I had the greatest pleasure and privilege to have Professor Stephen F. Cohen to speak in my living room over a period of several days and I must say it was a remarkable experience to hear the thoughts, opinions and learn about the life of such a remarkable man. Unfortunately, this particular miracle occurred not face-to-face in person but through the engineering marvel that is the Amazon Fire TV stick and my role was limited to viewing and listening to an extraordinary series of interviews conducted by The Real News Network’s founder and CEO Paul Jay on his program Reality Asserts Itself.
Previously, my experience of Professor Cohen has principally been as a listener to his frequent appearances on the John Batchelor Show but most of all through reading his erudite and informative writings which provide a perspective on American and Russia relations that the Legacy Media no longer offers. While decades ago, Professor Cohen was a commentator on CBS News and appeared frequently on the network, it is doubtful that they would give him even fifteen minutes time on their Sixty Minutes program; his voice of reason based on facts, in support of détente, and warning of the dangers to American National Security of this new and more dangerous Cold War would never be allowed to be presented through such a forum, when the Legacy Media appears to be nothing more than the eager handmaiden of the Military-Industrial-Congressional (and I would add Financial) Complex.
Mr. Jay’s interview is a true gem of journalism due to the fact that he asks pointed, challenging and respectful questions of Professor Cohen, who, not facing the time restrictions of a typical television program (for example, when he infrequently appeared on the Tucker Carlson Tonight program his time was under five minutes) can offer his opinions—and facts—in an in-depth manner. I am providing excerpts of transcripts of the interview and links to the YouTube programs below.
The first program to air was entitled:
Is Russian ‘Meddling’ an Attack on America?
War with Russia?: From... Best Price: $8.99 Buy New $8.50 (as of 02:15 EST - Details) Again, I truly advise that readers take the time to listen to each interview in its entirety (and for those who enjoy “Binge Watching Professor Cohen’s interviews are far more rewarding than the latest mindless, dystopian Netflix or Amazon television series) but in this first interview he makes the following important point on what America is becoming—very much in the image of the totalitarian Soviet Union. I also can’t disagree with how Professor Cohen views sanctions; his metaphor is brilliant: “Sanctions are Road Rage.”
STEPHEN COHEN: What worries me more, though, is the way Russiagate, Russiagaters, the zealots of Russiagate, have criminalized contacts with Russia. I think that this Clinton organization–what’s it called, Center for American Progress, or something, CAP, which has a website called Thought Progress or something–has some posted 150 Trump-related contacts with Russia. I mean, I’ve had most of those contacts with Russia. I mean, I’ve had contacts with Russian intelligence agents. One was a good friend of mine. Five or six of them I worked with in a historical archive, and we did smoking breaks and lunch breaks together, and we talked. I mean, I’ve had all sorts of contacts in my nearly 50 years of dealing with Russia. There was a time when contacts were supposed to be good because it was a way of understanding and avoiding conflict. Part of detente. Part of diplomacy. But Russiagate, the allegations–and I don’t believe any of them, by the way–the allegations have criminalized contacts.
Incidentally, as we talk, this young Russian woman, Marina Butina–sometimes pronounced here BuTIna, but it’s BUtina, B-U-T-I-N-A–has been sitting in an American prison for more than six months, most of it in solitary, for doing nothing other than what many Americans do in Russia, and that is go around talking about how good the American political system is to Russia, Russians. She went around bragging on Putin and the Russian political system here. For that she’s been kept in prison, and was, as Russians say, finally broken. Literally. That’s how Russians break people. They lock you away to you confess. We call confession a plea. So she–and she’s still in prison, even though she pled.
What did she plead guilty to? Coming here and advocating Russian perspectives without registering as a foreign agent. This is a Soviet practice, Paul. [Emphasis added.] One of the things that worries me is that Russiagate has generated too many Soviet-style practices by American authorities. The use of informers. People who were sent to inform on members of Trump’s team, like Papadopoulos, for example. Holding people’s families hostage. I mean, Mueller held General Flynn’s son hostage, essentially, until Flynn pled. And Flynn never should have pled guilty. Never. In fact, he said the other day he regretted it.
Let’s talk about Flynn, for example, to see how bogus this is. Flynn was taped, as he knew he would be, making contact after Trump was elected, before Trump came President, with the Russian ambassador, correct? That was how the story began.
PAUL JAY: And they had to know they were being listened to.
STEPHEN COHEN: Of course they [inaudible].
