No one wants to revive the Cold War. But it offers lessons for today. In the 1940s, the authors of “containment” saw nation building as the key to success. They wanted to check Russian power without war, and believed that across Western Europe, once viable societies were so deeply divided that they might not survive. Those nations’ political and economic models, like Ukraine’s today, were broken. They would not hold together without what Dean Acheson called “the added power and energy of America.”
What made “containment” successful was not the infliction of pain on the Soviet Union. The heart of American policy was to revive, stabilize and integrate countries on our side of the line. Yes, we worried that Stalin had been able to bring down the government in Prague. We worried even more that he might do so in Rome and Paris. Successful nation building eventually dispelled those fears.
The examples of Italy and France as examples of post-WWII nation-building are a refreshing contrast to the usual cliches of West Germany and Japan, which weren`t exactly lacking in national fortitude in the early 1940s.
Both France and Italy had huge Communist Parties (the French CP slavishly following the Moscow line, the Italian CP occasionally showing a little self-respect). The U.S. devoted much effort to keeping an election in either country from turning out with a result in which the CP would get the Ministry of the Interior, because there might not be another meaningful election.
France, of course, had among the grandest nationalist traditions in the world, so reviving it after the collapse of 1940 was not quite as challenging as building Ukrainian nationalism. Still, French national restoration ended up requiring a conservative leader (De Gaulle) who was distinctly unfriendly toward America, withdrawing from NATO in 1967. (In turn, this French rightist anti-Americanism set the ideological stage for the leftist leader Mitterrand to turn toward America in the crucial Cold War year of 1983.
As for America`s role in Italy, a much weaker nation-state historically, well, the U.S. did what it had to do in terms of subsidizing the Christian Democrats and winking at their vote-garnering alliance with the Mafia to keep the Communists out. But it`s by no means clear that the long U.S. Cold War involvement in Italy otherwise did much to build up Italy as a well-functioning state. It`s not completely a coincidence that much of the crackdown on the Mafia by heroic prosecutors took place after the Berlin Wall fell.
Ideally, the U.S. would no doubt have liked to help reform Italy so that a big chunk of Italians wouldn`t have reason to feel the place was so corrupt that the only solution was voting for Russia`s party. But, that`s hard to do when you have a friendly pro-American set of politicians already running the place and promising that if you help them out, they can keep the Russians out (which they did).
I haven`t thought through all the implications for Ukraine, but the Italian Cold War analogy doesn`t seem all that appealing.