Lessons From The European Cold War

It has become common in the last few years to hear discussion of, or even hope for, a second American civil war. As early as 2019, the billionaire heiress-turned-activist and Trump donor Rebekah Mercer predicted “armed conflict,” while quoting the Gettysburg Address. In August of last year, Donald Trump warned that the “temperature has to be brought down in this country” or “terrible things are going to happen.” Most alarmingly, his rhetoric is matched by increasingly fatalistic language from liberals. Last year, former labor secretary Robert Reich wrote that the early stages of the second American civil war are “already occurring.” In September, President Biden warned that Trump and his supporters threatened “the very foundations of our republic.” These beliefs are echoed by the public at large. In 2018, a Rasmussen poll found that the 31% of Americans believed that a civil war was likely within the next few years. A 2022 University of California poll put the number at just over 50%.

The most memorable illustration of this attitude occurred a little over two years ago when supporters of then-President Donald Trump stumbled around vandalizing the United States Capitol. Many liberals and moderates wondered if they were indeed witnessing the end of American democracy. Scores of pundits compared the images on TV- armed civilians breaking down barricades, violent clashes with police, a capitol building festooned with homemade flags and even a hangman’s noose- to the woes of a developing country. As this depressing clown show played out in the United States, the Greek journalist Petros Papaconstantinou quipped that there couldn’t be a coup that day, “because there is no American embassy in Washington, DC.” He was wryly referencing the United States’ role in toppling many democratically elected governments. In the end, American democracy remained unthreatened by the ragtag mob of Neo-Fascists, Civil War re-enactors and directionless yahoos, but the danger on January 6th came from the precedent it set, which marked a new era in the country’s political conflicts.

Mr. Papaconstantinou’s remark mocked January 6th as a sign of this sea change in American politics during the Trump era. Instead of causing authoritarian woes in the outside world, he implied the US was getting a taste of its own medicine. Papaconstantinou is likely old enough to remember the 20th century political turmoil that shook his country, as well as others on the Western side of the iron curtain. America could look to this period of unrest in Europe, which it in part helped cause1, as it ponders the possibility of a civil conflict within its own borders. Optimists are quick to point out that civil war would be impossible in the United States because, while the political sphere has become increasingly stratified, the country at large has integrated between those with differing beliefs. Even the much-discussed urban/rural rift divides voters by counties, not states. Looking at a color-coded map of the 2016 or 2020 elections, it’s difficult to draw a clean front line between sides, as in the last American civil war.

But the European Cold War demonstrates that civil wars need not be fought with armies and generals on great historic battlefields. Although in most of the world, 20th century conflicts between capitalism and communism were fought in devastating proxy wars between the United States and the Soviet Union, in the relatively stable democracies of Western Europe, the war was characterized by sporadic bombings, riots and assassinations. From the 1960s to the 1990s, left-wing terrorists, allegedly assisted by the USSR, and right-wing terrorists, allegedly assisted by the CIA, killed hundreds in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Greece and Portugal. The lion’s share of this violence occurred in the cities of North-Central Italy.

The early “years of lead,” as they are referred to in Italy, bear a number of similarities to the present-day polarization of America. Many of Italy’s early violent episodes occurred during general strikes and labor protests. In the US, where organized labor is comparatively powerless, social issues have become the battlegrounds for those on the left and right. In 2020, the George Floyd protests led to months of confrontations between left-wing protesters, right-wing counter-protesters, and law enforcement. On August 25th, right-wing counter protester Kyle Rittenhouse shot three protesters, although he was later acquitted as having acted in self-defense. Four days later, self-proclaimed antifa member Michael Reinoehl shot and killed a right-wing counterprotester in Oregon. Reinoehl also claimed to have acted in self-defense, but was killed by US marshals a week later. Since 2020, confrontations have occurred at “drag protests,” many of which have resulted in violent skirmishes and armed standoffs between militia groups associated with the right-wing Patriot Front and the left-wing John Brown Gun Club. On several occasions, opposing factions in Portland and Seattle have sought-out and attacked each others’ rallies.

Political terrorism is nothing new in the United States. For nearly a century before the civil rights movement, the KKK and other groups enforced white supremacy in the South through horrifying acts of public violence. In the 1960s and 70s, the Weathermen and other left-wing anarchist groups carried out dozens of bombings and bank robberies, albeit with few casualties. What separates these historical periods from the European Cold War or post-Trump era is their one-dimensionality. The KKK had no significant violent opposition, and in many cases, they acted with the blessing of local governments. They fought to preserve the existing social order rather than achieve any revolutionary goals. Likewise, there was no coordinated conservative opponent to attack the Weathermen. However, during Italy’s Years of Lead, radicals fought a two-front war, murdering enemy terrorists as well as opponents in the government. Nowadays in America, both left-wing and right-wing extremists style themselves as revolutionaries, eager to accelerate the restructuring of an American society they see as corrupt, unfair, and oppressive, all while directing equal violence to their antagonists across the political spectrum. Not since the 1860s has America witnessed anything like this deadly and destructive arrangement.

The escalation of America’s present-day strife to a situation like Italy’s is not inevitable, but it does look increasingly likely. To prevent this, most of the country’s public figures have repeated almost clichéd advice about how Americans need to “sit down together” and “put aside their differences,” as if those three hundred million citizens are a couple of siblings in a quarrel over a touch football game. But America’s present-day radicals were not born as such. Like in the Years of Lead, they were the product of a struggling society, and shaped by divisive forces beyond their control. Portland shooter Michael Reinoehl was described by most who knew him as an unemployed and somewhat unstable man, but a peacemaker2 who joined the 2020 protests “to make him feel like his existence meant something again.” Ashli Babbitt, the only woman shot on January 6th, had voted twice for Barack Obama, before turning to the radical right during financial difficulties. Their methods may have been unsavory and their anger misdirected, but their general discontent is not unjustified against a government that has reduced civil liberties, assaulted the working and middle classes, and generally failed to confront most of the 21st century’s challenges. Trust in America’s institutions is essential if a civil conflict is to be avoided, but America’s institutions must earn that trust. Politicians and media outlets must resist the temptation to foment culture wars with the American people as cannon fodder. And, the American people must join to demand better of their elected officials3. Rather than settling back into the milquetoast neo-liberalism that has so far defined the current millennium, ordinary Americans must unify over goals of social change. If the truckers at the Canadian border and the protesters in Portland can agree only that the status quo is not working, let that be a starting point for the path to common ground. From there, civil war will be impossible.


1. After World War II, the United States heavily supported the Nationalist cause in the Greek Civil War. The CIA is also believed to have played a role in the 1967 coup, which ousted replaced the Nationalist government with a brutal military dictatorship. The Nixon administration staunchly supported the dictatorship until it was overthrown in 1974.

2. Witnesses say that Reinoehl broke up “hundreds of fights” between partisans at the protest, but became increasingly paranoid after he was shot in the arm by a counterprotester. He told a friend was going to be “killed by the Proud Boys” before he purchased the firearm used to kill Danielson.

3. Deep political corruption plagued Italy during the Years of Lead, and created disillusionment with the state that in turn fueled radicalism. After terrorism declined in Italy, a massive corruption scandal destroyed what is now referred to the “First Italian Republic.” The resulting investigation involved over five thousand government officials and led to a populist groundswell that led to the breakup and reformation of most major political parties.


Published by

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: