On the all-too-short vacation, I read David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter," a superb history of the Korean War. As he generally did, Halberstam tells a hell of a story in this one, blending in gripping anecdotes of nightmarish combat with full and balanced consideration of the geopolitical context and sharp character sketches of the key military and political personalities. But beyond the powerful narrative, the book was terrifically enlightening for me as a reminder that the general sense we have today of "the postwar period"--that policy differences were mostly small and politics were relatively civil, that the "vital center" held--is far, far off the mark from how things were perceived at the time.
Halberstam details a vicious and irrational political climate in which many, probably most, Republicans assailed the Democrats for "losing" China and the conduct of the Korean conflict yet simultaneously called for a return to pre-World War II isolationism, and supported the mad and ultimately disastrous tactics of Douglas MacArthur but refused to see that his vision of wider conflict against communist China would likely lead to a third world war. These were the Taft-McCarthy Republicans who hated Dwight Eisenhower almost as much as Harry Truman, and who nursed their resentments at having the 1952 nomination stolen from Robert Taft through Ike's two terms and backed Barry Goldwater twelve years later. But it wasn't just those on the right; as Halberstam tells it, most of the country--and no small number within the government--was very unhappy with the burdens of the Cold War. The public outpouring of support for MacArthur after Truman fired him might have reflected this; certainly Eisenhower's easy presidential win in 1952 did. It's not that they embraced isolationism or were soft on the Communists; far from it. But the national view of the Cold War that I remember from my childhood--stoic acceptance and resolute commitment, more or less--did not immediately take.
In an odd way, I find this very reassuring. I think like a lot of people, I worry that the country no longer has the stomach to take on the great challenges of our time--not the Communist Menace anymore, obviously, but global warming and violent religious extremism abroad, and the shift to an information economy and really creating equality of opportunity at home. But "The Coldest Winter," among its many other virtues, reminds us that our predecessors didn't immediately embrace their historical task either. Under the mostly solid, if not always applauded, leadership of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, they came to it gradually. Terrible mistakes were made (and worse ones narrowly avoided) and moral lines were blurred if not erased, but ultimately the efforts met with success: the Cold War never erupted into global conflict, and the better side won.
From an initial moment of uncertainty, resentment, anger and division, great things eventually resulted. Maybe it can happen again.