- pro-Marxist historian
- Met with Communist officials during the Vietnam War
- Believes that the Cold War was not about Soviet expansionism but an American attempt to promote free trade and corporate profits
- Criticized the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as imperialistic, destructive, and self-defeating
Gabriel Kolko was born in 1932. After earning a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1962, he became a leading historian of the early New Left. He taught for several years at the University of Pennsylvania and SUNY-Buffalo, and in 1970 he joined the York University (in Toronto, Canada) history department, where he is now an emeritus professor.
Kolko is one of the most influential historians in American academia. His books are required reading at many premier colleges and universities. In the 1960s, Kolko introduced a strident and ideological form of history into the academic world. Writing from a Marxist perspective, he helped construct the intellectual edifice of modern academic anti-Americanism, reflexively exculpating America's adversaries while portraying America's past and present in such dark tones as to make the nation repellent and -- absent a socialist revolution -- beyond redeeming.
In Kolko's prose, America is a nation "intellectually and culturally undeveloped," "blind to itself -- its past, its present, and its future"; in short, an "evil society."
Kolko has authored more than ten books on American history, including two on the origins of the Cold War, a synthesis of American history after 1865, and an overview of the Vietnam War. These books have influenced a school of radical historians, including Thomas McCormick, Lloyd Gardner, Walter LaFeber, Robert Buzzanco, and Bruce Cumings. Fellow radical and America-hater Noam Chomsky called Kolko’s 1972 book, The Limits of Power, "the most important analytic study of evolving U.S. policy in this period…."
Kolko reciprocates the adulation. In a blurb for Chomsky's 1979 book The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Kolko praised the author for having produced a "brilliant, shattering, and convincing account of United States-backed suppression of political and human rights in the Third World." According to Kolko, Chomsky's works should be "obligatory reading for any American seeking to comprehend the role of the United States in the world since 1946."
Like other radical academics, Kolko prides himself on being a political activist, not to say revolutionary. Throughout the Vietnam War, he traveled numerous times to France and to North and South Vietnam, meeting with Communist officials and advising them on how best they could defeat the United States. He also organized aid shipments to the Communists, called upon fellow leftists to wage war against American imperialism, and backed the Communist cause around the world. In May 1971 he pleaded with Americans to send money to a group called "Canadian Aid for Vietnam Civilians" (CAVC), an organization that, according to Kolko, "allocates 45 percent of its income each to the NLF [National Fron for the Liberation of South Vietnam] and North Vietnam" and would help alleviate "the suffering the war has inflicted on all the people of Vietnam." In other words, 90 percent of CAVC's money was earmarked for the Communist aggressors.
The starting point for Kolko's work is the idea that America is a totalitarian nation, where the rich rule and the poor obey. The "ruling class," according to Kolko, "defines the essential preconditions and functions of the larger American social order, with its security and continuity as an institution being the political order's central goal in the post-Civil War historical experience."
Kolko contends that the ruling class dominates both the Republican and Democratic parties, which have no significant differences between them that Kolko is able to detect. This theoretical framework is a crib of Karl Marx's attack on "bourgeois democracy," in which the state is just "the executive committee of the ruling class." Republicans and Democrats, Kolko explains, are "inalterably wedded to the desirability of capitalism as a general economic framework." In Kolko's presentation, reform movements like Progressivism and New Deal liberalism, for example, amount to nothing more than efforts to promote "efficiency" in preserving America's totalitarian system.
Kolko asserts that America's unjust political order produces vast riches for only a few -- and poverty and inequality for the majority -- while ensuring that the ruling class is "the final arbiter and beneficiary of the existing structure of American society and politics at home and of United States power in the world."
From this ideological premise, Kolko concludes that the Cold War was not about Soviet expansionism, but rather an American attempt to promote free trade and corporate profits. In Kolko's writings, the Kremlin's actions play no role in determining U.S. policy. In fact the opposite is the case. Kolko depicts the Truman Doctrine and other American policies as having little concern for defending relatively free societies from the fate of the Kremlin's East European satellites. He views them instead as expressions of America's own bid for world economic hegemony. Or, as Kolko puts it, the United States set out (during and after World War II) to "restructure the world so that American business could trade, operate, and profit without restrictions everywhere."
According to Kolko, fears that American leaders expressed over Communist expansion in Eastern Europe were merely a cover for the foregoing agenda. Concern over the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and other Kremlin aggressions were so much Western fantasy and Cold War paranoia. For America's ruling class, the central foreign policy concern "was not the containment of Communism, but rather more directly the extension and expansion of American capitalism according to its new economic power and needs." Notably, Cold War Soviet leaders said exactly the same thing.
