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Rough Draft, or Distraction?

I don’t know who first said it, but it’s a cliche that the news is a rough draft of history. I’m not so sure: this was probably true at one time, but it seems to me that what passes for “news” in the modern world has little to do with the history that is being made. The still-ongoing Valerie Plame saga is just one of many recent examples of front-page obsession with events that are anything but historic.

This is not a brand-new phenomenon. The epochal event of the post-war world, the winning of the Cold War, is little understood and seldom discussed. While our reporters were generally occupied elsewhere, a series of American administrations pursued policies that in the end were spectacularly successful: the Soviet Union collapsed, catastrophic war was avoided, and China was de-fanged and turned into a modern industrial power. How all this happened is a mystery to most Americans.

What puts me in mind of this is the Associates Press’ reporting on recently declassified documents from the Nixon administration, which shed light on Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s efforts to remake American strategy relating to nuclear war:

Widely considered a military hawk, President Richard M. Nixon fretted privately over the notion of any no-holds-barred nuclear war, newly released documents from his time at the White House reveal.

The recently declassified papers, from the first days of the Nixon presidency in 1969 until the end of 1974, show that Nixon wanted an alternative to the option of full-scale nuclear war – a plan for a gentler war, one that could ultimately vanquish the Soviet Union while avoiding the worst-case situation.

Qualms about causing so much death were hardly the only motivation. American officials worried that their nuclear threat lacked credibility because it was so awful that adversaries questioned whether the United States would ever use it.

The documents reveal Mr. Kissinger’s chilling insight that government budget-crunchers would prefer complete nuclear warfare because it was already planned for and would be cheaper than recasting American capabilities to permit limited strikes.

“They believe in assured destruction because it guarantees the smallest expenditure,” he said in August 1973 at a National Security Council meeting in the White House Situation Room. “To have the only option that of killing 80 million people is the height of immorality.”

The papers show Mr. Kissinger struggling with a reluctant military and intelligence apparatus to sell them on the idea of limited nuclear strikes. Many doubted that the Soviet Union would settle for a tidy little nuclear war. They feared that a conflagration would quickly follow, devouring cities and killing millions.

But until Nixon took up the matter, the only options in the nuclear playbook involved the highest stakes possible and unspeakable death, and that apparently unsettled him even as he engaged North Vietnam in a war that was claiming civilian casualties.

Part of the reason why the Cold War is so little understood, of course, is that it took place largely in the shadows. Much of what happened was as invisible to reporters as to the public. Still, it is hard to understand the general incuriosity with which victory in that conflict, beginning in the late 1980s, has been greeted.

President Reagan, like Nixon, was deeply troubled by the strategy of mutual assured destruction that had maintained an uneasy peace–for the most part, anyway–since the 1950s. Reagan’s principal response to the moral and strategic dilemmas posed by nuclear deterrence was the Strategic Defense Initiative. “I may not be a Rhodes Scholar,” Reagan once said, “but it seems obvious to me that if we can protect our people from nuclear attack, we should.” In the end, Reagan outmaneuvered Mikhail Gorbachev, and Russia’s governing elite realized that Reagan had upped the ante with a bet they couldn’t match.

One of the few efforts I know of to make sense out of the end of the Cold War is Peter Schweizer’s Victory, which is especially revealing when read together with the same author’s Reagan’s War, the story of Reagan’s decades-long, far-sighted struggle against Communism–a struggle that, in the 1970s, this country came perilously close to losing.

Today, as in Nixon’s and Reagan’s eras, vital events are occurring beneath the often-trivial surface of the news. When the history of the Bush administration is finally written, I doubt that the stories that have mostly obsessed our reporters and editors for the past several years (as well as, to be sure, the blogosphere) will play a significant part.

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