His obituaries described him as an “ardent anti-communist,” as an “indefatigable” Cold Warrior, as an “anti-Stalinist combatant before it was fashionable.” All spoke of his charm and witty repartee — except, of course, the left-wing British Guardian, whose obituarist sneeringly accused him of “brainwashing” his countrymen.
I am not talking here about Ronald Reagan but about Mel Lasky, the author and editor who died three weeks ago in Berlin. It is fitting, nevertheless, to write about Lasky in the week of Reagan’s death, since he fought on a different but equally important Cold War front. In his battle with the Soviet Union, Reagan deployed military strength, which in the end not only frightened the Soviet leadership but bankrupted it. Calculating that it could not keep up with America’s military expansion, the Soviet Union first gave up its empire, then its very existence.
But once the nations of Eastern Europe were freed from Soviet control, where did they go? Given the region’s history, that question should have been wide open; before Soviet domination, the region was under Nazi control. Before that, some nations had been democracies, others autocracies. Nevertheless, when the Berlin Wall fell, there was no ambivalence: Eastern Europe began clamoring to join the West. The Czech Republic started advertising its suitability for the European Union right after 1989. As soon as Poles had elected a fully democratic government, they asked to join NATO.
Of course the West’s prosperity appealed to the East. But so did the West’s cultural self-confidence and its open political debate. Throughout the Cold War, Mel Lasky was one of the people who fought hard to keep that debate going. Finding himself in Berlin in the early days of the Cold War, deeply disturbed by the intellectual enthusiasm for communism that he found all around him, Lasky helped found the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a movement designed to promote not just pro-Americanism but the principles of democracy and capitalism among European and American intellectuals. The group — funded in part by the CIA — in turn supported Encounter magazine, which was edited first by Irving Kristol and then by Lasky, from 1958 to 1990.
In its heyday, transatlantic contributors to Encounter included Stephen Spender, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Conquest, Arthur Koestler, Milton Friedman, Nancy Mitford, Albert Camus and Isaiah Berlin. Its appeal was literary, but political as well: Encounter stood for a notion of the “West” that went beyond a mere military alliance, as well as an idea of Western culture that ultimately appealed to those east of the Berlin Wall too. Over time, Encounter became one of the flagships of the cultural Cold War, alongside Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, the Fulbright program, the artistic exchanges, the American libraries in foreign cities.
Although it didn’t always look as if it would turn out that way, in the end the cultural Cold War was a great success — which is why it’s so odd that we have learned so little from it. While there is plenty of neo-Reaganism around, at the moment the war on terrorism has not yet created its Congress on Cultural Freedom. Surprisingly few in the administration or outside it think much about how we are going to fight a long-term ideological struggle against radical Islam, in the Arab world as well as in Europe. Hardly anyone wants to engage in any kind of conversation with America’s opponents.
On the contrary, the dominant mood in Washington at the moment is dismissive of Europe: Europe is militarily weak; Europeans will be “in the way” in Iraq. Little or no effort has been expended to win over the European public, presumably because no one thinks it worth trying. As far as the Middle East is concerned, the administration is so far simply unserious: Instead of offering intellectual engagement, our public diplomats want to offer pop music. Instead of thinking how to explain and promote moderate Islam, too many argue that “force is the only language they understand.” Instead of academic exchanges, our immigration bureaucrats have effectively clamped down on the number of students coming here from Muslim countries. Next year there will be fewer than ever before.
It’s worth remembering this week as politicians scramble to claim Reagan’s mantle. Plenty will be willing to denounce the “evil” of radical Islam as he once denounced the evil of communism. Just as many are convinced that they have learned, from Reagan, the importance of superior weaponry. They are right, but only partially so. The war on terrorism can achieve a permanent victory only after it has found its Mel Lasky as well.