PAUL JAY: Or he should have.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, so you would say if he knew he was being listened to, why would he go forward and have this meeting, or discussions, with the Russian ambassador? Because Trump had told him to do it. And the reason is very simple to anyone who knows even a little history. At least since Nixon–maybe since Eisenhower and Kennedy–but at least since Nixon, every American president-elect has made a so-called back channel connection with the Russians, with the Kremlin, before taking office. End of story. And we know–I mean, Kissinger did it for Nixon.
PAUL JAY: But Nixon did it with the North Vietnamese, and Johnson called it treason.
STEPHEN COHEN: I don’t care. The point of it is it’s become traditional standard practice for the President-elect to reach out to the Russians to say basically chill out, we’re going to discuss everything. I mean, you got to remember what happened. I mean, this was dangerous. Obama, to his eternal disgrace, threatened the Russians with a cyberattack. He threatened them. He said we’ve implanted in your infrastructure some kind of cyber thing.
PAUL JAY: And passed sanctions.
STEPHEN COHEN: But forget the sanctions. Forget the sanctions. He threatened them with a secret attack on their infrastructure. Did it mean their medical system? Did it mean their banking system? Did it mean their nuclear control system? And then the nitwit Vice President [Joe Biden]–Obama’s–goes out and tells jokes about it on late night TV. Yeah, hey, we got him. What kind of behavior is this?
So I think Trump did absolutely the right thing. He told General Flynn, after Obama had made this reckless statement, but after Trump was elected, but not yet president, told Flynn, go tell the Russians not to overreact to what Obama said. Don’t do anything crazy. We’ll sort this out when I take office. I personally am grateful he did that, because there were people in Moscow arguing to Putin that they had to wage some kind of counterattack first. I mean, this was a very dangerous moment that Obama created, unnoticed in this country. Unreported on.
But not only was it the tradition that the president-elect made contact with the Russians. Backdoor. Everyone had done it. But in this case it was essential, because the crazies in Moscow were urging Putin to do something based on what Obama had said. By the way, who’s vanished. On the question of Russiagate, Obama has disappeared himself. I mean Russiagate began on Obama’s watch as president. You’d think he’d have something to say. He hadn’t said a word.
PAUL JAY: But let me counter. I mean, I think the sanctions Obama put on Russia for Russia’s meddling in the U.S. elections was uncalled for; aggressive, and so on. And a continuation of a bunch of aggressive policy. But their argument is Obama was the president, and the sanctions had been implemented. And Trump was saying to Putin, don’t worry, we’re going to get rid of them.
STEPHEN COHEN: No there’s no record. This is-
PAUL JAY: I thought that was Flynn’s conversation.
STEPHEN COHEN: No. No. What Flynn told Kislyak, so far as we know, I haven’t heard the tape, was do not overreact to this statement by Obama that your infrastructure is going to be attacked, and we will discuss everything, maybe he said including sanctions, when Trump takes the White House.
Now, let’s back up a minute. Why shouldn’t we discuss sanctions? The logic–I don’t believe in sanctions. They’re road rage. I mean, as we talk, a few nitwit senators are up on the Hill trying to think up some new sanctions. And if you ask them what they’re sanctioning Russia for today, they couldn’t tell you. Everything. In fact, they do tell you. It’s called for Putin’s malign behavior in the world. It’s not about Crimea anymore. It’s not about voter interference. It’s just basically he’s a malign character, and you can’t have too many sanctions.
Sanctions are road rage. When you don’t have a real policy, you do sanctions. But what’s the logic of the sanctions? The sanction is we put this punishment on you. But when you change your behavior we will remove the punishment. Isn’t that what we say with sanctions? Therefore sanctions have to be discussed if you’re going to have diplomacy. So I would expect an American president to say to the Kremlin we need to have a lot of discussions, including the discussion of sanctions. The ones we’ve imposed.
Actually, by now, depending on what comes next, I don’t think the Kremlin cares very much. They’ve coped very nicely with the sanctions. Though it’s hurting their ability to roll over their loans with Western banks, it’s true. But generally speaking, they’ve managed. And Europe wants the sanctions ended, because it’s hurt European manufacturers, I think there’s 9,000 German firms that were or are making a profit in Russia. It’s hurt European–we have almost no trade with Russia, the United States. Sanctions is–hurting Europe.
In the second part of the interview, Professor Cohen is similarly direct:
Is Trump for Detente With Russia and Militarism With China and Iran?
