Political-Ideological Warfare in Integrated Strategy, and its Basis in an Assessment of Soviet Reality

Political-Ideological Warfare in Integrated Strategy, and its Basis in an Assessment of Soviet Reality
(John Lenczowski, May 25, 2011)

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About the speaker

John Lenczowski is founder and president of The Institute of World Politics, an independent graduate school of national security and international affairs in Washington, D.C. IWP is dedicated to developing leaders with a sound understanding of international realities and the ethical conduct of statecraft, based on knowledge and appreciation of American founding principles and the Western moral tradition. Offering a doctoral program, five Master’s degrees and eighteen certificate programs, IWP is the only academic institution dedicated to teaching all the arts of statecraft, including: military strategy, the art of diplomacy; public diplomacy, opinion formation, political warfare; intelligence, counterintelligence, economic strategy, and moral leadership, and how these arts are integrated into national strategy. 

From 1981 to 1983, Dr. Lenczowski served in the State Department in the Bureau of European Affairs and as Special Advisor to Under Secretary for Political Affairs Lawrence Eagleburger. From 1983 to 1987, he was Director of European and Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council. In that capacity, he was principal Soviet affairs adviser to President Reagan. 

He has been associated with several academic and research institutions in the Washington area, including Georgetown University, the University of Maryland, the American Enterprise Institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Council for Inter-American Security, and the International Freedom Foundation. He has also served on the staff of Congressman James Courter. 

Dr. Lenczowski attended the Thacher School, earned his B.A. at the University of California, Berkeley, and received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

He is the author of Soviet Perceptions of U.S. Foreign Policy (1982); The Sources of Soviet Perestroika (1990), Cultural Diplomacy: A Multi-faceted Strategic Asset of Soviet Power (1991); Full-Spectrum Diplomacy and Grand Strategy(2011) and numerous other writings and addresses on U.S. foreign policy, public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, counter-propaganda, political warfare, Soviet/Russian affairs, comparative ideologies, intelligence, strategic deception, counterintelligence, and integrated strategy.

For more on the nature of the Soviet Union and Russian communism, see Diana West’s Westminster talk, Countering Subversion: Lessons from History, and Robert Reilly’s Westminster talk, Diplomacy in the Modern Era.


John Lenczowski:

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great privilege to join you here for what I think is one of the most important conferences of its type that I think that has been put on by anybody. And I want to congratulate Katie and her colleagues for for making this happen. And I can only wish that this could be multiplied many times over.

I would like to share with you today a few thoughts about my experience in- as is really an eyewitness and participant in the war of ideas during the Cold War, particularly in the administration, in the Reagan Administration, where I served in the State Department and the National Security Council.

Let me just begin that the- Ronald Reagan’s and the administration’s policy towards Soviet Communism was something that actually, having been rooted in in the president’s long-standing study of Communism, his experience of dealing with Communists in the trade union movement, and so on and so forth, it had all of those roots.

But ultimately, the way policy was made derived from a very coherent strategic understanding of what had to be done about the problem. And a very large part of strategy in the first place is the whole question of identifying the weaknesses of the enemy and let me just now- I do not want to say that everybody in the Reagan administration was thinking this way.

As a matter of fact, the number of people who were thinking this way was rather small, but nevertheless that small group had an extraordinary influence in the development of policy precisely because their views comported with the president’s and the first, the fundamental weakness that was identified in the administration concerning the, you know, Soviet Communism was the lack of legitimacy of the Soviet regime.

The Soviets came to power by conspiracy, force, and ruthlessness, and deception. They did not give a full accounting of what their political program was. They did not rule by the consent of the governed and so they needed their ideology fundamentally to to justify why they deserved to be in power. Marxism-Leninism was used for this purpose.

I can explain in some detail why, how they use the ideology to justify themselves in power in very short order. Basically, the argument was, ‘We, the Communist Party, understand the laws of history better than you do and therefore we deserve to be in power’. That is the very short and highly simplistic explanation of how they legitimize themselves. It derives from a more complex idea called ‘freedom is comprehended necessity’, which has very much to do with understanding the inevitable laws of history and so on and so forth.

Now, they used this ideology not only to legitimize themselves, but to serve their internal security interests, precisely because they were illegitimate. They had a huge internal security problem. They were afraid of their own people. That was the central fact of political life of the Soviet system, which is why they had such a vast internal security apparatus from the KGB, the block- the block informants, the jamming of foreign broadcasts, the hermetically sealing of the- of the border, the control of the economy, the control of communications, education entertainment, internal travel, and etc. etc. etc.

