Twenty years ago tomorrow, Hungary began taking down the barbed wire partition between itself and Austria. It wasn’t attended by all the fanfare of the fall of the Berlin Wall a few months later. But it was a quietly heroic start of that gloriously literal, physical dismantling of the Iron Curtain.
We in America like to celebrate it as a matter of national triumph. That feeling is warranted only in the sense that our ideals of democracy and open societies had prevailed. But when we do the revisionist victory dance and buy into the popular cowboy narrative of how we strong-armed the Soviets to surrender, we do a great disservice to history and the truth and ourselves.
First of all, that attitude diminishes the role of the people living inside the countries behind the curtain, who essentially rose up to overthrow their own oppressive governments (many of these, like Solidarity in Poland were labor activists, a fact that gloating neocons like to sweep under the rug). The truth is, communism failed as an economic structure and authoritarianism failed as a governing principle. They were no longer tenable propositions and historical forces brewing for many years imploded the system from within, in some cases violently (Rumania). As Karl Marx might have recognized if he had actually lived through the era of communism, it was a historical inevitability.
Secondly, keeping alive the fantasy that we defeated the communists through force, denigrates the role of our values – democracy, freedom, and equality – that formed the real impetus for the fall of communism. We were the shining example of a life they wanted. As George Shultz said (criticizing the Jackson-Bannick Act), “telling our friends. . . we are forcing you to do [something] doesn’t work.” What does work, according to him, is to let them see that what we are asking for works to their own benefit.
Most ironically, believing the cowboy myth does a grave disservice to the Cowboy himself. When I emphasize that our values and our example helped end the Cold War, I don’t mean to suggest our foreign policy didn’t. But it wasn’t our tough-talking, deficit-exploding-defense-spending policy that did the trick. It was our diplomacy.
Ronald Reagan’s contribution in this was significant, though not singular. But the key to his foreign policy success (contrary to every self-styled Reaganite who gives The Gipper practically the entire credit for “ending communism”), was not his unrelenting “show of strength.” It was the opposite of that. (Remember that Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had all been as hawkish and as much the anti-communist crusaders that Reagan was, but they all failed. Remember also that the Cold War was not so much “won” as thawed.)
The reason Reagan was able to make any headway was, along with the historical realities I mentioned earlier (and the good fortune to be dealing with Gorbachev, instead of the likes of Khrushchev and Brezhnev) was really his flexibility. He was willing to engage in “constructive dialog,” as Gorbachev explained.
Last week, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Shultz were on Charlie Rose. They talked about the truly successful aspect of Reagan’s legacy, one that his most vocal disciples NEVER mention, which is one of peacemaking. He came to realize that cooperation works better than bullying. Gorbachev said he witnessed Reagan evolve from a hardliner to a peacemaker. Shultz noted the same evolution of Gorbachev.
Reagan and his foreign policy team took a lot of heat from their hawkish domestic constituency (and some allies) for promoting a ballistic missile ban, and a general, progressive, nuclear weapons reduction plan with the goal of eventual disarmament. Shultz said Margaret Thatcher hit him with her purse over the disarmament proposal at Reykjavík (although I think that may well have been because she wasn’t invited to the Summit).
What Thatcher didn’t get – and her neocon fans in America still don’t get– is that Reagan got somewhere because he met his adversary halfway. Gorbachev recalled a meeting early in their relationship, when he essentially told the president “I’m not your student; if you don’t stop lecturing me, this conversation is over.” Reagan realized being conciliatory (a dirty word to today’s conservatives) might be a better strategy. Unlike our last Republican president, who never liked to admit errors, Reagan actually rescinded the “evil empire” statement. He told a Soviet journalist “I believed it at the time I said it, but I don’t anymore.” How refreshing!
We don’t generally think of Reagan in those terms (because conservatives like to pretend his success validates a diehard conservatism that it really doesn’t and liberals like to disregard his redeeming qualities because they dislike so much else about him). But Reagan, at his best, did listen to people, and correct himself, and compromise. In fact, his compromises on weapons discussions helped him to negotiate his human rights agenda. There’s something else people don’t seem to remember about Reagan: he cared about human rights! Certainly I (as a shameless liberal) care about a whole of host of human rights issues that Reagan was indifferent to, but one has to respect the fact that the rights that he did care about – like religious freedom – seemed to be important to him in substance, and not merely as lip service to win elections and to justify invasions. Gorbachev remembered that Reagan tried to coax him to talk about the Jewish emigration issue, at EVERY meeting! Shultz recalled a quiet deal worked out between the two leaders whereby the USSR would permit a Pentecostal community to emigrate if the US promised not to “crow” about it.
In America, we take a lot of pleasure in thinking of President Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech as pivotal in communism’s decline. In reality, of course, it was just a great sound bite, like “audacity of hope” – inspirational, to be sure, and I never fail to feel a certain spine-tingling whenever I see archive footage of it. But was it really “pivotal”… in a concrete, history-altering sense? Come on! It wasn’t like he was sending us off to battle in Gettysburg.
Gorbachev, who remembers Reagan with great admiration and affection, chuckled at the suggestion that changes in the Soviet foreign policy posture was at all influenced by that speech. “This did not really impress us, as it did you,” he admitted. But he gave Reagan a great deal of credit for the actual work of diplomacy that did influence changes.
There was one more factor to which we do more than a little injustice by claiming Reagan as a latter-day Lincoln, single-handedly liberating the bulk of Eurasia from totalitarian serfdom. I speak, of course, of Mikhail Gorbachev.
First, the warming of international relations was led jointly by the Reagan-Gorbachev team. More importantly, international relations played a small part of the actual fall of the Soviet empire as compared to the internal pressures, as I mentioned before. And Gorbachev must get much of the credit for the way he dealt with that. Although I give the people of Eastern Europe more credit for their own liberation than any politician, it’s obvious that in the Soviet Union itself, Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost programs definitely catalyzed the process by liberalizing Soviet society from within. (Ironically, he was trying to save communism by rescuing it from totalitarianism, but it turned out totalitarianism was pretty much the only thing holding it in place!)
Gorbachev says that he was “defeated” in his political career, but, in the final analysis, the liberalization policies he put in place proved successful in principle. I’d say!
I’d also say that the end of the Cold War, Communism, and the Iron Curtain are all related, but they are not the same thing. The Cold War was an arms-race between us and the Soviets. Communism was the economic system of the Easter Bloc. The Iron Curtain was the opaque and tyrannical political conditions within the Bloc. If you look at our interactions in the world today, and indeed our other interactions during the late Cold War years, all these factors aren’t always necessarily related.
Watching Gorby and Shultz chew the fat with Charlie made for one riveting hour. Twenty plus years later, all their nerve-trying diplomatic calculations, all the guarded communications through a political minefield that could prove, at any moment, to become an actual minefield on a planetary scale. . . transmuted into reminiscences of the kind that you might have with an old college debating rival over a decent Beaujolais.
There is a scene in Ken Burns’s “The Civil War” in which a couple of old soldiers – one Union, one Confederate – are talking about the “old days” like brothers in arms. It was like that: surreal and yet exactly right.
[The cover image is a work of the United States Government and is in the public domain in the United States.]