A Hannah Arendt Theory of U.S. Cold War Policy

Here’s Hannah Arendt on page 442 of The Origins of Totalitarianism:

Political consequences such as postwar pacifism, for example, derived from the general fear of war, not from the experiences in war. Instead of producing a pacifism devoid of reality, the insight into the structure of modern wars, guided and mobilized by fear, might have led to the realization that the only standard for a necessary war is the fight against conditions under which people no longer wish to live—and our experiences with the tormenting hell of the totalitarian camps have enlightened us only too well about the possibility of such conditions. Thus the fear of concentration camps and the resulting insight into the nature of total domination might serve to invalidate all obsolete political differentiations from right to left and to introduce beside and above them the politically most important yardstick for judging events in our time, namely: whether they serve totalitarian domination or not.

If you’re in a charitable mood, it wouldn’t be absurd to say that this line of thinking is a pretty fair representation of U.S. Cold War policy at a macro-level. This is not to suggest that every policymaker was always motivated by anti-totalitarian motives pure as the driven snow, but that, in the main, this was the central consideration animating the U.S. foreign policy calculus for almost half a century. To be sure, it is a calculus we often got wrong, and its existence doesn’t justify those errors. But, to the outside observer decades later, it does make them a little more understandable.* When your opponent – the Soviet Union – indicates the operative paradigm ought to be one which takes seriously the threat of totalitarian domination, and when recent history offers a terrifying example of what that domination might entail, a zero-sum, “us or them” approach to foreign policy is, at the very least, less crazy than it seems to us in 2014.

*I mean understandable in the most literal sense of the word