Stephen Cohen: In the era of weapons of mass destruction, not only nuclear, but primarily nuclear, ever more sophisticated, the Russians now have a new generation of nuclear weapons–Putin announced them on March 1, they were dismissed here, but they’re real–that can elude any missile defense. We spent trillions on missile defense to acquire a first strike capability against Russia. We said it was against or Iran, but nobody believed it. Russia has now thwarted us; they now have missile defense-evading nuclear weapons from submarines, to aircraft, to missiles. And Putin has said, “It’s time to negotiate an end to this new arms race,” and he’s 100 percent right. So when I heard Trump say, in 2016, we have to cooperate with Russia, I had already become convinced–and I spell this out in my new book, War with Russia?–that we were in a new cold war, but a new cold war more dangerous than the preceding one for reasons I gave in the book, one of them being these new nuclear weapons. Soviet Fates and Lost ... Best Price: $3.78 Buy New $21.50 (as of 03:40 EST - Details)
So I began to speak positively about Trump at that moment–that would have been probably around the summer of 2016–just on this one point, because none of the other candidates were advocating cooperation with Russia. And as I told you before, Paul, all my life I’ve been a detente guy. Detente means cooperate with Russia. I saw in Trump the one candidate who said this is necessary, in his own funny language. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, was very much a hawk. When she said publicly that Vladimir Putin has no soul, you could not commit or utter a more supreme statement of anti-diplomacy, and particularly addressing the Russians, who put a lot of stock in soul. To say somebody has no soul and then go on to equate him with Hitler, I found that so irresponsible. I didn’t vote for Trump, but I did begin to write and broadcast that this was of vital importance that we have this discussion, that we needed a new detente because of the new and more dangerous Cold War.
Since he’s been president, I think he’s been ineffective in regard to pursuing detente with Russia for a couple of reasons. I think that the people who invented Russiagate were the enemies of detente, and they piled on. So they’ve now demonized Russia, they’ve crippled Trump. Anything he does diplomatically with Putin is called collusion. No matter what Mueller says, it’s collusion. This is anti-democracy, and detente is pursued through democracy. So whatever he really wants to do–it’s hard to say–he’s been thwarted. I think it’s also one of the reasons why he put anti-detente people around him…
STEPHEN COHEN: But Russia had assets, unbelievable assets, and corridors for transportation, and even an army, the Northern Alliance, that it kept in Afghanistan. It gave it all to the United States. Putin wanted a strategic alliance with the United States, and what did he get in return? He got from Bush, the second Bush, more NATO expansion right to Russia’s borders, and as I mentioned before, American withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which had been the bedrock of Russian nuclear security for 30 or 40 years. He got betrayed, and they use that word, “We were betrayed by Washington.” This is serious stuff.
The pivot away from the West begins there and continues with these crazy policies that Washington has pursued toward Russia. It doesn’t mean that Russia is gone forever from the West, but if you look at the billions of dollars of investment, you look at which way the pipelines flow, you look at Russia–Putin meets like six times a year, maybe more, with the leader of China. They’ve each called each other their best friend in politics. Trump meets with Putin and we think, “Oh my god, how can he meet with him.” I mean, it’s normal.
PAUL JAY: Netanyahu just met with Putin; nobody said a word.
STEPHEN COHEN: But the point here is that Russia has been torn between East and the West forever. Its best policy, in its own best interest, is to straddle East and West, not to be of the East or the West, but it’s impossible in this world today. And U.S.-led Western policy since the end of the Soviet Union, and particularly since Putin came to power in 2000, has persuaded the Russian ruling elite that Russia cannot count any longer, economically, politically, militarily, on being part of the West. It has to go elsewhere. So all this talk about wanting to win Russia to an American position that’s anti-Iranian and anti-Chinese is conceived in disaster and will end in disaster. They should think of some other foreign policy.
PAUL JAY: I agree, but I think that’s what Trump’s–the people around Trump that wanted the detente–
STEPHEN COHEN: We should get new people.
PAUL JAY: Well…
STEPHEN COHEN: I’ll tell you truthfully, if Trump really wants to cooperate with Russia for the sake of American national security, if we forget all this Russiagate stuff and we say, “The guy is a little dim, but his ideas are right, you’ve got to cooperate with Russia,” he has to get some new advisors. Because the people around him don’t have a clue how to do it.
PAUL JAY: I don’t think that is the intent, the intent is make money. I don’t think there’s any other intent. Make money for arms manufacturers, fossil fuel–
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, hope dies with us. I just don’t see that constant bashing of Trump demeaning him, though it’s so easy to do, helps us think clearly about American national interests.
