Saturday, June 11, 2005

Contagion of freedom? Or appeal of submission?

On April 7, 1950, the National Security Council (NSC) sent to President Harry Truman its famous (well . . . among historians) top-secret report reviewing American Policy toward the Soviets: "NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security."

Section 4 of this report is interesting for what it says about the two societies. Titled "The Underlying Conflict in the Realm of ideas and Values between the U.S. Purpose and the Kremlin Design ," this section describes the nature of the conflict:

"The Kremlin regards the United States as the only major threat . . . [in] the conflict between [the] idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin [and the the idea of freedom within the American system. This conflict] . . . has come to a crisis with the polarization of power . . . and the exclusive possession of atomic weapons by the two protagonists. The idea of freedom, moreover, is peculiarly and intolerably subversive of the idea of slavery. But the converse is not true. The implacable purpose of the slave state to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles. It is this fact which gives the present polarization of power the quality of crisis."

This Manichaean conflict had reached a crisis because of the apocalyptic dimensions of destructive power through the atomic weapons possessed by both sides. The atomic bomb was a wild card in the conflict between the two systems, but it was successfully brought into a rational framework based upon traditional balance-of-power assumptions applied to armaments. Combined with the American policy of "Containment," which committed the United States to counter the spread of Communism, this balance of power was designed to maintain a stalemate between the free world and the Communist world. The assumption was that with the time bought by this stalemate, the free society would defeat the slave society through the seductiveness of its freedom.

Thus, the document describes the American ideal of freedom:

"The free society values the individual as an end in himself, requiring of him only that measure of self-discipline and self-restraint which make the rights of each individual compatible with the rights of every other individual. The freedom of the individual has as its counterpart, therefore, the negative responsibility of the individual not to exercise his freedom in ways inconsistent with the freedom of other individuals and the positive responsibility to make constructive use of his freedom in the building of a just society."

This freedom, in both its negative and positive aspects, assumes a rule of law and the motivation of citizens to contribute toward a just society, which is left undefined but probably understood at that time as meaning freedom of opportunity under equal protection of the law in a society of individuals motivated in their private lives by an ethos aimed at uplifting the poor and disadvantaged through volunteerist efforts. From all of this, a strong society is expected to emerge:

"From this idea of freedom with responsibility derives the marvelous diversity, the deep tolerance, the lawfulness of the free society. This is the explanation of the strength of free men. It constitutes the integrity and the vitality of a free and democratic system. The free society attempts to create and maintain an environment in which every individual has the opportunity to realize his creative powers. It also explains why the free society tolerates those within it who would use their freedom to destroy it. By the same token, in relations between nations, the prime reliance of the free society is on the strength and appeal of its idea, and it feels no compulsion sooner or later to bring all societies into conformity with it."

This last statement expresses the oldest of American self-understandings, namely, America as -- in the words of John Winthrop -- "a city on a hill," from where its example would inspire other nations to emulate it. The analogy of the capitalist marketplace is also brought in to exemplify this American concept of freedom:

"For the free society does not fear, it welcomes, diversity. It derives its strength from its hospitality even to antipathetic ideas. It is a market for free trade in ideas, secure in its faith that free men will take the best wares, and grow to a fuller and better realization of their powers in exercising their choice."

Much as Natan Sharansky has more recently argued in The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, the NSC 68 memorandum holds that freedom is both effective and inherently appealing:

"The idea of freedom is the most contagious idea in history, more contagious than the idea of submission to authority. For the breadth of freedom cannot be tolerated in a society which has come under the domination of an individual or group of individuals with a will to absolute power. Where the despot holds absolute power -- the absolute power of the absolutely powerful will -- all other wills must be subjugated in an act of willing submission, a degradation willed by the individual upon himself under the compulsion of a perverted faith. It is the first article of this faith that he finds and can only find the meaning of his existence in serving the ends of the system. The system becomes God, and submission to the will of God becomes submission to the will of the system. It is not enough to yield outwardly to the system -- even Gandhian non-violence is not acceptable -- for the spirit of resistance and the devotion to a higher authority might then remain, and the individual would not be wholly submissive."

This is an interesting paragraph for a number of reasons, especially for its assumption that freedom is more appealing than submission. But I wonder if this holds for all cultures. Mohammed Atta seems to have preferred submission, and he wasn't alone.

In an insightful remark, Walter McDougall notes of NSC 68 that it viewed "the peoples of the Soviet bloc . . . not [as] the enemy but the strongest potential allies in the struggle against the Communist apparatus" (Promised Land, Crusader State, p. 168).

Our current struggle, however, is more complex because the Islamist terrorism arises not from a secular system but from within a religious system, wherein submission (and "Islam" literally means "submission") to an Islamist sociopolitical system is understood as submission to God.

And religion makes promises that the Bolsheviks never could.


At 10:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've started a new blog promoting a new Pan Arabism. Come check it out and let me know what you think.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've linked in my sidebar to your blog:

I've looked at it, too, but haven't had time to read your posts carefully, so I don't know your full position.

My only comment would be that I think that the Arab world needs more pluralism and openness to 'the other' -- as postmodernists like to say -- rather than an emphasis upon an essentialist 'Arabism' that would tend, by its emphasis upon Arab identity, to delegitimate non-Arabs living in majority-Arab countries.

The earlier Arab nationalism of the Ba'ath movement), tended to identify "Arabism" with "Islam," despite being initiated by the Christian Arab Michel 'Aflaq (

An identity politics of Arabism lends itself to the danger -- it seems to me -- of recapitulating, in a secular system, the Dhimmitude forced upon non-Muslim minorities within areas conquered by Imperialist Islam during its Golden Age of territorial expansion and cultural flowering.


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