The ideology however, because it had this whole aura of inevitability of the inexorable laws of history, was something, which essentially was designed to induce first of all, a kind of a state of acceptance of the regime in power, but at a much deeper level.

Namely, that if history is unstoppable, and because the party is writing the wave of history, therefore, one cannot resist the, you know, human will, a human effort cannot resist these inexorable forces and therefore, that this ideology was designed to induce a kind of a psychological state of acceptance if not futile resignation. It is futile to resist the forces of history.

Now, the ideology played a huge role in the internal security system not only in this psychological- political-psychological sense, but also in so far is it established an entire system of thought- oh, based on an internally logically consistent system of falsehoods, otherwise known in short as the lie, which enforced conformity within the system.

The basic principle here was the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everybody in the court had to say that the naked emperor was wearing beautiful clothes and if anybody said otherwise, and said that he was naked, then he could- that person could easily be identified by the thought police as a threat to the regime, as a nonconformist, and- and therefore, somebody who had to be removed to the gulag or other assorted punishments.

And so, this was a system, which- which was designed to get everybody to repeat the official falsehoods whether they, you know, and there the repetition… You would say the falsehood either as a sign of loyalty to the regime or as a sign of submission.

The- this system combined with the- the coercive aspects of the internal security system created an atomization in society about which we heard a little earlier and- and- which is a key feature of- of totalitarian systems whereby the individual is separated from all other individuals because nobody can trust anybody else and- and the absence of trust is bolstered by the fundamental aura of falsehood that surrounds the entire political culture.

The lie lay at the root of Soviet socialism and it had a number of different dimensions. At perhaps its most profound dimension, the lie basically said that there is no transcendent, objective, universal, moral order in the world, but rather, all moral standards are determined by man.

Of course, the ideology does not formally say this. The ideology says that history makes right and that it is the laws of history that determine what is right and wrong.

As Lenin described it in his famous speech to the youth leagues in 1921 in his classic statement of communist morality, ‘there is no such thing as objective moral standards. This is a bunch of bourgeois prejudice.’ Instead, any morality that is good is that which assists the revolution and accelerates the revolution. That which is bad is that which hinders the revolution, entirely a contingent morality.

But ultimately, despite the fact that all of this depends upon the revolutionary tides, at root, what is history? History is the past tense of politics, politics is in control of man, and man is the one, ultimately, who determines whether something is moving in the direction of the revolution or not and therefore, what you have here, is that all moral standards are established by man and not by any other transcendent source whether from nature or from God.

And so therefore, when man establishes moral standards, that means it is established by political power. Whoever has the biggest number of votes or the biggest guns and the greatest will to use them and so therefore, it is the doctrine of might makes right. That is what Soviet morality was, communist morality was and is. It is the doctrine of might makes right and therefore, there is no independent basis upon which to claim that a law, a human law, might even by unjust because there is no natural justice.

Now, the lie had a corollary, and this was a view of human nature. The Soviet socialism or the Soviet Marxism-Leninism said that man’s capacity to do good or evil is determined entirely by one’s environment. According to this vision, a vision that started out in 18th century Enlightenment thinking but was brought to its apogee with the 20th century totalitarianisms: man is an empty vessel whose character is determined entirely by environmental inputs and because he is empty and because his character can be determined by external influences, the challenge of society is to figure out the right social engineering or economic engineering formula by which to perfect man, and to prevent him ultimately from his capacity to commit evil.

So, according to the Nazis you do it through eugenics, according to the communists you do it by eliminating private property, but at the bottom of all of this, man has no transcendent dignity. He can be manipulated, he can be used, he can be experimented with, he can be degraded, he can be eugenicized, and he can be destroyed. Now, there are many purposes of the lie at all of these different levels. One was that it was, of course, as I mentioned, a test of loyalty or submission. It was designed to conceal evidence that was contrary to the tenets of the ideology. It was designed to conceal the methods, the ruthless methods, of the regime. It was designed to conceal the failures of the state.

Ultimately, the lie was there to disarm and demoralize the people.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I like to quote him often on this score, said that the most oppressive thing about living under Soviet Communism was not the daily privations of life there, standing in line for four hours to get the basic necessities of sustenance, but rather it was the daily force-feeding of a steady diet of lies, and he said whenever the lie fastens its claws around your neck, it is not just a political act, it is an invasion of man’s moral world. It is a deprivation of human dignity, and therefore, to tell the truth is the reclamation of that human dignity, and that in itself is a political act. It is the revolt against the notion that there is no transcendent dignity about the about human person as the communist understanding of human nature would tell you.