PAUL JAY: I don’t think bashing Trump by dredging up the demons of the Cold War is anything but warmongering. On the other hand, I don’t think we should create any illusions about who Trump is.
STEPHEN COHEN: So let me give you the part with a paradox. We shouldn’t have any illusions about who Trump is, that seems like–
PAUL JAY: Or who the system is, really.
STEPHEN COHEN: OK. So let’s say–I mean that seems a sensible point of view. But let me ask you a question: Why was it that American presidents since Eisenhower could do detente with Soviet communist leaders, and they weren’t demonized after Stalin, but we’re not permitted–and certainly Trump is not permitted–to do detente with a Russian Kremlin anti-communist leader, which Putin is? Did we like the communists better than the anti-communists in the Kremlin?
PAUL JAY: No. I’ll give you what I think; it’s just a layman’s opinion. I think the foreign policy establishment, the elite, they were absolutely furious that after all these decades of trying to overthrow the Soviet Union, and they finally accomplish–although I think it was mostly an internal phenomenon, but still–and then they get Yeltsin and they have open Wild West, grabbing all these resources. I think they were really pissed that a state emerged, led by Putin, that said, “Hold on, it may be oligarchs, but they’re going to be Russian, and you Americans aren’t going to have a free-for–all, taking up the resources and owning the finance. We’re not going to be a third world country to your empire.”
STEPHEN COHEN: That’s correct.
PAUL JAY: And they’re pissed off at that.
STEPHEN COHEN: They, meaning…?
PAUL JAY: The Americans.
STEPHEN COHEN: Our people.
PAUL JAY: Our people. Well, I don’t want to even take ownership for it.
STEPHEN COHEN: Don’t run away. I don’t know your age–
PAUL JAY: I’m 67.
STEPHEN COHEN: So we’ve established that I’m older than you.
PAUL JAY: No doubt. But you look younger, and I’m pissed at that.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, that’s a separate subject.
PAUL JAY: You’ve got more hair.
STEPHEN COHEN: I’ve got more hair. You’ve distracted me. What we share, despite the age difference, is that we grew up at a time when we were told–whether you or I believed it or not, but our generations, two generations, were told we are against Russia because it’s communist. We were told that for decade after decade after decade. Now, Russia, the Kremlin, is not communist, it’s anti-communist, and we’re still against Russia. How do Russian intellectuals and policy-makers interpret that turnabout, that it was never about communism, it was about Russia? There’s a saying in Russia formulated by a philosopher, his name was Zinoviev, he passed on but he was very influential, they were shooting–meaning the West–they were shooting at communism, but they were aiming at Russia.
Fire TV Stick streamin... Best Price: null Buy New $39.99 (as of 11:14 EST - Details) And the view, very widespread among the Russian policy intellectual class today, is that Washington, in particular, will never accept Russia as an equal great power in world affairs, regardless of whether Russia is communist or anti-communist. And if that is so, Russia has to entirely reconceive its place in the world and its thinking about the West. And that point of view is ascending in Russia today due to Western policy. But just remember the view that all during the previous Cold War, they claim they were shooting at communism, but it was really Russia. And they still are today.
PAUL JAY: Yeah, I agree with that. I just–
STEPHEN COHEN: But we don’t–you and I may agree, but we don’t want Russians to think that way.
In the third interview, the topic of Washington’s delusion about Russia continues at the title explains the dangers that exist now that never did even during the height of the Cuban missile crisis:
U.S. Hoped Putin Would be a ‘Sober Yeltsin’ – RAI with Stephen Cohen (3/5)
STEPHEN COHEN …But it is said that in the history books, in the textbooks, that it’s [The Cuban Missile Crisis] the closest we ever came to nuclear war with Russia, Soviet Russia. Correct?
PAUL JAY If you listen Ellsberg we were seconds from it.
STEPHEN COHEN OK. And yet because of the leadership of Kennedy, and I would add Khrushchev, because it takes two to tango, as Reagan said, these two guys averted Armageddon. Correct? And that’s the lesson we’ve taught our kids and we teach in our textbooks. OK. Imagine today–and it doesn’t take a lot of imagining–that we have a Cuban missile crisis-like confrontation. Could be in Venezuela. Could be in Syria. Could be in former Soviet Georgia. Could be in Ukraine. Lots of places. It happens, suddenly. The two nuclear superpowers are eyeball to eyeball like the Cuban missile crisis. Everybody credits Kennedy and Khrushchev for averting the crisis.
