Recently, the CBC Radio program Ideas ran a full hour interview with Washington Post columnist and author Anne Applebaum. Her new book, Iron Curtain, documents the Soviet Union's takeover of three East European countries -- Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany -- after World War II.
The officials of the puppet Communist governments that the Soviets set up in Eastern Europe, as Applebaum tells it, believed that would gain support among the masses and win fair elections. When they failed, they undertook to dismantle civil society in each country. Communist governments did not commit mass murder anywhere in Eastern Europe. Rather they killed or imprisoned people whom they considered a threat to their power. Europe's Communist governments also tried to control all public association and expression. All associations and organizations, even those whose purposes were purely recreational (say, sports teams) were run by the state.
Applebaum claims that for ordinary citizens resistance to Communist tyranny was just too costly. The Communist regimes' refusal to leave any room for civil society, made it possible for them to punish anyone who criticized them publicly. Even if dissenters weren't imprisoned, they and the members of their families could lose their jobs, be denied admission to educational institutions or have other forms of social ostracism imposed on them.
Applebaum's book certainly deserved the hour that Ideas devoted to it. After all, it made most lists of the best nonfiction books of 2012. But for the CBC and most of the rest of the Canadian media, this coverage of Communist tyranny is far too little and it comes far too late.
I came of age during the Cold War in the '70's and '80's. I was a news junkie and I was particularly addicted to CBC Radio. However, I came to regard the CBC and most of the rest of the Canadian press
as being depressingly monolithic, especially in its coverage of the Cold War. The United States was consistently portrayed as the villain. The Americans were said to be fighting a futile, harmful and dangerous Cold War that had resulted only in unnecessary sacrifices of lives and waste of resources. To secure victory, it was often said, the United States propped up repressive and even murderous regimes in the Third World; threatened the sovereignty of countries -- like Canada -- that would not support its Cold War efforts and -- most ominously, in the age of nuclear weapons -- risked a destructive war that could end up in the destruction of the planet.
Most memorable to me, but typical of what was heard on the CBC, was the "media criticism" delivered by Barry Zwicker on the local Toronto radio program "Metro Morning" . Almost obsessively, in his weekly spot he hammered away on the thesis of his 1983 pamphlet War, Peace and the Media in which he called both the American and Canadian media's coverage of the Soviet Union "unbalanced". He accused the press of creating a "stereotype" of the USSR that portrayed it as a country that was the "embodiment of evil. Just how hostile Zwicker was to the United States only became evident decades later when he peddled the outrageous notion that the American government was involved in the staging of the 9/11 attacks.
In fact, as I remember it, most Cold War Canadian politicians, journalists and academics who took positions on the Cold War either claimed neutrality or expressed sympathy to the Soviet Union and Communist governments while being hostile to the United States and its allies. Coverage of the mistreatment of dissidents in Communist countries rarely made it into the Canadian media. Canadians were rarely exposed to the stories of the victims of Communist tyranny. When it was possible, the press overlooked the abject failure of Soviet-style economies to make the masses more prosperous. When not possible, the press often blamed outsiders. Take Cuba. The press heaped lavish praise on Castro's supposedly exemplary public health and education systems while blaming the US for the collapse of the rest of the economy.
Nobody today believes that China is ruled by angels. But there was once a time when China's Communist rulers were embraced by Canada's politicians and intellectuals. In the 1960's, they took great pride in the fact that Canada had established and maintained friendly diplomatic relations with it., as opposed to the anti-Communist obsessed Americans who refused to recognize the government on China's mainland. Almost unnoticed was the fact that Communist China was still ruled by Mao Tse Tung, whose policies were responsible for the deaths of millions of people. The most trusted Canadian media overlooked the Gulags -- all of them. This made their excessive vilification of the United States seem credible.
Residents of Canada and other democracies needed to hear much more from people like Applebaum before Communism collapsed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Perhaps, as she maintains, the Communism regimes alienated so many of their citizens that disintegration became inevitable. However, in the seventies and the eighties, they still looked very strong, and few experts foresaw their imminent collapse. Yet, at the same time, most Communist economies stagnated, and by the 1970s they were being propped by aid from their supposed adversaries in the West. This aid included transfers of technology and the provision of agricultural foodstuffs such as wheat. Had our press and intellectuals closely scrutinized the Communist governments, then Canadians might have supported sanctions against them -- just as they supported them against South Africa. And, as in South Africa, sanctions might have led to a much faster implosion of the Communist regimes.
The dictatorships are gone, dissidents have been released and people in countries where Communists once ruled have acquired new freedoms. However, had the Western democracies not made, in effect, their peace with Communist governments, millions might have been spared from years of Communist persecution. Communism's victims can never have those years restored.