Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > “Them Bad Russians” Still Haunt America

Aug 7, 2013

“Them Bad Russians” Still Haunt America

Nikolai Bulganin, Dwight Eisenhower, Edgar Faure, and Anthony Eden at the 1955 Geneva Summit.

“America it's them bad Russians. Them Russians them Russians. ... She wants to take our cars from out our garages. Her wants to grab Chicago. ...  Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. ...  America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set,” the poet Allen Ginsberg wrote. 

But Ginsberg’s poem “America” was written in 1956, when Cold War fervor gripped the nation. We have come a long way since then -- haven’t we?

Sure we have, Barack Obama assured us, when he lamented that “there have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.  And what I consistently say to them [Russians], and what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.”

Obama said this on the Jay Leno show. So he might have meant it as a joke. But he seemed to be perfectly serious.

I try to avoid psychological categories as I observe mythic America. But occasionally the language of psychology is irresistible, at least as metaphor. The impression I get from looking in the television set -- and the Internet -- is that Obama was offering a classic example of projection: denying some characteristic of oneself by ascribing it to someone else. I use “projection” as a metaphor because I’m not talking about Obama as an individual. I’m talking about America, the whole nation, slipping back into a Cold War mentality.

For weeks, the U.S. mass media have been gripped by the drama of Snowden. Would he leave Russia or stay? Would the Russians grant him asylum? Now “them bad Russians” have gone and done it. If Ginsberg were writing “America” today he would add, “Them Russians, she keep the traitor Edward Snowden.” And they’ve got to be punished. That’s certainly the story I get from the media. 

It’s the story Russians get too, though apparently many of them think it’s funny. A joke making the rounds there portrays Obama as a jilted suitor: "Obama won't see Putin because Putin is already seeing Snowden."

Some more serious Russian observers dismiss the Obama snub as no danger, and perhaps even a help, to Putin, who is happy to build up his nationalist political base. His effort is helped by stirring up memories of the Cold War, like analyst Sergei Markov’s claim that "Obama is under powerful pressure from the cold war lobby." America still has a “Cold War lobby”? Who knew? That sounds like a projection from the Russian side.

So we’ve got mirror images, each side accusing the other of slipping back to the bad old days. No doubt there’s some truth on both sides.

The ghost of the Cold War certainly still haunts Obama’s America. He was under powerful pressure to cancel the Putin summit or else pay the political price at home, just as Democrats from Henry Wallace to Jimmy Carter paid for being seen as “soft on communism.”

For a short time there was some popular enthusiasm for “hitting the reset button” in U.S.-Russian relations. But that never erased the stronger enthusiasm for bashing “them Russians” whenever there was a chance.

True, the Russians have given their American critics some tragically fat targets for criticism. Their continued anti-gay campaign, done with government encouragement, is to me the most blatant and frightening example. But after recent events in Egypt, who would believe that the U.S. government bases its foreign policy decisions on moral considerations?

The Russian support for Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad is another dismaying example. But that’s obviously a matter of power politics. If the Obama administration saw any real advantage in supporting Assad, they’d do it too. Again, see Egypt (and a host of other countries).

Yet the traditional American story does not allow us to see any kind of equivalence between our own “land of freedom” and “them bad Russians.” Americans insisted on the fundamental difference even in the pre-Soviet days, when an autocratic czar presided over an eastward expansion in many ways similar to, and as cruel as, America’s westward expansion.

The same was true during the post-World War I “red scare” and the pre-World War II days of the early HUAC (the House Committee on Un-American Activities), when America showed itself to be the land of something less than full freedom. (Imagine if the U.S. government had digital technology back in those days.)  

But it was surely the Cold War era that fixed in American political mythology the unbridgeable chasm between us and “them bad Russians,” the chasm reflected in the furor over Snowden and in Obama’s remarks on the Leno show.

However the lingering effects of the Cold War narrative are only part of the picture. For the Obama administration, as the Christian Science Monitor headlined, “It's about much more than Edward Snowden.”

As the Monitor noted, the White House statement on the summit cancelation revealed what’s probably the heart of the issue for the president. It “listed arms control, missile defense, trade relations, and human rights as among the issues that would have been discussed by the two leaders but which have not had enough progress to necessitate a summit.” “Progress,” of course, is a code word for significant concessions from the other side.

In the White House no doubt they read the New York Times editorial that appeared just hours before the cancelation, which offered quite a similar conclusion: “There is no reason for Mr. Obama to attend unless Mr. Putin provides solid assurances that he is prepared to address contentious issues in a substantive and constructive way.” “Substantive and constructive” are more code words for Putin making significant concessions to meet Obama’s demands.

Presidents don’t want to meet with less-than-chummy leaders of other countries unless they can count on such concessions. What they worry about most are the media stories that a summit will produce. Unless the headlines are sure to feature code words like progress, substantive, and constructive, the president would rather stay home. Why give the other side a chance to look like America’s equal in all those photo ops if there’s no guarantee of a payoff for our side? The cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t add up.

Dwight Eisenhower was one president who believed that fervently. And for purposes of understanding the current canceled summit it is worth reviving at least the memory of the early Cold War era, the days of Ike and Ginsberg’s “America,” when “summitry” was a topic of constant interest.

For over two years after Josef Stalin died, Kremlin leaders pushed hard, in public and private, for a summit with the U.S. president. Eisenhower resisted just as firmly. He saw no chance that “them Russians” would yield enough ground to repay the cost of giving them a stage to look like his equal.  

By the time Ginsberg wrote “America,” though, Eisenhower had met the Soviet leaders, Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin, at Geneva. Why did he go to the summit? “World opinion could be allayed or at least satisfied a bit,” was how Ike explained it to Winston Churchill.

Mostly he was concerned with public opinion in Western Europe. The specter of any move toward neutrality there, spurred by a perception that the Soviets were more peace-loving than the U.S., terrified official Washington. To forestall such a shift, and to bolster pro-U.S. leaders in Western Europe, the president went to the summit.

To assure a PR victory, he grabbed the headlines by offering his “Open Skies” plan, giving each side the right to fly over the other’s land and see its nuclear facilities.

Khrushchev immediately rejected the plan, knowing that it would “have a spectacular appearance which will perhaps deprive the Soviet Union of their propaganda advantage in slogan ‘ban the bomb” and also “allay [American] fear of surprise attack. … Military advisors agree that [the U.S.] would gain more information than would Soviets.”

Those were not Khrushchev’s words. They were written by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in a cable to the State Department. And they summed up Eisenhower’s own understanding of the big win he hoped to score with “Open Skies.” He wanted that win so badly that he went scurrying to find Khrushchev in his final moments in Geneva, hoping to get the Soviet leader to change his mind. But Khrushchev was already on the plane headed home. He never even considered discussing “Open Skies.”

The story of the Geneva summit shows what presidents are most likely to think about when they schedule, or don’t schedule, or cancel, summit meetings.

It also shows how far the U.S. has come from the Cold War era of the ‘50s in at least one respect. Obama can hardly be too worried about public reaction among America’s closest allies because of the cancelled Moscow meeting. And he is under no international pressure to offer a spectacular new plan for U.S. - Russian cooperation. Our multi-polar world just doesn’t work that way any more.  

But the story of the canceled summit shows, too, how much the narrative of the Cold War era still shapes American public perceptions of “them bad Russians.” Even if Obama has freed himself from that narrative, its continuing grip on America means that he must now treat Putin as more of a foe than a friend. So there will be no summit until it seems sure that the American president can come away claiming some kind of victory.

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