This happens tomorrow, do you think the American political class and its media are going to invest Trump with the authority to negotiate a way out of nuclear war? The guy they called the Kremlin puppet? And are they going to credit Putin, the guy they’ve so demonized, as a partner to avert nuclear war? They will not. And what happens then? The answer is nuclear war. That’s why I say we’re walking on a razor’s edge with this Russiagate demonizing Putin nonsense. We need these two guys, whether we like them or not, to avoid nuclear war. And we are–we have too many situations fraught with war with Russia which could become nuclear war, more than we’ve ever had before. And the people who’ve contributed to these situations refuse to acknowledge what they’ve done. Above all, the mainstream media. What you and I are discussing today should be discussed in the major newspapers and television talk shows in this country nightly. And I guarantee you decades ago it would have been. We’ve lost our way. And the new way is exceedingly dangerous. [Emphasis added]
In the fourth interview, Professor Cohen discusses what led him to become a Russia Scholar; and in this most personal of the interviews one learns of the difference between the Russian “mindset” and American. In addition, his sympathy for the blacks in Kentucky, who are very much human beings, perhaps helped Professor Cohen to also see the Reds or Russians as individual human beings and not “the other” and as enemies.
From Jim Crow Kentucky to Red Square
Stephen Cohen: But here’s how Americans and Russians differ. You and I, looking back on our lives, you and I, Paul, you and I look back on our lives, and we see certain crossroads in our life, right? And we took one or we took the other, and it led us to where we ended up, and maybe where we are now. So you and I are inclined to call that ‘accident.’ Russians call it ‘fate,’ sud’ba. So we’re sitting there talking about how I got it from Kentucky to Red Square. And I’m saying, you know, this was a complete accident. And they’re saying no, it was your fate. You’re wrong. It was, like, predetermined.
The accident is very simple. I went off to the University of Birmingham in England for a year in 1958-’59. And I had $300 left, the equivalent in pounds. And it was my intention before I came back the United States, like all boys who read Hemingway, to go and watch the bulls run in Spain. I had saved the $300, right? That’s what those of us who read Hemingway wanted to do. And then go home after a year. I’m walking in the working class district of Birmingham one day, and I see an enormous sign that you can spend a full month, four weeks, in the Soviet Union for exactly $300 in pounds. So I think to myself, so I can go to Spain for three days, or I can go to the Soviet Union for 30 days for the same amount of money. So I got on the ship to Russia, the Soviet Union.
Turned out to be a Fabian Society pensionair. So I’m like 19, and everybody else is 60, 65, 70. So I carried a lot of bags. But for nearly five weeks I drifted with this group across the Soviet Union. I couldn’t speak Russian. But this was a society emerging from the Stalinist terror. Remember, Stalin died in ’53. Khrushchev gave his denunciation of Stalin in ’56. So three years later, by accident–my Russian friends say no, no, no, no, it was sud’ba. It was your fate–by accident, because I didn’t go watch the bulls run, I ended up in the Soviet Union. And there was something about this society awakening from this long terror, small things and big things, that intrigued me.
Now, how oblivious was I, Paul? I go back to Indiana University–my own university. I did not even know that they had one of the leading Russian studies programs in the United States. That’s how little interested I was in Russia before I didn’t go to Spain. Are you following the story I’m telling you? So I go back to Indiana. And now I’m interested in Russia. So I decide I’ll take a couple courses. And that’s where I met my great mentor, and I think the greatest Russianist of his generation, Robert C. Tucker, who wrote books about Marx, but also–he didn’t finish it–a two volume biography of Stalin. Still the best biography, no matter what anybody says, that we have of Stalin. And Tucker–I went to Tucker and said, you know, I went to Russia by accident. He said, “Well, if you’re interested, learn the language.” And he became my mentor.
So how did I get interested in Russia? That’s how it began, by not going to Spain to watch the bulls run. I say it was just accident. If I hadn’t been walking in the working class district of Birmingham, England, and seen this sign you can go for the same amount of money to Russia, I never would have gone to Russia. But my Russians friends say “Nyet, nyet, [inaudible]. Eto tvoya sud’ba.” That’s your fate. So take your choice.
There will be more interviews with Professor Cohen on the Real News Network but the last one, in which Mr. Jay invites viewers to submit questions for future episodes, is one of the most compelling. And with all the censorship by the big technology companies I hope these interviews remain online or at least are moved to alternative platforms like Bitchute if YouTube deletes them or the Real News Network channel. Again, I hope these excerpts will inspire interested readers to seek out not only Professor Cohen’s published works but these unique, powerful interviews, which give us an opportunity to know this remarkable man, this voice of reason and truth and for peace.
Why I’m Pro-Détente with Russia
STEPHEN COHEN: See, we who grew up in the in the Jim Crow South in little towns would say you were all worried about it, but we all weren’t. However, it should be said that I believe it’s the case that in high school the assigned textbook in civics or something was J. Edgar Hoover’s [book] On Communism, which essentially warned us that communists were everywhere. But I tell you again, I never met a communist until, I mean–I mean, an American communist–until I got to New York. It just wasn’t part of the culture there. The Russians Are Comin... Buy New $14.99 (as of 10:15 EST - Details)
See, it’s interesting. I mean, again, everything is generational. But for my generation the difference between the political culture in the Northeastern political capitals, Washington, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, places like that, and what agitated people there, reds and communist threats and all this–I think, if my memory serves, now I’m tapping into the memory of a boy. But what agitated us down South were different things.
PAUL JAY: But I’m talking about now when you’re 19 and 20, and you know, you’re far more politically aware.
STEPHEN COHEN: No, but now I’m moving into what I would call my intellectual biography. This is different. Now I’m studying. I’m reading.
PAUL JAY: Did you–You went to the Soviet Union, you come back. Did you think the Soviet Union was a threat to the United States?
STEPHEN COHEN: I thought nuclear weapons were a threat to the United States. From the day I began to understand that each side had delivery systems that could deliver nuclear warheads, when I realized that that was our new reality–and by the way, it’s even more the reality today, though we don’t pay a mind anymore–from that moment on I became an advocate of detente–that is, cooperation with the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia to reduce the conflict of what appears to be–by the way, let me add something…If we take 100 years of relations with Russia, the Soviet Union and then post-Soviet Russia, American-Russian relations since, let’s say, the Russian Civil War, 1918-1919, that’s 100 years, right? One century. Seventy-five of them have been Cold War. Think about it. Do the math, right; 1917-1933 the United States didn’t even recognize the existence of the Soviet government. Cold War One. Then comes the 40-year Cold War, which ends in 1988. Then comes the new Cold War. That’s a theme in my new book, War With Russia?, which begins, I would say, with Clinton’s decision to expand NATO and his bombing of Serbia at the end of the 1990s.
So you add it up, out of 100 years it’s 75 years of Cold War with Russia. That’s something to think about, because everybody thinks this began yesterday. This is a long history. What makes it different and more consequential is the invention of nuclear weapons. Because the first Cold War, 1917-1933, 15 years of Cold War, wasn’t dangerous to anybody. It was intensely ideological, and it was a red scare, but we weren’t on the same continent, and we didn’t have weapons that could reach the other country. Everything changes with the advent of deliverable nuclear weapons, and even more so today. People aren’t even aware of the new weapons the Russians have developed in response to our so-called missile defense. It doesn’t get any play here. We’re too busy worrying about whether Trump paid off a prostitute or something.
But I mean, things have changed existentially in regard to nuclear weapons today. We pay no mind. But for my generation, who thought about Russia, two questions emerged insofar as we were political. Now, a lot of my colleagues weren’t political. They studied 17th, 18th, 19th century Russia, prerevolutionary Russia. I was interested in the history. I wrote about the history of Soviet Russia, and the political history. But the question became, for those of us who were political, twofold: Could this Cold War hostility, this hating on each other, actually lead to the use of nuclear weapons? And what could we do as a people who knew something about Russia, not as pro-Soviet or pro-Russia, but as people who actually had knowledge as opposed to attitude, what could we do about it? And the second question was: Could the Soviet Union change? Those became the two kind of great debates within the field, so to speak, for my generation. How could we avoid the worst? And along the way, could the Soviet Union change? Because there was the orthodox majority view in Russian studies at that time that the Soviet system could change.
I–it says on my new book War With Russia? on that front–they take a quote from some magazine–that I’m the most controversial Russian expert in America. But I’ve been controversial ever since I entered the field because of these themes. Because people said in the ’70s and ’80s, the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s when I entered the field, the Soviet system couldn’t change. And a number of my books were about the possibility and prospects of change. I won that debate in 1985 when Gorbachev came to power. I got some things wrong. But on the basic question of whether that Soviet communist system could produce a reformer who would change the system, I was right.
Now, flash forward, right, to 1988-’89 when President Reagan and Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, and that changing reforming Soviet Union, announce the Cold War is over. They said it. I’m not making this stuff up. You can look it up. And Bush said, the first Bush, I was working for CBS then and I went to Malta for the Gorbachev-Bush summit, the C6 summit where they couldn’t get to each other’s boats, and they were getting seasick and they couldn’t–but when they did meet they announced the Cold War was over.
So the great issues, you might say, of my generation, young people entering the field, could the Soviet Union change had been answered; and could we avoid nuclear war seems to have been answered in ’89 when Bush and Gorbachev said the Cold War–I didn’t believe it for one minute. I didn’t believe that the Cold War was over. And I said so in writing and on CBS News, because I was working for CBS and reporting that, you know, two guys say it’s over. But the Cold War was a lot more than two leaders.
PAUL JAY: When I interviewed Daniel Ellsberg he argued that at the top levels of American intelligence, certainly at the top levels of the Pentagon and at some of the top levels of American political stratum, they knew that the Soviet Union was not a threat. They knew the Soviet Union had no plans to invade Western Europe. They knew that in the beginnings, in ’60-’61 when the Air Force was claiming that there was a missile gap, and there was, you know, they said the–the Air Force claimed the Soviet Union had a thousand ICBMs, and it turned out they had four. That this was–his conclusion is that the Cold War was primarily for commercial interest. It was a propaganda campaign to justify moneymaking for weapons manufacture.
STEPHEN COHEN: It’s too soon. I don’t mean to be dismissive of Dan Ellsberg, who’s a very great man and a good thinker. But it’s too simplistic. It’s too one dimensional. The one thing I’ve learned as a historian, that if you want to discuss a major event in history, a really big event that changes history–for example, say it interests me, segregation in the South, right, or the onset of the Cold War, or Vietnam, which interested me because I didn’t want to get drafted and go to Vietnam. One factor will never explain it. Not one.
PAUL JAY: I don’t think he reduces it to one factor. But it’s a–but a dominant factor.
STEPHEN COHEN: I know very well the argument that the Cold War was very profitable for weapons makers, and for certain intelligence services in the West. But it had a long–I’ve already pointed out to you we already had–Dan’s talking about we already had a couple of decades of Cold War. It was embedded in institutions and ways of thinking beyond just the people who controlled the munitions industry. I have no doubt it was a major factor. I mean, look, ask me why they expanded NATO, the great folly of our time. Boy, has that been profitable. Every little country or big country that joins NATO has to buy American standardized weapons. It’s been a boondoggle for the–and you can go back when we had the debate about should we expand NATO eastward or not. The debate that occurred in the ’90s. And lordy, the Pentagon was putting up promotional advertisements for the great advantages of expanding NATO. So I don’t dismiss the economic–and base, I would say–motives behind this. But things were a lot more complex.
PAUL JAY: I don’t think he, and nor do I-
STEPHEN COHEN: Let me interrupt you one thing, here. I mean, Dan would know better, because he had a professional career among intelligence people. He knew them better. But I’ve known a few of these people over the years, and I’ve sent students–not sent students, but I’ve supported students who wanted to go to work for the CIA, and I encouraged them. And I wrote letters of recommendation for them, which is to say that people who work–let’s just take the CIA, because the FBI is a completely different kind of organization. But let’s take the CIA. My experience is that over the years, from the middle to the top–I don’t know about the lower level. And we’re not talking about the, the wet boys, the assassins.
But we’re talking about real intelligence officers, right? As Putin was, for example. Intelligence officers. They analyze intelligence using their intelligence, sometimes with open sources, sometimes for classified sources. My experience over the years was that there was some really remarkably intelligent, decent, thoughtful people in the CIA working on the Russian side of things, as well as a bunch of thuggish types, which is to say that you get up there a mix. And there’s a struggle in the intelligence agencies about what information finally goes to the decision makers. And here’s the problem. You can have the brightest CIA analysts on Russia saying the most enlightened thing, but does it get to the Oval Office? And we have plenty of instances where it’s been thwarted.
PAUL JAY: Yeah. Well, you can see that in Ellsberg’s–a lot of intelligence Ellsberg was seeing wasn’t getting into the White House. I mean, I don’t–I wouldn’t, I don’t think he would discount in any way the fundamental threat of some form of socialism to the capitalist world, both ideologically, politically. But I’m talking just the, sort of the specificity of the post-World War II Cold War that the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. They knew it wasn’t true.
