and given a disproportionate amount of air time. He is never challenged in any of his arguments.
The series says that Castro turned to the Soviets only after the Coubre, a Cuban munitions ship, blew up in 1960 and declared himself a socialist only after the Bay of Pigs invasion. New evidence showing that Castro already had made military agreements with the Soviets before the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and had privately made clear his Marxist allegiance is simply ignored.
The series also suggests that Daniel Ortega Saavedra and the Sandinista revolutionaries freed Nicaragua in 1979 from an American-backed dictator and that when their power collapsed, it was because of fierce American opposition. In "Backyard" (the 18th program, to be broadcast Feb. 21), we hear that in 1990 "Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega asks the Nicaraguan people to vote him President. . . . Violeta Chamorro, Ortega's opponent, narrowly won a surprise victory. Washington spent nearly $10 million backing her campaign."
The implication is that were it not for the overwhelming political and monetary intervention of the United States, the revolution would have stayed in power. But those who were there to monitor the election, as this writer was, saw that the Sandinistas had a virtual monopoly on government-provided campaign funds and resources, including American-produced music videos, and that it regularly interfered with opposition freedom during the campaign. The opposition, the historian Robert Kagan notes, "spent a little more than half of what the Sandinistas spent."
Despite this, Chamorro obtained a 55 percent majority, while Ortega received only 41 percent of the vote.
The filmmakers chose to focus on the voices of ordinary people who lived in the Cold War era. But whose voices did they choose?
We get to hear the blacklisted writer Ring Lardner Jr., a committed member of the American Communist Party, rather than, say, Edward Dmytryk, a director, one of the Hollywood 10 who broke with Communism. We see the screenwriter John Howard Lawson yelling at members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but we do not hear from his son, Jeff Lawson, who has written in his new book that his father "believed that Russia was a paradise and could do no wrong" and that he turned "a blind eye to Soviet reality."
There are scores of people who criticized Communism but vigorously supported the civil liberties of its supporters, but we don't hear from them. Had such a witness appeared, the presentation might indeed have provided some real balance.
Throughout, leftists are presented as heroes unfairly persecuted. We see mobs attack Paul Robeson at the famous Peekskill, N.Y., concert in the late 1940s; we are not told that Robeson was a lifelong acolyte of the Stalin regime and that he opposed civil liberties for those on the Left with whom he disagreed.
Some critics have praised the series for not having the proverbial "talking heads" so familiar from other documentaries. In my view, this is a weakness. Knowledgeable commentators could have put events in context, corrected some of the absurdities offered by self-interested contemporaries, and separated truth from falsehood. No amount of powerful film and remembrances by observers can compensate for the absence of informed commentary.
Ronald Radosh is a senior research associate at the Center for Communitarian Policy Studies, George Washington University.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times