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Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 1999 /23 Kislev, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Trading with the enemy --

IN THE MOST UNCERTAIN years of the Cold War -- and no, the outcome of that conflict was not certain from the first -- one American institution did not waver. It held fast all through all the years, all the decades of crisis and lull, of confrontation and collaboration.

Through it all, from the first Stalinist move in Europe to Gorby's last gasp, one segment of American society could be depended on to fight for freedom in international forums and behind the scenes, in cooperation with the CIA and freedom fighters everywhere.

I'm talking about the American labor movement, and especially its underestimated, even patronized, leaders like George Meany and Lane Kirkland, both gone now, and both vindicated by events as surely as any leaders ever were.

Maybe this country's labor leaders were unremitting in their fight against Communism because they'd had experience. They had fought Communist attempts to infiltrate their own organizations. They had seen the various front groups try to do the same to European labor, and had watched what happened to every union that ever fell under the sway of Communism. They had all been reduced to instruments of the Party. (It's no coincidence that Ronald Reagan, a New Dealer to the core when he was starting out in Hollywood, became a fervent anti-Communist in the course of leading his union, the Screen Actors Guild.)

So it should not surprise that, despite all the hoopla surrounding the latest exchange of handshakes and smiles with a Communist dictatorship, and despite all the familiar talk about the billions to be made from the China trade ("Oil for the lamps of China!''), that the most predictable voices speaking out against trading with the enemy of freedom should be those of American labor leaders.

Perhaps the clearest warning came from the AFL-CIO's John Sweeney, who sounds hearteningly like his predecessor, Lane Kirkland: "The fevered rush to admit China to the WTO (World Trade Organization) is a grave mistake. It is disgustingly hypocritical of the Clinton administration to pledge to `put a human face on the global economy' while prostrating itself in pursuit of a trade deal with a rogue nation that decorates itself in human rights abuses.'' That the AFL-CIO should not want to compete with slave labor is understandable enough; what mystifies is why a free people would want it to.

John Sweeney's strident rhetoric is right out of the '30s-or, for that matter, the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, too, for the Cold War lasted a long time, even with intermittent truces. And yet John Sweeney's words remain as contemporary as the latest crackdown on dissent in still-Red China.

That picture of Charlene Barshevsky, this country's top trade negotiator, and Gene Sperling, the president's chief economic adviser, clasping hands with Red China's minister of foreign trade, complete with the Stars and Stripes displayed alongside the ensign of the world's last great evil empire in comradely solidarity ... it was all enough to bring back Lenin's confident assertion that the world's capitalists can always be counted on sell the rope with which to hang them.

As the century ends, so many similar scenes were brought to mind: Richard Nixon and Mao tse-Tung relaxing together at their historic summit, with Henry Kissinger and Chou en-Lai beaming approvingly. Looking from left to right and back again, from jovial face to jovial face, there seemed no essential difference between any of them, as though they all belonged to the same board of directors. Power and the worship of it had united all, just as profit and the worship of it unite all now.

The mutual suspicions and antagonisms, the accusations from both sides that the other is cheating, the natural tension sure to surface between free and slave states ... all that will come later, after the champagne glasses have been drained and the morning after has arrived.

The celebratory snapshots on these happy occasions always bring to mind the last scene of George Orwell's "Animal Farm,'' in which the animals peek into the farmhouse of their old and new masters -- the humans and their own porcine party elite -- and cannot tell the difference. To quote the last sentence of that perfect fable for our dying century, "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.''

Recent ceremonial handshakes in Beijing could have been another celebration of Detente with the original evil empire, or the festivities attendant on the Nazi-Soviet Pact ... or any other ritual demanded by the various marriages of convenience in the diplomatic history of the 20th Century. The only thing that mattered in those mismatches was political or material advantage, nothing else -- and certainly not human freedom.

Somewhere out in the darkness of the great Chinese land mass, the gulags are still full and likely to get fuller, the intrigues are still as inscrutable, the suffering as palpable, the ruling class as privileged, the press as censored (or "guided,'' as they say), and the secret police as watchful. But here, in the bright official portraits, all of that is submerged, like China's democratic struggle. This week no one mentioned the Tiananmen massacre. The rumble of tanks had died away, the missiles were off camera, and all was peace-and-friendship. Will we ever learn?

Paul Greenberg Archives


©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate