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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

'Cold War': the Waging of Fear

CNN documentary series looks at a time when the threat of nuclear destruction loomed large and much of America was seeing Red.

September 25, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

If you're among those who believe there's a witch hunt in the United States today, tune in "Cold War," CNN's historic and prodigious 24-hour documentary series, whose sixth installment captures a bit of the anti-Red hysteria that gripped much of the nation in the 1950s.

"I am going to name names!" vows that notorious demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy, his threat resonating ominously in a burgeoning Nuclear Age when America channeled nearly as much fear inward--toward its own citizens--as toward its true nemesis, the Soviet Union.

Scapegoats were needed to nourish the illusion of a vast Kremlin-directed fifth column conspiring against the United States from within. "We talked to children about their parents . . . and parents about their children," recalls a former FBI agent.

Today's sexual exposes notwithstanding, that was a witch hunt.

And stretching deep into 1999 in hour-long weekly installments, "Cold War" is quite a stunning series, at once smart, fully armed and viewer-friendly, welcome evidence that CNN at least occasionally has more on its mind these days than pumping its own hot helium, around the clock, into every Clinton-Lewinsky floater on the horizon.

The quality, at least, should be no surprise, in that executive producer Jeremy Isaacs also created "The World at War," an extravagantly fine British series about World War II that, even 25 years later, remains supreme among TV's war documentaries. Its matchless narrator was Laurence Olivier. The refined off-screen voice of "Cold War" is actor-director Kenneth Branagh, whose narration takes awhile getting used to.

This is only partially the kind of visual story that TV is accustomed to telling, the Cold War's battlefields so frequently being the invisible regions of hearts and minds. Nonetheless, in unpretentious, plain-wrap style with supporting footage and comments from actual players, the series manages to successfully illuminate an entire era while also extending at least a penlight to some of the more obscure corners of history.

"Cold War" is presented chronologically, in the main. The "Reds" hour--encompassing this nation's internal Commie scare and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's own raging paranoia that cost multitudes of innocent lives--is a rare episode based on a single theme.

Another, titled "Backyard" and showing far down the line, is measured without being timid while detailing decades of controversial U.S. stealth in Latin America on behalf of self-interest. The hour ranges from the CIA's covert terror campaign that helped subvert the democratically elected Arbenz government in Guatemala during the Eisenhower years to its secret undermining of Chile's popularly elected president Salvador Allende, a Marxist reformer who fell in 1973 to a right-wing coup led by the terroristic Gen. Augusto Pinochet. And of course, there are Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua and those scandalous Iran-Contra revelations about U.S. operatives seeking to finance anti-Sandinista forces with money from the secret sale of arms to Iran.

Such deception on behalf of checkmating communism did not occur in a vacuum. Flash back to an earlier "Cold War" hour that covers a CIA campaign to secretly wreck communist inroads in a 1948 Italian election that the Christian Democrats ended up winning in a landslide. "We had bags of money we delivered to selected [Christian Democratic] officials," a former CIA man recalls. "It was the first political action program in the history of the U.S., [one] that would be followed by many, many more."

Not that "Cold War" is in any way an anti-U.S. diatribe that beats up on one side.

In fact, the stage-setting opening hour detects Cold War roots in the Romanov-toppling Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Then leap ahead to the late 1930s and Stalin's stunning non-aggression pact with Hitler, and later those series of fascinating conferences during World War II where the Soviet dictator, President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to strategically divvy up a postwar moonscape that would be the basis for the Cold War.

Then come the lingering mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as soon, notes Branagh, "the human race would be able to destroy itself in a day."

More indelible is the famous line from a prophetic speech Churchill gave in Missouri eight months after the war: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent." If not a call to arms, then, it's a call to containment that we hear in Hour Two, a policy driven in the West by a fear of a Soviet communism that had already spread to central Europe.

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