In Kolko's calculus, the threat that most troubled American leaders was not the Soviet Union; it was a skeptical Congress, a public that wanted peace, and leftwing movements that supported the Communists' millenarian objectives. But through the use of scare tactics, bribes, and violence, America's rulers managed to get their way. "It was only the fear of Russia and Communism," wrote Kolko, "a weak and irrelevant argument that the [Truman] administration did not believe … that finally swung" Congress and the American people to support a Cold War crusade in the form of the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and NATO. "The fear of Communism," Kolko wrote in 1976, "was … a well-worn technique of political mobilization at home -- one that was to last with diminishing efficiency after 1963, until our own day."
Kolko dismisses entirely the influence of domestic political pressures and public opinion on American statesmen. In his writing on the early Cold War, he says nothing about such policy-shaping phenomena as "McCarthyism" and the conspiratorial activities of the Communist Party USA or its espionage for the Kremlin.
As a self-identified champion of the oppressed, Kolko detests U.S. Cold War foreign-policy planners as mere servants of the ruling class and portrays their motives and judgments in the harshest light possible. When he turns his attention to the Kremlin and its Cold War leaders, by contrast, he does an about-face. He portrays Joseph Stalin and his bloodthirsty henchmen as defensive, diplomatic, and generous. He informs us that the Red Army outperformed the American army during World War II, and that Stalin even refused to press his military gains on the British or Americans for political advantage.
Kolko argues further that the Nazis crushed Anglo-American forces with their December 1944 Ardennes offensive despite the Allies’ "overwhelming … superiority in arms and men," and that what saved the U.S. and British was the Red Army. By the time of the Yalta conference in February 1945, he says, "the military prestige of the Russians was never greater" and "the Americans and British there listened with deference and awe as Stalin described the fire power and speed of the Red Army."
The reality of the war in Europe was quite different. In The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War (1973), Robert Maddox points out how Kolko failed to mention that Anglo-American forces actually stopped Hitler's December offensive before the Russian forces began theirs from the east. It is also clear that Allied armies in the west did not share an "overwhelming" superiority of arms and men, and clearly not in the Ardennes. Nazis outnumbered American soldiers three-to-one in the Ardennes and, according to Victor Davis Hanson, "over six-to-one at the initial point of collision." Further, Nazi troops benefited by having four times as many tanks as the Americans, and of better quality as well (the German Panther and Tiger tanks were both superior to the Sherman M4). Despite these odds, and due in no small measure to General Patton's leadership, the Americans beat back the German offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) and inflicted far more casualties on the Germans than they themselves suffered.
Kolko is enamored of the Red Army and never bothers to mention to his readers the hell that took place in its wake as it occupied the nations of millions of East Europeans. This is in keeping with Kolko's basic view that blame for the Cold War lies squarely on shoulders of America's expanding commercial empire, and not on the Soviets who actually conquered and then ruled previously-sovereign states.
In Kolko's history, Stalin himself is only secondarily a Communist. He is primarily a pragmatist and, even more endearingly (and unlike American leaders), a man with a "tolerant sense of humor" who appreciated "flexibility and subtlety" on policy matters. Kolko writes of the period in which the Kremlin absorbed the East European states behind an Iron Curtain as a time when "the dominant theme in Soviet proclamations on international affairs …was the possibility and likelihood of coexistence and peace between Russia and the West."
In The Politics of War and The Limits of Power, which cover this time period, Stalin’s historically unprecedented crimes are completely absent from Kolko's narrative. These books have nothing to say about Stalin's purges, the horrific cost of collectivization, the Gulag, Stalin's control over the press, and the constant jailing and killing of dissidents or the influences of these developments on historical events.
In a 1990 epilogue to The Politics of War, Kolko admits what he had previously denied -- that Soviet troops "were indeed responsible for the Katyn Forest liquidations of Polish officers." But he refuses to change his basic benevolent interpretation of Stalin, or to alter his assessment that the West's fears of the Soviet Union were manufactured out of thin air. Recent scholarship, Kolko preposterously claims, only serves to reinforce his original conclusions.
Kolko's apologist history extends to Communist expansion and rule in Eastern Europe, China, and Korea. According to Kolko, Eastern Europeans welcomed their Communist conquerors and the satellite regimes they installed. The Eastern European satellites, he explained, managed to avoid "the crises of war, stagnation, and unemployment that inflicted misery on the working class of the capitalist economies of the West."
In reality, however, the political and economic misery that Soviet rule inflicted on the working classes of Eastern Europe produced revolts in Poland and Hungary and eventually led to the demise of the Soviet system. Moreover, the West Germans had to tax themselves $100 billion after the Berlin Wall came down to bring their Eastern brethren, who had been economically raped by the Soviet system, up to reasonable levels.
Kolko's Asian stories adhere to a similar party line. According to Kolko, Mao and his Communist colleagues created a "people's democracy" and led their followers with "honesty, efficiency, and moderation"; Chinese Communist assemblies were "organized everywhere" as "open forums of criticism"; and Communists "easily forgave opposition if cooperation was forthcoming later." The Chinese Communist army, Kolko adds, "did not loot, but grew its own food and worked with the peasants. Its morale was high, its commitment great."
