Nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end–or at least, the beginning of the end–of the Cold War, it seems that some people are still having trouble processing the lessons of the epic struggle. Not surprisingly, perhaps, one of those people, Andrew O’Hehir, writes for Salon.
O’Hehir reviews Archie Brown’s The Rise and Fall of Communism, and draws conclusions that are belied by the actual history of the Cold War. He repeats the trope that Ronald Reagan’s contribution to ending the Cold War came in his second term, when he decided to engage the communist world, rather than call it an evil empire, as he did in the first. And consistent with the behavior of so many on the port side of politics who are determined to ensure that Reagan’s role in the downfall of communism is minimized, O’Hehir tells us that Reagan’s palliative contributions to the end of the Cold War were the result of the actions of his advisers, while Mikhail Gorbachev courageously acted virtually alone.
Of course, Russians think differently, as Glenn Garvin noted:
The general response among America’s chattering classes has been that Reagan was the political equivalent of the millionth customer at Bloomingdale’s. He was the guy lucky enough to walk through the door as the prize was handed out, as if everything was pre-ordained and would have happened the same way no matter whether the White House had been occupied by Michael Dukakis or George McGovern or Susan Sarandon. An alternative theory posits that Gorbachev was some sort of Jeffersonian kamikaze pilot, taking his whole nation over the cliff for the thrill of being proclaimed Time’s Man of the Decade.
Oddly, that’s not the way the Russians see it. Says Genrikh Grofimenko, a former adviser to Leonid Brezhnev, “Ninety-nine percent of the Russian people believe that you won the Cold War because of your president’s insistence on SDI,” the Strategic Defense Initiative, as Star Wars was formally called. Grofimenko marvels that the Nobel Peace Prize went to “the greatest flimflam man of all time,” Mikhail Gorbachev, while Western intellectuals ignore Reagan — who, he says, “was tackling world gangsters of the first order of magnitude.”
As with many of his ilk, O’Hehir overlooks the fact that Reagan was able to set up the successes he enjoyed in dealing with the Soviet Union and the communist world in the second term, by his actions and rhetoric during the first term. His “evil empire” appellation had the effect of delegitimizing the Soviet Union in the eyes of the international community, and giving encouragement to the dissidents in the Soviet Union. Hanging tough in arms control negotiations despite a Soviet walkout ensured that the United States would not be bluffed in future discussions, and allowed Reagan to wring significant concessions from the Soviets at the negotiating table in later years–culminating, of course, in the enactment of the IMF Treaty in 1987. The arms race that Reagan engaged in–the one that terrified people like O’Hehir–helped bankrupt the Soviet Union, forcing the Soviets to reform themselves and open their society, since they realized that they could not compete with the West otherwise. That very openness liberalized Soviet society, and the rest of the Warsaw Pact, leading to the revolutions that overthrew communism in Eastern Europe. O’Hehir’s efforts to give Gorbachev the credit for this development are utterly unavailing, seeing as how Gorbachev never decided to abandon communism, O’Hehir’s suggestions to the contrary notwithstanding, but was pushed into abandoning it by Boris Yeltsin in the wake of the failed 1991 coup that represented the last gasp of the Brezhnevite orthodoxy.
Surprising no one, O’Hehir makes only one mention of Yeltsin and makes no mention of the degree to which Yeltsin had to push a stubborn Gorbachev to give up communism. Instead, he tells us that Gorbachev possessed “a mental flexibility and imagination that were unique among leading Communists.” It’s the 1980s all over again with O’Hehir, with Gorbachev being thanked and praised for every good thing that happened to bring the Cold War to an end, and Reagan getting as little credit as O’Hehir can manage to give him with a straight face. Does O’Hehir think that we are unaware of history when he writes his paeans to Gorbachev, who was at best, an accidental reformist, pushed to do what he did by genuine reformists in the former Soviet Union, and brought to power in the first place because the old order could not compete with Reagan? A fair reading of history reveals that it was Reagan’s policies–tactically hardline in the first term–that helped make Gorbachev’s ascension to power a necessity, and that it was his opportunistism in taking advantage of the openness Reagan helped bring about in the second term that ultimately made the downfall of communism possible.
During his Presidency, Jimmy Carter tried to wean us from our supposedly “inordinate fears” of communism, only to realize eventually that our concerns were well-founded. Carter’s intellectual failure didn’t stop him and his sympathizers from looking down on Carter’s successor in the Oval Office. In his article on Reagan, Glenn Garvin reminds us of all of the people who doubted that Reagan’s use of SDI and his increase in defense spending would bring an end to the Cold War. Those people were proven to be laughably wrong by the eventual unfolding of events. Mysteriously enough, Andrew O’Hehir is more determined to join the laughably wrong than to stay away from them. He is welcome to the company he so clearly longs to keep.
Read more at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.