Well, in light of this and, of course, when you look also at – I mean I will get into this in a little bit more detail, but the lie played itself out in so many other ways. It played itself out in terms of normal, daily Soviet propaganda that was there to discredit the West, discredit democratic capitalism, discredit any kind of concepts of freedom, and so on, and so forth. And in light of all of this, Ronald Reagan understood the Cold War to be fundamentally a moral conflict. He understood it as Whittaker Chambers understood it, namely is there going to be a life, is there going to be the vision of life with God as we have, basically, in the West in Western, Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian civilization or is it going to be the vision of life on Earth without God, where there is nothing transcendent about the human being? That is how Ronald Reagan understood it, and everything proceeded from this fundamental moral/philosophical, ideological concept of what was actually going on in the world.

Let me just mention one other thing here. Soviet politics of all kinds but foreign policy very specifically was designed to bolster this ideology. It was designed to show that, indeed, the inexorable forces of history were inexorable, that communism was expanding, that it was inevitably expanding and would take over the world, and that nothing could stop this, and, of course, this was proof that the ideology was correct and, therefore, proof that the Soviet regime was a legitimate regime. In other words, this ideology was designed to serve the systemic requirements of the internal security of the regime.

The Soviets used threats and intimidation against its adversaries, and, of course, this was its own version of the emperor’s new clothes on an international scale. Everybody in the court had to utter the lie, namely that Moscow was a legitimate regime, and if you did not say so, you had at least to stand silently in the court while everybody else did. Standing silently in the court is what we call clinically, with all due respect to the Fins, we call it Finlandization, self-censorship. And that is what all too many of Ronald Reagan’s predecessors had engaged in, self-censorship, refusing to tell the truth and bare moral witness about the nature of the Soviet regime, its violations of human rights internally and its external policies of subversion and aggression, and so on, and so forth.

So, the Soviets, of course, as part of their foreign policy were heavily engaged in ideological warfare of many different kinds. Some of the ways they did it was simply by the way they characterized the nature of the conflict in the world, a struggle between two social systems, systems marked by the war zone and the peace zone. The peace zone was everything that was under communism. After all, you cannot have true peace until you have eliminated the source of war, and war comes from imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, so you have genuine peace when you have got gotten rid of the source of war, capitalism.

The war zone, of course, is where capitalism prevails; capitalist aggression, exploitation, rapacity, and so on and so forth. You draw a line between the two zones, and you create a situation where nobody can cross that line into the peace zone, which is forbidden territory. It is as if you have a football game. This is the scrimmage line, and one side has the ball all the time. They are the ones who can choose when to hike it, whether to run or to pass, and what the timing is. And the other side is always on defense and can never cross that scrimmage line or else there is nuclear war.

Does this sound something like the conception of the world set forth by Islam or not? Of course, they promoted Marxist-Leninist movements, ideology in all sorts of different places. They were involved in the vilification of enemy ideas, enemy regimes. They were involved in the isolation of anti-communists so that, whether to isolate the United States from its allies, isolate anti-communists inside the United States from everybody else in society. They used semantic warfare as a means of defining the terms of debate and how people thought about all of these things. They were involved in subversion of Western institutions, whether it was the universities, the media, the churches, the cultural institutions.

There is a literature about this. Most people never see it. They are unaware of it.

There are primary source documents about it. Go take a look, just for example, at the Grenada archive, where you can see in black and white the documents of how to destroy the churches in Grenada, bring in the Liberation theologians from Cuba and from Nicaragua in order to destroy the theological integrity of the churches in Grenada. All of this is in black and white. Nobody will tell you about it.

In light of all of this, what was the Reagan’s strategy? It was, first of all, to resist communism both materially, ideologically, and the ideological part was ultimately a spiritual exercise. One had to demonstrate the falsity of the ideology. One had to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the regime, and one had to show the possibility of successful resistance to this regime.

We had to exploit its weaknesses.

And so, there are two dimensions. There is the material dimension and the nonmaterial dimension. The material dimension of this strategy, and this is an ideological strategy, okay, was the military buildup, the pressure on the economy, the Reagan doctrine of support for anti-communist movements in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, and other places. All of these were designed to stop the advance of communism, to show that the forces of history are not inexorable, and, in fact, that the ideology is false, and that human will can stop these impersonal forces of history. It was designed to show the peoples inside the Soviet empire that resistance was, indeed, possible, and that futile resignation was not something to which one should be futily resigned.