Kolko also believes that Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung led his people as a "Communist and national hero" who instituted much-needed land reform, "introduced a massive education program," and "passed extensive worker welfare decrees in 1946 regulating working hours, vacations, and social insurance."
Contrary to Kolko's version of events, Mao instituted a totalitarian state in China and killed an estimated 50 million Chinese. He did not welcome democracy and fight for the good of the Chinese people, but brutalized the population and blamed the U.S. for his country’s problems. Mao's Great Leap Forward, a momentous episode in the history of the Chinese Revolution, Kolko does acknowledge -- perhaps because its attempt to produce a Marxist utopia wiped out 30 million people and was an economic catastrophe.
In Korea, meanwhile, Kim Il-Sung established a dictatorial regime and instituted economic policies that, like Stalin's, resulted in widespread starvation. During the Cold War, North Korea was also heavily dependent on the Soviet Union for economic and military aid. In addition, the Korean War was not a war of American imperialism but an act of Soviet-supported aggression by the North Korean regime against Koreans who wanted freedom. It was the West, not Stalin, that was defensive in foreign policy. Stalin was optimistic about the chances for world revolution and was pleased that he had found such a devoted lackey in Kim. In fact, when Kim visited Stalin to request his assistance before starting the Korean War, the former proudly proclaimed himself to be "a disciplined person [for whom] … the order of Comrade Stalin is law." Kolko simply ignores this evidence and the crushing verdict it delivers on his scholarship.
Kolko's velvet-glove treatment of Communist dictatorships is also evident in his analysis of the Vietnam War. According to Kolko, Comintern agent Ho Chi Minh was the best chance the Vietnamese had to create a just and prosperous society. In Anatomy of a War (1985), Kolko praises the Vietnamese Stalinists for their "undogmatic" nature and their genius for "producing brilliant tacticians, above all Ho Chi Minh…." Their "real strength…," he writes, was their "capacity to relate to the class needs of the majority of the nation." Kolko adds that Ho's fellow leaders were "collegial" and "cooperative"; that they were "free of the problems of egoism"; that their "harmony became a fundamental source of the Party's strength"; and that they respected all people and insisted that "nothing could be done to hurt their property." Hanoi press releases said the same thing.
Kolko concedes that, on occasion, the Vietnamese Communists became a bit too exuberant. He notes, for example, that during North Vietnam's land reform campaign in the 1950s, a few "demoralized cadres" who lacked close supervision killed a few thousand landowners. Regardless, by 1957 "the landless and poor peasants had improved their position radically while even the middle peasantry was able to enlarge its land ownership." Kolko is so taken with Vietnam's Communists that, in The Roots of American Foreign Policy, he argues that "with a better vision of their own future," Americans should "understand their profound debts to liberation movements everywhere and in Vietnam most of all…."
Kolko did not reconsider his Communist sympathies or this rosy picture of Communist rule when the North Vietnamese in 1975 overran South Vietnam, established a dictatorship, executed tens of thousands of "enemies of the people," incarcerated a million political prisoners, and drove two million Vietnamese into exile. Nor did Kolko reconsider his anti-Americanism in 1989 when the East Europeans tore down the Berlin Wall and sent the Red Army home.
Instead, Kolko continues to peddle the Communist worldview and, in today's academic environment, wins accolades from his academic fellow travelers for his political correctness.
Kolko has also made contributions to the Left's anti-American historiography of the current War on Terror by offering numerous justifications for Islamic violence and hatred towards the West. In Another Century of War? -- published a year after 9/11 -- and in a series of articles written in 2003 and 2004 for Counterpunch magazine, Kolko criticizes America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as imperialistic, destructive, and self-defeating.
In Kolko's perspective, blame for 9/11 rests not with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but with the United States. American failures abroad, he writes, "led desperate men to crash planes into the symbols of American power on September 11." "Suffice it to say,” he elaborated, “that the United States' sponsorship…of state terrorism is one of the crucial reasons it now has to confront violence on its own soil. History has come full circle.”
Just as Kolko dismisses the idea that Stalin's Russia and Mao's China constituted threats to America, so he rejects the view that the Islamic perpetrators of 9/11 threaten the United States today. "Whether they are 'terrorists' or 'freedom fighters' depends wholly on one's viewpoint," Kolko argues, "because those seeking to attain political goals fight with what they have: hijacked airplanes and concealed bombs [rather than] B-52s and laser-guided rockets."
In the final analysis, Kolko's texts are inspired by an obsessive hatred of the United States and a consequent sympathy for America's enemies -- whether they are socialist "progressives" or religious fanatics attempting to turn the clock back to medieval times. Anti-Americanism is the thread that unites Kolko's themes.
This profile is adapted from the article, "The Ugly Anti-American," written by Anders G. Lewis and published by FrontPageMag.com on July 8, 2004.