Moyers on Democracy

Podcast: Andrew Bacevich on “The Age of Illusions” and What Does It Mean to Be an American After the Cold War

Military historian Andrew Bacevich and Bill discuss America's role in the world in the 21st century and what exactly does it mean to be an American after the Cold War?

Andrew Bacevich on "The Age of Illusions"

Bill Moyers is back with a new podcast that cuts through all the noise to get at the heart of what we need to be discussing as a country. Moyers On Democracy will take a look at all the threats our democracy is facing — voter suppression, dark money, corporate power, inequality, dwindling faith in our institutions — and talk to the people with the best ideas for saving it.

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Andrew BacevichBill goes behind the headlines to talk with Andrew Bacevich about democracy. Bacevich, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, and a professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, joins Bill Moyers to explore a very complex America and his new book. The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.


Listen to the interview

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to a conversation between Bill Moyers and one of America’s most recognized voices on America and the world today, Andrew Bacevich. He’s a graduate of West Point,  fought in the Vietnam war, served in Europe during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. and led troops in the Persian Gulf War. He retired from the military after 23 years and joined the faculty of Boston University, where he’s now professor emeritus. He’s just published his eighth book — The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. He’s here to talk about it with Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS: Andrew Bacevich, Welcome.


BILL MOYERS: You begin by quoting one of my favorite characters in fiction — Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom —created by the novelist John Updike over a quarter of a century ago, who said, “Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?” Right?

ANDREW BACEVICH: And I think we haven’t figured out yet. Now —

BILL MOYERS: That’s what you’re wrestling with in this book.

America though, life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe. And each generation is promised more than it will get, which creates in each generation a furious, bewildered rage. The rage of a people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet.

— James Baldwin

ANDREW BACEVICH: And the answer to that question is, there is no answer. We’ve tried to avoid the question. Collectively. This is a vast country. Maybe we’re too big for our own good. What’s the population now? Something like 325, 330 million?

BILL MOYERS: Right, right.

Maybe it’s too big to have a purpose. But if the only purpose we have is to sort of spout platitudes about freedom — I would argue that ain’t enough. Those people who elected Donald Trump in many respects, I think, were asking for some answer to what’s the purpose of being an American that had some more substance than what they were given by the disciples who were pedaling globalization and militarization and radical autonomy.

There’s another quote that I begin the book with, and this is James Baldwin from the 1950s. But it seems to me that it’s very pertinent.  “In America though, life seems to move faster than anywhere else on the globe. And each generation is promised more than it will get, which creates in each generation a furious, bewildered rage. The rage of a people who cannot find solid ground beneath their feet.”

I think that describes the point that we had arrived at in 2016. A furious bewildered people, unable to find solid ground on which to stand. And they expressed their rage by electing Donald Trump president.

BILL MOYERS: And the source of that disconsolation was what?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I don’t think I have an easy answer,  some of it certainly was disappointment that all the promises made in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall didn’t come to pass.

Cover of Andrew Bacevich's The Age of Illusion

Cover of Andrew Bacevich’s The Age of Illusion

BILL MOYERS: Well, this is the core of your new book, must-read book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. So let’s go there. It’s 1989, just weeks after the Soviet Union has collapsed from economic and political exhaustion. The Berlin wall, erected by the Soviets to divide East from West has fallen.

The United States is celebrating the triumph of capitalism over Communism, and President George H.W. Bush  is delivering his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: There are singular moments in history. Dates that divide that all that goes before from all that comes after. The events of the year just ended, the revolution of ’89 have been a chain reaction, changes so striking that it marks the beginning of a new era in the world’s affairs — (APPLAUSE)

Remarkable events. Events that fulfilled the long-held hopes of the American people. Events that validate the longstanding goals of American policy, a policy based on a single, shining principle, the cause of freedom. Amer — (APPLAUSE) America, not just a nation but an idea alive in the minds of people everywhere.

As this new world takes shape, America stands at the center of a widening circle of freedom. Today, tomorrow, and into the next century, our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores, and the millions still struggling to be free. This nation, this idea called America was and always will be a new world, our new world.

BILL MOYERS: We were really riding high, taking credit for defeating Communism, seeing wonderful things to come. We owned the future, America. The only superpower, the only gorilla in the — in the forest, (LAUGH) we — you and I agreed. Global capital would be free to go anywhere it wanted to, to do what it does best, make money.

Individuals would be free to be what they wanted to be. All restraints came off, you write in the Age of Illusions. And our military was the most powerful in the world. That was what prevailed when George H.W. Bush said, “There will be a new world, our new world.” Sum up what happened after that.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think in very short order there was an effort on the part of people who deal in the world of ideas to define exactly what that new order meant. And they came up with a set of formulas. They concluded that unrestricted, unrestrained capitalism operating on a global basis clearly was an instrument to create wealth on a hitherto unexpected basis.

They believed that the American military could police this world. And we should note also that it was just basically a year after Bush gives that speech that the expectations of American military supremacy seemingly were validated in Operation Desert Storm.

Desert Storm seemed to show, yes, proof that the American military could not be defeated and indeed could quickly win a victory over any foe. So these ideas become the basis for U.S. policy after the Cold War. I would argue there was a consensus, a bipartisan consensus in favor of those things  — a consensus in favor of globalization, in favor of putting this great military to work, in favor of coming to a broader definition of what freedom meant.

And a definition, by the way, that was heavy on privileges and kind of light on obligations and duties. And so, the period that I call the post-Cold War period, meaning from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the election of Donald Trump is a period in which we put — put these notions to the test to see how they work. And in my judgment, the evidence is clear that they failed. What’s the evidence? Well, if you look at globalization, globalization does indeed create great wealth.

But globalization also leaves lots of people behind. So by the time we get to the end of the post-Cold War period, when Donald Trump is running against Hillary Clinton for the presidency, we’ve got the greatest division in terms of our economy in the history of our country. With tens of millions of people that are just being left behind economically.

We look at our country today, and we find that an epidemic of drug abuse, an epidemic of people who are addicted to porn, an epidemic of people who can find no satisfaction in life other than going shopping and buying things, [an] epidemic of suicide, declining lifespan for white males, and on and on and on.

So you can certainly make an argument that says, the American people are freer than they ever have been. I think that is a true statement. But what’s equally true and also troubling is that our society is just riven with dysfunction, people who are alienated, people who are lonely. And so the argument I make in my book is that the people who were not being benefited by globalization or militarism or this new definition of freedom — in November 20, 2016, they said, “I’ve had enough.” So that election, which brought Donald Trump to the White House, was to my mind basically a repudiation, a rejection of the principles that had guided U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

BILL MOYERS: I want to go to something you said at your book event here in New York City. That that the purpose of war is to achieve certain political goals. But it’s been a long time since our military has done that, right?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes. Let’s talk about the way we used to think about the role of the military and the way we have come to think about the role of the military in the present moment. Let’s widen the aperture even further. Let’s remember that for most of our history we did not as a matter of policy, maintain a large and lethal military establishment.

Watch: Andrew Bacevich on Changing Our Military Mindset

We created a large and lethal military establishment to respond to an emergency like World War II. Vast expansion. We have forgotten that after World War II, the U.S. military quickly shrank down to a much, much smaller size, because it was not a tradition in our country to maintain a massive peacetime military force.

The Cold War changes that. Under the Truman administration, we decide we need to rearm-because of the Soviet threat. But what was the purpose of the U.S. military during the Cold War? Acknowledging that there were very significant conflicts that happen — Korea and Vietnam — the purpose of the United States military basically was to prevent war. Was to contain the Soviet Union. Was to deter the Soviets from invading Western Europe and starting World War III.

I’m not trying to imply that we were totally passive, but the larger strategic purpose was [to] prevent bad things from happening. I don’t think we really appreciate the extent to which the end of the Cold War changed that radically. When the Cold War ended, and it now appeared that we had no adversary of any consequence, nobody’s gonna get in our way. Nobody’s going to be able to prevent us from doing what we want to do.

BILL MOYERS: There was just one gorilla in the forest.

ANDREW BACEVICH: And therefore, instead of thinking about the military’s purpose in terms of deter or defend, we came to believe that we could put the military to work. An instrument to use to fix problems. And this began, [after] the fall of the Berlin Wall — autumn 1989.

We have forgotten that in December of 1989, this new mode of operating was given a test run by George Herbert Walker Bush. We intervened in Panama — we overthrew the dictator who had been a CIA asset, but we overthrew the dictator. We installed another government more to our liking in Panama.

The whole thing was over in five days. And this seemed to validate the notion that a more activist posture could serve as a a problem solver. And my argument would be that, every administration since then, even to include Trump’s now, has operated on that premise. That we can put force to work, and we can fix problems. We’re not interested in simply deterring. We’re interested in maximizing the value of our military superiority.

We saw that under Bill Clinton. We saw that under Bush, of course. We saw it under Obama, and now we’ve seen it under Trump himself. So that’s the big change. And what we have found I think as a matter of the win-loss record, is that there haven’t been that many wins. Panama, 1989, would be an example of one that turned out successfully, but how does Panama stack up against the Afghanistan war, the Iraq war, the intervention in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi?

And I could cite others. So the troops are great. American military technology is fabulous. The assassination of General Suleimani. What a remarkable tactical accomplishment. But if the purpose of war is to achieve political objectives, then we’re not doing too well.

We’ve not succeeded in spreading democracy. We’ve not succeeded in eliminating terrorism. And if anything, we have created disorder rather than order. So it seems to me, and this I find an enormous puzzle. It seems to me that we are long overdue as a country, as a people to evaluate what we have gotten, the benefits that we have gotten through this more activist posture. And to evaluate the cost that we have paid, and that everybody else has paid, and reach some conclusion of whether this post-Cold War militarism, and I would call it that, whether it’s working. And I think the answer’s obvious: No, (LAUGH) it’s not working. And that therefore we should be rethinking our penchant for war. But that hasn’t happened yet.

BILL MOYERS:  I came down this morning with two images in my mind. One of the photographs I looked at quite early of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg loading onto those big transport planes. One of the senior master sergeants getting on one of those planes taking them to the Middle East was quoted saying, “The Army is an all-volunteer force. We want to do this. You pay your taxes, and we get to do this.” In other words, we’re working for you. What impact has the all-volunteer Army had on what we’re discussing?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think it’s been negative. So, we have to talk a little bit about what I would call the American military tradition. The American military tradition was centered on the citizen-soldier. The notion that inherent in citizenship was a responsibility, even an obligation, to come to the country’s defense when that was needed.

U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division walk onto a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft prior to a parachute drop during a joint forcible entry exercise at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., on Sept. 14, 2010. A joint forcible entry exercise is held six times a year to enhance cohesiveness between the Air Force and the Army. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Angelita M. Lawrence, U.S. Air Force.

U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division walk onto a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft prior to a parachute drop during a joint forcible entry exercise at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., on Sept. 14, 2010. A joint forcible entry exercise is held six times a year to enhance cohesiveness between the Air Force and the Army. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Angelita M. Lawrence, U.S. Air Force.

And from the Revolution all the way through up to and including the Vietnam War, we relied on the citizen-soldier as the primary defender of the country. Whether you’re talking Civil War, World War I, World War II. Those were not professional. Those were not regulars. They were people who either had volunteered in the 19th century or who were conscripted in the 20th century to respond to a particular emergency, with the expectation that when the emergency ended, they were going to go home.

The citizen-soldier tradition collapses in Vietnam. And it collapses because the Vietnam War was a stupid and ill-managed war. And therefore, the young people and their parents — facing the prospect of allowing the state to command their military service said, “No.” And the system of conscription collapsed. President Nixon acknowledged that when he declared that we were not going to have the draft anymore, and we were going to create this all-volunteer force.

And people applauded. Great. Not have to worry about my son getting drafted and sent off to some stupid war. I don’t think we appreciated the longer-term consequences of this new arrangement, where we were gonna rely on a relatively small group of our citizens to provide for the country’s defense. Now let me emphasize, had we become a country that didn’t particularly emphasize military power in the way we make our way in the world, that probably would have been a good solution.

But we have chosen to be a country, and this is particularly true after the Cold War ended, we have chosen to be a country that sees accumulating and using military power as central to our conception of exercising global leadership. We don’t exercise leadership by trying to give a good example. We don’t exercise leadership through generosity, through sharing our wealth. We have come to believe, our political leaders have come to believe, that the way you exercise global leadership is through hard power.

Well, we’ve been trying that now for quite a long time, but particularly since 9/11. And what we have found is that, two things we’ve found. Number one, the volunteer force is a relatively small force.

When the Iraq War went south, and it turned out we needed more troops than we had, this created — a tremendous problem of managing that war. We solved that problem by relying on contractors, mercenaries in a sense. Because it turns out the all-volunteer force is not easily expanded.

The second thing that happened I think is that we citizens came to find it very agreeable indeed that there was this separate class of people that waged our wars.

BILL MOYERS: There was a story just the other day about how recruiters for the military are doubling down on the visits they pay to the poorest schools in the country —


Because a crucial incentive to join the all-volunteer force is the material incentive, an economic incentive. You know, you’re a young kid who made it through college. You’re living in Mississippi. Opportunities are hard to find, and here’s this recruiter saying, you join up for three, four, five years, you’re going to get a decent salary, you’re going to get benefits.