The material part of this ideological strategy showed that, in fact, the objective factors about which Marxism-Leninism spoke so frequently, were, in fact, not so objective, after all, and that even though you might overthrow a capitalist system and establish a communist system, and do all the objective factors necessary, such as establishing a proper economic basis, where the property is in the possession of the people and the state rather than in private hands, that these objective factors do not guarantee anything. Look, for example, with the rise of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, where somehow even the Soviets themselves realized that an insufficient, subjective loyalty to the ideology was producing counter-revolutionary effects, and so, therefore, if one could try to bring about some of those counter-revolutionary effects in other places, it now becomes a battle of subjective forces rather than these so-called material objective forces and, therefore, undermining entirely the quote-unquote “scientific basis” of the ideology.

These are material things that one can do, stopping the military buildup, putting pressure on the military economy. The economic crisis in the Soviet system was not a crisis of the consumer goods economy, that was one that started with the great drought of 1917, and the drought which lasted for 60 years. It was the crisis in the military economy, and it was the military buildup which precisely put that pressure on it in order to expose the contradictions of that system.

But then, perhaps as important, and maybe ultimately more important than these material things was the non-material dimension, and this had to do, ultimately, with moral witness. This is a matter of telling the truth. Ronald Reagan understood that the truth was the most powerful weapon in his arsenal. It was a sign of moral resistance when you stop censoring yourself, when you bare witness to the truth, when the hounds of the media, and the academy, and everybody else are going to start baying and barking, when you say that the naked emperor is naked, well, so what about them? He stood up in the face of all of it, called them an evil empire, said that they would lie, that they would cheat, they would commit any crime to further the goals of communism.

In his first press conference, he talked about the human rights violations, he talked about their military buildup, he told the things that nobody could say. This was a demonstration of moral will. You know, the Ayatollahs released the hostages on Inauguration Day right after he was sworn in. They understood him to be a serious guy. He did not have to bomb them or send helicopters there. His moral witness created a deterrence that actually had become an offensive weapon. You know, the Islamists think that we are morally rotten and, you know, as the great – I like to repeat this all the time, the Roman ancient Roman historian Livy used to say that the chief way you defeat your enemy is to spread amongst his population the ideas of selfishness and hedonism.

What do you think Osama and his confederates think about us, people who are a bunch of selfish, pleasure-seekers, who are incapable of serving a cause higher than ourselves. Well, if you have some leadership that has the capacity for moral witness, that vitiates even a lot of the moral rot that may be there in your society. And usually, the moral rot starts in the head, and it filters down. It is not impossible that there can be such a thing as moral leadership at the head, at the helm of a society in order to send the right messages, not only to everybody else in society, but to the no-goodniks around the world.

Ronald Reagan’s moral witness comported with the natural sense of justice of oppressed peoples. It respected and elevated their human dignity. It formed a natural bond with people who share, fundamentally, our moral sensibilities, those that result in a free society. This is the most profound level of what the ideological struggle was all about. Now, there were many forms in this war of ideas. We had the presidential rhetoric at the U.S. Information Agency, where my colleague, Bob Reilly, was for a number of years. We had Projects Truth, which was designed to tell all sorts of truths about Soviet socialism [and] about democratic capitalism.

There was an enormous amount of counter propaganda that was done here because of the incredible effectiveness of Soviet propaganda. We had a very large element of it, [which] was the president’s continuation, but with much greater moral coherence than in the Carter Administration, of the human rights campaign where we did not have the kind of idiotic double standards that were involved during the 1970s, and instead he identified where the serious sources of human rights violations lay. He made it very clear the peace was not possible without human rights. He reiterated the moral witness of Andrei Sakharov, who said that there can be no peace without human rights, and the Soviet regime can never have peace with us until it has peace with its own people.

We engaged in active measures. ‘Active measures’ was the KGB term for covert political influence operations of disinformation. A large part of this also had to do with countering strategic deception, an enormous part of Soviet ideological propaganda and so on had to do with some very profound, different elements of strategic deception, some of which, of course, has to do with the size of the Soviet economy, its military components, the use of Soviet statistics, where deceptions were built in from starting at the factory level, going up all the to the central statistical administration.

But the more profound deceptions had very much to do with the notion that the central strategic deception was we, the Soviets, are no longer communists, and, therefore, we no longer have unlimited objectives in the world, and, therefore, because our objectives now are limited, you can lay down your guard and not worry about us anymore, and there can be peace on earth.

We engaged in a massive modernization and strengthening of our international radios. The radios were as important and perhaps, next to presidential rhetoric and moral witness, the most powerful instrument in the entire Cold War. They gave people what they were starving for, which was the truth in the face of lies, true information and true ideas, alternative ideas. We gave them their history back, which had been flushed down George Orwell’s memory hole. We gave them religion, for which they were deprived. We gave them a capacity to communicate with one another through those radios because we had some of our radios, like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, served as a surrogate, domestic, free press and, therefore, the people had an incentive to organize. They had an incentive to develop underground lines of communication so that they could send messages back to their own people about what was going on in their own countries.

This is how the strikes at the Lenin shipyards and of the Solidarity movement metastasized into a huge national movement because of the instantaneity of the information that the radio supplied. The radios enabled us to connect with the peoples of the Soviet empire and show them that they are not alone. We supported anti-communist groups, we supported [the] Solidarity movement, human rights organizations. We offered a positive alternative. We talked about human rights, we talked about democracy, we set up the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). All of this was designed to expose the illegitimacy of the Soviet regime. We did all sorts of things to discredit communism in our information programs.

We gave covert support, and this is extremely important and particularly relevant to the battle against Islamist ideology, and that is covert support for journals of opinion and organizations that would challenge the ideological orthodoxies of communism. One cannot imagine how important this was, particularly in third areas – in the battle in Europe, in the third world, and in other places where we were supporting journals where bona fide scholars, people of ideas, could articulate things. They did not know that these things were funded by the CIA. Some of the editors did not know that they were funded by the CIA. There may have been a gift from some foundation or from some corporations. God knows where they came from, and yet, bona fide scholars and bona fide editors would get together and fight this war of ideas, and have a voice where they otherwise wouldn’t.

The results of all of this were that people were emboldened to take to the streets. You can have all the economic pressure you want, you can have all the pressure on the military, economy, you want, that is not by itself going to get people to take to the streets by the hundreds of thousands. You have to have people who are willing to come out of their cage, their mental cage. They have to have something in their spirit to do this kind of thing.

This is a question of moral courage and I think it is highly relevant in the current question, in the current battle for the soul of Islam, whether people who want their religion to be fundamentally a religion rather than a radical, secular, political ideology, people who have huge, secular, political objectives of all of this, whether those people who are capable of coexisting with those of us in the West are going to have, ultimately, the courage to stand up and say we want our religion to be this way rather than that, and they somehow have to have a voice. We cannot tell them what their religion is going to be, but we can through cutouts of cutouts of cutouts give support to organizations, give protection to organizations, and do a variety of other things like this so that they can at least have a voice and not be silenced because many of them, most of them, seem to be silenced under the current circumstances.

Yes, the material stuff put Gorbachev and company between a rock and a hard place. He tried everything he could do to save the Soviet system. He tried exhortations to move the economy along because there were several crises, a crisis of legitimacy, a crisis of the Party and Party discipline. There was huge corruption in the Party that arose out of the existence of the underground economy, and there was also a huge crisis in the military economy. It could not keep up with the Western military economy and maintain its competitiveness. He could try to reform it from within, and if he did that, he would risk the decentralization of economic decision-making [and] risked the decentralization of political decision-making.

[That was] too big of a risk, and so the answer was [to] get a bailout from the West, get financing, get technology. We were denying him technology. We were sabotaging the technology, which we let him steal. It did not do any good because if he were to crack down on the people who were starting to criticize the regime and, by the way, the whole glasnost campaign began as a vehicle to encourage tattling on corrupt Soviet officials. That is how it started, and in order to bring about a purge, an ideological purification campaign and a purge of the Party in order to make it more disciplined.

But the people had become emboldened. They saw what happened in Poland, they saw what happened when the Pope came and gave his own moral witness. Millions of people came to mass. They all looked at each other and they said there is more of us than there is of them, and they got courage. And this is, ultimately, a spiritual thing, and this thing spread. It was contagious throughout the Soviet empire and, ultimately, that is what got people to take to the streets, no matter how much of an economic crisis there was.

My last sentence that I just want to say is one needs to do this kind of stuff. You need to have structures to do it in the U.S. government and you need culture, a culture of strategic influence in the U.S. government. We do not have those structures today. We have dismantled them with it, with the destruction of the U.S. Information Agency. And I can say more about this, but I wrote a book on how to fix those structures, change the incentives of people in the government so that their careers can be advanced if they demonstrate excellence in strategic communications, public diplomacy, political warfare, and, ultimately, wars of ideas. Thank you.