STEPHEN COHEN: It was a great movie, by the way. The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. It’s a very funny movie, and great political satire. And it should be re-released today, because they’re telling us, no, the Russians are already here. The Russians are already here. This will be the sequel, right. Well, what’s the premise of Russiagate? The Russians put Trump in the White House, so the Russians are already here.
PAUL JAY: It’s the same premise of the Cold War. The Russians want global hegemony, and this is the way to do it.
STEPHEN COHEN: I’m saying it’s no longer the Russians Are Coming. The Russians are already here. You know, I guess I had a kind of–I don’t know why. I mean, I knew people who were passionate Cold Warriors. Fanatics.
PAUL JAY: But you weren’t.
STEPHEN COHEN: So, look. I take this seriously. I have my political view, as I have my–you know, so to say, predispositions, even biases, prejudices. But if you’re going to work as a scholar, if you’re going to do it right, you really have to try to be objective as possible. Now, that’s an abused, clichéd word. But what does it ultimately mean? It means seeing both sides, all sides of the story, and going nowhere near an interpretation or a conclusion without verifiable facts. The American media today has completely lost that capacity. I mean, Trump has driven them completely crazy. They’ve abandoned all their standards.
But in my day that was something that, that–that sense that you have to see the whole story and you have to have verifiable facts, was something that was shared by scholars, by journalists, and by medical doctors.
PAUL JAY: One hopes.
STEPHEN COHEN: Because I don’t want a doctor operating on me based on some cockamamie story he picked up in Washington. Right? This was a kind of–it was more than a–it was a given that if you were going to do scholarship, you were going to do journalism, I mean, at a high level, and devote your life to it, you did this. And what you learned then is that stories, narratives, history is so multifaceted that you got to weigh all stories before you think you can get the story right.
One of the themes of my work, especially on Russia, has been alternatives in history. I have a book called Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives. And in fact, in the introduction I even mentioned growing up in the South, in the Jim Crow South, and how alternatives, and–I mean, I want–to show you how puzzling this can be to a kid, I think the first time I wondered about alternatives was when I figured out that both the presidents in the American Civil War were from Kentucky. Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. So I’m kind of puzzling, scratching my head. You know, this is, like, high school stuff. So how could it be that one guy from Kentucky became the president on this side of the Civil War, and one guy on the other.
So what does that mean, Paul? That means that in Kentucky there were crossroads, in Kentucky’s history. Kentucky left the Civil War more Jim Crow than it entered the Civil War. But Lincoln had hoped Kentucky wouldn’t join the Confederacy. So evidently there was in this history of Kentucky a crossroad, just as there had been in Soviet history. And that always interested me. Not counterfactual. People write counterfactual–you know, what if Hitler had died in 1930, or something. Given the actual facts and alternatives at a given moment, a turning point. 1929 in the Soviet Union, when Stalin imposes collectivization on the peasantry and changes everything. The revolution of 1917 was basically over. Think about it. In 1917, the main essence of the Russian Revolution is the peasant took the land. That’s what drove the revolution in 1917. The peasants took the land. 85 percent, 82 percent of the population took the land on which they had been serfs for themselves. 1929, what did Stalin do? He took the land away from the peasants. He imposed collectivization, state farms. Gorbachev, who grew up on a collective farm in Stavropol, said that there they called it the second serfdom. Son of Thunder: The Sp... Buy New $12.00 (as of 04:45 EST - Details)
So what am I saying to you? That these turning points, these reversals, these decisive moments in history–because Stalin’s decision in 1929 changed everything for Russia, for the Soviet Union. There was an alternative. OK. So, factually, you research the alternative. You see the people. But then comes the why. That’s the hard point. Why was this road taken when the alternative was also-
PAUL JAY: And that’s your book on Bukharin.
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah. But it was present in terms of social forces, ideas, and leaders. They could have done it another way. Bukharin represented the other way. They didn’t. How do you explain that?
I think you could take that way of asking questions and apply it to any turning point in history. Vietnam. Russiagate, I think, today, because it’s going to affect America for years for sure, and maybe decades to come.
We’ve kind of drifted from the point I want to make, but it’s this is that–whether you’re a journalist, a medical doctor, or a scholar such as myself–I mean, I guess a plumber, I mean, you’ve got to get the facts clear. Verify them. And then see what your options are.
On the Real News Network site, the Reality Asserts Itself interviews with Professor Cohen can be found here.