You’re not going to get benefits working at McDonald’s. Stay in long enough, you’re going to get a pension. In in a country that does not offer good job opportunities to many young kids right out of high school, military sounds pretty good. We give ’em bonuses. And that’s how the system works.

It seems to me that the all-volunteer force, A) doesn’t work. Doesn’t work in the sense that we achieve our political objectives. It is undemocratic, and it is immoral.

And it’s especially disappointing that our citizens, who profess to want to support the troops are oblivious to the shortcomings of the system. I think that the defects of the all-volunteer force ought to be central to, for example, this presidential election that’s coming up. And virtually nobody’s going to talk about it at all.

BILL MOYERS: There’s just something that strikes me as corrupting of democracy to monetize patriotism and military service —

ANDREW BACEVICH: I can’t tell you how much I agree with that. And you introduced the word corrupting, and that’s exactly the right word.

BILL MOYERS: And I mean systemic corruption. 

These wars are funded, and these troops are funded by debt. Does it strike you as weird that we’re borrowing billions of dollars from China and others to fight these endless wars?

ANDREW BACEVICH: More than weird. Again, it’s appalling. But that’s the way you get away with it. You know, kick the consequences down the road. And somebody’s going to pay some day, but you’re right. It’s not going to be you, not going to be me. And therefore the politicians get away with this.

And it’s like a conspiracy between presidents, members of Congress and the leaders of the military itself. And probably you could throw in the press as well. Because the press is very much aware of the game that’s being played. You know, just put this on my tab. Just put this on my tab, without — any serious discussion of it.

BILL MOYERS: When did you first realize that democracy contains the seeds of its own destruction? And by that, I mean we are seemingly unable to solve so many of the problems we create for ourselves.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think it was after the Cold War. I have to acknowledge that most of my military service occurred during the Cold War. I was a believer.

BILL MOYERS: You went in in ’69, right?

ANDREW BACEVICH: ’69, you know. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, when there were always some dissenters who questioned the Cold War, questioned the arms race, questioned whether or not the Soviets were 10 feet tall.

But there was a very firm consensus with Democrats and Republicans alike subscribing to it, that saw the Cold War as a necessary undertaking. I certainly believed that. It was only when the Cold War ended, and when I also began to discover the Soviets weren’t 10 feet tall.  That they never really were quite as tough as we had been propagandized to believe. But also began to reflect on the triumphalism that pervaded our country after the Cold War. This end of history, indispensable nation, sole superpower attitude that was very prevalent at least through the 1990s, I think, until we get to 9/11.

And I thought that that was just so— it did not include a sober consideration for the complexities of human existence. And I think that that hubris took us down a bad path. And we have seen that in particular in the post-9/11 period.

BILL MOYERS: You and I both know that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all followed policies that in one way or the other supported globalization, neoliberalism, supported a strong military that couldn’t be excessively used but could be used when they needed a political goal they wanted to achieve and didn’t.

There was a thread through that period of time which ran through Wall Street and greed, and through both parties, that brought about this radical change from the Cold War era. Right?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes. And what’s I think disappointing is the response of the establishment that was repudiated. In other words, Trump’s election— the response tended to be that Trump is the problem. That if we can just get rid of this guy, all will be well.

Post War Hopes: Cold War Fears

BILL MOYERS: Over 30 years ago, a senior propaganda guru of the Soviet Union during the Cold War said to an American, “We’re going to do a terrible thing to you.We’re going to deprive you of an enemy.” What did he mean by that? You quote him in your book.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we had an answer to Rabbit Angstrom’s question, “What’s the point of being an American?” The point of being an American was to wage the Cold War, was to defend freedom. And defending freedom meant resisting Communism. And many other things then stemmed from that basic claim.

There was no question about what freedom was then. Freedom was, we’re different from them. We believe in God. They don’t believe in God. We believe in democracy. They don’t practice democracy. It all seemed fairly cut and dry.

And then when the enemy went away, everything became, I was going to say complicated, but in a sense everything was now up for grabs. And not as a result of ill will. I’m not trying to play that there’s a conspiracy, but that the intellectual climate, the ideas that shaped public policy, they changed after the Cold War.

And ideas that would have been rejected as absurd, particularly let’s say in the military realm, now rose to the top — came to be seen as forward-looking. Those ideas, again, globalization and militarism, became the basis of policy and ended up producing, in my judgment, deeply unfortunate consequences. And here we are in 2020, and we still don’t know what is the point of being an American after the Cold War.

BILL MOYERS: You also say that, and I’m quoting, “An intoxicated elite threw caution to the wind. Their goal was to cement the primacy of the United States in perpetuity while enshrining the American way of life as the ultimate destiny of mankind.”

ANDREW BACEVICH: You could fill an entire book with quotations from political leaders, intellectual leaders, [and] significant journalists claiming over and over again that there is no alternative to American leadership. The world expects us to lead. The world demands that we lead.

Only we know what leadership requires. Only we understand what history after the end of history is going to produce. It was an astonishing level of hubris expressed. And I think then shaped the climate in which these post-Cold War policies were conceived and then implemented.

BILL MOYERS: And you say, “By turning their country over to Donald Trump, those Americans who did not share in the benefits of that quarter of a century signal their repudiation of that very consensus by which we had been governed.”


And we have to remember that, you know, Hillary Clinton was infinitely more qualified to serve as president than Trump was. But Hillary Clinton was also the embodiment of that post-Cold War consensus. She believed in globalization. She believed in the aggressive use of American military power. She believed in this radical definition of freedom.


ANDREW BACEVICH: As autonomy. I’m sure her beliefs in all those respects were absolutely genuine. Those beliefs reflected the convictions of the, what, 61 million people who voted for her. What caught everybody by surprise is that there was essentially an equal number who rejected those beliefs.

People say, “Well, she won more votes in the popular vote,” which is true. I mean, also irrelevant. But the testimony to her repudiation is not simply that Donald Trump, totally unqualified to be president, got the number of votes he did.

But also the number of Americans who couldn’t even be bothered to vote in that election, which numbered in the tens of millions of people. They too represent a repudiation of this situation, this circumstance, which had evolved between the end of the Cold War and November of 2016.

BILL MOYERS: A consensus, as you point out so powerfully in the book, of promises made but not kept. Expectations raised but unfulfilled. Outraged citizens left with no place to stand. That’s a striking indictment of the two-party system during that period from the Cold War to the election of 2016. I happen to think you’re right. Both parties contributed to this repudiation, because they failed to do the simple things of democracy that make people feel like good citizens and a participant in the society.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think your word — your use of the word participant here is exactly right. There are participants. There are people, good civic-minded citizens who are engaged in politics, who campaign, who are activists. But there’s too many of us I think that have become cynical. And sit out our politics, and therefore sit out our democracy. And I think the reason is captured in that James Baldwin quote.

BILL MOYERS: So I expected at the end of your book to see that famous cartoon where someone is asking someone else, “Well, tell me, whose side are you on? Doom or gloom?” (LAUGH)

ANDREW BACEVICH: I tend to be — somewhere between — doom and gloom. But I would argue strongly that we need to resurrect some understanding of the common good. If we can do that, that will help heal our divisions [and] will answer the question, “What is the purpose of being an American after the Cold War?” People are going to have different ideas about what could be the basis of a new understanding of the common good.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is climate change. This is the common threat to us and to everybody else on the planet. And were we collectively to recognize how serious that threat is, then that could become the basis of a new politics that would be focused on addressing the threat of climate change and that would then, I believe, help bring the country together again.

To really state it bluntly, the enemy is the American way of life. The enemy is the way we have come to define what freedom actually means…It is past time for us to have a serious conversation about what freedom means, what freedom entails, what obligations or duties freedom imposes.

I don’t see a lot of evidence right now that our political class —there’s a lotta talk about climate change. A lot more talk than there is action. Not a heck of a lot of willingness to confront Americans with the fact that dealing with climate change will require sacrifice, will require doing with less. But unless we get serious, I fear for the world, in which my grandchildren are now growing up in.

BILL MOYERS: So we find a new enemy, and that enemy is our own threat to life on this planet and the life of the planet itself.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Yes. And — I mean, to really state it bluntly, the enemy is the American way of life. The enemy is the way we have come to define what freedom actually means. We will always see ourselves as the people of freedom. We will always say that, freedom really is the foundation of of America.

But it is past time for us to have a serious conversation about what freedom means, what freedom entails, what obligations or duties freedom imposes. We’ve avoided that, and I think, in particular again, after the Cold War we didn’t want to talk about that.

BILL MOYERS: That’s what makes your book both painful and exhilarating. Because it is painful to read the truth, but it is also exhilarating to think the truth may yet save us. Andrew Bacevich, I hope everybody reads The Age of Illusions. Thank you for joining me.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Thank you very, very much.

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